No-Fly Zone over Syria: Wrong Policy at the Wrong Time

No-Fly Zone over Syria: Wrong Policy at the Wrong Time

From the Heritage Foundation, surprisingly (or maybe not, I don't follow them closely but remember they were major backers of the Iraq war, aka the greatest disaster ever to befall US foreign policy):

In the aftermath of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Turkey last weekend, there has been speculation that the U.S. might support the idea of establishing a no-fly zone (NFZ) over Syria. Under the current conditions, an establishment of an NFZ would be a costly and risky action that would do little to stop the killing on the ground while entangling the U.S. in an intensifying civil war.

In the conclusion they end with the zinger, "The U.S. Air Force is not for hire every time there is a popular uprising somewhere in the world."  

They have other recommendations that are more along the lines along what might one expect, i.e. creating of coalition of powers "interested in a post-Assad government that does not export terrorism and pander to Iran", providing "non-lethal aid" and "providing covert weaponry only after it has identified reliable, effective, and non-Islamist local commanders who can provide ironclad guarantees that the arms will not fall into the hands of terrorists." Sounds easy, right?

[via Agonist]

The rise of Salafism in Syria

"we’re even willing to say we’re al-Qaeda to annoy the regime"

Roula Khalaf and Abigail Fielding-Smith reporting for the FT from Beirut:

Syria’s rebels are also driven by religion in their relentless 17-month campaign to bring down Bashar al-Assad, first through peaceful protests and now through a military struggle. Abu Berri says he became a committed Salafi, the ultraconservative Sunni sect, after spending nine years in conservative Saudi Arabia.

Many of his peers, he says, are becoming Salafi even if they have little understanding of this brand of puritanical Islam. The charismatic leader of a Homs brigade, Abdelrazzaq Tlas, traded his moustache for a beard, he notes. “They grow beards to defy the regime,” he says. “In fact, we’re even willing to say we’re al-Qaeda to annoy the regime.”

This kind of comment goes to the heart of the trouble in identifying who's a jihadist in Syria, and what that exactly means, as discussed here the other day. Worth reading the whole thing.

Turkey's nightmare - in Syria

Turkey's nightmare

Today's editorial in the FT:

Turkey is watching its deepest fears become reality on its southern border. As Kurdish forces take control of towns across north-east Syria, Ankara faces the possibility of an autonomous Kurdish area emerging, in loose federation with adjacent Iraqi Kurdistan.

To the Turkish establishment, this is an existential threat: an embryonic Kurdish state is bound to embolden Turkey’s 13m-plus Kurdish population in demands for regional autonomy, and could try to claim chunks of Turkish territory. Worse, a powerful element in a new coalition of Syria’s Kurdish groups is the PYD – an ally of the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a 27-year struggle against the Turkish state. The PKK is now exploiting the situation, launching massed attacks, not the usual scattered raids, on army posts in Turkey’s south-east.

And there are reports that Assad is evacuating the Kurdish areas of Syria to give militants there a free rein.

Syria: 20,000 dead, 65,000 arrested or missing, 2m displaced

Syria: 20,000 dead, 65,000 arrested or missing, 2m displaced

From Mediapart:

Dix-sept mois après le début de la révolution syrienne et neuf mois après sa militarisation face à la répression du régime Assad, on compte près de 20 000 morts, 65 000 détenus et disparus, des dizaines de milliers de blessés, et deux millions de déplacés, dont 300 000 qui ont fui le pays vers la Turquie, le Liban, l’Irak, la Jordanie, l’Égypte et d’autres destinations arabes et européennes, selon les comités de coordination locaux et plusieurs organisations de droits de l’Homme. Le régime perd le contrôle de plusieurs régions, subit des défections et perd toute autorité politique et symbolique. Mais résiste encore par la puissance de feu des forces armées lui restant fidèles.

Syria and Saudi Arabia: tyranny versus tyranny

✚ Syria and Saudi Arabia: tyranny versus tyranny

Brian Whitaker:

In the debate on Syria at the UN General Assembly last week, Bashar al-Jaafari, the Syrian representative, hit back at Arab Gulf states which have lined up against the Assad regime, accusing them of dishonest motives. To quote the Syrian government news agency's report of his speech ...

"Al-Jaafari added that some of the countries that adopted the draft, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, cannot be considered as examples of democracy and respecting human rights, as these countries are governed by oligarchic, tyrannical regimes that don't hesitate to suppress their people and murder protesters, adding that the state of human rights and basic liberties in them is considered among the worst in the world according to documented reports by human rights organisations and opposition sources abroad."

Bearing in mind that Jaafari was himself speaking on behalf of an oligarchical, tyrannical regime – and one that has committed atrocities on a far greater scale that the regimes that he named – he did nevertheless make a valid point. 

The Arab Gulf states' hostility towards Assad is not based on a principled stance against dictatorship, and this creates an opening that the Assad regime can – and probably will – exploit. 

Syria’s prime minister defects to Jordan

✚  Syria’s prime minister defects to Jordan


Syria’s prime minister has defected from the administration of president Bashar al Assad, along with three other cabinet ministers, marking the highest-profile loss yet to the regime embroiled in an escalating civil war.

Riad Farid Hijab’s spokesman read a statement for the former prime minister on Al Jazeera television, following claims by Syrian state TV that Mr Hijab had been sacked, just months after taking office in the government.

“I announce today my defection from the killing and terrorist regime and I announce that I have joined the ranks of the freedom and dignity revolution. I announce that I am from today a soldier in this blessed revolution,” Mr Hijab said in the statement.

So what changed for him between June and now?

Voila Capture26

Update: Check out this cool interactive map of the regime and its defectors by al-Jazeera

As you can see the trend does not bode well for Assad.

Also more at Brown Moses blog about future defections.

There is a lot of talk about these defections having been negotiated — but between whom? The exiled Syrian opposition and the defectors? With other countries?

Breaking the Arab News

✚ Breaking the Arab News

Sultan al-Qassemi, in Foreign Policy, delivers the harshest possible statement on al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya's Syria coverage:

For the non-Arabic-speaking viewer, news coverage of Syria on these channels is akin to CNN's iReport -- the monthly interactive half-hour citizen journalism show -- but for several hours a day.

iReport? More like iTryToSaveMoneyByNotUsingRealJournalists. Except that for the Arab channels it's not about money, it's about their political agenda.

Abdem Rahman Rashed, the General Manager of al-Arabiya, responds to Sultan's piece in an op-ed in al-Sharq al-Awsat today accusing him of being misled by regime propaganda. This from Saudi Arabia's chief propagandist. (Update: Abu Jamajem has translated the Rashed piece.]

[P.S. I am experimenting with how short posts like this one are displayed. Be patient.]

Sick: Why don't we know more about the Free Syrian Army?

Syria: The Untold Story?

Good questions from Gary Sick on the dearth of information about the FSA and how it has built up a fighting force.

... we are getting only the vaguest possible references to the description and sources of all that new weaponry, the training of FSA cadres, and how much it is costing to build a new army from scratch.

Since the folks doing it are generally friends, not enemies, and therefore much more accessible, wouldn’t you think that our enterprising media would be coming up with exclusive reports almost every day about how it is being done? Is this simply a tacit agreement to avoid embarrassing allied governments?

It seems to me that a curtain of silence has been drawn over this very important aspect of the Syria story. Am I missing something?

On jihadists and Syria

There very well be jihadists who swear allegiance to al-Qaeda in Syria, but I do not like the way this NYT story starts:

CAIRO — It is the sort of image that has become a staple of the Syrian revolution, a video of masked men calling themselves the Free Syrian Army and brandishing AK-47s — with one unsettling difference. In the background hang two flags of Al Qaeda, white Arabic writing on a black field.

“We are now forming suicide cells to make jihad in the name of God,” said a speaker in the video using the classical Arabic favored by Al Qaeda.

The video, posted on YouTube, is one more bit of evidence that Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists are doing their best to hijack the Syrian revolution, with a growing although still limited success that has American intelligence officials publicly concerned, and Iraqi officials next door openly alarmed.

The black flag is not al-Qaeda's own — it is the historical flag of Jihad and has a long tradition in Islamic history (Update: Will McCants informs me this is the al-Qaeda version of the black flag, in use by various jihadist groups since the 1990s) . Likewise, classical Arabic is not just favored by al-Qaeda — it's also favored by many television stations and indeed books in the Arab world. This gives the worst possible impression of the groups, while bizarrely taking the focus off the most worrying aspect of what's being described: the adoption of suicide bombings as a tactic (which, of course, is not unique to jihadists). So I'm not sure from what is being described here what evidence there is to link al-Qaeda to these Syrian fighters — I would expect evidence that the US government takes seriously to include something like the presence of a known al-Qaeda member in the cell, not some basic visual cues.

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The events in Syria and the intervention debate

By the Guardian's inimitable Steve Bell

After today’s amazing events in Damascus — the bombing that decapitated at least three senior regime figures, the fighting inside of Damascus itself, rumors of regime splits, defections and escapes — it is little wonder that the debate over what the international community should do has flared up once again. For the interventionists, it appears to have been an occasion for misplaced snark.

Take this exchange between Shadi Hamid and Jeffrey Goldberg:

This misses the point — earnestly or not — that the case against intervention in Syria is not about how violent the conflict would get. It is about not getting involved about something that will be inevitable violent and bloody and could be further complicated by intervention. The survey statistics that came out today about how Americans feel about intervention in Syria, for instance, show contradictory data: on the one hand a majority of Americans are for imposing a no-fly zone, but on the other a majority is against carrying out the attacks on Syrian air defense systems that would be a necessary precondition to imposing a no-fly zone. It’s obvious that most respondents do not necessary make that link, but pro-intervention people like to spin it that in fact Americans would back an intervention. But you can just as easily, and in fact more plausibly, spin it the other way around: if they knew that it would involve an attack on Syrian military installations, Americans would not back a no-fly zone. After all, the strong trend in that survey is one of opposition to military intervention in Syria.

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Syria: The end of the beginning?

Paul Mutter sends in a round-up of today's momentous news from Syria.

The "Free Syrian Army" has claimed responsibility for a stunning attack on the Assad regime's inner circle in Damascus. The heretofore unknown organization "Liwa al-Islam" claimed one of its suicide bombers had been responsible, but spokespeople from the FSA countered that they had infiltrated the secure compound where the meeting was held month prior to today and planted bombs there with this meeting in mind. The regime asserts that it was a suicide bombing by "hireling tools that are implementing foreign plots."

Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and Deputy Chief of Staff Asef Shawkat were reportedly killed, along with one of Assad's top aides. Former Defense Minister Hasan Turkmani was also reportedly killed. Hisham Bekhtyar, head of the General Security Directorate, and the Interior Minister Mohammad al-Shaar were said to be injured as well (rumors additional top officials' deaths are swirling around, as are ones that Bashar al-Assad himself was caught in the blast).

What the regime must be really worried about now is that if members of the FSA did carry out the attack as they claim, then it strongly suggests that there were defectors inside the regime's inner circle who made the bombing happen. The Wall Street Journal reports that the FSA is claiming unnamed members of the Republican Guard Division as accomplices (the Guard is led by Assad's brother, Maher).

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Powers continue jockeying over influence in Syria

The New York Times reports that the CIA has been on the ground in Turkey vetting armed opposition groups in Syria. The anonymous sources cited by the Times say that the US itself is not providing weapons to the rebels, in keeping with its earlier declarations to not directly arm them, but is apparently tracking weapons going into Syria and “advising” allies in the region as to which groups should get what weapons. Reports on alleged Western intelligence gathering operations along Syria’s borders several months ago were denied then, but the Times asserts that the CIA presence has been on the ground “for several weeks” at least.

The promise of weapons sales to the rebels has been advanced as a cost-effective way for the US and its allies to direct the course of the Syrian uprising’s armed resistance to the Assad regime. With arms comes influence - or so Washington, Doha and Riyadh hope - and the armed opposition has been hard-pressed to provision itself.

Even with these promises, armed groups in Syria, who are frequently at odds with one another, have relied and continue to rely on materials produced by Syrian expatriates, captured battlefield detritus or purchased from black marketeers. With the exception of equipment seized from a battlefield or brought over by defecting soldiers, the regime can still bring much greater firepower to bear, which manifests itself in the form of besieging and shelling neighborhoods concealing (or thought to be concealing) insurgents fighting the Syrian Army. As such, some factions of the anti-Assad movement continue to call for direct foreign military intervention, notably from the Turkish Army.

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Book excerpt: Josh Stacher's "Adaptable Autocrats"

One-time contributor to the blog Joshua Stacher recently published his book, Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria. Since the 2011 uprisings, there has been a debate in Middle Eastern academia as to whether regional specialists focused too much on the persistence of authoritarianism (and power elites in particular) and not enough on the societies (and social movements in particular.) Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive, and the debate has had its ups and down according to what’s in the news. In this book, Josh looks the regime structures as an indication of both regime sustainability and adaptability, and applies this research to how Egypt and Syria handled the uprisings and their aftermath.

Josh writes:

Rather than explain the transition, this book compares how the structure of executive power allows for an authoritarian regime to change its ruling coalition (or not). Thus, it explains why Egypt could rapidly begin a transition while Syria could not. In the case of Egypt, this meant a long-time dictator and the neoliberal team could be removed and replaced by SCAF while “the state” remained in tact. Contrastingly, no such coalitional alterations could be made in Syria and is why its state was drawn into a long conflict with society as a consequence of the challenges posed by popular mobilization. The book does this by comparing institution building during the 1970s as well as examines elite and non-elite politics during the last decade in Egypt and Syria.

We are reprinting below the abstract of the book and an excerpt from its introduction to give readers a sense of the argument.

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⇛ The International Response to Syria After the Houla Massacre

The International Response to Syria After the Houla Massacre : The New Yorker

Yesterday, Annan was back in Damascus calling on “everyone with a gun” in Syria to give it a rest—as if all parties were equally to blame for the country’s agony. By what honest argument, after Houla, can one deny Syrians who feel the need to take up arms against the Assad regime? And who can take comfort from what the spokesman for the Syrian foreign ministry, Jihad Makdissi, tweeted today: “Positive & constructive meeting between Annan & President Assad this morning. Details discussed to push forward the plan & end violence”?

Sounds a lot like the Middle East peace process in the last 20 years, doesn't it?

Philip Gourevitch has more on Syria here, in which he writes:

To Syria hawks, like Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham, the solution to the crisis is simple: an American- and NATO-led air war against Assad. But, at the NATO summit in Chicago last week, there was no support for the idea. Proponents of intervention like to point out that Obama’s Permanent Representative to NATO, Ivo Daalder, was the co-author of a piece in Foreign Affairs which said that the “victory” in Libya should serve as a model for future interventions to prevent atrocity and support positive political change. But none of the conditions that worked to NATO’s advantage in Libya—its geographical and political self-containment, Qaddafi’s abandonment, the efficacy of the opposition forces, the ease of executing the mission from the air—pertain in Syria. Instead, the situation has all the makings of just the sort of quagmire that NATO is impatient to get out of: the main item on the agenda in Chicago was to declare the plan to withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014 “irreversible.”

Syria's atamans

Atamanschina” is a Russian word that translates to “time of the atamans.” It refers to the period of the Russian Civil War when anti—Bolshevik Cossack bands — led by their “atamans” — dominated large swaths of Siberia with Japanese backing. These bands’ “anti—Bolshevik” campaigns were characterized mainly by pogroms against local populations and systematic extortion of refugees.

While Syria’s opposition — in larger part due to international (in)action — faces these pitfalls at present, it is Damascus’s forces that bear the greatest resemblance to these long—dead atamans. Despite the under—strength, under—armed and sometimes brutal actions of the anti—Assad armed opposition, the Assad regime already has its own Cossack hosts, in the form of its shabiha paramilitaries, and its most trusted atamans are the Syrian President’s relatives.

The dissent Yassin al—Haj Saleh notes that this relationship is termed “al—salbata” in Syrian Arabic, and “is a uniquely Syrian term for the way in which state authority is exercised in Assad’s Syria: It is an amalgamation of salab (looting or plundering), labat (the act of knocking someone down) and tasallut (the unfettered exercise of power).” Alongside it is the phrase “al—taballi … roughly equivalent to ‘informing,’” which “means falsely accusing a person of doing something for which they will pay a heavy price.” Such statements often mean a one—way trip to the torture chambers run by a counter—intelligence obsessed regime. The Syrian national security establishment is led by minority officers, and have long been dependent on brute force and extortion to maintain order. Their strongest supporters are those who’ve most benefitted from official largesse — from institutionalized discrimination and extraction, that is — and they must hope that those who haven’t benefitted remain cowed and distrustful of an armed opposition with Islamist and (other) foreign influences. It is, increasingly, a losing bet.

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Beyond Syria's "truce" and interventionism

The April 12 truce between the Syrian military and the armed opposition groups under the Free Syrian Army umbrella is fragmenting as reports continue to come out of Syria showing that violence is continuing while the UN is preparing a ceasefire monitoring mission. Syrian blogger Maysaloon, on the catch–22s for the Syrian Army and the armed resistance:

The Syrian Foreign Ministry has announced that the regime will not withdraw its armed forces from Syrian cities until it has a written guarantee from the opposition to abide by a ceasefire. To add insult to injury the statement asks that the guarantee also provide for the handing in of weapons by the different groups and also to allow for the “state” to reassert its control over all parts of the country. Apparently the Ministry wished to “clarify” the Annan proposal; in effect what the regime is demanding is a surrender document from the opposition.

What is most absurd is that Syria does not have one opposition, but many oppositions. It also does not have one Free Syrian Army, but many different groups fighting loosely under that label. So getting them to agree and provide one document - even if we assume they were going to accept this demand - is nearly impossible. And that, of course, is the whole point of the regime’s demands.

Saudi and American hawks continue to call for the arming of Syrian opposition group. On the other side of the coin, “liberal interventionists,” now including French president Nicholas Sarkozy, are urging, with hints of support from Turkey, that Western countries should establish “humanitarian corridors” for the tens of thousands of refugees who have been making for Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

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The Saudis and Syria

I don't get it — does Saudi Arabia support a ceasefire or a continued insurrection in Syria? It can't be both!

Syrian official takes hard line on troop withdrawal

‘‘I believe we all agree on the need for an immediate cease-fire to the systematic killing,’’ Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said at a joint news conference with Clinton.

He said arming the Syrian opposition is a ‘‘duty’’ so that it can defend itself against Assad’s onslaught.

Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have spoken about possible military intervention, from arming Syria’s badly overmatched rebels to creating safe zones from which the rebels can operate.

The best thing you'll read on Syria

 Beyond the Fall of the Syrian Regime | Middle East Research and Information Project

This, by Peter Harling and Sarah Birke, is by far and away the best piece I have read on Syria (and why you should really subscribe to MERIP — not to read it, because it's free, to support it as a platform). It stands out among all the hare-brained intervention plans, the letters from Syria, the impassioned calls for action and all the rest. I really urge you to read the whole thing, but here are some selected highlights.

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