Photo: Manu Brabo/AP
05/31/13 By Kori Schake
Syria's crisis is getting worse. What began as peaceful protest for expanded political rights has become a civil war – the government grows ever more barbarous and the rebels, whose fractious leaders have no authority over some of the largest military groups, are turning to jihadist elements. Surrounding countries are staggering under the weight ofrefugees, and Turkey, Israel and Lebanon have been attacked from Syrian territory.
The West has hesitated to intervene, while Iran, Hezbollah, al-Qaida, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have not. Russia blocks UN action and overtly sells arms to the Assad government, while the Obama administrationinsists Russian cooperation is essential to handling the crisis.
We in the west are very near convincing ourselves that we neither can nor should do anything in Syria. Both of these notions are nonsense.
The west has interests at stake in Syria: protecting people from predatory governments and stopping the proliferation of heavy weapons. We should protect our allies the friendly states around Syria, and work to reduce the pressure on them. Forestalling an eruption of Sunni-Shia violence and a deeper schism serves regional stability, and similarly, people will be safer after exposing Iranian malfeasance and cutting supply lines to Hezbollah and Hamas.
Our interests are significant, but not compelling. Western citizens, understandably tired of war, would be difficult to persuade, but there remains an important argument for finding ways to intervene that are consistent with limited interests and limited public support.
We should be clear that without our intervention, Bashir Assad stays in power, weak and beholden to Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. The rebels will bleed slowly, radicalizing and losing public support, and Syria will endure a perpetual low-grade civil war, sparking reprisals for years. Al-Qaida regains some legitimacy for fighting to protect Syrians when we won't. Jordan, Turkey and Iraq will be subject to enormous strain and they will seek other help to handle it, most likely from GCC countries. The United States proves (not for the first time) our promises of assistance are empty, our red lines easy to cross without repercussions.
Our goal should be a unified Syria, not a stable one that kills its people or a lawless one that hosts terrorists. In order to achieve that, a government with the capacity to administer the country and disarm the militia will be necessary.
We should begin by focusing on refugees. They are in urgent need, and countries can invoke the UN Responsibility to Protect as the legal basis for intervention, our treaty responsibilities for the security of allies, or gain a mandate from the Arab League. Helping refugees is a goal that provides the greatest international legitimacy to action.
A humanitarian rationale is also the strongest case for changing Russia's policy, a precondition for the Obama administration. Russia is concerned about violent Islamism in the Caucasus; we should invite them into a positive role, emphasize the goodwill they can earn by assisting Muslims in Syria. GCC countries should be enlisted to remind China of its long-term energy dependence.
Since we are clearly willing to leave Assad in power, we should barter his continued presidency for allowing refugee camps to be moved from neighboring states into Syria, and for direct assistance from the UN and NGOs. He would keep his title but lose authority in those territories, which would gradually become self-governing, as northern Iraq did after 1991. It is a distasteful bargain, to be sure, but now we are leaving him in power and getting nothing.
If Assad refuses, or imperils the safety of refugees, we should assert control of them. Arming the rebels is an unattractive option, given the increasingly radicalized factions, but rebel forces are strong enough to protect camps, provided that we protect against the Assad regime's air and rocket forces. The government's main advantage is heavy weaponry; therefore we should shoot down any combat aircraft the government uses. Missiles from stand-off range, cratering runways, or impeding their electronics and communications would all work to this end. We probably could not prevent missile weapons, but we should retaliate against any unit that fires them, degrading their forces with time, as Senators Levin and McCain have suggested.
Opposition groups should be permitted to run the camps, giving them the chance to gain experience governing and public legitimacy. Humanitarian assistance would give us routine working relationships with rebels, allowing us to identify both jihadists and positive leaders, the latter being whom we need to help governance. Our assistance should be conditional, based on outcomes achieved: return of refugees, demilitarization of militia, no reprisals. We could also train security forces, which would further build a relationship and understanding with the rebels.
Such an intervention would have many advantages, first and foremost assisting the victims of the war. It would also staunch radicalization, develop opposition leadership, reduce pressure on Syria's neighbors, and prevent the Assad government from winning on its own terms – all while limiting US involvement in the intervention.
Photo: AFP/Getty Images
05/28/13 By Randa Slim
Hezbollah built its legitimacy fighting Israel. On April 30, Hezbollah's Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah admitted publicly for the first time what was until then an open secret in Lebanon's Shiite community that Hezbollah was fighting in Syria, with the objective of preventing the Assad regime's fall. Hezbollah's decision to plunge into the Syrian abyss is a potential turning point in Hezbollah's trajectory since its founding in the early 1980s and might prove to be the undoing of the monopoly Hezbollah has so far enjoyed over Lebanon's Shiites.
Partly this is because the Shiite community of today, which Hezbollah calls on to fight, is different from that of the 1990s when Hezbollah and other Lebanese political groups waged the war of liberation in the south of Lebanon and eventually forced Israel to withdraw from villages and towns it occupied. Since then, mainly thanks to Hezbollah and Amal, Shiites have been on an ascending course of political and economic empowerment. There is a significant Shiite middle class that now has a stake in a stable and secure Lebanon where economic conditions are conducive for business and investments.
While Hezbollah has successfully cultivated the cult of the martyr among its fighting force, this cult is not necessarily shared in the Shiite community writ large including those who are considered political supporters of Hezbollah though not part of its fighting manpower. In a way, the success Hezbollah has achieved in delivering to the Shiite community the political empowerment they promised them stands to serve as a limiting factor to Hezbollah's long and protracted engagement in the Syrian civil war.
Moreover, Hezbollah cadres have been involved in Lebanese political life since 1992. While Hezbollah entered politics mainly to protect its weapons, the party now includes a sophisticated cadre of political operatives who have grown to appreciate and master the art of retail politics. While the founders' generation which makes up the Shura Council, Hezbollah's decision-making cell, remains committed to the resistance raison d'etre
, the younger tiers in the party's numerous political, administrative, and social organs see in politics a means to achieve other party objectives, which are of equal importance to the armed struggle.
Finally, Hezbollah enters this new front in Syria after a series of self-inflicted wounds, which they suffered as a result of a string of corruption scandals of which some of their senior officials and their relatives have been accused. This has also put some daylight between the leadership and the families of those who are now being called on to fight and die in Syria. Around Dayieh, Beirut's southern suburbs, the expensive cars that relatives (especially wives and daughters) of party officials drive are striking. Often, people joke about these cars. They murmur about the expensive apartments in which party leaders live and they ask from where they got all this money. Hezbollah's image of a resistance movement led by leaders who are not corrupt and who engage in selfless behavior is not there anymore. Hezbollah's public has a more jaded picture of the party and its leadership. The more sacrifices this public is asked to deliver the more it will feel it has the right to raise questions about the endgame in Syria.
In the short-term, Hezbollah needs not worry about a rebellion in its midst. Two factors serve as mitigating factors. First, Hezbollah still enjoys a deep reservoir of goodwill among the majority of Shiites. As many supporters told me, "Nasrallah and Hezbollah delivered on every promise they made." "They promised to rebuild Dahieh after the 2006 war and they did." This reservoir will not be exhausted anytime soon. A major component of this reservoir is the personal trust the majority of Shiites have in Nasrallah. Having lost his son in the war against Israel, he can speak from a place of authenticity to the families whose sons are now being called to fight in Syria. This kind of authenticity in a leader is almost unchallengeable and very hard to compromise. A second factor is the discipline of the Hezbollah fighting force. Similar to a regular army, the fighters will go to battle when they receive their orders to do so.
In the long-term, if Hezbollah cannot achieve a clear-cut victory over the Syrian rebels as Nasrallah promised on May 25, there is a risk that the goodwill reservoir might start to thin. Being engaged in a civil war on a foreign, albeit a neighboring land, is a different fight from dying defending your village, family, and honor against an Israeli occupier or in a war with Israel as was the case in 2006. While Nasrallah is correct in arguing that people on the outside do not understand Hezbollah's resistance and its social milieu, I would argue that Hezbollah leaders might in the future be forced to rediscover that same milieu.
Hezbollah's Syria narrative has evolved along with the party's deepening military involvement in Syria. On May 25, Nasrallah admitted that his party and operatives had been involved in Syria for months. The nature of Hezbollah's role in Syria evolved along with its calculus about President Bashar al-Assad's survival chances. The bomb that killed four senior Syrian military and security officials in July 2012 marked a turning point in that calculus. Prior to that, Hezbollah's assessment was that the war in Syria was going to be long, the opposition was too weak and disunited to defeat Assad, and Assad had enough firepower, manpower, and control over his military and security apparatuses to deny the armed opposition a victory.
After the bomb struck at the heart of the Syrian regime, Assad looked vulnerable. The decision was made to shift from what was until then an advisory and a training role to a more active fighting mode. Soon after, funerals for young men who died in Syria started being held in Shiite-majority villages in Hermel
and in Dahieh
, Hezbollah's stronghold in the Beirut southern suburbs. Initially, a wall of silence was imposed on these funerals, whose number was small in the beginning. Families were asked not to say where their sons died and how. Since April 30, when Nasrallah made the first public admission about Hezbollah fighting in Syria, the wall of silence on Hezbollah's fallen in Syria has been lifted. While it is hard to ascertain Hezbollah's death toll in Syria, funerals are now being held almost on a daily basis in Shiite-majority towns and villages around Lebanon.
As Hezbollah's role deepened in Syria, its narrative shifted accordingly. The challenge facing Hezbollah leadership was how to shift the narrative about the war in Syria from what was initially perceived as a political choice in support of a long-standing ally to a war of necessity to protect Shiites. The last three speeches by Nasrallah were about making this shift. In the latest version of Hezbollah's Syria narrative, the threat facing Shiites from the jihadi-takfiri groups in Syria is existential, equal to the Israeli threat. The war in Syria is a war of pre-emption that has been imposed on Hezbollah by the takfiris and their political and financial backers in Israel, the United States, and the Gulf countries. Fighting these groups in Syria is not only needed to safeguard Shiite interests, it is also being waged to protect all Lebanese. This last twist on the narrative is addressed mainly to the Christian supporters of Michel Aoun, Hezbollah's principal ally, who have been lukewarm about the prospects of deeper Hezbollah engagement in Syria and in opening a new front with Israel in the Golan Heights.
So far, Hezbollah's constituency has bought into this narrative. Based on conversations I have been having for the last three weeks with Hezbollah supporters in Beirut's southern suburbs, it seems the mood prevalent inside the Shiite community is of feeling caught between two threats: Israeli from the south and takfiri-jihadi from the north and east. Most people feel trapped in what they now believe is an irreversible course of action in Syria. Now that Hezbollah is fighting in Syria, it must commit all it possesses to secure a military victory otherwise the enemy (which for average Shiites now includes mainstream Free Syrian Army and Salafi-jihadi groups) will come to their doorsteps. As one Hezbollah supporter told me, "Do you want us to wait until the takfiris come to our homes and pull our hearts out of our chests?"
That Lebanese state institutions are almost in a state of collapse does not reassure the average Shiites who still remember the years of neglect and abandonment by their state institutions when their southern villages were being bombarded and then occupied by Israel. Even if Assad were to fall, many people argued, Hezbollah and its weapons will be the only means to protect them and their families.
Two factors have helped Hezbollah in its mission to frame and monopolize the Syria narrative. The first factor includes videos and threats coming out of Syria. One video seemingly showed a rebel fighter pulling the heart and lungs out of his enemy soldier, and another showed Jabhat al-Nusra fighters shooting 12 Syrian soldiers at short range. Additionally, Free Syrian Army commanders have leveled threats such as that from General Salim Idriss who called Nasrallah a "criminal" and warned him on February 21 " we know how to get you," affirming the existential nature of the fight in Syria. The videos and statements are referred to over and over in conversations I have been having in Beirut's southern suburbs. A second factor cementing Hezbollah's hold over the framing of the Syria narrative is the absence of a credible Shiite counter-narrative to Hezbollah's about the conflict in Syria and what should be done to deal with the real and legitimate threats to the Shiite community.
While there are few "independent" Shiite voices questioning Hezbollah's decision to drag the Shiite community into the Syrian civil war these voices which hail mostly from the religious, academic, and civil society spheres, remain isolated from each other. Their support inside the Shiite community is limited. They have been mostly discredited in the eyes of the majority of Shiites mainly because of their funding sources (mostly Western and Gulf) and their political affiliation with the March 14 camp. It has always been the case that a serious challenge to Hezbollah's political and military supremacy in Lebanon can only come from within its Shiite base. So far, none of these independent voices amounts to a serious challenge to Hezbollah's leadership monopoly.
Syria is a different fight than the ones in which Hezbollah and its constituents have engaged in the past. Hezbollah is fighting people who are defending their villages and families -- a position it knows well since it is the same position Hezbollah was in when it was fighting the Israelis in the 1990s and in 2006. It is a new type of war for Hezbollah and it is still not clear how Hezbollah, its fighters, and their families will be affected by it. As a result, it is hard to ascertain the Shiite community's endurance threshold. How many deaths will it take before people start asking questions whether this has been a just war? When will the first mother in black who has already lost one son fighting in Qusair refuse to send her second and third sons to fight in Rif Dimashq? Time will tell.
05/31/13 By Jeffrey White
The ongoing battle in and around al-Qusayr city in Syria's Homs province is not just another clash. It is a full-scale fight with major significance for the war, similar to the battle for Aleppo in summer 2012. Despite determined rebel resistance, this is a battle the regime must win. And given its current advantages, Damascus most likely will win. Al-Qusayr is already testing the regime's developing capabilities and those of its allies, especially Hezbollah. Perhaps more important, Bashar al-Assad's forces seem to be establishing a set of "Qusayr rules" that will shape how they conduct the war in the period ahead.SIGNIFICANCE
The battle for al-Qusayr is important for many reasons. The area dominates the southern route through Homs province to the coast, a stronghold of the regime's Shiite Alawite supporters. It also controls the southern approaches to Homs city, where regime forces continue to struggle. In addition to threatening Shiite villages in the area, rebel control of al-Qusayr hinders regime access to Lebanon's Beqa Valley while facilitating the cross-border movement of arms to rebels in west central Syria. Victory in this battle would substantially improve the regime's position in Homs province overall, which is important for both maintaining access to the coast and securing the critical line of communication from Damascus.
The battle is also important politically and psychologically. For the regime, al-Qusayr offers a chance to display its strength to allies and enemies alike. A victory would boost its resilience and affirm the commitment of its supporters. For the opposition, defeat would increase internal tensions and raise doubts, with rebel factions blaming one another for the loss while wondering how they will be able to stand against the regime's growing capabilities. If Assad's forces are able to follow up with further successes, these effects will be multiplied.
Accordingly, the regime's goals in the battle have been to control the area and inflict a major military, political, and psychological defeat on the rebels. Although meeting these goals would serve the regime well at any peace conference, the battle began well before talk of Geneva II, and it is being fought for much more important reasons than negotiating leverage.THE QUSAYR RULES
The regime's strategy for the battle has been to clear rebels from the countryside south and north of al-Qusayr city, isolate the area to prevent rebel withdrawal, bombard the city and environs to inflict losses and break resistance, and directly assault the city. To implement this approach, the regime has employed a combination of regular forces (reportedly including elements of the 3rd, 4th, and Republican Guard Armored Divisions) and irregular forces (the National Defense Army). Perhaps most important, it is using Hezbollah forces to provide reliable and effective infantry in the sustained and costly fighting. Opposition sources indicate that the regime has pulled regular forces from the Damascus area and as far south as Deraa province for this battle. Moreover, Assad's air and missile forces have intensively supported the ground operations; on May 29 alone, sixteen airstrikes and three surface-to-surface missile strikes were reported in al-Qusayr city. This combination of regular, irregular, and allied forces heavily supported by air and artillery is now the regime's formula for the conduct of the war.
At present, around five to six thousand government troops are involved in the battle, along with some two thousand Hizballah fighters. Each of these contingents has been reinforced in the past few days, reflecting the stubbornness of rebel resistance and the regime's need for a clear victory. Unconfirmed opposition reports have also claimed that Iranian fighters are involved in the fighting.
The al-Qusayr offensive is an operational-level action: Assad's forces are combining battle and maneuver to achieve strategic goals in the Homs theater of war. That the regime can conceive and execute such an operation at this stage of the war testifies to its resilience and adaptability, and to the unswerving support of allies Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Rebel forces have not yet shown the ability to respond to this kind of action, primarily due to command and organizational issues that make it difficult to concentrate and coordinate significant forces across provinces.
Specific regime tactics are also proving problematic for the rebels, though they have done better at this level. The regime has used its overwhelming firepower advantage to attrite rebel forces and slowly take ground. Although the opposition's terrain advantages and sheer determination have made this a costly process, regime actions now have a certain inevitability about them. Assad's forces simply keep coming -- assaults typically include heavy preparatory bombardment by artillery and air forces, infiltration of the objective area, and armor-supported infantry attacks. Surface-to-surface missile are used to strike rebel rear areas, crushing even the deepest shelters according to opposition sources.
Taken together, these "Qusayr rules" indicate how the regime will conduct the war going forward:
- Combine regular, irregular, and allied units to achieve a reliable and effective fighting force
- Isolate objective areas to prevent rebel reinforcement, resupply, and escape
- Bombard objective areas with all available means to weaken defenses and increase the plight of any civilians trapped there
- When an objective area includes rebel outposts and other outlying forces, drive them inward to compress the defenders
- Conduct repeated assaults to seize key terrain, inflict casualties, and force defenders to use up their supplies
- Exploit the regime's advantages in firepower and its ability to coordinate and sustain operations
Government and allied forces can be expected to apply these rules as long as they lead to success.IMPLICATIONS
The regime has made slow but undeniable progress in al-Qusayr, inflicting significant casualties on rebel fighters and commanders despite its own significant losses and occasional local setbacks. Opposition forces in the area have been compressed into a shrinking pocket extending from eastern Homs province to al-Qusayr and its near surroundings. The city may not be completely and securely isolated yet, but that outcome is likely in the next few days. After that, it is only a matter of time before the city falls.
The strategy and tactics that are leading to this outcome say a great deal about the war's changing nature, particularly the regime's renewed offensive capability and increased reliance on irregular and allied forces. These factors will compel the rebels and their supporters to come up with the means of meeting the regime's challenge.
Nevertheless, this is not the last or decisive battle for Syria. For one thing, the rebels are having some success in other areas, including eastern Hama province, Deraa, and Aleppo. More broadly, battles in this war tend to have incomplete outcomes whose consequences erode over time. Both sides have difficulty sealing the deal and often find themselves fighting again on the same ground, as in Homs city, the Damascus countryside, and Aleppo and Deraa provinces. Al-Qusayr looks to be different, but that remains to be seen.
Whatever the case, the battle for al-Qusayr is significant in its own right, and for indicating how the war will now be fought. Given the results thus far, the rebels need to put their political and military house in order quickly. They need to show that they can either defeat these operations or make them so costly that the regime abandons them. Their foreign supporters should act soon as well, at least in terms of giving rebel forces the means for more effective resistance. The proposed peace conference may never happen and seems doomed to fail even if it proceeds, so delaying military assistance any further is a recipe for more regime victories.
Source: Washington Institute
Photo: State Department
05/30/13 By Frederic C. Hof
As US officials have repeatedly acknowledged, Bashar al-Assad’s military “calculation” ultimately must change to enable a negotiated political transition. One option under consideration is a no-fly zone over parts of Syria. As with any exercise weighing the costs and benefit of a specific course of action in Syria, the discussion of a no-fly zone starts with objectives: what would the United States wish to accomplish?
In August 2011 President Barack Obama declared that Assad should step aside. Since then the president and other senior officials have defined the US objective in Syria in terms of a political transition from authoritarian family rule to a pluralistic system reflecting rule of law and civil society. "Democratic, plural system" is also the phrase used in UN Security Council Resolutions 2042
The president and others have also specified that this transition should be the result of Syrian negotiations reflecting the process and prospective results outlined by the June 2012 Final Communiqué
of the Action Group for Syria. A follow-up international conference, this one including Syrian parties, is expected to take place in about two weeks.
The administration prefers that Syria's political transition come about through negotiations between the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition, because it believes a negotiated settlement would avoid one of the harsh lessons learned in Iraq: that the complete collapse of the state and dissolution of governmental institutions can engender deep resentments and help spark an insurgency.
The administration's preference for a negotiated compromise that would remove the family regime while preserving key institutions of government helps to explain why it has invested so little in a rebel military victory. This was true even a year ago, when arming vetted units of the Free Syrian Army would have been much less complicated than it would be now. Some senior US officials have even gone so far as to say that a quick rebel victory would be dangerously destabilizing.
However, the administration's challenge is that the struggle for Syria has become totally militarized and that its preferred way forward seems to enjoy scant support among those Syrians who have irrevocably chosen sides in this conflict, including those doing the shooting. It is possible that that a majority of Syrians would actually favor the administration's approach: out with the Assad family and in with a national unity government dedicated to stability and reform while preserving, to the maximum extent possible, the institutions of national government. But even if this is the majority view it does not, regrettably, seem to be terribly relevant at the moment.
The salient fact is that the Assad regime, basking in the glow of complete Iranian and Hezbollah commitment to its survival, seems to believe it can prevail militarily. It will send a delegation to Geneva mainly in the hope that the opposition will not. A key element of the regime's military strategy is to terrorize presumed hostile civilian populations. In those areas it can reach by ground it does so by commissioning shabiha
auxiliaries to commit massacres. In those areas it cannot reach by ground it does so through indiscriminate shelling and bombing. The effects of these terror operations are to send waves of refugees across international borders, create an internally displaced population in the millions, and kill, wound, and maim noncombatants by the tens of thousands.
The administration has concluded that Assad's "calculation" must change for the regime to be at all disposed toward a negotiated compromise that would include the end of family rule. Some hope Russia will change that calculation. It appears, however, that Assad's calculates mostly (if not exclusively) on his assessment of the military situation on the ground.
Protecting civilians, shielding US allies and friends from the effects of the regime's war of terror, and changing Assad's calculation all come together in the minds of many commentators under the broad rubric of the no-fly zone. Again, it is useful in this context to know the desired effects. The United States’ objective in this scenario could, for example, be to eliminate or seriously degrade the ability of the Assad regime to conduct missile, aerial, and artillery attacks against populated areas. The manner by which this objective would be achieved, if adopted by the president, would be determined by military professionals. Much might be achieved, for example, through the employment of stand-off weaponry to destroy regime weapons systems and support facilities on the ground rather than imposing a no-fly zone as was done in Iraq and the Balkans.
Regardless of the methodology, however, what would be required is a decision by the president, in consultation with Congress, to go to war. The regime will not, after all, consent to our use of military force on Syrian territory. There is no point in sugarcoating this reality.
If the United States decides to go to war it will almost certainly not have the benefit of a Chapter VII UN Security Council resolution, which would be the clearest international legal basis for either employing a no-fly zone or destroying regime assets on the ground. Nor would it be able to make a clear case under the self-defense provision of Article 51 of the UN Charter, although some would argue that a grave threat to regional peace and stability could amount to sanctioned self-defense so long as there is no attempt to seize the offending country's territory or challenge its independence. Although a relatively new doctrine of humanitarian intervention has its strong adherents, nothing close to a consensus has emerged around the "responsibility to protect" thesis. In sum, a US decision to go to war in Syria under current circumstances would have to be taken in a context where international authorization would be somewhere between nonexistent and extremely contentious.
These circumstances could change dramatically were there an alternate Syrian government established on Syrian territory, one which the United States and many others would recognize as the legitimate, legal government of Syria. Such a government would be entitled to request assistance in its defense from those who recognize it. The United States and others would be entitled to offer defensive assistance to counter the Assad insurgency and its foreign fighters. This scenario would not preclude national unity negotiations between the new Syrian government and an entity in Damascus still recognized by Russia, Iran, and others.
Regardless of the circumstances prevailing, if the United States elects to eliminate or seriously degrade the ability of the Assad regime to conduct terror operations, two other key ingredients must be part of the policy mix. Consultations - with Congress and with those international actors whose support and assistance we will want - are absolutely essential. And to prevent unconscious mission creep the United States will need to define mission accomplishment in specific operational terms.
Finally, unless the administration changes its strategic objective and acts accordingly, it is at least hypothetically possible that the United States could accomplish the mission of eliminating or seriously degrading regime mass terror capabilities and still witness the regime (with Iran and Hezbollah "all in") either win an outright military victory or retake populated areas, where it can kill, stampede, and terrorize face-to-face instead of using artillery, aircraft, and missiles. A regime whose aerial and artillery assets are largely destroyed or essentially neutralized surely would be less capable militarily than it is now. But this is a war Iran and Hezbollah, and arguably Russia, have decided not to lose; they are committed to a regime victory, while the administration has shown no such resolve or commitment to a rebel military victory. The administration must ask itself whether a victory in Syria by those three is acceptable, or whether it could have destabilizing consequences that far transcend Syria.
Source: Atlantic Council
Photo: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters
05/28/13 By Shadi Hami
Today, the debate over Syria focuses once again on the composition of the Syrian National Coalition. And while the United States, Europe, and Saudi Arabia push the opposition to expand its ranks to include more liberals, the Assad regime continues to make significant gains against rebel forces, who report a loss of morale and -- remarkably after two years of asking -- lack even the most basic equipment. "If we had more ammunition," says a rebel from Aleppo's Tawhid brigade, "we could take Aleppo in 20 days."
With military intervention effectively ruled out from the beginning, the United States has instead worked to build a more "unified" and "representative" political opposition, despite the fact that liberation movements, historically, are rarely unified or particularly representative. A more unified opposition would, of course, be better, but the persistent hopes for a more perfect opposition have become both a crutch and a distraction from what really matters -- fighting Assad's forces and shifting the military balance on the ground. Progress on the military front is a prerequisite for political progress, rather than the other way around.
From the beginning, there has been a seemingly obsessive concern with creating a more palatable and sufficiently "liberal" opposition. It may have made sense to try in the early months of the uprising, but much less so today, with the armed opposition inside Syria effectively dominated by Salafis and Islamists. A truly "representative" opposition coalition, in actuality, would require adding a significant number of Salafis (there is no Salafi bloc in the National Coalition), but, presumably, this is not the sort of representation that the United States, Britain, and France have in mind.
In the early months of the uprising, the international community worked to build up the Syrian National Council (SNC), after a number of false starts and dueling opposition conferences. Soon enough, the SNC came to be seen as a Muslim Brotherhood proxy and was deemed insufficiently representative of Syria's ethnic and religious diversity (not without reason), so efforts were made to piece together a broader coalition, culminating in the formation of the National Coalition. This new 60-person strong coalition, in which the SNC was allotted a third of the seats, also came to be seen as dominated by the Brotherhood (despite Brotherhood members only officially having six seats). To be sure, the group is able to extend its influence beyond its numbers through a network of allies, including former Brotherhood members from Ahmed Ramadan's National Action Group. It seems self-defeating, though, to fault the Brotherhood for being better organized and more effective than the rest of the notoriously fractious Syrian opposition.
In recent weeks, there was yet another effort to "broaden" the coalition to include 20 to 25 additional seats for a liberal bloc led by veteran secular opposition leader Michel Kilo. Western nations, along with Saudi Arabia, effectively tried to strong-arm the National Coalition into accepting Kilo and his allies. When it went to a vote, Coalition members approved only six new seats (according to coalition bylaws, adding new seats requires a 42-vote supermajority). The French were reportedly furious, saying "unless you expand you will get no support from any of us." Such a reaction, through unsurprising, was a bit odd. In any organization, it is standard practice for existing members to approve expansion of membership.
For their part, American officials - far from being the hapless observers that they are sometimes portrayed as - have put considerable energy, resources, and money into a quixotic attempt to mold the Syrian opposition. Would it be nice if more people like Kilo were in the opposition? Yes. But it's unclear how much of a difference this would make, considering that most fighters on the ground don't answer to or particularly care about the National Coalition, whose members are primarily based abroad.
Efforts to expand the Coalition come ahead of the "Geneva II" peace conference, touted by some as a final (or first) opportunity for a real political breakthrough. The idea, here, is that the opposition needs to get its act together so it can speak with one voice to the Russians and regime. There is the small matter that practically no one in the Coalition believes anything will come out of the talks. They are going largely for show, to placate an international community which they still hope will do more on their behalf, including providing advanced weaponry.
Most in the political opposition say they won't accept anything less than Assad's ouster, yet Russia appears to see Geneva as an opportunity not to negotiate in good faith but, rather, to rehabilitate Assad. Assad himself is as strong as ever, both on and off the battlefield. The head of German foreign intelligence believesthe regime could retake the entire southern half of Syria by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the international community has increasingly bought into the regime narrative of a rebellion dominated by extremist elements (the distinction between Salafi and Salafi-Jihadist fighters is rarely made). Prominent American voices, including former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill, have come awfully close to drawing moral equivalence between the rebels and the regime. It is an strange time to hope for a diplomatic "breakthrough," when the rebels are arguably at their weakest and the regime at its strongest.
From the beginning, there has been a fundamental problem of sequencing. The original sin of U.S. policy was taking military intervention off the table and focusing instead on a "political settlement," as if the two were mutually exclusive. Instead, intervention and diplomacy should have proceeded in parallel. It was only a credible threat of military action that would have brought the regime, or at least elements of it, to the negotiating table. In Bosnia and Kosovo, the Serbian government gave up its ethnic cleansing campaign and agreed to Western terms only after NATO military intervention, not before. In Libya, NATO intervention pushed a once confident regime to desperation, with Qaddafi envoys engaging in cease-fire talks and eagerly offering to negotiate with the rebels.
It is a testament to the faith that the Syrian opposition still places in the United States that they are even willing to go to Geneva. They, and we, have been through this before, the cycle of hope, followed by disappointment and even betrayal. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they still hope that American policy might change and adapt, after yet another round of diplomacy fails, as it almost certainly will.
05/29/13 By Michael Weiss
Western powers appear to have at last recognized that they can have no real role in shaping the outcome of the Syrian conflict unless they credibly advance the threat of direct or indirect military intervention. As it now stands, preparations for a more confrontational mode with the Assad regime comes at a time when the United States and European Union are nominally committed to talking a regime, which has been deploying more and more chemical weapons, into capitulating.
One European statesman I met at the weekend said that even before the EU’s Sunday vote to remove the arms embargo on the Syrian opposition, Britain and France were assuring skeptical EU member states that they would not be sending weapons to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in any case, prompting questions as to what all the fuss was about. Clearly a compromise has been struck whereby London and Paris have agreed to do nothing for now, but possibly do something at a later date. As British Foreign Secretary William Hague put it, “we are not taking any decision to send arms to anyone.” Even Austria, which had been adamantly opposed to ending the embargo, has not yet decided to withdraw its peacekeeping forces from the UN buffer zone between Syria and Israel, which it would likely do if new weapons were about to pour in. Any eventual arm flows into Syria will be subject to a “case-by-case basis” review by Brussels, which nonetheless raises concerns that, say, Romania will get creative and purchase weapons for Hezbollah instead of the FSA.
Sunday’s announcement was really more a preliminary telegraphing to Russia and Iran that no longer will they be the only ones able to parlay about peace while simultaneously bolstering their client’s war-making ability. Theoretically this is meant to force the pro-regime players at the forthcoming Geneva conference on Syria – a conference at which the ever urgent topic of Assad’s political future will evidently not be up for discussion – into cutting a deal that is not exclusively to their own liking. However, it is unlikely to succeed at this unless the Brits and French actually follow through with arming; otherwise this initiative, like all previous ones, will be taken by Vladimir Putin and Ali Khamenei to be just another Western bluff.
This is indeed how Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov appears to have taken it, given his comments following the EU vote that sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft systems, which his government intends to sell Assad, would “stabilize
” Syria and preempt “some hotheads” from dispatching warplanes to Damascus. The truth is that the S-300s will likely never reach Syria – not least because Israel’s defense minister Moshe Ya’alon has more or less promised
to powder them upon arrival – and because the Kremlin’s unchanged and serially-reaffirmed rhetoric on this point is simply meant to embarrass the United States. Intentionality is everything; Russia wants badly to project a self-image of a renascent great power mired in a zero-sum game with an old and not especially doughty antagonist. Yet it may end up being this gambit more than anything that increases the chances for a Western intervention in Syria.
Assad, meanwhile, has left no one under any illusions as to his opinion of the “political solution.” He told the Argentinian newspaper Clarin that he is not prepared to talk to any “terrorists,” by which he of course means each and every of the more than 100,000 armed rebels currently operating in Syria, until they lay down their arms. These include those party to the US-backed Supreme Military Command of the FSA, headed by General Salim Idriss. It was Idriss who accompanied US Senator John McCain into Syria, and it is Idriss who seeks to exploit a growing rift between hardcore Islamist rebels in Syria and the more moderate forces under his direct and increasingly well-organized command.
According to Dan Layman of the Syrian Support Group, a US licensed aid-runner to the Syrian rebels, in Idriss’ letter to the EU foreign ministers dated May 24, he himself made EU arms contingent on his own accountability: “My staff and I are prepared to maintain the proper recordkeeping, precise shipment tracking, and appropriate monitoring and storage of weapons and ammunition supplies that we would be ready to share with the European Union authorities.” In other words, one screw-up and Idriss knows that he’ll risk forfeiting his hard-won hardware.
Layman thinks that “if and when” Geneva collapses, Britain and France will indeed provide weapons to the Supreme Military Command albeit under close US coordination. Washington, for its part, will likely dispatch bulletproof vests and armored vehicles and other “non-lethal” military supplies long-promised.
There’s another factor working in Idriss’ favor: namely, fears of weaponry falling into the hands of religious extremists are already coming to pass at the expense of his moderates - and, therefore, at the expense of any US leverage on the ground. Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s faction in Syria, arms itself quite easily from confiscated regime stockpiles. Martin Chulov, the Guardian correspondent who travels to Syria frequently, told me recently that Nusra’s small-arms haul from the January raid on Taftanaz airbase in Idlib province was enough to “arm an entire division for six months.” There’s also little stopping Nusra from taking rather than receiving surface-to-air missiles from regime installations. They’ve already taken tanks and armored personnel carriers this way.
Jordanian and Turkish intelligence have cut the importation of man-portal air-defense systems (MANPADs) into Syria because the US and Israel fret that they’ll one day be used to down El Al planes. One British official quoted by the Guardian’s Julian Borger on Monday said that “[t]here isn’t going to be an airliner brought down by some weapon we provide,” which rules out MANPADs from the European menu. They’re are also nowhere to be found in the exceptionally fast-moving Menendez bill in the US Senate, which the Foreign Relations Committee overwhelmingly passed, and which also seeks to arm Idriss’ men.
This introduces a significant problem for the opposition’s allies. What’s the point of gunrunning to rebels if the guns you provide cannot degrade or neutralize the regime’s devastating air campaign? Assuming the West is serious about tilting the balance of power, it really has only one option left: grounding the Syrian Air Force through direct action either through a no-fly zone or strategic bombing campaign that takes out the runways and infrastructure of Assad’s airbases and civilian airports. As I’ve argued before, the skies are the main portal for Iranian and Russian resupplies to the regime.
Although the White House is doing nothing to build a consensus in Washington for another war in the Middle East, it is taking the debate about a multilateral intervention far more seriously than some had previously imagined. The same apparently goes for the preparation for this contingency. As Josh Rogin reported
Tuesday in The Daily Beast, the president has requested no-fly zone planning from the Pentagon, and while President Obama is still only in “contemplation mode,” as one unnamed official told Rogin, “the planning is moving forward and it’s more advanced than it’s ever been.”
According to a well-placed Israeli source, when CIA Director John Brennan made his “unannounced” trip to Israel earlier in the month, he received a briefing on Syria’s air defense capabilities, which, you’ll have noticed, the Israeli Air Force has gotten rather good at circumnavigating and which the Pentagon has mythologized as more “formidable” than they actually are. “Obama via Brennan wants to know what Israel can offer – and there’s a shitload to offer,” the source told me, adding that Brennan’s education on Iran’s meddling role in the Levant was proceeding at a breakneck speed. (The new-minted intelligence chief had formerly stated on the record that Hezbollah had “moderate elements.”)
In this context, it should also be intriguing that the EU has just designated Hezbollah’s “military wing,” now making an un-moderate play to recapture Qusayr from Syrian rebels, a terrorist entity.
Source: Now Media
05/29/13 By Karen DeYoung and Joby Warrick
The Syrian army’s March weapons request to its Russian supplier was the stuff of everyday battles in a long and grueling conflict. Twenty-thousand Kalashnikov assault rifles and 20 million rounds of ammunition. Machine guns. Grenade launchers and grenades. Sniper rifles with night-vision sights.
The Syrian army general asked for a price quote “in the shortest possible time.” He closed with kind regards to Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state arms exporter.
Syrian army General's request
The flow of arms to Syria, including the advanced S-300 missile defense batteries that Moscow said this week it would supply, continues amid hopes that an international conference, jointly proposed by the United States and Russia, will lead to a negotiated political settlement of Syria’s civil war.
No date has been set for the conference, however, and it might not get off the ground until July, despite initial hopes that it would be held this month. Although Syria’s foreign minister said Wednesday that government representatives would attend “with every good intention,” opposition leaders are in a stalemate over who should represent them and whether they should even show up.
In the meantime, all sides are hedging their bets.
Britain and France will be free to arm the Syrian rebels, if they choose, when a European Union embargo they fought to lift expires Friday. The Obama administration, while still holding its fire, is poised to begin sending lethal aid to opposition forces. Qatar and Saudi Arabia, along with wealthy individuals in the Persian Gulf, have spent millions on weapons for favored rebel groups.
Iran has stepped up its supplies of technology, equipment and personnel to the Syrian government, and Lebanon-based Hezbollah — an Iranian and Syrian client — has started sending legions of fighters to the government side.
But no outside force has been as consistent in its involvement in Syria as Russia. Moscow has served as the primary arms supplier to the government of President Bashar al-Assad, as it did for the predecessor government run by his father.
Alexei Ventslovsky, foreign media projects manager for Rosoboronexport, said the company would have no comment on the March request from the Syrian government. But the document — a copy of which, in its original typed Cyrillic script, was obtained by The Washington Post — underlined the Russians’ commitment to supplying Syria as part of the “indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity” contracts that allow for repeated orders.
Such major military contracts are only one aspect of Russia’s interests in Syria, which include significant energy investments and a naval base in the Mediterranean port city of Tartus.
The United States and its pro-opposition partners have appealed to Russia to preserve such long-term interests in Syria by moving to the winning side and have been perplexed by the Russians’ resistance. President Obama has said that Assad must go, and legions of senior U.S. officials, citing humanitarian concerns, have argued that Russia should at least get out of the way.
Yet beneath the cooperative words of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who has met repeatedly with Secretary of State John F. Kerry in recent weeks to plan the conference, many Russia experts say the United States has misread Russia’s mind-set and goals.
Russian policy “is not insane or irrational from [Russia’s] point of view,” said Fiona Hill, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They’re just waiting to see how it plays out.”
The Russians, Hill and other experts said, see the United States as the irrational player in the region, upsetting the status quo and adding fuel to sectarian conflicts in Russia’s own neighborhood. Recent territorial gains by Assad’s forces — and the Americans’ reluctance to supply their own arms — have only hardened the Russians’ resolve.
“They’re certainly serious about having a conference,” Hill said, but more for the purpose of “preventing any kind of unilateral action” by the United States than thinking that it will bring results.
Russian President Vladmir Putin “has based a fair bit of his domestic legitimacy on the idea that Russia goes its own way and does not take orders from the West, has its own friends and makes its own choices internationally, ” said Stephen Sestanovich, the George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Judged by almost any imaginable criteria,” he said, “Syria seems like a pretty good friend of Russia.”
At the same time, diplomats and analysts said Russia is making subtle efforts to reassert itself in the Middle East and is putting out the word that it plans to vigorously defend its interests.
Early this month, institutes backed by the Russian government hosted a conference in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh, inviting more than a hundred of the region’s most influential newspaper columnists, pundits and policy experts. In attendance were officials from Persian Gulf Arab states staunchly opposed to Russia’s support for Syria as well as representatives of Hezbollah and Gaza’s Hamas organization. The two-day conference was billed as a forum on political Islam, but a recurring theme was Russia’s new assertiveness in the region, attendees said in interviews.
“The Russians’ real intention seemed to be to say, ‘We’re back,’ ” said one Arab analyst who attended the event but who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly about sensitive discussions with the conference’s Russian hosts.
“They were adamant in saying they would continue to back Assad,” the analyst said.
Raghida Dergham, a Lebanese newspaper columnist who also attended the forum, said she was struck by the nationalist notes sounded by several of the Russian speakers and hosts, whom she described as unapologetic about Moscow’s backing not only for the repressive government in Damascus but in Tehran as well. At the same time, the Russians seemed eager to engage Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt and Gaza, despite worries about a growing Islamist problem at home, she wrote in a blog.
“The broad headline appeared to be that Russia was turning a new leaf, tempering in appearance the tone of its ‘no’ to the rise of Islamic power, while insisting in effect on absolutely refusing to allow them to come to power in Damascus,” Dergham wrote. “As for the stance on Syria, it was identical across the spectrum of Russian opinions, being, in short, one of complete support for Russia’s role in its political, military and diplomatic aspects.”
The same message is being conveyed through diplomatic channels in Arab capitals, including in Sunni-Arab majority states that are actively supporting the Syria rebels, according to Middle East diplomats and senior policy analysts based in the region. Moscow has repeatedly torpedoed U.N. resolutions intended to punish Assad, and earlier this month, it blocked Syria’s southern neighbor, Jordan, from formally requesting a U.N. Security Council inspection of Syrian refugee camps along its northern border. Lavrov said the inspections could become a pretext for “foreign intervention” in the Syrian conflict.
Some Middle East diplomats and experts expressed concern about what one described as a “new Cold War” in the region, with Washington and Moscow backing opposing sides in an endless series of proxy battles. Moustafa Alani, director of national security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Center, an influential think tank in Dubai, said Russia appears to be challenging what until recently was conventional wisdom in the region: that Russia has lost influence in the region by backing the losing sides in the Arab Spring revolts.
“The Russians have a different calculation,” Alani said. “They think they still have plenty of support in the Middle East, and they’re protecting what they see as their interest. The very clear message is, ‘Don’t count us out.’ ”
Putin’s government has said it will sign no new contracts with Assad, but will continue deliveries under previous deals, including the S-300 order. In a clear reference to the E.U. decision, and warnings from Israel about the 200- to 300-mile range of the missiles, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the delivery might actually calm things down in Syria.
“We believe that such steps to a large extent help restrain some ‘hotheads’ considering a scenario to give an international dimension to this conflict,” Ryabkov said.
Source: Washington Post
Photo: Tracey Shelton/GlobalPost
05/29/13 By Tracey Shelton
REYHANLI, Turkey — With bombs in its cities, refugees on its borders, and Syrian rebels operating from its soil, Turkey is on the verge of entering into a full-scale conflict with its war-wracked neighbor.
But by taking on the regime of Syria
’s Bashar al Assad — a brutal dictator with Russian backing and a core of staunch supporters inside Syria — Turkey threatens to further ignite the regional conflagrations already kindled by the country’s destabilizing and widening civil war.
More aggressive intervention into the Syria conflict — in which more than 80,000 people have been killed since 2011, human rights groups and the United Nations say — could put Turkey into near-direct conflict with Iran
, a regional power and stalwart ally of the Syrian government.
It could also roil Turkey as it negotiates a fragile peace deal with Kurdish fighters now withdrawing to northern Iraq as part of the accords after 30 years fighting the Turkish state. The fighters, who belong to the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), wield considerable influence on the sizeable Kurdish community inside Syria.
Turkish intervention could threaten the relative self-autonomy Syrian Kurds have forged since the uprising, prompting a backlash against Turkey on both sides of the border.
All of these things “risk straining Turkey's economy, accentuating its sectarian and political divisions, and compromising its overall stability," a January report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) says.
Turkey is also embroiled in the war in broader strategic terms, the report says.
With the border areas serving as a smuggling, logistics and operational hub for Syria’s disparate rebel groups, as well as a home for 350,000 refugees, Turkey has indeed long been involved in the conflict that began as a popular uprising in 2011. But it quickly morphed into a full-scale armed civil war.
In what was the first major incident of tension between the two sides, Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet off the Syrian coast — but that Turkey maintained was in international airspace — in June 2012. Turkey then called for an emergency session of NATO’s North Atlantic Council, the defense alliance to which it belongs, but no military action was taken.
In February, a car bomb exploded at the Turkey-Syria border crossing at Bab al Hawa, killing 14 and that Turkey blamed on the Assad government. Mostly errant artillery shells from Syria have also landed in Turkey numerous times.
In a deadly attack earlier this month, at least two car bombs exploded in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, in Hatay province, killing 56.
Authorities here said a Turkish, pro-Assad Marxist group was responsible for the attack, which left entire blocks of shops and homes in ruins.
Distraught locals looked on from behind police lines in disbelief, as rescue teams searched through smoldering buildings sand overturned cars for survivors.
But Turkey’s options for retaliation or even intervention remain limited, particularly without the political and perhaps military backing of the Obama administration.
While Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Barack Obama agree that Assad should go, they appear to disagree on how vigorously that goal should be pursued.
Erdogan has long called for the establishment of a no-fly zone to halt air attacks on rebel-held areas inside Syria. Obama reportedly requested plans for a no-fly zone from the Pentagon, the Daily Beast reported Tuesday
But largely, the administration has been reluctant to commit US troops or air support to yet another bloody conflict in the Middle East
The United States
stepped up its "nonlethal" support for the Syrian opposition, including body armor and night vision goggles. But the rise of extremists, including some linked to Al Qaeda, within rebel ranks is worrying policymakers in Washington — and Turkey can’t guarantee that weapons it gives to the opposition won’t end up in the hands of PKK militants.
“I believe the government will reduce their support [of the Syrian opposition] in the aftermath of the Reyhanli bombings,” Turkish political analyst and author, Kenan Camurcu, told GlobalPost.
Indeed, perhaps the biggest challenge to Turkey intervening in Syria will come from within.
In a survey released earlier this month by Pew Research Center, a public opinion group, 65 percent of Turkish citizens oppose Turkey supplying arm to the rebels, and more than half were concerned the violence would spill over into Turkey.
The Turkish demonstrators mounting ongoing protests against the fresh violence say Syria’s rebels are directly involved in the attacks they say will drag Turkey into the war on the opposition side.
Others simply blame the presence of anti-Assad fighters inside Turkey for provoking regime-sponsored attacks.
The Reyhanli attack happened “to create chaos in Turkey, to carry the war over here, and to spark the hatred between the same races that are fighting in Syria,” activist and protest organizer Ferit Diker said at a protest in Samandag, Turkey last week.
The other protestors chanted anti-government slogans, and carried signs criticizing Erdogan’s rulng Justice and Development Party (AKP). “The day will come, AKP, when you will have to account for our actions,” read one placard.
But Turkey is already suffering the effects of their limited involvement in Syria, including an economic strain.
In November, exports from Hatay to Syria had fallen to less than half their 2010 level, according to WINEP. Turkey had exported iron, steel and crude oil to its Arab neighbor. But now, key exports — mostly via smuggled routes — are food supplies, cement and an illegal weapons trade.
In addition, the refugee crisis is costing the Turkish state roughly $40 million each month, according to figures announced by Turkish deputy prime minister, Ali Babacan, in January.
There is “no magic formula for dealing with an extraordinarily violent and difficult situation like Syria’s,” Obama said at his joint press conference with Erdogan at the White House on May 16.
But analyst Camurcu says Erdogan must come up with one soon.
“The people don’t want war,” he said. “They want their government to find a peaceful solution.”
Source: Global Post
Photo: Abdalghne Karoof/Reuters
05/29/13 By Rania Abouzeid
The beefy Libyan revolutionary field commander
turned politician rose from the beige couch to greet his new Syrian guest, who pulled up a chair to join the two other Syrian men seated in a semicircle around the couch in the café of a hotel in the southern Turkish city of Antakya, near the Syrian border.
The Libyan had traveled from Zintan, in northwest Libya, while a fellow countryman, a former militia commander from Benghazi, had traveled from that port city to hold court in this Turkish hotel and meet some of the rebels trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad. (Both Libyans requested anonymity, because of the nature of their mission.)
The Syrians seated around the Libyans on this warm night in mid-May were all from Islamist military units that operate outside the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which claims to represent most of Syria’s rebels. The night before, the Libyans said, had been the turn of the FSA, which is generally less Islamist than the rebels now seated at the hotel: the Libyans had met a colonel in the FSA who had sat on the same beige couch. He had defected relatively early in the now more than two-year conflict, and had nominally held a senior position in the coterie of exiled FSA officers in southern Turkey who at one point claimed to speak for the armed opposition but who have since been sidelined by other, newer defectors.
It’s a common sight to see clumps of Arab men, mainly Syrian but sometimes speaking in other Arabic dialects or accents, huddled in meetings or milling about in certain Turkish hotels not only in Antakya but also in other border cities adjacent to crossings into Syria. The meetings usually don’t start until at least the late afternoon, or more commonly in the evening, and can continue well into the early hours of the morning. Some of the men are making deals to buy or sell weapons and ammunition, or are trying to secure financing to do so by meeting with wealthy financial patrons — either Syrian or foreign — who want to contribute to the war without joining the front lines. And then there are the foreign fighters, the men with the long beards and the short pants worn above the ankle in the manner of the Prophet Muhammad, who are waiting for Syrian rebels to take them into Syria.
The reason for this night’s meeting, and indeed for the Libyans’ 10-day trip
to southern Turkey and across the border into northern Syria, was to help the Libyans figure out how to get some of Libya’s vast and loose stockpiles of machine guns, artillery, ammunition and antiaircraft systems — leftovers amassed largely by snatching government stockpiles during their own successful military uprising against their late dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, and from supplies donated to the Libyan rebels by the oil-rich Gulf nation of Qatar — to Assad’s opponents.
The transfer of Libyan arms to Syrian rebels — and to other countries in the region — wasdocumented
in a U.N. Security Council report published in April. The report, by the U.N. Security Council’s Group of Experts, described shipments from various places in Libya and suggested that some local officials, or their representatives, were either involved in the shipments or allowed them to happen. An arms embargo, which is still in place, was imposed on Libya at the start of the uprising in 2011 that overthrew Gaddafi. Former commanders, like the two men at the meeting in Antakya, are sympathetic to the Syrian rebels in their bid to oust Assad and are helping them by steering weapons through Turkey and, according to the U.N. report, through northern Lebanon. In some cases, the Libyans foot the bill for either the weapons or their transportation or both; in others, the Syrians may pay for some of the weapons or their shipping. Turkey has long denied that its territory is used for such purposes. The meeting at the hotel in Antakya, to which TIME was given access on the condition that no one present be identified, provided a rare insight into the distribution of the weapons described in the U.N. report.
The meeting was also about forging direct contacts between the Libyans and Syrians, and bypassing Qatar. In the past, the Libyans said, the Qataris have acted as “deliverymen” for five planeloads of weaponry the Libyans claim they sent via Turkey since last summer, but the Libyans claimed the Qataris and Turks had been removing the heavy weaponry they had sent. TIME could not confirm the men’s claims about either the shipments or the Qatari or Turkish involvement. One of the Syrian commanders present at the meeting in Antakya said that he had received a share of the Libyan weapons delivered since last summer. “We sent heavy weapons, including heat-seeking antiaircraft missiles, 12.7-mm antiaircraft guns, 14.5s (antiaircraft guns), Kornets (Russian antitank missiles),” the Libyan from Benghazi said. “We know that advanced weapons left from Tripoli and Benghazi, arrived in Turkey and were supposed to get to Syria. They didn’t.”
The rebels have long pleaded for heavy weaponry, but the international community has grappled with their demand, with many countries wary of sending advanced weapons into a chaotic battlefield without firm guarantees that they won’t find their way into hands of elements considered undesirable to the West (mainly ultraconservative Islamists), or be used in terrorist attacks, either inside Syria or across its borders.
Still, there has been some movement on the issue. The European Union
said on Monday that it would not renew its arms embargo on the Syrian opposition, freeing member states to decide their own policy about arming the rebels. Still, it’s unlikely that E.U. weapons will be inside Syria any time soon. British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who along with his French counterpart was pushing to lift the ban, said that Britain had “no plans to send arms at the moment,” according to press reports. The rebels are hoping — but not waiting — for those E.U. guns. In the meantime, they are looking a little closer to home, to their Arab brothers in Libya, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to arm and fund them.
“We now have a large batch of weapons ready to be shipped out from Benghazi,” the Libyan from Zintan said, “but we are not going to ship it until we can be sure that it will arrive, and that all of it will arrive.”
The Syrian men who sat radially around the beige couch in the Turkish hotel were keen to get their hands on some of that batch of weapons. But first, the Libyans wanted to know who the Syrians were exactly and which rebel group each represented. There was a representative from Jund-Allah (Soldiers of God), which operates in and around the capital Damascus; a commander from Ansar al-din (Supporters of the Faith) in Lattakia province; and most significantly a man who is one of the seven members of the political office of Jabhat Syria il-Islamiya (the Syrian Islamic Front), one of the country’s largest, most cohesive and strongest Islamist militant coalitions, led by the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham Brigades. (The extremist al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra is not part of this alliance.)
Coffee was ordered — Turkish coffee for the Syrians and cappuccinos for the Libyans. The Libyan from Zintan, wearing faded black jeans, a cream-colored shirt stretched taut across his waist and a gray sports jacket, did most of the talking. He fingered black worry beads, while his colleague from Benghazi listened. His first question was about whether the men around him recognized the FSA and its 14 provincial military councils. All said they did not. “Their commanders are failures, they are corrupt,” the Syrian from Ansar al-Din said.
“There is not even one battalion, in all honesty, that they can control,” the Islamic Front representative said. “These people [senior defectors in the FSA like the one the Libyans had met the night before] were placed as facades, in the beginning, as media personalities, but as real commanders on the ground? Not at all.”
The Libyan’s next question was one he would repeat or refer to 16 times over the next two and a half hours: “Why aren’t you united?” And every time, the Syrians would politely respond that their Islamist battalions were better organized and disciplined and had a clearer chain of command than their more-secular FSA counterparts, but that asking for greater unity than that was a difficult proposition.
As the night unfurled, the Libyan clearly grew frustrated with their answers to this question, as did the Syrians to his repetitive query. “Brothers, strength is in your unity,” the Libyan said. “Just tell me why you aren’t united! Tell me what is the obstacle? What is it?!”
“I’ll tell you,” the man from Ansar al-Din said, an hour and a half into the discussion. “How can you bring a former Baathi [member of Assad’s secular Baath Party] and a Salafi together? How can you bring an Ikhwani [Muslim Brother] and a communist together?”
“Bring them together in the fighting, not the thinking!” the Libyan said. “You practice your Salafism and kept it to yourself. Let a Christian, for example, practice his Christianity and keep it to himself, it’s nobody’s business.”
“This is superficial talk!” the Syrian retorted.
“No, it’s not. That means that unfortunately, you will not achieve your aims.” It was a point the Libyan from Zintan repeated several times throughout the night.
The Syrians listened as the Libyan recounted battlefield tales from his time as a field commander during the Libyan uprising, and as he offered advice, some of which they agreed with and said they were already implementing — like establishing command centers on every front, trying to absorb smaller battalions into larger coalitions and in doing so, soaking up their weapons and men and, in theory at least, bringing them into line under a larger command. Other suggestions however, like telling the men to shave their beards, fell flat. “Sometimes you need to do things that you may not want to do,” the Libyan said. “Don’t give them excuses. To the Americans, a beard means Islamist and terrorist.” The Syrians, all of whom were bearded, just looked at each other.
“I am just giving you advice, from one brother to another,” the Libyan said, “but it’s your country — you know better. So what, in your opinion, is the solution? How can we help you reach it?”
“The problem,” the man from the Islamic Front said, “is we don’t have weapons. The solution is, give us weapons.”
“If your situation remains this [fragmented], you won’t get weapons. They [the international community] are scared that what happened in Libya will happen here. That weapons will spread, and then they won’t be able to gather them up, that militias will form and stay. They are afraid that after Bashar falls the revolutionaries will turn their attention to Israel and will shoot their planes out of the sky. That’s my understanding. What I don’t get is if they’re afraid for Israel, why send any weapons into Syria in the first place? Say you’re afraid for Israel and leave.”
“What have they given us anyway?” the commander from Ansar al-Din said.
“What is happening with us is that we have people outside [in exile] who are working on politics, who are not tied to us on the ground at all,” the man from the Islamic Front said. “Secondly, because they derive their legitimacy from overseas, they stay overseas. They are each tied to a particular country. So these people are obstacles because the international community until now is insisting on using them and a political solution. But to us, the solution is military and the people who are going to undertake it are the ones who are going to be important after the fall of the regime. That’s why, if the revolution is weakened militarily, there will be no solution, the fighting will continue on some level until one side or the other will be wiped out.”
The Libyan said he understood, but that the men “who go from hotel to hotel” in foreign capitals could be useful. During the uprising in Libya, he said, “we let them do that, and to deal with the international community and media. While on the ground, the fighting men used what we needed to end the battle — tanks, heat-seeking missiles, whatever.”
“We don’t have those things, so what are we supposed to do?” the Syrian from the Islamic Front said. “We will face them with bare chests to bring down Assad. This is our only solution.”
“It’s coming. Help is coming, you just organize yourselves and it will come. We passed through this in Libya. I know what you are going through. We know the value of a bullet, especially when there aren’t any.”
It was perhaps a sentence too many for these Syrian rebels, who unlike the Libyans do not have the support of NATO planes to aid their fight. The man from the Islamic Front spoke first: “Look, they [the international community] all agreed and helped you out. We don’t have that.”
The man from Jund-Allah followed up: “The thing that helped you was that you had a liberated zone. They won’t even give us a no-fly zone so that we can have a similar area to organize. Bashar’s planes are always in the air. We can’t shoot them down.”
The Libyan was momentarily silent. “If you can suggest a way that our help can reach you, we have weapons, we have money, we have [Libyan] people fighting with you — not for some agenda, just your victory. Some of them are wounded. Just yesterday we visited them in hospital here,” he said.
“God bless you, thank you,” the man from the Islamic Front said.
“My brother, if we give you money, not weapons, would that help?” the Libyan suddenly said. All of the Syrians said that that would help, given that weapons can be purchased and smuggled from Iraq, as well as from within Syria, but that they also needed more advanced items like antitank and antiaircraft missiles, which were harder to obtain. “If you have money you can buy anything,” the commander from Ansar al-Din told his fellow Syrians, although they weren’t so sure.
“Great,” the Libyan said. “There is a solution without having to beg the Turks [to let weapons pass across their territory into Syria]. Why trouble ourselves and pay transport or ask the Qataris? Don’t worry about the money, leave that to us. We don’t want to force anything on you the way the Qataris and others do, how they say, I supported you, you must obey my orders. No. But I am supporting you and just offering brotherly advice.”
Contact details were exchanged, as well as details about where the men fought, and the size of their groupings. The Libyans promised to be in touch, and that they would send their men into Syria to verify battalion numbers “not out of a lack of trust, but because we learned from earlier mistakes. Some people invent phantom brigades.” It was approaching midnight when the men dispersed.
The three Syrians weren’t the only ones trying to get their hands on Libyan weapons. Assad’s opponents from across the political spectrum of Islamism as well as more secular units have long sought to do so and have been successful to some degree.
A few nights after this meeting, in a private home in another neighborhood in Antakya, two non-Islamist commanders — one from Lattakia and another from Raqqa — were discussing the cost of transporting weaponry from Libya to Turkey. No more than $25,000 for a shipment, the commander from Lattakia said. The man from Raqqa had been quoted $65,000. “Leave it to me, brother,” the man from Lattakia said. “I’ll get the goods to you for cheaper. We’ve already used this guy for two shipments. His word is good.”
Syria’s various rebel groups may not be as united as some in the international community would like them to be, but at the moment they have common purpose — to bring down Assad, and to try and secure the weapons to do so. Libyan guns are a means to that end, but getting them across into Syria, especially the advanced antiaircraft systems, will also require a united decision from the international community. Which one will happen first, if at all? Rebel unity, or an international decision to robustly arm the opposition? In the meantime, the rebels are trying to do so on their own.
LONDON — In the debate over the rights and wrongs of foreign intervention in Syria, some have sought parallels in an earlier internal struggle that divided nations: the Spanish Civil War.
The conflict that pitted Spaniard against Spaniard from 1936 to 1939 saw an international regime of non-intervention flouted by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and later the Soviet Union, as the democratic powers stood aside.
Foreign volunteers fought on both sides in an ideological struggle between defenders of Spain’s democratic government, supported by the revolutionary left, and General Francisco Franco’s autocratic traditionalists, backed by Hitler and Mussolini.
Seeking to apply the lessons of Spain to the Syrian conflict, Michael Petrou at Maclean’s magazine wrote on May 9, “We said it was a Spanish conflict, a civil war, and should be decided by the Spaniards. It wasn’t. The democracies might not have intervened, but other powers did.”
As for Syria, he continues, “Non-intervention isn’t an option, because intervention is already happening. Saying you’re against intervention in Syria is like standing in the middle of a blizzard and saying you’re against snow.”
Barry Rubin, an American expert on the Middle East, drew similar parallels a year ago when he wrote: “In several respects, the Syrian civil war is the Spanish Civil War of our time.”
Commenting that the Syrian rebels were “a mixed bag who also include evil forces,” Mr. Rubin said that moderate elements deserved outside support.
“The Iranian regime is helping one side with huge amounts of money and arms, as Nazi Germany did for the Franco forces,” he wrote. “The Turkish regime and the Saudis are helping the other side a bit, but giving disproportionate assistance to the Muslim Brotherhood, like the U.S.S.R. gave to the Communists in Spain.”
The late-1930s was a time when Europe’s democratic powers showed both a readiness to appease Hitler’s Germany and an ambivalence toward the Communist-backed forces fighting Franco.
The result was a policy of non-intervention motivated, according to Norman J. Padelford, a contemporary American academic, “by the desire to prevent Europe becoming so bound up with and so divided over the ideological aspects of the conflict that the fighting would lead to a general European war.”
Critics of non-intervention argued then and since that the hands-off policy of the democratic powers starved the Spanish Republic of the means to fight a war that saw the direct involvement of Germany and Italy, which used it as a dress rehearsal for World War II.
The policy also allowed Moscow to dominate what began as a struggle in defense of democracy. By the end of the war, Soviet-backed elements on the Republican side were expending as much effort on suppressing their anti-fascist allies as they were on confronting Franco’s fascists.
Fouad Ajami, a Lebanese-born academic who supported the 2003 U.S.-led war against the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, has identified “vivid parallels” between Syria and Spain.
“Analogies are never perfect,” he wrote last October, “but as I have tracked this rebellion, and read and reflected on it, thoughts of the Spanish civil war have come to mind. The rancid hatred and mercilessness that separates the warring camps in Syria is evocative of that quality of hatred that played out in Spain.”
He also suggested that lack of outside support had helped drive Syrian rebels to identify with Islam. “They invoke Allah more often than they did at the beginning of their struggle — which is perhaps an accurate reading of their solitude in the world of nations.”
Others have dismissed the parallels with Spain. Daniel Larison, in a riposte to Mr. Rubin in The American Conservative a year ago, rejected “lazy 1930s references when making arguments for taking sides in another country’s civil war.”
“Even if we accept the comparison for the sake of argument,” he wrote, “how is it in the U.S. interest to back the weaker side?”
Jeremy Salt, a Turkish-based historian, turned the Spanish analogy on its head in an article in The Palestine Chronicle last October in which he criticized Mr. Ajami.
The true parallel with Spain, he wrote, was “the determination of the German national socialists and Italian fascists in the 1930s and of the combination of ‘liberal democracies’ and gulf autocracies in 2011-12 to destroy a government standing in the way of their strategic interests.”
The parallels between the two conflicts have not been overlooked in Spain itself.
Juan Goytisolo, an award-winning Spanish writer who was a child during the Spanish war, has written of the moral blindness of non-interventionist powers such as Britain and France, whose policies of appeasement in the 1930s had been as ineffective as they were disastrous in their failure to avert a wider war.
As for Syria, “the daily martyrdom of the Syrian people does not allow the international community to sit with its arms crossed,” he wrote in Spain’s El País this month.
Citing the contradictory statements of Western leaders, and eternal debates in what he calls the “useless and discredited” United Nations Security Council, he said history was repeating itself and “brute force is confronting the ethics and human rights theoretically defended by our fragile and faint-hearted democracies.”