October 2, 2013 - Syrian refugees complain about lack of assistance
September 25, 2013 by AFP
Syrian opposition leaders Tuesday openly took issue with the US government’s failure to launch a missile attack on the Syrian regime and pressed for assurances of US support in talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Syrian opposition chief Ahmad Jarba led a four-strong delegation to meet Kerry on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly where the civil war in Syria is one of the top issues on the agenda.
Rebel forces are now fighting on two fronts, a senior State Department official said, highlighting that as well as battling the Syrian regime, rebel military chief General Selim Idriss and his forces were locked in combat against Islamist groups.
"Right now there’s a real firefight going on up along the border Turkey and Syria between Al-Qaeda extremists and forces loyal to Selim Idriss," he said.
"That is battle that is ongoing right now, and it’s very confusing," he said, adding the rebels were bringing in reinforcements but it was "a hard slog."
"It’s the hardest fighting we’ve ever seen between Selim Idriss’s elements of the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant," he added.
"The extremists are doing the government’s work now."
President Barack Obama on Tuesday unveiled a further $340 million in humanitarian aid for the refugees caught up in the war, in which 110,000 people have now been killed.
But the opposition has long pressed for more military back-up from the United States.
"They certainly did express disappointment that there hadn’t been a military strike," the official said, after Obama last month backed away from taking military action to neutralize Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile.
The opposition also “wanted a reaffirmation of our stance concerning Bashar al-Assad’s legitimacy or lack thereof. Which Secretary Kerry gave them both barrels blazing.”
Kerry assured the opposition leaders that after Assad “has used chemical weapons on his own people, after he has killed tens of thousands, it is impossible for us to imagine that he would play any role in a subsequent transition government,” the official said.
The talks also focused on preparations for a peace conference dubbed Geneva II, as a date for such talks bringing together the opposition and the regime has repeatedly slipped.
Russia and the United States, which initiated the idea of the peace talks, are focused currently on getting a UN resolution to back a deal on bringing Syria’s chemical weapons under control.
"Geneva II, or the Geneva peace conference, that will come next," the US official said.
He defended the US position to first focus on the chemical weapons deal, saying that it is “not illogical for both the Russians and the US to say ‘wait before we can get to the peace conference we have to make sure we do not have more of these large scale gas attacks.’”
Image: Derek Bacon/Alamy
September 21, 2013
IN JULY 1972 Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt, suddenly decided to turf out thousands of Soviet military advisers. Menaced by Egyptian leftists and undervalued by the Kremlin, he calculated that he had more to gain from siding with America. Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s secretary of state, administered some deft diplomacy to broker a ceasefire between Egypt, Syria and Israel in the Yom Kippur war, and American aid duly flooded into Cairo. So did American influence: the Soviet hold over the Middle East never recovered.
The plan to wrest chemical weapons from Syria, shortly to be embodied in a UN resolution, has echoes of that era—except that the modern Metternich is a serial abuser of human rights and occasional op-ed writer on democracy for the New York Times, called Vladimir Putin. Russia, the country he leads, is too frail to regain its place in the Middle East. But this week, a decade after the invasion of Iraq, it suddenly became clear just how far the influence of the West has ebbed. The pity is how few Americans and Europeans seem to care about that.
The best of a very bad lot
In Western capitals the sigh of relief over Syria is audible. Barack Obama, while admitting that his diplomacy fell short on “style points”, claims that he got what he wanted. Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, will sign the convention against chemical weapons and get rid of the agents that he used to kill around 1,500 of his own citizens last month (see article). Even better, Russia shares responsibility for enforcing the plan, which could lead to broader co-operation with America, while Syria’s other ally, Iran, is making noises about negotiating with the Great Satan over its own nuclear programme.
The West’s leaders are off the hook. Mr Obama has managed to avoid the sort of humiliating defeat in Congress that David Cameron suffered in Britain’s Parliament. Now that military action is unlikely, Mr Cameron will not be embarrassed as a no-show. François Hollande no longer faces a domestic fight over his willingness to take France to war on Congress’s command. Some even see it as a victory for democracy: the people of the West did not want to fight, and got their way.
Yet the deal looks good only because the mess Mr Obama had got himself into was so bad. Step back, and the outcome looks rotten.
For a start, the deal itself is flimsy because it will be so hard to enforce. Mr Obama reserves the right to attack a delinquent Syria but the unpopularity of military action among America’s voters makes it clear that only an egregious breach, such as another chemical attack, could stir the country to action. Although Mr Putin would lose face if Syria brazenly defied the agreement, he now knows that Mr Obama needs his support. Given that Russia cares more about diplomatic parity with America than about de-fanging Mr Assad, it is more likely to prolong the crisis than resolve it. Nor is it clear that Russia can force Syria to comply. Mr Assad may co-operate at first, when the will to enforce the deal is strongest. But it is hard to impose disarmament during a civil war. As time drags on, Mr Assad is likely to frustrate the process—both to keep some chemical weapons and to be seen to defy America.
America’s credibility as an ally has been undermined. Whereas Mr Putin has stood firmly by Mr Assad, even while 100,000 people have perished, the West has proved an inconstant friend to the opposition. Two years ago, when only a few thousand Syrians had died, the liberal democracies called for Mr Assad’s ousting, but Mr Obama refused to get mixed up in the fight, even though the regime was reeling. His lone attempt not to look weak was the promise to punish any use of chemical weapons. Since then the formerly largely moderate rebel force has become infested by Sunni extremists, including foreign fighters and al-Qaeda.
As for Syria so for the Middle East. The Arab spring has driven a wedge between the West and its allies. Mr Obama recently sent his envoy to Cairo to ask the generals not to fire on an encampment of protesting Muslim Brothers. But, in an echo of Sadat, the generals preferred to heed Saudi advice, shoot the Brothers and collect billions of dollars of Arab aid. When the cold war ended, the West’s leadership showed imagination and resolve; no historian looking back at the Arab spring will say the same.
Last, America’s credibility as an opponent has also suffered. That’s not because all red lines that politicians draw must always be enforced. A leader who freely chooses to walk away from a fight need not suffer any loss of prestige. But a leader who the world sees is unable to fulfil his promises is inevitably weakened. And although nobody doubts that America’s armed forces continue to enjoy overwhelming superiority, its unwillingness to use them undermines their ability to give force to its diplomacy.
Freedoms and constraints
The West’s great problem is the paralysing legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan, exacerbated by a weak economy in Europe and, in America, vicious partisan politics. Everyone knew that Western citizens were tired of fighting, but until Mr Obama and Mr Cameron asked them, nobody knew just how tired.
Now every tyrant knows that a red line set by the leader of the free world is really just a threat to ask legislators how they feel about enforcing it. Dictators will be freer to maim and murder their own people, proliferators like North Korea less scared to proceed with spreading WMD, China and Russia ever more content to test their muscles in the vacuum left by the West.
The West is not on an inexorable slide towards irrelevance. Far from it. America’s economy is recovering, and its gas boom has undermined energy-fuelled autocracies. Dictatorships are getting harder to manage: from Beijing to Riyadh, people have been talking about freedom and the rule of law. It should be a good time to uphold Western values. But when the emerging world’s aspiring democrats seek to topple tyrants, they will remember what happened in Syria. And they won’t put their faith in the West.
A Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover during clashes with Syrian Army in the Salaheddine neighborhood of central Aleppo August 7, 2012. Photo: Goran Tomasevich/Reuters
September 20, 2013 by Jay Newton-Small
Late Wednesday night, rebel forces from Islamic State in Iraqand Syria (ISIS), an al Qaeda ally, stormed the small town of Azaz near a strategic Syria-Turkish border crossing through which much humanitarian aid passes. But the target of the al Qaeda attack wasn’t troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, it was the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), which gains much of its credibility from its ability to deliver humanitarian and other aid to Syrian civilians struggling under the brutal war. At least six Free Syrian Army soldiers were killed and ISIS captured another 15.
With a crucial corridor for aid to the FSA rebels now under threat from al Qaeda, the casualties from Wednesday’s fighting weren’t just among the FSA troops. The FSA and its leader General Salim Idris are rapidly losing credibility as they try, and fail, to fight both Assad and al Qaeda, FSA supporters in Washington say. “We’re damaging the credibility of the very partner the administration says is the guy because his credibility rests on his ability to deliver U.S. and western assistance,” a senior congressional aide who works closely on Syria said of Idris.
The problem, the aide says, is that rather than following through on promises to train and arm the FSA, in recent weeks, support for such moves seems to have waned in Washington.“We’ve made promises that are largely unfulfilled,” says the aide, “And it doesn’t take long for people to lose confidence.”
A month ago, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that the Obama Administration was about to finally get behind the Syrian rebels in a big way. “There was a bit of a consensus building that some type of [Defense Department] train and equip was worth doing,” the congressional aide said. “As of yet it’s totally unclear if that will happen.
Just as the Obama Administration was beginning to arm the Syrian rebels, President Obama’s request for authorization for a strike in Syria cratered congressional support. Even members like Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who’d been for arming the rebels in the past, retreated in the face of public outcry, yanking his support of Syria’s armed opposition. Now, the rebels fear a diplomatic deal to rid Syria of its chemical weapons may pause, or worse, reverse U.S. support right as they are opening up a second front against al Qaeda.
The Syrian rebels have spent more than two-and-a-half years trying to get the United States more engaged in Syria. They were carefully vetted by first the State Department and then the Central Intelligence Agency. They did test runs, distributing 300,000 emergency food rations, then 200 medical kits and several truckloads of field-hospital surgical equipment, making sure the supplies didn’t end up in extremist hands. And, finally, last month the first arms began to trickle in, though as of early September, less than 100 Free Syrian Army officers and soldiers were vetted and qualified by the U.S. to receive the weapons, according to congressional and opposition sources.
And then, just as the Administration was considering switching the training and equipping program from the CIA to the Defense Department, the U.S. pivoted to a diplomatic deal with Russia. As Senator John McCain told me last week: “A lot of people, myself included, would like to see this in part or in whole in the hands of the DOD versus the CIA. I’m not saying one does it better than the other, but point of fact the DOD is set up to do this, to scale it up in a way that I don’t believe the CIA can do.”
The diplomatic deal, expected to see a vote in the United Nations Security Council in coming weeks, would require Syrian strongman Bashar Assad to give up his chemical weapons stockpile and submit to UN inspections. Assad told a Russian television crew last week that he would not hand over his chemical weapons unless the U.S. agrees to stop arming the Syrian rebels, though there was no mention of this condition in the agreement’s framework laid out by Secretary of StateJohn Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
“It looked like we were getting so close, not only to U.S. strikes, but U.S. increased support in terms of arms and aid,” says Dan Layman, media director for the Syrian Support Group, which represents Syrian opposition interests in Washington. “There is a concern that that aid is going to drop off.”
The rebels aren’t the only ones upset by the potential hold up. Gulf allies who’ve been pushing the U.S. to get more involved are also angry. “The Gulf feels misled,” Mustafa Alani, a Geneva-based security analyst with the Gulf Research Center, referring to the U.S. shift, told The Washington Post. “Certainly, there’s a fear that this means Iran will be much stronger. Strategically speaking, the Iranian position is going to be enhanced in the region.”
In doing a deal with the Russians and Assad, many feared the U.S. is empowering Assad to remain in Damascus until all of his chemical weapons are destroyed. Under the deal, that is scheduled to happen by mid-2014. The opposition also worries that Assad could use Saddam Hussein’s playbook and obfuscate, and delay for years.
The way things are going in Syria, it’s not clear the FSA can hang on that long.
September 14, 2013 by Hussein Ibish
When the focus in the United States shifted towards possible American air strikes to degrade the Syrian regime’s capacity to use chemical weapons, the armed Syrian opposition was criticised or dismissed from a variety of perspectives.
The air-strike debate is now paused, after the US and Russia agreed on a way to eliminate the chemical weapons peacefully. But the debate highlighted certain misconceptions that malign the entire armed opposition as Al Qaeda.
The crude Islamophobia at work is unmistakable. A notorious viral video circulated by the right-wing Tea Party movement purports to show serving American military personnel, in uniform, holding placards over their faces with messages such as: “Obama, don’t deploy me to fight your war for Al Qaeda in Syria.”
Such assertions are hardly restricted to anonymous videos or fringe figures. Republican Senator Ted Cruz, a rising star on the American right, summarised this misapprehension in a Washington Post article saying a reason he would vote against President Barack Obama’s requested (now suspended) authorisation for the use of force in Syria is that: “We should never give weapons to people who hate us, and the United States should not support or arm Al Qaeda terrorists.”
On both the American left and right, it is widely assumed that the primary beneficiaries of American strikes against regime targets would be Al Qaeda, and that any effort to provide aid to rebels will similarly merely boost jihadists.
After the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the growth of an Islamophobic narrative in American popular culture, the working assumption now seems to be that armed non-governmental Arab Sunni Muslims are probably either Al Qaeda or in league with it.
In policy circles, this sentiment is echoed by a far more subtle misreading of the situation through research that takes into account mainly open-source materials such as online videos and statements. Observing the war at a distance and focusing only on the self-promoting multimedia put out by various groups – which compete for aid from extremist, wealthy private donors, and seek radicalised recruits from abroad – often leads to an exaggerated sense of the role of the most extreme groups in Syria’s conflict.
It can also promote a misunderstanding of the real belief systems operative among the fighters on the ground, particularly the rank-and-file, and the actual relationship between such rebel groups. The result is almost invariably an underestimation of non-jihadist forces and their effectiveness and an overestimation of the jihadists.
A third dismissive attitude is simply driven by “Middle East fatigue”. This sense holds that “we” don’t or can’t know who “they” (the Syrian opposition) are, and therefore it is folly to arm or support any of “them”. This sentiment reflects a willingness to throw up one’s hands in despair of ever understanding what Middle Easterners say and think, or why.
This means, in effect, that large sections of American opinion have, in one way or another, swallowed the line promoted by the Damascus dictatorship since the days of the unarmed protests, that Syria is under attack by a gang of foreign-led, Al Qaeda terrorists.
The Assad regime worked very hard to ensure that peaceful protests turned into an armed movement and that the subsequent conflict turned sectarian in nature. The regime, in so far as it can promote, are confronting Al Qaeda-related groups. And for a combination of reasons – not least of them neglect by western and Arab states of the non-jihadist opposition groups – in parts of the country this has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This trend is being reversed to some extent but more needs to be done to deprive Bashar Al Assad of what he has always wanted. While, in the long run, he has little hope of prevailing throughout the country, his preferred enemy is Al Qaeda because they simply cannot win. Salafist-jihadist groups have a long history of self-defeat, most recently in Iraq, by indulging in overreaching, excessive violence and alienating potential allies and constituents because of their unremitting extremism.
The Al Qaeda-related groups in Syria recently split into two opposed factions and their areas of dominant influence are restricted to certain parts of the north and the east of the country. At least one of those factions, the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”, is already repeating almost all the mistakes that destroyed Al Qaeda in Iraq. They are now thoroughly despised by both the public and other insurgents in the areas where they operate. There is a golden opportunity to exploit this but that cannot be done without bolstering their nationalistic rivals.
In the south, where the most strategic and dynamic part of the war is now situated, the battle is being led largely by various forms of Syrian nationalists willing to turn their guns against both the regime and Al Qaeda – hence intensive western and Arab support for non-jihadist groups is essential.
The question of American military strikes aside, both the West and the Arab states have an urgent interest in supporting these groups to simultaneously combat both a murderous dictatorship and armed extremists who are at least as dangerous. On the ground, the opportunity is ripe for such an expanded programme. But as long as westerners think that Syria is trapped in a binary between Mr Al Assad and Al Qaeda, resistance to such a programme will remain widespread and crippling.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin gestures during a press conference at the end of the G20 summit on September 6, 2013 in Saint Petersburg. Photo: AFP/ Alexander Nemenov
September 12, 2013 by AFP
Russia issued a stark warning Thursday that unilateral US military action could destroy world order, as the rival great powers discussed a plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons.
In a bid to appeal directly to US voters and policy-makers over the head of President Barack Obama, Kremlin leader President Vladimir Putin penned a commentary in the New York Times.
His article appeared at the same time as US Secretary of State John Kerry took off for Geneva, where he was to work with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on a plan to neutralize Syria’s chemical arsenal.
Putin welcomed Washington’s willingness to engage with the Moscow initiative, but he rebuked Obama for his previous threat to launch US military strikes to punish Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
He warned that carrying out such a move without the approval of the United Nations Security Council, where Moscow wields a veto, would destroy the credibility of the world body.
"No-one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage," he said, referring to the United Nations’ failed inter-war predecessor.
"A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism," Putin wrote, in a piece that emphasized that many of the rebels ranged against Assad have ties to Al-Qaeda.
"It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa," he continued.
"It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance," he said.
Syria is a traditional ally of Russia, and Moscow has blocked any attempt to sanction his regime through the United Nations during the two-and-a-half year civil war that grips his country.
Last month, when hundreds of civilians were killed in a night of chemical weapons strikes in the suburbs of Damascus, the United States and France threatened to take action.
Despite a US intelligence report that tied the strike to Assad’s regime and alleged that 1,400 people died, Obama struggled to win domestic support for unilateral action.
Then on Monday, Russia announced a plan for Syria to surrender its banned weapons to international control for destruction. Assad’s regime quickly said it would comply.
Despite deep skepticism about both Russia and Syria’s sincerity, Obama agreed to examine the plan.
In an address to the American people on Tuesday he postponed, but did not withdraw, the threat of military action and ordered Kerry to meet Lavrov and work on the details.
"Judging by the statements of President Obama, the United States sees this as an alternative to military action," Putin wrote.
"I welcome the president’s interest in continuing the dialogue with Russia on Syria. We must work together to keep this hope alive."
But, in a sign that Putin sees the crisis as an opportunity to reassert Russian influence two decades after the former Soviet Union lost the Cold War, he also leveled broader criticism at Washington.
Drawing on a passage in Obama’s Tuesday night address that said the United States’ has an “exceptional” role to play, Putin said it was wrong for any power to presume a unique leadership role.
"It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation," he wrote.
"We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."
Earlier, envoys from the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — held inconclusive talks on Syria at the United Nations.
Kerry, meanwhile, was en route for Geneva with a team of arms experts and senior officials to spend two to three days with Lavrov poring over Russia’s proposal.
The most vocal advocate for Obama’s call for strikes to punish Assad, Kerry alleged this week that Damascus has 1,000 metric tons of deadly chemical agents, including sulfur, mustard, sarin and VX.
While in Geneva, Kerry will also seek to revitalize political moves to call a peace conference to end Syria’s civil war, in which more than 110,000 people have died since March 2011.
He will meet UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to discuss UN-backed efforts to bring the Assad regime to the table with the opposition rebels.
The Syrian opposition has reacted with dismay to the Russian plan, warning that negotiations over chemical weapons will only deepen the chaos and misery in their country.
With the risk of an attack having receded, Assad — who celebrated his 48th birthday on Wednesday — was free to pursue his battle with a dismayed rebel coalition.
The regime carried out an air strike on a field hospital in the province of Aleppo, killing at least 11 people, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Rebel Sunni hardliners killed at least 20 civilians in the central province of Homs, with fighters from the Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front and other groups attacking Alawite villages, the Observatory said.
Assad, a secular leader who has largely protected the rights of minorities, belongs to the heterodox Alawite sect, which Sunni hardliners consider un-Islamic.
Sunni Arab monarchies Qatar and Saudi Arabia have funded the rebels, while Shiite theocracy Iran has staunchly backed Assad.
A general view shows a damaged piano amid buildings destroyed by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the besieged area of Homs, Sept. 2, 2013. Photo: Reuters/Yazan Homsy
September 2, 2013 by Murhaf Jouejati
President Barack Obama’s recent decision to seek congressional authorization before taking military action against the Bashar al-Assad regime lies at the intersection of “the need to do something” about Syria and Obama’s personal reluctance to use force, especially at a time when the American people have no appetite for another war.
With regard to the first, the need for the United States to enforce — and reinforce — the international ban on the use of chemical weapons is imperative. US inaction on this score would otherwise send the message to Assad that he may continue killing his own rebellious people with impunity. Over and above that, US inaction would also signal to Iran and North Korea that Washington is not all that serious about confronting their nuclear proliferation efforts.
Moreover, the US president’s decision to delay the strike has important implications — both positive and negative. On the upside, congressional approval would strengthen his hand politically; on the downside, turning to Congress is viewed, at least in the Middle East, as a sign of US presidential weakness. Delaying the use of force against Assad also enables the Syrian leader to gain time, both to strengthen his defenses against the potential use of US power and to crush the nearly three-year popular uprising against him.
With regard to the second vector, the decision itself to strike Syria, Obama need not be overly cautious. If the endgame is, as both Washington and Moscow insist, a political solution to the intra-Syrian conflict that is in keeping with the US-Russian sponsored Geneva initiative — peace talks between representatives of the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition that are to lead to the establishment of a transitional government — a more vigorous military campaign against Assad’s forces (one which American public opinion seems opposed to) could be far more effective than the limited, pinprick operation Obama is said to be contemplating.
Washington’s strategy against the Assad regime must include a military campaign that degrades Assad’s killing machine significantly and, simultaneously, provides military and logistical assistance to vetted, moderate elements of the Free Syrian Army. Only through a weakened Assad regime and an invigorated Free Syrian Army would the balance of power between the conflicting parties — a prerequisite for meaningful talks — be had. Short of that, Assad, backed as he is by Iran and Hezbollah, would persist in trying to crush the uprising by force.
Only when the hitherto lopsided balance of power is equalized would the Assad regime be inclined to alter its security-minded approach to one by which it would negotiate in good faith with the rebels.
September 3, 2013 by David Espo and Bradley Klapper
President Barack Obama gained ground Tuesday in his drive for congressional backing of a military strike against Syria, winning critical support from House Speaker John Boehner while administration officials agreed to explicitly rule out the use of U.S. combat troops in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack.
The leader of House Republicans, Boehner emerged from a meeting at the White House and said the United States has “enemies around the world that need to understand that we’re not going to tolerate this type of behavior. We also have allies around the world and allies in the region who also need to know that America will be there and stand up when it’s necessary.”
Boehner spoke as lawmakers in both parties called for changes in the president’s requested legislation, rewriting it to restrict the type and duration of any military action that would be authorized, possibly including a ban on U.S. combat forces on the ground.
"There’s no problem in our having the language that has zero capacity for American troops on the ground," said Secretary of State John Kerry, one of three senior officials to make the case for military intervention at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
"President Obama is not asking America to go to war," Kerry said in a strongly worded opening statement. He added, "This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter."
Obama said earlier in the day he was open to revisions in the relatively broad request the White House made over the weekend. He expressed confidence Congress would respond to his call for support and said Assad’s action “poses a serious national security threat to the United States and to the region.”
The administration says 1,429 died from the attack on Aug. 21 in a Damascus suburb. Casualty estimates by other groups are far lower, and Assad’s government blames the episode on rebels who have been seeking to overthrow his government in a civil war that began over two years ago. A United Nations inspection team is awaiting lab results on tissue and soil samples it collected while in the country before completing a closely watched report.
The president met top lawmakers at the White House before embarking on an overseas trip to Sweden and Russia, leaving the principal lobbying at home for the next few days to Vice President Joe Biden and other members of his administration.
Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sat shoulder-to-shoulder at the Senate committee hearing while, a few hundred miles away, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged caution. He said any punitive action against Syria could unleash more turmoil and bloodshed, and he advised that such strikes would be legal only in self-defense under the U.N. Charter or if approved by the organization’s Security Council. Russia and China have repeatedly used their veto power in the council to block action against Assad.
In the Middle East, Israel and the U.S. conducted a joint missile test over the Mediterranean in a display of military might in the region.
Obama set the fast-paced events in motion on Saturday, when he unexpectedly stepped back from ordering a military strike under his own authority and announced he would seek congressional approval.
Syria isn’t just a civil war, the author says, but also a regional conflict. Photo: Reuters
September 3, 2013 by Michael Doran
President Barack Obama’s decision to strike Bashar Assad’s regime has perplexed many people. For the last two years, the White House, with the clear support of the military and a majority of public opinion, has resisted greater involvement in Syria. However, in a surprising turnabout, the president is now claiming that core American interests are at stake. Is he correct? If so, are military strikes, even of a limited nature, the best way to safeguard those interests? Here, in an effort to answer those questions, are five basic propositions.
1) At stake in Syria is the future of the regional order in the Middle East. The struggle for Syria is now more than just a civil war; it is also a regional conflict that pits – to put it in simplified terms – Iran and Hezbollah against Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms. The United States has a strong interest in seeing Saudi Arabia, the Syrian rebels, and their allies win this conflict. They are fighting not just for Syria, but for an international order that will protect vital American interests.
2) The only route to a political solution in Syria is regime change. From the beginning, the Obama administration has failed to acknowledge this fundamental truth, instead pursuing a negotiated settlement – an agreement on a transitional government acceptable both to Assad loyalists and the Syrian opposition. Supporters of this approach justify it by saying, “There is no military solution to this problem. We have no choice, therefore, but to follow a political track.”
While this sounds reasonable, the chances of success are nil. Bashar Assad will never negotiate himself out of a job. His regime, one of the most repressive in the world, will not willingly convert to notions of democratic legitimacy. His security services, infected with the crudest forms of sectarian bloodlust, will not open their doors to the Sunni majority. His Iranian patron, desperate to maintain a strategic foothold in the Eastern Mediterranean, will not stand by idly as Sunni Muslims take a position of influence in the government commensurate with the size of their community.
The administration’s current policy is, therefore, a pipe dream.
3) The United States should work as aggressively as possible to build up the Free Syrian Army (FSA), even if it cannot commit the resources necessary to bring Assad down directly. The goal, in that case, should be to shift the balance of power on the ground against Assad and his international backers. Total victory may be beyond the immediate reach of the rebels, but the United States still has an interest in joining the fray, if only to see its allies gain the upper hand.
But gaining advantage on the ground is by no means the only benefit to the United States. The events of the last week teach us that, left unchecked, the conflagration in Syria, can be expected to force the United States to take action unilaterally. Knocking back the Iranians and Assad, bleeding their ally Hezbollah, aiding the Syrian refugees, building up the FSA – all of these steps and more are not simply efforts “to solve” the Syrian problem. They are, in addition, vehicles for promoting the establishment of a new regional order that serves American interests. Together they represent the simplest path available to ensure that the United States, in a pinch, is not left exposed, with no coalition partners, and with few options other than unilateral military strikes.
4) Supporting the FSA is not synonymous with supporting Al Qaeda. A dangerous strategic doctrine has taken hold in some quarters, according to which it is wise for the United States to, as Sarah Palin recently said, “Let Allah sort it out.” Iran and Al Qaeda, so the argument goes, are locked in mortal combat. Both are enemies of America, so the United States should allow them to kill each other.
This argument is false on its face. The conflict, far from burning itself out, is generating new threats to American national security by providing both Iran and Al Qaeda with unprecedented opportunities to expand their influence throughout the region. Al Qaeda, for its part, is building a safe haven in the heart of the Arab world, a magnet for jihadis from across the globe. Meanwhile, Iran is recruiting Iraqi Shiite militiamen, training them in Iran, and then sending them to Syria to fight.
Lost in the mix are the average Syrians, the regular people who are smashed between the hammer of Assad’s tyranny and the anvil of the global jihad. Only the United States has the military and diplomatic resources to build structures that can draw on the energies and ambitions of those people. The goal of American policy, therefore, should be to build up a third Syrian force, the alternative to Assad and Al Qaeda. Even if Assad remains in power, this third force can function as an invaluable ally of the United States on the ground.
5) Military strikes on the Assad regime are an effective means of containing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. While the kind of limited strikes the president has described will not significantly degrade the war-fighting capability of the Assad regime, they will have a powerful impact on the morale of the opposition – a factor one should never underestimate in war.
A question mark now hovers over the future of American power. A number of developments — the “rebalancing to Asia,” the sequestration cuts, and a general war weariness — have given rise in the Middle East to the belief that the United States is no longer a dependable ally. The apparent confusion and disarray the Obama administration exhibited last week have deeply strengthened that belief. Erasing it should now be the top priority, and a strike is the first step toward doing so.
Congress, therefore, should authorize the use of force in Syria. However, it must also impress upon the president that his own misdiagnosis of the Syria problem has strongly contributed to the problem. A strike is a first step toward repairing lost American prestige, but it must be coupled with a paradigm shift in the White House.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks next to Vice President Joe Biden (L) at the Rose Garden of the White House August 31, 2013, in Washington. Photo:: Reuters/Mike Theiler
Jerusalem/Riyadh, September 2, 2013 by Jeffrey Heller and Angus McDowall
If President Barack Obama has disappointed Syrian rebels by deferring to Congress before bombing Damascus, he has also dismayed the United States’ two main allies in the Middle East.
Israel and Saudi Arabia have little love for each other but both are pressing their mutual friend in the White House to hit President Bashar al-Assad hard. And both do so with one eye fixed firmly not on Syria but on their common adversary - Iran.
Israel’s response to Obama’s surprise move to delay or even possibly cancel air strikes made clear that connection: looking soft on Assad after accusing him of killing hundreds of people with chemical weapons may embolden his backers in Tehran to develop nuclear arms, Israeli officials said. And if they do, Israel may strike Iran alone, unsure Washington can be trusted.
Neither U.S. ally is picking a fight with Obama in public. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that the nation was “serene and self-confident”; Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal simply renewed a call to the “international community” to halt Assad’s violence inSyria.
But the Saudi monarchy, though lacking Israel’s readiness to attack Iran, can share the Jewish state’s concern that neither may now look with confidence to Washington to curb what Riyadh sees as a drive by its Persian rival to dominate the Arab world.
Last year, Obama assured Israelis that he would “always have Israel’s back”. Now Netanyahu is reassuring them they can manage without uncertain U.S. protection against Iran, which has called for Israel’s destruction but denies developing nuclear weapons.
"Israel’s citizens know well that we are prepared for any possible scenario," the hawkish prime minister said. "And Israel’s citizens should also know that our enemies have very good reasons not to test our power and not to test our might."
That may not reassure a U.S. administration which has tried to steer Netanyahu away from unilateral action against Iran that could stir yet more chaos in the already explosive Middle East.
Israel’s state-run Army Radio was more explicit: “If Obama is hesitating on the matter of Syria,” it said, “Then clearly on the question of attacking Iran, a move that is expected to be far more complicated, Obama will hesitate much more - and thus the chances Israel will have to act alone have increased.”
Israelis contrast the “red line” Netanyahu has set for how close Iran may come to nuclear weapons capability before Israel strikes with Obama’s “red line” on Assad’s use of chemical weapons - seemingly passed without U.S. military action so far.
"HEAD OF THE SNAKE"
Saudi Arabia, like Israel heavily dependent on the United States for arms supplies, is engaged in a historic confrontation with Iran for regional influence - a contest shaped by their leading roles in the rival Sunni and Shi’ite branches of Islam.
Riyadh is a prime backer of Sunni rebels fighting Assad, whose Alawite minority is a Shi’ite offshoot. It sees toppling Assad as checking Iran’s ambition not just in Syria but in other Arab states including the Gulf, where it mistrusts Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia itself and in neighboring Bahrain, Yemen and Iraq.
Saudi King Abdullah’s wish for U.S. action against Iran was memorably contained in leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, including one in which a Saudi envoy said the monarch wanted Washington to “cut off the head of the snake” to end Tehran’s nuclear threat.
Disappointment with Obama’s hesitation against Assad came through on Sunday in the Saudi foreign minister’s remarks to the Arab League in Cairo, where he said words were no longer enough.
Riyadh and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) risk ending up empty-handed in their latest push for U.S. backing in their campaign to rein in Iran, said Sami al-Faraj, a Kuwaiti analyst who advises the GCC on security matters:
"The idea of a punishment for a crime has lost its flavor. We are on the edge of the possibility that military action may not be conducted," he said. "Congress, for sure, … will attach conditions to what is already going to be a limited strike. At the end, we as Gulf allies, may end up with nothing."
Israel does not share the Saudi enthusiasm for the Syrian rebel cause, despite its concern about Assad’s role as a link between Iran and Lebanese and Palestinian enemies. The presence in rebel ranks of Sunni Islamist militants, some linked to al Qaeda, worries the Jewish state - though Riyadh, too, is keen to curb al Qaeda, which calls the royal family American stooges.
Saudi and Israeli support for U.S. air strikes in response to Assad’s alleged use of poison gas scarcely stands out less amid a global clamor of reproach for Damascus. But the recent Egyptian crisis saw them more distinctly making common cause in lobbying Washington - since their preference for Egypt’s army over elected Islamists was at odds with much of world opinion.
That, too, reflects shared anxieties about the strength of Islamic populism and about Iran, which found a more sympathetic ear in Cairo after the election of President Mohamed Mursi.
Israeli political commentators used terms such as “betrayal” and “bullet in the back from Uncle Sam” when Obama abandoned loyal ally Hosni Mubarak during the popular uprising of 2011.
While some Western leaders voiced unease at the army’s overthrow of Mursi in July and bloody crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood, in Israel even Obama’s mild rebuke to the generals - delaying delivery of four warplanes to Egypt - caused “raised eyebrows” of disapproval, an official there said.
A “gag order” from Netanyahu kept that quiet, however, as Israel’s military kept open the communications with Egypt’s armed forces, not least over militant attacks near their desert border, in a manner that has been the bedrock of the U.S.-brokered peace treaty binding Israel and Egypt since 1979.
Unusually, it was Saudi Arabia which was the more vocally critical of Washington’s allies over its Egypt policy.
As U.S. lawmakers toyed with holding back aid to the new military-backed government, Riyadh and its Gulf allies poured in many more billions in aid and loans to Cairo.
And Saudi Arabia told Washington defiantly that it would make up any shortfall if the United States dared to turn off the taps: “To those who have declared they are stopping aid to Egypt or are waving such a threat, the Arab and Muslim nations … will not shy away from offering a helping hand to Egypt,” foreign minister Prince Saud said last month.
More quietly, Israel has been engaged in direct discussions with the White House, urging Obama not to waver in support of Egypt’s military and saying it is time to act on Syria.
An official briefed on U.S.-Israeli discussions said Israeli intercepts of Syrian communications were used by Obama administration officials in making their public case that Assad was behind the August 21 gas attacks and must be penalized.
Netanyahu, whose frosty rapport with Obama blossomed into a display of harmony on the president’s visit to Israel in March, has ordered his ministers not to criticize Obama publicly after the president’s decision to take the Syrian issue to Congress.
A government source said the prime minister told his cabinet on Sunday: “We are in the middle of an ongoing event. It is not over and there are sensitive and delicate issues at play.
"There is no room here for individual comments," he said. "I’m asking you not to behave irresponsibly when it comes to our ally, just so you can grab a fleeting headline."
That did stop Tzachi Hanegbi, a Netanyahu confidant who sits on parliament’s defense committee, complaining on Army Radio that Obama had delivered further proof to Iran - andNorth Korea - that “there is no enthusiasm in the world to deal with their ongoing defiance regarding nuclear weaponry”.
"To us it says one thing: … in the words of our sages: ‘If I am not for myself, then who is?’"
Israel clearly hopes still that Congress will give Obama the green light for strikes against Assad but is also likely to be wary of deploying its own lobbying power among lawmakers.
That risks being counter-productive and, in any case, the president has made clear that threats to Israel from Syrian chemical weapons are among his own arguments for war.
Concern in Washington over a go-it-alone Israeli strike on Iran are still strong; Israel is unlikely to use the nuclear warheads it is assumed to possess but any strike on its distant and populous enemy would have unpredictable consequences.
As a result, U.S. leaders have beaten a path to Jerusalem - Obama himself in March but also Secretary of State John Kerry several times, relaunching talks with the Palestinians in the process, and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who made his third visit to Israel last month.
Gadi Shamni, an Israeli military attache in the United States until last year, said that on the Iranian issue, “there were times when we were in the same book, then the same chapter.
"Right now we are on the same page. There is a lot of flow of intelligence and views and understanding."
For all the unease that Israel has about Syria’s rebels, who have at times fired into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, it is pushing hard against Assad now after learning to live with the Syrian leader and his father over the past 40 years. One Israeli official said the message from Netanyahu was clear:
"There is a man in nominal control of Syria who is using chemical weapons against civilians. That has to be stopped."
That sentiment is echoed in Riyadh. Abdullah al-Askar, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the Shoura Council, said that U.S. strikes should aim to end Assad’s rule.
Askar, who said he was speaking in a personal capacity, told Reuters: “If the attack is just a punishment to show that the international community will not stand for chemical attacks, Assad will just remain in his place and do his bloody work.
"The second scenario is to finish the business."
Mustafa Alani, a Gulf analyst with good connections to Saudi officials, said the kingdom was also warning Washington that a failure to attack Assad would benefit their common enemy al Qaeda: “No action will boost the extremist position,” he said, explaining that rebel despair at U.S. inaction on Syria would push more fighters to switch allegiance to Islamist militants.
Paraphrasing what he said was a Saudi argument, Alani said: “Without a punishment of the regime, extremists will enjoy wider support and attract more moderate fighters.”
Riyadh already shares rebel frustrations with the shortage of U.S. military aid reaching Syria, despite Obama’s commitment in June to step up assistance after poison gas was first used.
A senior U.S. official spoke of a “stable relationship” with Riyadh “on core national security areas”. But the official also conceded: “While we do not agree on every issue, when we have different perspectives we have honest and open discussions.”
As with Israel over Iran, those are likely to continue.
Robert Jordan, U.S. ambassador to Riyadh in 2001-03, said intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan and ambassador to Washington Adel Jubeir had been “very outspoken” in their belief the rebels that can be trusted and should get military backing.
Obama denies seeking the “regime change” Riyadh wants. But Jordan added: “It doesn’t mean they won’t keep pushing for it.”
Syrian rebels should be supported in their fight for self-determination, writes Hussain. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
September 1, 2013 by Murtaza Hussain
It’s not too late to save Syria, but Western powers will not accomplish this by rushing into another ill-advised war.
Two years ago, when Syrians rose up against the brutal military dictatorship that had ruled their country for the past four decades, few could have imagined that their homeland would turn into a proxy battlefield for great powers pursuing their own vendettas.
While conventional wisdom suggests that the Syrian Revolution has been “lost” - hijacked by jihadists and crushed underfoot by foreign repression - this interpretation of events happens to be vociferously disputed by many Syrians themselves. In many places across the country, the same groups of people who originally launched popular protests against the regime are still largely in control of their struggle, and many fighters doing battle against the government are not ideologically affiliated with extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Jabhat al-Nusra.
Simply put, the argument that the democratic Syrian revolution no longer exists is fallacious. For all the excesses that have been committed by the opposition over the past two tragic years, most Syrians have maintained their principles and continued their popular struggle in the face of Herculean odds. In their fight for self-determination they should be supported using every means available, but in doing so the revolution for which so many have died should not be robbed from them.
Should the West go to war with Assad?
It is in light of the continuing revolution that the prospect of Western military intervention in Syria should be considered. For all its stated intentions, the reality is that the United States has distinct geopolitical interests in the region and if it goes to war against the Assad regime, it could end up as the arbiter of the Syrian people’s destiny. As pointed out by many Syrian observers, allowing the West to take control of the revolution would be little different than ceding control of it to foreign jihadists. Both have an agenda alien to that of Syrians themselves, and both would simply use the country as a platform upon which to pursue their own pre-existing goals.
Syrians rose up with aspirations in mind that were higher than simply being used by the United States to strike a blow against Iran or Russia, or being used as a security buffer for Israel. If the principles upon which the uprising were founded are subjugated to the craven manipulations of outsiders, it will be an insult to all those who have given their lives over the past two years. The claim that the US would be involved as a benevolent, altruistic actorflies in the face of recent history, but even if Syria’s situation is viewed as sui generis such a view does not stand up well to scrutiny.
Before the recent chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, more than 14 chemical weapons attacks have been recorded in the country, in addition to the deaths of 100,000 other Syrians who have been killed by conventional means since the uprising started. Should the US administration’s claim that this specific event marked a “red line” be taken at face value, there needs to be some substantiation of what makes this moment different from the others. If, as Secretary of State John Kerry claimed in a recent speech, scenes he witnessed on social media compelled him to action, it stands to reason that he could have reached the same conclusion years ago, as similarly terrible scenes have been tragically abundant since the conflict started.
The reason US involvement is being debated today can be understood only when viewed through the prism of the country’s interests, specifically in regards to escalating tensions with Russia and the need to maintain the geopolitical credibility of its military threats. Indeed, this is how the debate has been framed by most American policymakers, aside from the necessarily emotional case made to the public. Although there is nothing inherently nefarious about this from the perspective of statecraft, by its nature such a course of action will end up subjugating the popular will of the Syrian people to interests that are not their own.
Of course, foreign powers are already involved in the Syrian conflict, where both sides have received arms and military support from regional powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as from countries further afield such as the United Kingdom and France. Those who decry foreign interference in Syria - citing only the prospect of American military involvement - would be remiss to ignore Hezbollah’s shameful decision to send fighters into the country to bolster Assad, or the widespread presence of Iranian and Russian military advisors providing support to the Syrian army.
But the fact that Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia are attempting to control the fate of the Syrian people does not mean that other foreign actors should also attempt to do so for their own benefit. The United States should not go to war to overthrow Assad. It should also not carry out “symbolic” military strikes, which would be undertaken purely to maintain its own credibility - but which would also tarnish Syrian revolutionaries as being proxies of Western powers. The only moral course of action is to return the power of self-determination to the Syrian people themselves, instead of continuing to use them as pawns in a broader geopolitical power struggle.
What should be done?
What the United States should do is what the Syrian people have been asking for from the beginning: Provide Syrians with the arms and equipment that will allow them to level the playing field with the regime and thus determine their own destiny. This is one option that has never been fully embraced, ostensibly due to the fear that such weapons will be delivered to international jihadist groups. But such a fear is overblown, as Syria is a largely urbane, cosmopolitan society with a large, identifiable opposition already vetted by the US and its NATO allies. The mistakes of 1980s Afghanistan need not be repeated, and many Syrians have shown themselves to be as hostile to foreign jihadists as they are to the Assad regime.
Furthermore, if Western powers are sincere in their humanitarian concerns for Syria, a far more effective gesture than dropping bombs on Damascus would be to allow some of the millions of Syrian refugees safe harbour from the conflict in Europe, the US, and other Western states. “Intervention” has recently become a curious synonym for “war”, but there is nothing that logically suggests it needs to be. Indeed, history has shown that such military “interventions” tend to worsen humanitarian catastrophes rather than alleviate them.
Instead, the US should help create the political conditions in which this war can safely end. What this means is reining in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, while negotiating with Iran and Russia to create a non-zero-sum situation in which they can acquiesce to Assad’s exit without losing face or coming under threat themselves. Throughout all this, the Syrian opposition should be bolstered so that it can negotiate its own fate in a post-Assad Syria and protect the values and principles upon which the revolution was launched.
It is not too late to save Syria, but Western powers sincerely seeking to do good will not accomplish this by rushing into yet another ill-advised war. By empowering Syrians themselves while creating the political conditions to end the fighting, the West can help Syrians without robbing them of their self-determination or inadvertently worsening their situation.
The mistakes of the recent past must not be repeated if Syria is to emerge as a unified, stable and peaceful country once again.
September 1, 2013 by AFP
Syria’s main opposition bloc said Sunday it was disappointed with US President Barack Obama’s decision to seek approval from Congress for action against the regime, but said it believed lawmakers would OK a strike.
"We had a feeling of disappointment. We were expecting things to be quicker, that a strike would be imminent… But we believe Congress will approve a strike," said Samir Nashar, a top official at the Syrian National Coalition.
To general surprise, Obama on Saturday postponed threatened missile strikes against Syria that the world had thought were imminent, opting instead for the risky gamble of getting Congress approval.
This effectively pushes back any military action aimed at punishing the regime over an alleged poison gas attack until at least September 9, when US lawmakers return from their summer recess.
Nashar said the coalition was confident that Arab foreign ministers who meet Sunday in Cairo would give “very strong support” to US-led military action.
"The Turkish position is also very important. Washington needs this support," the Istanbul-based official said.
"The coalition will get in touch with Arab countries and Turkey so that they cooperate as much as possible with the United States," he said.
"We will try to push these countries to take part in the military operation, which will greatly alleviate the suffering of Syrians."