31/08/12y David Ignatius, Published: August 29
Syria’s most prominent military defector says the key to political transition there is to provide a “safety net” that convinces Alawites they won’t be massacred if they break with President Bashar al-Assad.
“My main work is to convince the Alawites that they do not have to commit suicide along with the regime,” said Manaf Tlass, a former general in the Syrian army who left the country in July. He spoke Tuesday at a location in France, where he has taken refuge. It was his first in-depth interview since he broke with Assad, who was once his close friend.
Tlass said that before there can be a political transition, there must first be a channel of trust between the opposition Free Syrian Army and reconcilable members of the military who are ready to break with Assad as Tlass did. Without such links, he said, Assad’s overthrow would plunge the country into a period of anarchic violence, and Syria’s chemical weapons would be up for grabs.
“Today, many Alawites are not happy with what’s happening on the ground, but where is the safe zone for them?” he said. “Alawites need to know that there’s a strong side that will guarantee their safety if they defect.”
Though Tlass is a Sunni Muslim, he commanded a unit of the Special Republican Guard, which is about 80 percent Alawite, the ethnic minority from which Assad and his inner circle are drawn.
Tlass, 49, spoke movingly about his break from Assad, who, he said, has so bloodied his name that he will never be able to rule Syria effectively again. It began in the spring of 2011, when protests were spreading and Tlass offered to meet with demonstrators. He told Assad about an April meeting in Darayya with young rebels, whose fathers were silent but obviously proud. “This is the revolution of the fathers through their children,” Tlass warned, noting that such a conflict would be impossible to win by force.
Assad was a changeable, uncertain man, increasingly swayed by the harder line of his family, especially his brother Maher and his cousin Hafez Makhlouf, who heads the internal branch of Syrian intelligence. “If you impose power, people will be afraid, and they will step back,” Makhlouf admonished Tlass.
Tlass says that by May 2011, his counsel of outreach was ignored and his contacts were being arrested after he met them. This was the case even in Rastan, a town in central Syria where his father was born. After Tlass tried to make peace there, he was scolded by Makhlouf. Tlass stopped commanding his army unit after that.
The rupture came in July 2011, when Assad summoned him and asked why he wasn’t leading his troops. Tlass said he responded that the president and his men weren’t sincere about compromise. “You are making me a liar. You and Syria are committing suicide,” he recalls saying. Assad responded that such counsel was “too simple,” and that he was moving to the “security option.”
“You are carrying a heavy load — and if you want to fly, you have to drop that load,” Tlass says he told Assad at that last meeting. “But it seems the heavy load — the family, the inner circle — has won.”
Tlass says he thought at first that he could stay in Damascus, in silent opposition to the hard-liners’ policies. But as the violence increased to countrywide slaughter, he says, “my conscience could not bear it anymore.” He began thinking by the end of last year about how to flee.
The former general still has the rugged good looks that made him a charismatic military leader, which has led some to speculate that he might play a role in a Syrian transition. But Tlass says he doesn’t want any position in a future government and is focused only on his “road map” for avoiding sectarian strife. He’s probably wise to disavow political ambition, as his wealth, secular lifestyle and prominent background (his father was defense minister) make him a target for a populist, Islamist opposition movement.
I first met Tlass a half-dozen years ago in Damascus, which may be one reason he decided to speak out and give the interview. When I asked him what he would say to Assad if he could send him one more message, he was overcome by emotion for a moment and left the room. When he returned, he said: “How can anyone think he is protecting his country when his air force and tanks are hitting his own territory?”
US state department tries to confirm photographer is in custody of pro-government forces in Syria as concern grows
Matt Williams and agencies
- guardian.co.uk,Friday 31 August 2012 17.12 EDT
This July 2012 file photo shows freelance photographer Austin Tice at an undisclosed location. Photograph: James Lawler Duggan/AFP/Getty Images
Concern is mounting over the welfare of an American journalist reportedly detained in Syria.
The US state department said on Friday it was trying to confirm whether freelancer Austin Tice is being held by pro-government forces.
The Czech government, which represents American interests in Syria, said it believed the journalist to be alive and in custody, but had yet to confirm the information with Syrian authorities.
Meanwhile the reporter’s father called on Damascus to release his son and return him to the US. In an interview with the Associated Press, Marc Tice said: “We have a belief that he’s in Syrian custody, but we have not heard from the only people who would know for sure. That’s the Syrians.”
In a statement to the Washington Post and the McClatchy newspaper group, his family said: “Austin is our precious son, and we beseech the Syrian government to treat him well and return him safely to us as soon as possible.”
Austin Tice worked as a freelance journalist for both media organizations. They reported Thursday that the Czech Republic ambassador to Syria had reported that Tice was alive.
“Our sources report that he is alive and that he was detained by government forces on the outskirts of Damascus, where the rebels were fighting government troops,” Ambassador Eva Filipi was quoted as telling Czech television. The Czech embassy staff in Syria will continue to seek information about Tice, she said.
Tice recently spent time with rebel fighters in Syria and has not been heard from in nearly three weeks.
The 31-year-old former marine was living in Washington before heading overseas, and had been attending law school at Georgetown University between deployments and his latest reporting trip, his father has said.
“We welcome any news about Austin, after three long weeks without word,” Anders Gyllenhaal, McClatchy vice-president for news, said in a statement. “If he is in fact being held by the Syrian government, we would expect that he is being well cared for and that he will quickly be released.”
Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli said: “If the reports are true, we urge these authorities to release him promptly, unharmed.
GENEVA — Kofi Annan’s time as a would-be peacemaker among Syria’s warring parties is over, and he quietly exited the role Friday having failed to end the conflict in the Arab state. Now the task falls to another veteran U.N. diplomat, Lakhdar Brahimi.
Unlike Annan, who for the past six months has been based in Geneva, his home, Brahimi will make his base in New York. There, he hopes he can better influence the U.N. Security Council to unite around a plan to end the violence in Syria.
As the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, Annan – who did not issue a farewell statement – blamed divisions on the 15-nation Security Council for the failure to persuade Syria’s government and the opposition to end their 17-month conflict, which began as a popular uprising but morphed into a civil war.
Russia and China used their vetoes on the council to block U.N. sanctions against the Syrian regime, despite entreaties by the U.S. and other Western nations. As the council members bickered, the bodies have piled up in Syria: activists say the fighting has claimed more than 20,000 lives so far.
“It’s a mission that could have been made possible had the international community been more united,” Annan’s spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, told The Associated Press on Friday. “They have expressed support in various statements. But in fact, this support is not translated on the ground. And this means exerting the kind of influence that would make the parties listen.”
Annan was named the envoy to the Arab state in February. He came up with a six-point peace plan to resolve Syria’s crisis, including a cease-fire that was supposed to take effect in mid-April. But the plan did not take hold.
Fawzi said critics who say the process “gave the regime time and space to go on killing its people are unfair, in that the killing was going on anyway. With or without the mediator, the killing was going on, and the killing was going on for over a year before he was appointed.”
With Annan’s exit, Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister who has been a U.N. envoy to Afghanistan and Iraq, starts Saturday trying to succeed where Annan couldn’t. Brahimi told AP that his first task will be to overcome the divisions in the Security Council that undermined Annan’s efforts and get it to speak “with a unified voice.” He said military intervention “is not supported by anybody.”
On Friday, the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross said in an operational update that since mid-July, fighting in and around Damascus has been escalating almost without interruption. “The situation in many parts of Syria is currently edging towards irreversible deterioration. Assisting the fast-growing number of needy people is a top priority,” it said.
Yemen’s former U.N. ambassador, Abdullah Alsaidi, said Annan had “good intentions” in taking on a nearly impossible job. But Annan should have spent more time in New York, where the Security Council is based, and he should have talked directly with Syrian opposition leaders, rather than delegating that job to a deputy, Alsaidi said.
“I think what he did was he created a momentum and the imperative for a peaceful resolution of the conflict,” Alsaidi, now a senior fellow with the New York-based International Peace Institute, told AP.
“I think he did accentuate the fact that unless there is peaceful resolution of this conflict, Syria will deteriorate into a quagmire that is not different from what happened in Iraq, with spillover into other countries. But he was reluctant to meet with the Syrian opposition … and I think that was a drawback.”
A Syrian man, who fled his home in Aleppo, due to fighting between the Syrian army and the rebels, carries his son while going to collect water from a tanker, as they take refuge at the Bab Al-Salameh border crossing, in hopes of entering one of the refugee camps in Turkey, near the Syrian town of Azaz, Friday, Aug. 31, 2012. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
Turkey’s non-starter call for a humanitarian safe zone inside Syria offers the clearest sign yet that diplomacy to end the bloodshed in the most violent uprising of the Arab Spring is at a dead end.
Any new push by the international community to stop the killing is likely to remain on hold until the new U.N. chief envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, gets his feet on the ground and — more importantly — until the Nov. 6 U.S. presidential election.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other prominent Republicans have called for arming Syrian rebels, a step critics fear would only escalate the violence without necessarily bringing a quick end to a more than 17-month conflict that activists say has killed more than 20,000 people.
In the meantime, countries in the region — Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Iraq — will be scrambling to contain the violence and keep the conflict from spilling across their borders.
A desire to contain the conflict was in large measure behind Turkey’s appeal Thursday to the U.N. Security Council to establish a safe zone for civilians in parts of northern Syria under nominal rebel control.
That would enable the Turks to cut off the flow of refugees across their border. About 80,000 Syrians have already fled into Turkey, and hostility to the presence of so many foreigners is rising among Turks living in Antakya and other border communities.
But the Turkish proposal sank like a stone. The council meeting ended without even a non-binding statement of support, much less a binding resolution.
A frustrated Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the council that he’d come to New York in hopes the members would take ‘‘long overdue steps’’ to alleviate the suffering and establish camps inside Syria for those forced to flee their homes.
‘‘Apparently, I was wrong about my expectations,’’ Davutoglu said.
Like so many other proposals to end the fighting, the Turkish appeal was all but dead on arrival, given the risks of creating such a zone and the hostility of veto-wielding Russia and China to any proposal that is not accepted by Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Russians and the Chinese have already vetoed three Western-backed council resolutions that would threaten Assad’s government with international sanctions. Assad rejected the idea of a safe zone in a television interview this week.
Russia and China have long made clear they will not go along with a repeat of last year’s experience in Libya, when the U.S. and its European allies used a resolution to protect civilians to launch months of attacks that ended with the collapse of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.
Even if some legal way could be found to get around the Security Council obstacle, there is no sign the U.S. or its major European partners have the stomach to repeat the Libya operation at a time when cash-strapped governments are trying to extricate from Afghanistan and the U.S. is focused on an election in about two months.
Establishing a safe zone in Syria amounts to entering the territory of a sovereign country to offer protection to civilians, many who are sympathetic to the rebels.
Without a guarantee from Assad that he would not attack the zone, foreign governments would have to assume responsibility for protecting civilians there — through troops on the ground and through preventing Syrian attack aircraft from flying over the territory.
Meanwhile, the West is running out of options besides trying to do more to care for the tens of thousands of refugees.
With Syrian diplomacy all but dead, the Obama administration is focusing on political transition and helping the rebels defeat the Syrian regime. Washington has increased its humanitarian aid to $74 million and its ‘‘nonlethal’’ communications assistance to $25 million.
The administration also has eased restrictions for rebel fundraising in the United States. Most of the weapons used by the rebels are believed to be purchased inside and outside Syria with money from supporters abroad, mostly in the Gulf states.
The U.S. has been working politically with Syrian exiles who drew up a transition plan for governing the country if the Assad regime collapses. The plan was unveiled this week in Berlin.
France has promised to recognize a Syrian provisional government if the opposition can set aside its internal differences — which it has been unable to accomplish.
None of those proposals would have an immediate effect in curbing the bloodshed.
Faced with bleak prospects, the new U.N. envoy, Brahimi, says he plans to consult key players in New York after officially assuming his duties Saturday. His predecessor, Kofi Annan, quit in frustration this month after achieving little.
Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister and veteran U.N. mediator, will likely explore possibilities of reviving a transitional plan drawn up by Annan and agreed to by both the United States and Russia after a conference in Geneva in June.
The document aimed at establishing an interim government of people chosen by both the Assad regime and the opposition. Each would be able to veto candidates.
The arrangement was rejected immediately by many in the Syrian opposition.
Robert H. Reid is Associated Press bureau chief in Berlin and has covered Middle East events since 1978.
An AP News Analysis
The Obama administration has backed itself into a corner in Syria, a crisis with few good options. But the endgame is clear, at least, and the time to get involved has come.
From the time that the peaceful protests in Syria turned into an armed uprising, it has been reasonable to argue that any imaginable outside intervention would do as much harm as good. I have made that argument myself. But the situation on the ground has changed, and so the calculus of outsiders must change as well. U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration should accept that the only desirable outcome in Syria is a victory by the rebels and should work much more actively than it has both to hasten the day of that victory and to avoid the terrible settling of accounts that might well accompany such an outcome.
It is true that Syrian forces have committed terrible atrocities in recent weeks, both in the house-to-house killings in the Damascus suburb of Daraya and in aerial bombardments of civilians waiting in bread lines in the northern city of Aleppo, which have been documented in an appalling video recently posted by Human Rights Watch. But the moral case for intervention became incontrovertible many thousands of deaths ago. What has changed is the practical case.
Many people who supported the intervention in Libya, including officials in the White House, have opposed comparable action in Syria out of concern that escalating hostilities could turn an insurgency into a full-blown civil war, inflaming sectarian hatred and threatening neighbors with massive refugee flows and ethnic and religious tension. But almost all those things have come to pass simply as a result of the demons Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has unleashed.
The war has already escalated to previously unimaginable levels. The Syrian regime is now engaging in the strategy of counterinsurgency-by-atrocity used so effectively by Sudan against the people of its south and Darfur — intentionally killing large numbers of civilians in order to shatter the opposition’s will. Assad has sown the seeds of sectarian hatred by unleashing largely Alawite forces against Sunni civilians, in turn making Syria into a new crusade for Sunni extremists, many of them crossing the border from Iraq. And he has exported the conflict beyond Syria’s borders, with Sunnis and Alawites facing off in the streets of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city. The greatest danger to Syria and the region now comes from allowing Syria’s civil war to continue unabated.
If the calculus of potential harm has changed, so too has the calculus of potential good. A no-fly zone would have done nothing to stop the thugs and soldiers who carried out the massacres in Daraya. The regime, however, doesn’t have enough troops to repress the rebellion everywhere at once. Assad has been deploying helicopters and jets in Aleppo, Idlib, and elsewhere in the north not only to terrorize civilians but to prevent the rebels from establishing control over a large swath of territory, as the Libyan opposition did in Benghazi. The rebels have begun to shoot down a few of the government’s helicopters and jets, but Assad is still counting on aerial terror to subdue the region. A no-fly zone might not stop the killing, but it could give the rebels the foothold they desperately need.
And unlike in Libya, where it was clear from the outset that NATO planes would have to take on Muammar al-Qaddafi’s tanks and armored personnel carriers, a no-fly zone extending perhaps 75 miles south of the Syria-Turkey border could turn the tide in Syria.
A no-fly zone now makes sense. Perhaps if the Libya intervention had never happened, Western and regional powers might be prepared to take on such a task. But Libya exhausted NATO’s resources and outraged Russia, China, and other countries that said they had voted only for a more modest no-fly zone. Russia and China will see to it that the U.N. Security Council never approves a resolution authorizing such an attack. And there is little evidence that any of the likely participants in a new effort — the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia — have any appetite for ambitious military action in Syria, especially absent U.N. approval.
Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has asked the United Nations to establish a safe haven, but the Turks know perfectly well that Russia and China would veto such a resolution. The Turks, who are deeply worried about the destabilizing effect of the massive influx of Syrian refugees, now thought to number over 250,000, could establish a safe haven on their own, but apparently have no intention of doing so. While in Turkey in mid-August, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the United States and Turkey were setting up a working group to study a no-fly zone and other options. But one U.S. intelligence official with whom I spoke said that no serious military planning for a no-fly zone was currently under way.
Administration officials say that they cannot act without Turkey, but complain that Turkish political and diplomatic leaders barely speak to the Turkish military, which has shown no interest in military action. That may be true, but U.S. officials seem all too happy to use Turkey the way Turkey uses the U.N.: to avoid blame for failing to take action. With the U.S. president trying to get reelected by a public that is paying as little attention as it can to the world beyond America’s borders, the White House does not want to be dragged into a foreign campaign that could turn ugly. Indeed, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland immediately rejected Davutoglu’s safe-haven plea, saying that the United States wants to help the refugees get to Turkey, not protect them inside Syria.
One administration official said to me that because the rebels are now winning, outside intervention has become unnecessary. But that, too, sounds like a mighty convenient excuse for inaction. Assad may eventually lose his battle with the rebels, but many more thousands of Syrians are likely to die before he does, and an already poisonous atmosphere will become yet more lethal. Because it is now beyond obvious that Assad will leave only if he fears death or imminent defeat, the end must come with a rebel victory. And if the United States wants the rebels to win, then it should be doing everything it can to help them win — and win in a way that prevents a post-Assad Syria from degenerating into Iraq. Nor do you have to be John McCain to believe that the United States needs to range itself on the right side of history.
Is there an alternative? The obvious one is to give the rebels the military equipment they have been begging for. Until now, the Obama administration has provided only nonlethal equipment, mostly communications gear. But according to the New York Times, U.S. officials have granted an export license to a Syrian émigré group seeking to funnel weapons to the rebels. Why then should Washington not do directly what it is now prepared to do indirectly? One former U.S. government official with extensive experience in Syria suggests an alternative: “Just earmark $50 [million] or $100 million in covert assistance, and have agency guys walking around with bags of money.”
Of course, that conjures up memories of Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the CIA supplied anti-Soviet jihadists with Stinger missiles that ultimately fell into the hands of al Qaeda. That’s not an encouraging precedent. But CIA officials are reported to be on the ground in Syria and in Turkey helping to direct assistance to rebel commanders whom the United States believes it can work with. That assistance has been grossly inadequate, in part because Saudi Arabia and Qatar have not been supplying arms as promised. The rebels have been forced again and again to break off battles they might otherwise win for lack of ammunition and firepower. With anti-aircraft capability, the rebels could create a safe haven on their own. With anti-tank missiles, they night quickly turn the tide in other disputed areas.
The United States has a profound interest not only in bringing the slaughter in Syria to an end, but in having a meaningful presence on the ground when that happens — as it did in Libya thanks to the NATO air campaign. It will not be easy, under any circumstances, to prevent Syria from collapsing into religious and ethnic enclaves, or into a war of all against all. But if Washington remains on the sidelines, as it has until now, it will have little influence with those who will ultimately prevail, and thus little ability to help shape the post-Assad landscape.
Obama might decide to postpone the decision until after the election, but that would be an act of consummate cynicism. He should act now, before it’s too late.
Published: Aug. 31, 2012 at 1:25 PM
DAMASCUS, Syria, Aug. 31 (UPI) — Countries bordering Syria have asked the United Nations Security Council for help with the growing number of refugees coming from Syria.
Turkey and Jordan told 15-nation Council Thursday that they need help coping with an influx of Syrian refugees, Voice of America reported.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his country has already spent about $300 million building 11 refugee camps, adding Turkey is now hosting 80,000 and can take in only about 20,000 more people.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh also asked for help, saying his country has limited means to handle the more than 70,000 refugees inside its borders.
Meanwhile, as fighting between Syrian troops and opposition forces continued this week, President Bashar Assad on Wednesday ignored a Turkish proposal for refugee zones inside his country.