October 12, 2013 - Disarmament experts resume their work in Syria
October 7, 2013 by AFP
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Monday that Syria’s government was being “cooperative” in the operation to destroy the country’s arsenal of the banned weapons.
In a statement posted on its website, the OPCW said an advance team that accompanied inspectors to Damascus last Tuesday was returning to the Hague after meetings with Syrian authorities.
"Discussions were held with the Syrian authorities on the disclosure which Syria earlier provided to the OPCW on its chemical weapons program," the statement said.
"The discussions were constructive and the Syrian authorities were cooperative."
Syria handed over the remaining details of its chemical weapons program to the Hague-based OPCW on September 19.
A joint UN-OPCW team arrived in Damascus last week to begin verifying the information and destroying arms and production facilities.
Damascus must submit by October 27 its plans for the destruction of all its chemical weapons and facilities, which will then be used to draw up “destruction milestones.”
Syria has agreed to relinquish its chemical arsenal for destruction under the terms of a UN resolution that enshrines a US-Russian deal.
The resolution calls for its entire chemical arsenal to be decommissioned by mid-2014.
Damascus agreed to the deal after Washington threatened military action against Syria in response to an August 21 chemical weapons attack.
The sarin attack on the outskirts of Damascus reportedly killed hundreds of people, and has been blamed on the regime by Washington and the Syrian opposition.
The Syrian government denies any responsibility, and has suggested that rebels could have carried out the attack.
Abu Mohammad, 39, checks an AK47 at his gun shop in the Fardos district of Syria’s northern city of Aleppo on September 21, 2013. Photo: AFP
September 25, 2013 by AFP
While most Syrians get poorer with every day of war, Aleppo’s main gun seller Abu Mohammad is doing just fine by selling firearms, including rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and even swords.
"War is great business," said the northern city’s only gunshop owner, as he laid several hand grenades out on a counter.
"I wanted to help the rebels because they had no arms or ammunition," the 39-year-old told AFP, adding that he makes an astonishing 50,000 Syrian pounds ($370) a day.
Abu Mohammad opened his gun store in the rebel-held neighbourhood of Fardos earlier this year after a leg injury cut short a nine-month stint battling alongside the Free Syrian Army.
Several weapons are exhibited on the shop walls, including 9mm guns and AK-47 assault rifles, one of them silver-plated.
"They’re made in Iraq and Russia, and prices range from $1,500 to $2,000, depending on the quality," said Abu Mohammad’s 20-year-old son, a rebel fighter who lends a hand in the store.
"We also have military uniforms, boots, gas masks and walkie-talkies. Most of the material comes from Turkey," he added.
Reaching for a 9mm gun, Mohammad says he enjoys helping his father out in the shop because “I love weapons.”
It’s 4:00 pm (1300 GMT) and the two men running the family business are busy serving clients.
Mohammad Assi, 43, walks in along with several of his brothers in arms. He is looking for ammunition for his rifle.
Counting a wad of cash, Assi says he would like to buy a new rifle, “but these models aren’t very good and they’re too expensive.”
He hands over 15,000 Syrian pounds ($110) for 150 rounds.
"100 pounds for a bullet," the rebel sighs. "Ammo is so scarce. That’s why it’s the most expensive thing to buy."
Gun seller Abu Mohammad understands there’s a shortage of cash, so he’s open to making deals with some of his clients.
"When the rebels seize an army base, they come to my store and swap weapons for ammunition," he said.
Some buyers come in looking for more specialised products, including one who wants a scope that will help locate snipers.
Another walks in holding three swords and shows them to Abu Mohammad, who unsheathes them and inspects them for quality.
"We also buy weapons off people who need the money to feed their families," Abu Mohammad says.
"Before the war broke out, there were many people who collected weapons, or who held onto them after they’d finished their draft service. They aren’t going to use them, so they bring them over to me to make some money off them," he added.
Though most of Abu Mohammad’s clients are rebels, some civilians visit his store as well.
"I only sell hunting weapons and 9mm guns to civilians. I never sell them military-grade weapons," he said.
More than a year after a massive rebel assault on Aleppo — once Syria’s commercial capital — the city is divided into rebel and army-controlled districts.
Those who have not fled the city face not only escalating poverty and daily battles in their districts, but also the danger of theft and looting by criminal groups.
"I’m here to buy a gun… Because of the situation, I prefer to be armed in order to protect my family," said a 65-year-old man who brought his grandson to Abu Mohammad’s store.
The gun seller is also adept at repairing damaged weapons.
Laying out a sniper rifle on his work table, he points a laser light through the barrel to check its accuracy.
"I’ve always liked fixing weapons and making them," said Abu Mohammad, who used to work at a weapons factory.
"It’s one of the few things I’m good at," he says with a smile.
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 20, 2013 by AFP
Syrian rebels have agreed a truce with jihadists after clashes for a key border town, an NGO said Friday as a senior official said Damascus wanted a ceasefire in Syria’s wider conflict.
A deadline for the Syrian regime to hand over a list of its banned chemical weapons was also fast approaching.
Iranian President Hassan Rowhani, meanwhile, offered to broker talks between the opposition and the Islamic republic’s government allies in Damascus.
After the latest round of a war-within-a-war between foes of the Syrian regime, the opposition National Coalition accused Al-Qaeda front group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) of violating the principles of the revolution.
ISIS seized the town of Azaz on the border with Turkey in hours-long fighting on Wednesday, in the latest in a growing spate of clashes between jihadists and mainstream rebel units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The Northern Storm brigade, which is loyal to the FSA and was based in Azaz, agreed to the truce with ISIS under which both sides pledged to observe a ceasefire, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The deal was brokered by Liwa al-Tawhid, a powerful rebel brigade loyal to the FSA, which sent fighters to the town on Thursday who have deployed between the two sides, the NGO said.
The rival groups also undertook to free detainees captured in the fighting and to immediately return any looted goods. Any future problems would be put to an arbitration committee, the Britain-based watchdog added.
Azaz has symbolic as well as strategic value as it was one of the first towns to be captured from government troops, in July 2012, by FSA fighters, who set up their own administration.
Tensions have spiraled between some mainstream rebel groups and ISIS in recent months, especially in northern Syria, where the opposition controls vast swathes of territory.
In the wider conflict, Syria’s deputy premier said Damascus believes the 30-month-old war in his country has reached a stalemate and would call for a ceasefire if long-delayed peace talks in Geneva were to take place.
"Neither the armed opposition nor the regime is capable of defeating the other side," Qadri Jamil told Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
When asked what his government would propose at the stalled Geneva II summit, he replied: “An end to external intervention, a ceasefire and the launching of a peaceful political process.”
On the northern front, the National Coalition issued a rare condemnation of ISIS, accusing the group of violating the principles of the revolution by turning its guns on FSA fighters.
"The Coalition condemns the aggressions against the forces of the Syrian revolution and the repeated disregard for the lives of Syrians, and considers that this behavior runs contrary to the Syrian revolution," a statement said.
It accused it of having “links to foreign agendas” and of seeking to create a “new state inside the Syrian state entity in violation of national sovereignty”.
The deployment of jihadists on the battlefield has deterred Western governments from providing the rebels with more than non-lethal assistance for fear that any weapons supplied might fall into the hands of extremists.
President Francois Hollande said on Thursday that France was in favor of sending weapons to the FSA, but only “in a controlled environment” and “with a number of countries”.
Washington too has repeatedly expressed concern about the risks of weaponry ending up in the hands of groups loyal to Al-Qaeda.
On the diplomatic front, meanwhile, UN envoys were set to resume talks Friday on a draft Security Council resolution that would enshrine a joint US-Russian plan to secure and neutralize Assad’s banned chemical weapons.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday that a UN report has proved the Syrian regime was behind a deadly chemical weapons attack in August that killed hundreds of civilians.
With the clock ticking down on the Russian-US deal, the United States said Thursday that it expected Syria to hand over a list of its chemical arms within the next few days.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was last Saturday given a week to make a full declaration of his stockpile under the terms of the agreement struck in Geneva.
The world’s chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, is to meet on Sunday in The Hague to discuss the framework accord.
On Thursday, Iran’s president said his government was ready to help facilitate dialogue between the Syrian government and its opponents.
"We must join hands to constructively work toward national dialogue, whether in Syria or Bahrain. We must create an atmosphere where peoples of the region can decide their own fates," Rowhani wrote in The Washington Post.
Syrian volunteers on Sunday in the northern city of Aleppo put on gas masks in a class on how to respond to a chemical attack. Photo: Jim Lopez`/AFP/Getty Images
September 16, by Rick Gladstone and C.J. Chivers
A United Nations report released on Monday confirmed that a deadly chemical arms attack caused a mass killing in Syria last month and for the first time provided extensive forensic details of the weapons used, which strongly implicated the Syrian government.
While the report’s authors did not assign blame for the attack on the outskirts of Damascus, the details it documented included the large size and particular shape of the munitions and the precise direction from which two of them had been fired. Taken together, that information appeared to undercut arguments by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria that rebel forces, who are not known to possess such weapons or the training or ability to use them, had been responsible.
The report, commissioned by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, was the first independent on-the-ground scientific inquest into the attack, which left hundreds of civilians gassed to death, including children, early on Aug. 21.
The repercussions have elevated the 30-month-old Syrian conflict into a global political crisis that is testing the limits of impunity over the use of chemical weapons. It could also lead to the first concerted action on the war at the United Nations Security Council, which up to now has been paralyzed over Syria policy.
“The report makes for chilling reading,” Mr. Ban told a news conference after he briefed the Security Council. “The findings are beyond doubt and beyond the pale. This is a war crime.”
Mr. Ban declined to ascribe blame, saying that responsibility was up to others, but he expressed hope that the attack would become a catalyst for a new diplomatic determination at the United Nations to resolve the Syrian conflict, which has left more than 100,000 people dead and millions displaced.
There was no immediate reaction to the report from the Syrian government. But just two days before the report was released, Syria officially agreed to join the international convention on banning chemical weapons, and the United States and Russia, which have repeatedly clashed over Syria, agreed on a plan to identify and purge those weapons from the country by the middle of next year. Syria has said it would abide by that plan.
The main point of the report was to establish whether chemical weapons had been used in the Aug. 21 attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, an area long infiltrated by rebels. The United Nations inspectors concluded that “chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic, also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale.”
The weapons inspectors, who visited Ghouta and left the country with large amounts of evidence on Aug. 31, said, “In particular, the environmental, chemical and medical samples we have collected provide clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used.”
But the report’s annexes, detailing what the authors found, were what caught the attention of nonproliferation experts.
In two chilling pieces of information, the inspectors said that the remnants of a warhead they had found showed its capacity of sarin to be about 56 liters — far higher than initially thought. They also said that falling temperatures at the time of the attack ensured that the poison gas, heavier than air, would hug the ground, penetrating lower levels of buildings “where many people were seeking shelter.”
The investigators were unable to examine all of the munitions used, but they were able to find and measure several rockets or their components. Using standard field techniques for ordnance identification and crater analysis, they established that at least two types of rockets had been used, including an M14 artillery rocket bearing Cyrillic markings and a 330-millimeter rocket of unidentified provenance.
These findings, though not presented as evidence of responsibility, were likely to strengthen the argument of those who claim that the Syrian government bears the blame, because the weapons in question had not been previously documented or reported to be in possession of the insurgency.
Moreover, those weapons are fired by large, conspicuous launchers. For rebels to have carried out the attack, they would have had to organize an operation with weapons they are not known to have and of considerable scale, sophistication and secrecy — moving the launchers undetected into position in areas under strong government influence or control, keeping them in place unmolested for a sustained attack that would have generated extensive light and noise, and then successfully withdrawing them — all without being detected in any way.
One annex to the report also identified azimuths, or angular measurements, from where rockets had struck, back to their points of origin. When plotted and marked independently on maps by analysts from Human Rights Watch and by The New York Times, the United Nations data from two widely scattered impact sites pointed directly to a Syrian military complex.
Other nonproliferation experts said the United Nations report was damning in its implicit incrimination of Mr. Assad’s side in the conflict, not only in the weaponry fragments but also in the azimuth data that indicated the attack’s origins. An analysis of the report posted online by the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based advocacy group, said “the additional details and the perceived objectivity of the inspectors buttress the assignment of blame to Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government.”
The United States and its allies seized on the volume of data in the report to reaffirm their conclusion that only Syrian government forces had the ability to carry out such a strike, calling it a validation of their own long-held assertions.
Both the British and American ambassadors to the United Nations also told reporters that the report’s lead author, Dr. Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish scientist who joined Mr. Ban in the Security Council briefing, had told members that quality of the sarin used in the attack was high.
“This was no cottage-industry use of chemical weapons,” said Britain’s ambassador, Sir Mark Lyall Grant. He said the type of munitions and trajectories had confirmed, “in our view, that there is no remaining doubt that it was the regime that used chemical weapons.”
Samantha Power, the American ambassador, acknowledged implicitly the credibility issue that has confronted the United States on Syria chemical weapons use, a legacy of the flawed intelligence on weapons of mass destruction that led the United States into the Iraq war a decade ago.
“We understand some countries did not accept on faith that the samples of blood and hair that the United States received from people affected by the Aug. 21 attack contained sarin,” she said. “But now Dr. Sellstrom’s samples show the same thing. And it’s very important to note that the regime possesses sarin, and we have no evidence that the opposition posses sarin.”
Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly I. Churkin, said there were still too many unanswered questions. In talking to reporters, he asked, if the Syrian forces had indeed been responsible and sought to attack insurgents, “how is it possible to fire projectiles at your opponent and miss them all?”
“We need not jump to any conclusions,” he said.
The report’s release punctuated a tumultuous week spawned by the global outrage over the attack, in which an American threat of punitive force on the Syrian government was delayed as Russia proposed a diplomatic alternative and intense negotiations between the United States and Russia led to a sweeping agreement under which Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal could be destroyed.
The United Nations, in danger of becoming irrelevant in helping to end the Syria conflict, was suddenly thrust back into a central role, with the Security Council now engaged in deliberations over an enforceable measure to hold Syria to its commitment on chemical weapons.
Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of France and Britain said Monday that they would not tolerate delays in dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons.
“It is extremely important that there are no evasions,” William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said at a news conference with Mr. Kerry in Paris.
Mr. Kerry said, “If Assad fails in time to abide by the terms of this framework, make no mistake, we are all agreed — and that includes Russia — that there will be consequences.”
The release of the report came as a separate panel of investigators from the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva said they were investigating 14 episodes of suspected chemical weapons use.
Source: The New York Times
September 08, 2013
Below is a transcript of an interview with Bassam, a rebel who serves with two secular brigades near Salamiyah. He spoke with us on Saturday via Skype.
I work with a number of secular brigades, active in the suburbs of Salamiyah. Salamiyah itself is under regime control. The [al-Qaida-linked] Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is all around us. We expect the ISIS is about to announce a war on all the other brigades very soon, because of our ideological differences.
In Qasr Ibn Wardan, the ISIS stoned a woman to death. We have no idea why. All we know is that the punishment for adultery in Islam is being stoned to death.
We have two brigades in Salamiyah: the Salamiya Youth Brigade and the Free Salamiyah Brigade. Whoever wants to pray prays, whoever wants to fast fasts. It’s all the same to us. The atmosphere in both of the brigades is like the atmosphere in Salamiyah, tolerant of all ways of life.
Rebel Finances: Outspent, Outgunned by al-Qaida
We’re in a very tough situation. At the end of the month we will be out of food to eat. And we do not want to make money through kidnapping people, or stealing historical artifacts and selling them. We want to defend the historical areas and get people out of kidnapped detention.
No one has given us any major support, no one has helped us with anything. We used to get some private donations from people living in Europe, Canada, Latin America and the Gulf who are originally from the area. But there is no more funding whatsoever, it has dried up. The West keep saying the rebels are full of extremists. But what are you giving the secular brigades among us? We are a secular, co-existent brigade, and no one has given us anything.
We were attacking a checkpoint controlled by the regime, in a village called Rahajan, in the suburbs of Salamiyah. We launched homemade rockets on the regime forces. We wish we had better missiles, but these are the ones we have. It costs $150 to make one from scratch. An actual rocket that is professionally made costs thousands of dollars, so we’d rather use these.
We have so many soldiers and officers that are in the Syrian army and who want to defect really badly, but we cannot secure their defection because there are no supplies and resources to ensure their families safe passage. We can easily get them to Turkey, but how do we take care of them there?
Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS are the most powerful among rebel forces because they have terrifying amounts of financial and material support.
Let me give you an example. It we see an Assad fighter plane overhead and there’s a 50-50 chance we’ll hit it, we don’t strike. We can’t afford the ammunition. The Islamist brigades will take a shot at anything, they have more than enough supplies.
We have a lot of weapons that are war booty. We got them because we hit the shabiha and took their weapons. But we can’t use them because we don’t have the money for bullets. Ahrar Salamiyah, for example, had a T-72 tank. But we couldn’t buy shells for it, so we just gave it away to another brigade.
How Will You Uproot al-Qaida?
You can only deal with al-Qaida by force. They are very strong, very organized. They have strategic thinking and very good supplies. If they stay like this they are going to take over all of Syria.
Al-Qaida is the one thing that will unite Syrian people after the revolution, because all of the Syrians will want them out – those who are now with the regime and those who are against the regime.
Nobody likes these people. We will have to fight them to get them out. After the regime falls there will have to be a new military formation to confront these radical movements. We will join this new national formation to oppose them. The moderate brigades will join in to fight these extremists. They already don’t like them and sometimes fight against them now.
Al-Qaida – ISIS – they don’t have the greatest numbers, but they have the most resources and best weapons, and they have very good organization.
Everywhere the regime is cleared out they go in and get organized. In Raqqa they took the over major headquarters in the province, the big government buildings. The bakeries, they took over. They always go take over the wheat silos in every liberated area, because once they feed people they can control the people. So then when people can’t find anything to eat, they’re the only ones who can give them food.
It makes them look virtuous, when they’re really not virtuous people. That wheat is for everyone, it’s not just for al-Qaida. In some places they take hospitals, in every place they take what they want, and they take it by force.
In Deraa they are very small. In Homs even, they’re not that big. But in the north they are extremely strong.
Once the first enemy goes, which is Assad, the people will immediately unite against them, just like they united against the regime. And do not forget this very important thing: a lot of the people fighting with Assad now will be fighting with us, because they will want al-Qaida out.
If we are with the American strike it is for one reason: the number one reason behind al-Qaida is in Syria is the continued existence of the Assad regime. If the U.S. comes and downs Assad it will be very easy to down al-Qaida.
Do You Support a U.S. Strike on Syria?
Our number one goal is to oust the regime. Am I for or against a U.S. strike? It’s a difficult question. Anyone who wants to strike my country I’m against, in principle. But the problem is that someone within our country is using everything he has to attack Syrians – chemical weapons, rockets, everything. For this reason we agree with the strike to take out Assad.
We have air strikes on us every day and every hour. We have shelling every day. We have death every day. Nothing will be particularly different when American bombs come down.
We expect the U.S. is going to hit the airports and centers of military leadership and administration. In our area we don’t have either, so we’re not expecting it to hit our area. But what we’re expecting is some chaos and anarchy in the regime’s ranks in response to the strike. If that happens we’re going to try to make gains from that.
We have seen many defections since the announcement of U.S. strikes. But we don’t have much to give them. We don’t have weapons or money to feed their families. We have soldiers who’ve been in the army ranks, giving us information for two years. They want to defect but they can’t, because we don’t have the means to take care of them.
This regime is like a snake. If you cut off the head of a snake the snake will die. If Bashar al-Assad is gone, the problem is solved.
Most of the people who support Assad – most, not all – are with him because they are afraid of the extremists. And they see him as the only symbol left to defend their freedom. They worry that the revolution is Islamic and looking to take away their freedoms.
In America, when you’re all afraid of something you unite. You used to be afraid of Communism, now you’re afraid of Islamic extremism. You’re very diverse people, with different religions and views, but you unite when you get afraid of something. There are 22 million Syrians, they will unite when they’re afraid of something. That’s how Assad ruled, through fear.
The Syrian situation is very simple. Assad is the problem. For eight months we were protesting and there was no al-Qaida. But when you let stuff reach this level, this is what happens.
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.
A Syrian rebel fighter loads a locally made mortar shell near Aleppo. Photo: Reuters
September 2, by Adam Entous and Nour Malas
In June, the White House authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to help arm moderate fighters battling the Assad regime, a signal to Syrian rebels that the cavalry was coming. Three months later, they are still waiting.
The delay, in part, reflects a broader U.S. approach rarely discussed publicly but that underpins its decision-making, according to former and current U.S. officials: The Obama administration doesn’t want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests than the current stalemate.
U.S. officials attribute the delay in providing small arms and munitions from the CIA weapons program to the difficulty of establishing secure delivery “pipelines” to prevent weapons from falling into the wrong hands, in particular Jihadi militants also battling the Assad regime.
Allied rebel commanders in Syria and congressional proponents of a more aggressive military response instead blame a White House that wants to be seen as responsive to allies’ needs but fundamentally doesn’t want to get pulled any deeper into the country’s grinding conflict.
The administration’s view can also be seen in White House planning for limited airstrikes—now awaiting congressional review—to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons.
Pentagon planners were instructed not to offer strike options that could help drive Mr. Assad from power: “The big concern is the wrong groups in the opposition would be able to take advantage of it,” a senior military officer said. The CIA declined to comment.
The White House wants to strengthen the opposition but doesn’t want it to prevail, according to people who attended closed-door briefings by top administration officials over the past week. The administration doesn’t want U.S. airstrikes, for example, tipping the balance of the conflict because it fears Islamists will fill the void if the Assad regime falls, according to briefing participants, which included lawmakers and their aides.
Squaring those positions will be one focus of congressional hearings on the proposed strikes starting Tuesday, administration and congressional officials said. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry are among those slated to testify.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said it was “shameful” that promised U.S. arms haven’t materialized, given recent shipments of advanced weapons from Russia and Iran in support of Mr. Assad.
After meeting with President Barack Obama on Monday, Sens. McCain and Lindsey Graham, another leading Republican critic of the administration’s approach to the conflict, said they believed the administration was formulating a plan to “upgrade” the capabilities of moderate rebels, but they offered no details.
Sen. McCain also held out the prospect that Mr. Obama would consider widening the targets for strikes to degrade Mr. Assad’s ability to carry out chemical weapon and conventional attacks.
Growing frustration with the slow pace of the CIA arming and training program has prompted calls from lawmakers and some Arab leaders to shift the effort to the Pentagon, said congressional officials who favor the move. White House and Pentagon officials had no immediate comment.
Putting the Pentagon in charge would allow the U.S. to do “industrial strength” arming and training, Sen. Bob Corker, the top ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview Monday.
Some lawmakers accused the White House of failing to deliver on its promises because of concerns it would get blamed if the effort went wrong and for fear of getting trapped in a proxy fight that pits Mr. Assad and his backers—Iran, Russia and Hezbollah—against an array of opposition groups, some linked to al Qaeda and others supported by the U.S. and some Arab allies.
"There’s been a major disconnect between what the administration has said it’s doing relative to the rebels and what is actually happening," said Sen. Corker, who recently visited rebel leaders in Turkey. "The (CIA) pipeline has been incredibly slow. It’s really hurt morale among the Syrian rebels."
Many rebel commanders say the aim of U.S. policy in Syria appears to be a prolonged stalemate that would buy the U.S. and its allies more time to empower moderates and choose whom to support.
"The game is clear to all," said Qassem Saededdine, a spokesman for the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council. "When it comes to the interests of superpowers…the average Syrian comes last."
Some congressional officials said they were concerned the administration was edging closer to an approach privately advocated by Israel. Israeli officials have told their American counterparts they would be happy to see its enemies Iran, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and al Qaeda militants fight until they are weakened, giving moderate rebel forces a chance to play a bigger role in Syria’s future.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been particularly outspoken with lawmakers about his concerns that weakening Mr. Assad too much could tip the scales in favor of al Qaeda-linked fighters.
When the CIA arms program was revealed in June, it was described by U.S. officials as a change in Mr. Obama’s approach to the conflict and the beginning of a process to build up the armed opposition against Mr. Assad.
It took nearly a year for the idea to gain traction in a skeptical White House, which last summer authorized the CIA to join Saudi Arabia and other allies to train handpicked rebels at a secret base in Jordan. At the time, Mr. Obama balked at providing arms. Nonlethal U.S. military support, such as medical kits and night-vision goggles, started arriving in small quantities this spring.
Congressional committees that oversee the CIA and its budget initially raised questions about the covert arms program, officials said, delaying startup funding.
The CIA also appeared conflicted about the effort’s utility. Congressional officials said CIA leaders in briefings indicated they believed that U.S. arms would only have a limited impact on the fight in a country awash in weapons. They also told Congress the U.S. was investing little compared with Iran and Hezbollah, which the U.S. believes will do whatever it takes in Syria to prevail.
But CIA officials told lawmakers providing arms would help the agency build relationships with rebel forces and give it greater leverage with such allies as Saudi Arabia, which provide the bulk of arms and money.
"When we have more skin in the game, it just puts us in a position to have deeper relationships with the opposition but also work more effectively with other countries who are doing a lot in terms of support," a senior administration official said.
A former senior administration official involved in the effort was more dismissive, describing the CIA program as “designed to buy time without getting the U.S. deeply involved in the civil war.”
Source: The Wall Street Journal
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
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday pressed UN chemical weapons inspectors to speed up their verdict on a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, his spokesperson said.
Samples collected in Syria will start to be sent to European laboratories from Monday.
The UN also revealed that two Syrian government officials are observing the handling of evidence collected during a UN investigation into the August 21 attack near Damascus that prompted western threats of a military strike on President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Pressure on the UN is mounting as the United States said on Sunday that it has proof that sarin gas was used by government forces in the attack on the Ghouta area, in the Damascus suburbs, which it says left hundreds dead.
Ban spoke with the UN chemical weapons inquiry chief Ake Sellstrom on Sunday, the UN spokesperson Martin Nesirky told reporters.
"In light of the horrendous magnitude of the 21 August incident," Ban asked Sellstrom "to expedite the mission’s analysis of the samples and information it had obtained without jeopardizing the scientific timelines required for accurate analysis," Nesirky said.
"They discussed ways to further accelerate the process," he added.
The samples collected by inspectors who left Syria for their base in The Hague on Saturday will start to be sent to two laboratories in Europe from Monday, according to the spokesperson.
The United Nations has refused to announce its timeline for finishing the analysis. Ban told envoys from the UN Security Council’s five permanent members on Friday that it could be ready in two weeks, diplomats said.
Sellstrom told Ban that “two Syrian officials were observing the process” of handling the samples in The Hague, according to the UN spokesperson.
Nesirky said the presence of the government officials was part of the “guidelines” for the UN inquiry which was established after a demand by the Syrian government.
Ban spoke about the Syrian crisis with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Sunday. He will leave on Tuesday for the Group of 20 summit in Russia where the more than two-year-old war will be the major topic.
August 28, 2013 by Michael Weiss
On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of the recent chemical attack in Syria as an “undeniable” fact — not a subject for debate. He called it “moral obscenity” and laid the blame squarely on the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The statement was an undisguised war speech. The only question now is what form that war might take and how long the battle will last.
There are several rumors swirling. One is that the Obama administration would prefer a mere “punitive” campaign. Some precision-timed leaks to the media seem to point in this direction. But such a strategy would accomplish nothing if the goal is to deter the Assad regime from ever using chemical agents again. Over the past year, Israel has waged half a dozen pinprick strikes on caches of advanced weapons inside Syria, likely because they were destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. The very number of operations attests to how little they altered Assad’s mindset: he still imports high-tech hardware.
Another rumored plan, which NBC reported, citing senior U.S. officials, is that sorties over the next few days would not aim to kill Assad or topple his regime, but may seek to destroy or to degrade his command-and-control facilities, artillery systems, and airfields. That is surely a smarter option, provided that the strikes rise above sending a message and do some lasting damage to the regime’s military infrastructure. Anything short of that would be strategically useless and a waste of expensive missiles.
Indeed, U.S. President Barack Obama should rearticulate his policy of regime change for Syria, which he first announced in the summer of 2011 and has quietly revised and rescinded ever since. And he should gear any intervention toward furthering that policy, in accordance with what key American allies have said is their own preferred method for dislodging the 40-year dynastic dictatorship: the opposition’s gradual assertion of control. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, there are already examples that this can work in Syria.
The good news is that there aren’t many high-use tarmacs left to hit. Of the 27 airbases in Syria that are capable of assisting with the Syrian Air Force’s primary missions, just six are left in full use. The others are either under rebel controlled or are fiercely contested.
The easiest way to achieve regime change is no mystery to policymakers or to Pentagon war planners. Its initial phase might be called regime isolation. The United States should degrade or destroy the Assad regime’s aerial resupply capacity. This would entail no deployment of U.S. forces to Syria, nor would it spell the collapse of the regime overnight. But it would hinder his ability to move men and weapons around inside Syria.
The strategy would have the added benefit of isolating Syria from its allies. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has repeatedly downplayed the importance of the Syrian Air Force, claiming, for instance, that of all the Syrian fatalities in the two-and-a-half-year war, only about a tenth have been caused by rockets and bombs dropped from Assad’s aircraft. But this statistic elides a more important aspect of the regime’s use of airports, helicopters, and planes: Russian and Iranian military and commercial planes arrive daily to offload weapons (some of them advanced air or sea defense systems), ammunition, and personnel. Iran is spending an estimated $500 million a month to keep its ally afloat.
As a consequence, Iran has virtually inherited the Syrian security portfolio. By Syrian security officials’ own admission, Iran and Hezbollah have helped Damascus construct a 100,000-strong sectarian militia called the National Defense Force, without which, as The Wall Street Journal concluded on August 26, those recent regime victories in Homs would simply not have been possible. In some cases, Iran has even been flying conscripts for the National Defense Force to Tehran where they receive guerrilla warfare training. Because all of Syria’s borders — save the one with Lebanon — are either controlled by the rebels (Turkey, Jordan) or are easily monitored by them (Iraq), land transports of equipment and personnel are growing less frequent. But the shipments that make it to Damascus International Airport and Mezze airbase, which is controlled by the Fourth Armored Division and located southwest of the capital, are not.
So, it’s as simple as this: if you take out the runways, Iranian and Russian planes cannot land, nor can Syrian planes take off.
The good news is that there aren’t many high-use tarmacs left to hit. Of the 27 airbases in Syria that are capable of assisting with the Syrian Air Force’s primary missions, just six are left in full use. The others are either rebel controlled or fiercely contested. Chris Harmer, senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, has shown that the Syrian Air Force is down to around 100 fixed-wing mission-ready aircraft. In a series of intricately detailed briefings, Harmer has also outlined a credible plan of action for seriously degrading Assad’s air capability without “any US aircraft entering Syrian air space.” Instead, the United States would rely chiefly on naval-launched cruise missiles or aircraft stand-off systems fired from international or allied territory. Israeli, Jordanian, Saudi Arabian, Turkish, and even Italian soil could all be used for this purpose. Those countries would all allow it, too.
Already, the USS Mahan, the USS Barry, the USS Ramage, and the USS Gravely — all Arleigh Burke-class destroyers carrying Tomahawk land-attack missiles — are en route or in position in the eastern Mediterranean. All are equipped with defensive weaponry against which any Syrian naval assault would be ineffective. (Tomahawks have a range of 1,000 nautical miles; Assad’s most advanced anti-ship missile, the P-800 Yakhont, has a range of 180.) The number of Tomahawks in the region could effectively double if the United States deploys attack or cruise missile submarines there, too. Furthermore, as Harmer notes, if the USS Harry Truman aircraft carrier division, which includes two Ticonderoga class cruisers and two additional Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, were repositioned from the Red Sea, where it is now, to the eastern Mediterranean, “it would significantly increase the striking power available to hit targets in Syria.” Targets for these munitions can and should include runways, stationary rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, air traffic control towers, army vehicles, air defense systems, naval ships, and regime headquarters.
No direct U.S. military engagement would work without a concomitant commitment to building up the armed opposition, which has also been a long-neglected official U.S. goal. A responsible and trustworthy rebel army could be tasked not only with fighting the regime and its manifold proxies but also with safeguarding U.S., European, and regional interests from the rise of extremists in the Levant.
Following Assad’s earlier violation of Obama’s red line on chemical weapons, the White House announced that it would begin sending light weapons to the Supreme Military Command, a United States-backed coordination and logistics umbrella for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) led by Salim Idris, a man with whom every Western intelligence agency has grown quite familiar. To date, however, few if any weapons have been delivered. The status quo policy of allowing indirect gun-running in the Gulf states does persist.
In recent months, the southern front in Syria has seen rebel units backed by the West and its allies winning more and more territory. The credit for this goes mainly to Saudi Arabia and to what it calls its “southern strategy.”
And yet, in spite of such torpidity, there are encouraging signs. Little covered by the international press and policy wonks, in recent months, the southern front in Syria has seen rebel units backed by the West and its allies winning more and more territory at the expense of both Assad and al Qaeda, which has been using the war in Syria as an opportunity to expand its reach to establish what it hopes will be a Islamic emirate in advance of a worldwide caliphate. The credit for this goes mainly to Saudi Arabia and to what it calls its “southern strategy,” or the buildup of rebel forces in and around Damascus, particularly in the towns of Barzeh, Jobar, and Qaboun, where rebels have seized regime weapons caches and even overtaken an electrical facility. All of these towns are located in Eastern Ghouta district, the very same area that Assad gassed last week and had gassed before then, too.
As part of its southern strategy, Saudi Arabia has worked closely with Jordan — a development that Saudi Arabia has downplayed, even denied, owing to King Abdullah’s fear that Assad will retaliate against his southern neighbor. Together, the two countries and their American, British, and French counterparts have set up and run an undisclosed joint operations center in Jordan to train vetted Syrian rebels in tactical warfare methods, intelligence, counterintelligence, and weapons application. One Syrian I interviewed this month confirmed that his brother had recently been through the training program. He remarked on the stark before-and-after contrast in his sibling’s martial skills, which now include proper breathing techniques during aiming a rifle. Roughly 1,000 trainees are said to have graduated from the program so far.
The United States should now make recruiting and training many thousands more rebels a top priority. One incentive for doing so is that, unless Washington plans to dispatch Joint Special Operations Command units into Syria at a later date (and that does not seem likely), it will require its own proxy — a Syrian gendarmerie — for curtailing the military and political influence of al Qaeda.
Some have said that building a trustworthy rebel ally is an impossible task. But there is perhaps no better indicator of the readiness of certain rebel formations to play ball than the confidence with which top FSA commanders in Deraa openly condemn Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — the two al Qaeda franchises in Syria — and label them hirelings of Syrian intelligence. A meeting I had two weeks ago with Ziad al-Fahad, the Supreme Military Command’s top commander in the southern front, was instructive. Fahad told me that “the only reason people ever started fighting for extremist groups was because they had weapons and means.” By contrast, he said, “we had weapons and means in the south — we raided regime caches effectively. This is why the extremists here are not as strong.” He also spoke in no uncertain terms about the fact that the struggle for Syria is now a struggle against the regime and jihadists. Why? Because if “extremists get all the advanced weapons, [the FSA] will themselves become victims.”
Self-preservation, it should be remembered, was the main reason that rebels took up arms against Assad in the first place. Their fear of being beheaded by militants after Assad leaves is justified, and is a strong calculation in their forward-planning. Both Fahad and his deputy, Abu Fadi, with whom I also spoke, relayed several anecdotes about how FSA units and local populations have defied or expelled Jabhat al-Nusra from villages in Deraa. Their stories were subsequently corroborated by activists. All in all, defiance against al Qaeda-aligned militants is an embryonic example of, as well as an object lesson for, a kind of Sunni awakening, or sahwa, that will be crucial for any U.S. strategy.
Unfortunately, the prospect for sahwa in the northern provinces of Idlib, Aleppo, and Raqqa is much dimmer than in the south, given the prevalence of jihadist forces there and the dependence of local populations on these groups for everyday needs such as food, water, and medical care. (The Islamic State even put on carnivals and distributed toys for Syrian children in Aleppo during Ramadan.) Still, Teletubbies and musical chairs notwithstanding, al Qaeda is still al Qaeda. It is already making all the usual mistakes associated with the Zarqawist “state-building” initiatives in Iraq. For instance, it imposed sharia punishments for perceived crimes of blasphemy, shooting 15 year-old Muhammad Qata’a in the neck and face in front of his parents. It detained respected tribal elders in Raqqa, the only fully “liberated” province in Syria, who disagreed with its draconian governance style. It recently backed the assassination of a top-level FSA commander in Latakia. And it very likely kidnapped and murdered Paolo Dall’Oglio, a Catholic priest who is much revered by the opposition for his early support of the anti-Assad protest movement. All that spells public disenchantment: demonstrations against the Islamic State have been consistent and growing in Raqqa. As one Syria analyst put it to me recently: “When was the last time you saw an FSA unit grow so unpopular that, within about two months, it incited protests against itself in five cities, one of which continued every day for at least two weeks?”
Conditions are fertile for the weakening of the jihadists at the expense of the moderates. Beyond training, there are ways that the United States can help. Already, Turkey seems to have realized that, by leaving its border open for every type of scrofulous mujahideen to walk across, it has fashioned a rod for its own back. There are rumors in Ankara that Turkish intelligence has finally begun curtailing the weapons flow to Jabhat al-Nusra in northern Syria. (Although the Turkish government denies ever turning a blind eye to extremists, it has been reluctant to crackdown on them because of their formidability in the theater. Not least among the tragedies of Syria has been seeing al Qaeda deferred to as the poor man’s special forces.) The United States should expend every effort to make rumors of al-Nusra’s interruption a reality. Turkey is desperate for intervention. The United States can use that to its own advantage by making its involvement contingent on better border discipline. It can also offer the FSA units in Aleppo, Idlib, and Raqqa performance-based incentives for cleaving their military operations and civil administrative responsibilities away from the crazies. If weapons get shared, seized, or simply “go missing,” no more will be forthcoming. Idris himself has offered just such an accountability agreement to the United States.
Finally, the U.S. Treasury Department, which has already designated al-Nusra as a terrorist entity, must pressure Gulf countries — Kuwait and Qatar in particular — to eliminate whatever private or quasi-state fundraising mechanisms al Qaeda and other non-FSA-aligned extremists groups in Syria exploit to keep themselves in cash and bullets. In Kuwait, the advertising campaigns to raise money for Ahrar al-Sham, another major Salafist brigade that will surely pose a security challenge in the future, are public affairs. This is a scandal, but an easily remedied one.
It has taken two and a half years and more than 100,000 lives for several myths about Syria to be shattered. The first is that a state run by a brutal crime syndicate — the Sopranos with WMD — could be pressured or coaxed from power peacefully. The second is that a Baathist dictator would never again deploy poison gas against a people he enslaves, much less do so in the age of the cellphone camera and YouTube. The third is that any direct military intervention would be unilateral and therefore met with international skepticism or censure.
Obama never needed to go searching for a coalition of the willing for Syria; one comes pre-assembled for him and has been knocking, in fact, at the door of the Oval Office for quite some time. Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, all see Syria as a grave short-term threat to their national security. Great Britain and France, both justly petrified of the return of radicalized militants to European soil, appear to glimpse at least a medium-term threat to their own borders. All will participate in a U.S.-led intervention, as has been made amply clear this week. And with four U.S. destroyers stationed in the Mediterranean — and pock-marked runways in Damascus — it is unlikely that Russia and Iran, neither of which share contiguous borders with Syria, can do much beyond scream and shout. Materially speaking, they’ve already done everything they can, and it’s led us to where we are now.
In the next few days and weeks, then, it is not just live images of explosions in Damascus that should consume the United States’ attention, but also to activity at the northern and southern borders of Syria. Are the rebels receiving adequate weapons and training? Are they gaining ground in the southern front? Has Idris stopped drafting open letters to the president begging him for more help than he’s yet received? The answers will indicate whether a coherent strategy is in play.
Even so, it would be folly to have witnessed the shattering of previously held myths about Syria only to see the recrudescence of another: that a Syria with Assad in it will prove more stable and manageable than a Syria without him. Obama needs to start by recognizing how foolish and dangerous that assumption is. Two or three days’ worth of airstrikes that are not geared toward regime change would do little to prevent the emergence of a Congo on the Mediterranean. But they would guarantee that the United States will be returning to this conflict later, at time not of its own choosing.