The Zaatari refugee camp

Parastou Hassouri has written for the blog before. She has been living in Cairo since 2005, has worked in the field of international refugee law and specializes in issues of gender and migration. This is a detailed (and really engrossing) acccount of her experience working in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees currently reside. 

In March, the United Refugee Agency (UNHCR) announced that the number of displaced Syrians had reached one million (the real number is surely higher as many Syrians leaving for other Arab countries do not necessarily register as refugees). The UN’s announcement was accompanied by a plea for funding: Only one third of the funds needed had been received. Meanwhile, a number of non-governmental organizations concerned with the Syrian refugee crisis have issued reports, some focusing on the plight of children and women, detailing the urgency of the humanitarian crisis.

Having devoted a good deal of my professional career to refugee law, and yet never having worked in a refugee camp in the midst of an ongoing refugee crisis, I decided to respond to a call put forth by the UNHCR, and spend some time working at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. I only spent three months in Zaatari (November 2012 to February 2013) and what follows are my thoughts based on this limited time period and reflects only my experiences and opinions, and not those of the UNHCR.


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A follow-up on the Syria arms report

In my recent post on the arming of anti-Assad rebels via Croatia and Jordan, Syria Comment’s Aron Lund raised several important points I’ve discussed in earlier articles, but not recently, about how label- and media-driven coverage of the fighting in the country has become - often at the expense of the non-military anti-Assad efforts still going on in the country that I interviewed Stephen Star on a few months ago.   Lund’s report in part builds off on a discussion he and I had over the piece, where he pointed out that “there isn’t an actual FSA organization” and that unless the FSA label is better explained, “[i]t serves more to confuse readers than to clarify organizational links.”  

Lund’s post is a good breakdown of the anti-Assad rebels’ organizations two years into the conflict, so I’d like to highlight a few points from the primer he has written for Syria Comment.

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US u-turn on Syria?

So says Abdel Bari Atwan in US U-turn on Syria:

Speaking in Oslo, the US secretary said: 'What the US and the world want is to stop the killing in Syria.' He added, 'Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should sit with the leaders of the Syrian opposition at the negotiating table to form a transitional government, according to the framework agreement concluded in Geneva.'

Such statements tell us that the US administration, during its second term, has turned to adopt a different position to the Syrian crisis, looking to achieve a political solution.

The US Secretary of State did not stipulate that the resignation of the Syrian president was a pre-condition condition for any political solution for the Syrian crisis during the press conference. He did not say that the Syrian regime or its representatives should sit with the Syrian opposition at the negotiating table, while he said Assad should negotiate with the opposition. The statement is essentially American recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian regime.

To be more clear, we should remind ourselves that for the last two years, President Obama told the world that President Assad had lost his legitimacy, stressing that he should leave the power. However, he has not said anything of the sort for the last five months.

He predicts "more harmonious relations between the Syrian regime and the US" in the future, as part of a Russian-US deal. I doubt it.

Do arms transfers represent breakthrough for Syrian rebels?

FSA fighters being instructed in the use of the ex-Yugoslav M79 anti-tank rocket launcher (YouTube)

The New York Times reported last week that “Saudi Arabia has financed a large purchase of infantry weapons from Croatia and quietly funneled them to antigovernment fighters in Syria.” The effort was reportedly known to the US, but nothing was said for or against it so that it might proceed under the radar of a European Union arms embargo on Syria.

Palettes of former Yugoslavian weapons are not game-changers in and of themselves, and the way they’ve been secured by the rebels shows that the US still refuses to place its bets on any specific group. That said, the arrival of planeloads worth of small arms is significant in that it demonstrates a greater investment in the rebels by their foreign backers. According to the Australian small arms expert Nic Jenzen-Jones, it is the quantity of the weapons that is the most significant development for the rebels: “a lot of people are discussing, ‘is x system effective against y armoured vehicle?’. What’s more important in this conflict is that we’ve seen an initial dearth of weapons and only recently have we seen supplies of anti-armour weapons significantly increase.” 

“It’s a long term thing, but I’m sure we’ll see the situation in Daraa look very similar to that in Aleppo in the coming months,” the Times’ Eliot Higgins told me, as Aleppo and other parts of northern Syria are falling under rebel control due to the capture of multiple Syrian military bases in the region. According to Higgins, the new weapons have given the rebels an "extra edge that has allowed them to start attacking checkpoints and bases, resulting in the capture of heavier equipment” from the Syrian Army.

Jenzen-Jones explained that three types of Eastern bloc anti-tank weapons – the M79 “Osa,” the M60 recoilless gun and the RPG–22 – now in use in Syria are “suitable for the type of hit-and-run urban warfare the rebels are conducting.” Suitable, but not “game-changing.”

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Hof: Is it too late for Syria

Syria: Is It Too Late? | Atlantic Council

Former US envoy to Syria Fred Hof, who seems borderline suicidal: 

Syria is dying. Bashar al-Assad has made it clear that the price of his removal is the death of the nation. A growing extremist minority in the armed opposition has made it clear that a Syria of citizenship and civil society is, in its view, an abomination to be killed. And those in the middle long begging for Western security assistance are increasingly bemoaning that it is already too late. Between the cold, cynical sectarianism of Assad and the white-hot sectarian hatred of those extremists among his opponents Syria already is all but gone, a body politic as numbingly cold and colorless as the harsh wintry hell bringing misery and hopelessness to untold numbers of displaced Syrians.

It might in fact be too late to save Syria from the diabolical ministrations of Assad and his enabling Salafist enemies. Indeed, the single-minded, self-centered destructiveness of foes who once cooperated in the killing of Iraqis and who now collaborate in the murder of Syria may be sufficiently powerful to block any effort at national salvation regardless of its source. By facilitating Assad's poison pill sectarian strategy Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia have facilitated the implantation of al-Qaeda (in the form of the Nusra Front) in Syria. By funneling arms and money to those calling for death to Alawites and the establishment of a Syrian emirate, donors in certain Gulf countries, Turkey, and elsewhere have advanced Assad's survival strategy with a toxic blend of tactical skill and strategic stupidity. As in “Murder on the Orient Express,” many hands have plunged the knife into a victim perhaps too far gone to be saved.

The article is not so much an argument that it's too late as that more involvement, with force, is what is needed from the US. Hof concludes;

Yet Syria's fate will likely be decided by men with guns. If a firm, irrevocable decision is in place that the United States will not play in this arena, then it may indeed be too late for Syria as the Assad/al-Qaeda tag team crowds out all other opponents from the ring, making Syria ungovernable, 22.5 million Syrians vulnerable, and neighboring states fully exposed to a catastrophe that could persist for decades.

So at this point, is this an argument for going after, with full force, both the Assad regime and sectarian militias? Hof does not answer that satisfactorily, nor does he address the issue that if it's a choice between two bad things, which is the lesser evil (and it might very well be the Assad regime, the only one that has officially been written off).

(And to be fair, my own solution-which-will-not-happen: Turkish invasion and control of the country for at least five years, ruthless disarmament campaign.)

Should journalists interview people as they are being tortured?

I would think probably not, but the editor of The Atlantic apparently thinks that's ok:

Ibrahim al-Halabi was confused by my questions. He could neither tell me how he landed himself in a makeshift prison cell nor respond to even simple queries, like what job he held. The 27-year-old had been picked up at a routine checkpoint in the city of Aleppo by rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighting the Syrian regime. When he could not provide identification papers, they arrested him.

My broken Egyptian Arabic was probably not to blame for the troubled communication, because another inmate offered logical responses to the same routine questions. But with Ibrahim, they only elicited a bewildered gaze.

On the rare occasion when he did speak, Ibrahim provided contradictory responses. At times he said he worked in a textile factory. Other times he said he was unemployed. Once he even admitted that he had worked for the regime's paramilitary, known as the shabiha, albeit for only two days. Ibrahim was clearly scared. His left hand never stopped shaking. Red spots on his forehead and nose covered the marks where his captors had beaten him. When Ibrahim refused to speak, a fighter yelled at him "Liar! Shabih! Dog!" before intensifying his pain with several slaps to the face.

It'd be one thing if the journalist had witnessed the torture. But he appears to have been given the interview opportunity by the man's detainees and the guards are helping him get answers out. The comments thread is on fire in the article.

Yep, the same magazine which runs blog posts sponsored by the Church of Scientology and whose Middle East content is produced by the (pro-Israel think tank and advocacy group) Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Syria: The fall of al-Moushat Academy

Le : Syrie - La chute d'Al-Mouchat

This report by Florence Aubenas on the fall of al-Moushat Academy near Aleppo, Syria's elite military academy, is incredible. It details the sectarian tensions inside of the academy growing over the last year, culminating as rebels began to lay siege to it. Over time, officers and cadets would break apart along sectarian lines inside the academy compound. They survived on nearly nothing for weeks, unable to go out during the day due to sniper fire, fighting each other for scraps of food at night. The Alawites in particular appear to have had a gradual descent into Apocalypse Now style madness, paranoid about their Sunni fellow officers and shouting the "Bashar is God". Just incredible reporting:

A Al-Mouchat, on enterre au bulldozer les morts de la première attaque, cinq par cinq. Chaque nuit, les désertions s'accélèrent. On brûle les portes et les fenêtres pour essayer d'avoir moins froid dans les lignes de défense. « Faites ce que vous voulez, mais restez, supplie un gradé. Sinon, Al-Qaida va vous égorger. » Les réserves de nourriture sont épuisées. Harcelé par les tirs rebelles, l'hélicoptère chargé du ravitaillement largue les vivres du mauvais côté des murs. Le haut commandant insulte le pilote par radio. L'autre rigole : « Tu as faim ? C'est pas mon problème. Baise ta mère. » Sur la base, on mange n'importe quoi, de l'herbe, des cigarettes. On boit l'eau de pluie.

Le site est en permanence sous la lunette des snipers rebelles. Plus personne ne bouge, ils sont terrés le jour durant, là où chacun peut, par groupes de deux, trois parfois, se méfiant les uns des autres. Des ombres ne commencent à bouger qu'après le coucher du soleil. Toutes vont vers les cuisines, espérant voler quelque chose. « On était comme des chiens entre nous, à se tirer dessus pour un peu de riz. On avait la haine au coeur.» Entre les déserteurs, les morts et les blessés, il ne reste plus qu'une centaine de militaires. Eugène, officier chrétien, est avec deux élèves alaouites. « Ils avaient deux balles dans la poche pour être sûrs de ne pas être pris vivants. Ils ont combattu jusqu'à la mort, en chantant pour Bachar. »

Interview: Stephen Starr on Syria, part 2

This is part two of Paul Mutter's interview with Stephen Starr. Read part one.

Do you have any advice for correspondents on this matter, to better report on this “silent majority”?

I don’t want to give advice on this. You can’t go from a rebel-held area – and you can’t shoot photographs in rebel-held areas – to regime-controlled areas. You can’t pass, and even if you do get in, you can’t behave in the same way. In areas under the FSA’s control, you can take photographs, you can speak to people and get direct quotes, you can get a pretty good picture [of what’s happening in the area]. But if you try to do that in Damascus, in areas under the regime’s control, you won’t last five minutes: you’ll be picked up by the regime’s security You can’t go out into the streets of central Damascus with a camera and just ask people what’s happening. There’s security everything.

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Interview: Stephen Starr on Syria

Contributor Paul Mutter interviewed Syria expert Stephen Starr at NYU this week about his book on the conflict there, and his impressions of Syria since last winter when he departed the country. Starr is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eyewitness to the Uprising and — full disclosure — Mutter's editor at Near East Quarterly. This is part one of the interview, part two will be published tomorrow.

How common are nonviolent demonstrations now in Syria today?

In terms of to what extent there are people still protesting across the country, I think there’s certainly a lot less now than there were in the first six months … I think there’s three main reasons for that: one is that [more] people don’t see peaceful protests as a way of achieving what they want to achieve, which is the downfall of the regime. And they see that the armed element of the uprising has taken precedence over the protests, and they see the regime so violent that they feel that peaceful protesting is going to stop the regime when they use guns and shelling … they’ve carried out airstrikes against protestors in Idlib Province, whereas before when they had a presence of troops on the ground they would shoot or shell them. Another reason … is that a lot of people who took part in recent protests but were detained were often radicalized by the violence and the torture they experienced while detained, and when they got out a lot of people took up arms. Now, when I say a lot of people, though, [we have to be cautious since] you can’t put a number on it. These guys got out, they saw firsthand what the regime was doing, and felt that the only way to beat the regime was to pick up a gun and fight back using violence And the third sense is the feeling that, generally speaking, peaceful protests haven’t achieved what they wanted to do. In the beginning, it was very much obviously about peaceful demonstrations, these were the cornerstone of the revolution. And I think that certainly, there’s revolt fatigue amongst protestors. I see a lot of frustration among people trying to maintain peaceful protests, other kinds of non-violent dissidence against the government.

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The FSA's new media-military offensive in northern Syria

Enduring America, a useful sources for media summations on Syria and (highly-debated) FSA claims of successes suggests that FSA forces are indeed increasingly gaining ground against Assad:

For several weeks there has been a growing number of rumors, low-quality Youtube videos, and eyewitness reports that suggested that not only was the FSA winning in Deir Ez Zor, Lattakia, and Aleppo, but it was on the brink of major victories in all three provinces. Similarly, there is a growing body of inconclusive evidence that the FSA is surging in Daraa province, and was increasingly effective in and around Damascus. While individual reports of this nature may or may not each be true, the trend lines were beginning to look clear.

The spread of the rebellion throughout the country means that even the vaunted internal security forces have to weigh whether moving one force to Point A will weaken Point B fatally, is surely impacting developments on the ground – desertion and heavy casualties continue to mount for the state’s forces. And Syria’s unwillingness to pursue the fight all the way to the Turkish or Iraqi borders for fear of igniting a wider conflagration must give breathing room not just to refugees, but to arms smugglers and militiamen:

For more than a week … that body of evidence has been harder and harder to dismiss as noise and rumor. With well documented victories yesterday, the FSA has encouraged us to post headlines that we have been sitting on for a long time.

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Flight Records List Russia Sending Tons of Cash to Syria - ProPublica

Flight Records List Russia Sending Tons of Cash to Syria - ProPublica

Important story:

This past summer, as the Syrian economy began to unravel and the military pressed hard against an armed rebellion, a Syrian government plane ferried what flight records describe as more than 200 tons of “bank notes” from Moscow.

The records of overflight requests were obtained by ProPublica. The flights occurred during a period of escalating violence in a conflict that has left tens of thousands of people dead since fighting broke out in March 2011.

The regime of Bashar al-Assad is increasingly in need of cash to stay afloat and continue financing the military’s efforts to crush the uprising. U.S. and European sanctions, including a ban on minting Syrian currency, have damaged the country’s economy. As a result, Syria lost access to an Austrian bank that had printed its bank notes.

In Translation: Haitham al-Manaa on the new Syrian coalition

I was looking for interesting articles on the new Syrian coalition (see my take and links here) and came across this post by Angry Arab recommending an article by Haitham al-Manaa, a Syrian dissident who has been critical of the SNC and the armed Syrian opposition. In it, Manaa returns to a theme he has written about extensively in the last few months: can an armed opposition be united in any political meaningful way? And is does this coalition empower the organized fighters (with their ties to foreign money, recently ex-regime figures, and Islamist groups) at the expense of the broader Syrian social movement that rose against Assad, or indeed a Syrian society that has shown it is not always in favor of militarizing this conflict (here I think especially of how the fighting was brought to Aleppo mostly by outsiders) despite the regime’s atrocities?

Our In Translation series is made possible by the support of Industry Arabic, the fully-loaded, all-mod-cons translation service that specializes in — you guessed it! — Arabic. These guys have no fear of broken plurals, they’re accurate and fast and they can turn out your report/article/technical manual faster than you can say idafa. Please check them out.

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Doha and Its Sisters

Haitham Manaa, as-Safir, 14 November 2011

For more than two months, and all those who passed through the Syrian National Council, from founders, resigners, members, associates, and missionaries for membership headed to Doha to rescue this body from intensive care — which the doctor, Eric Chevallier[1], failed to do on his own. Neither the group photo with President Hollande, nor the injection of funding and diplomatic support was enough.

The American pragmatic mentality was more subtle when it took some of the ideas proposed by Riad Seif and reformulated them in a way consistent with a radical departure from the National Council story. Hilary Clinton announced that the product had expired, and it was now necessary for an induced birth and Caesarian section to take place for a newborn heir to succeed a brother that did not take advantage of the oath of allegiance he received from the Gulf, Turkey and the West, who did not win people over, and who did not develop a political discourse befitting the destructive violence that the country is suffering from.

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New Syrian coalition links

Links from all over the place on this question are below.

I think it's a good sign even if it had to be pushed together by outside forces. There are still too many Muslim Brothers on the coalition board, though. But in the leadership it is nice to see the kind of people who were behind the original protests against Assad rather than the militias of former regime officials, Muslim Brotherhood brigades and sundry Salafi nutters. I suspect the test of this new coalition will be how effective it is in maintaining at least the outward appearance of unity and implementing its goals of forming competent united organizational structures for aid to refugees and a joint military command. The French are very keen to get things going by having this turn into a one-stop shop for coordinating aid, as a first step. And one senses that the GCC, the French, the Brits and some of the others gung-ho on acting fast are rather peeved off with the slow movement of the Obama administration and would like to present it a success to nudge it along.

The question for the Obama administration, now reviewing its Syria policy, is still the same: who to arm, and whether the risk of arming these groups means reproducing Libya: militias across the country, trans-border violence, arming extremists, etc. No one wants a Somalia — much less a 1980s Afghanistan.

My question yesterday, in an off-the-record briefings with French officials, was how this affects the Lakhdar Brahimi track, which implies that the Assad government still represents Syria since he is negotiating with them. The answer I received suggested no one wants to outright kill the Brahimi track — indeed there was suggestion that continuing to pursue a ceasefire was desirable, and that even without recognition a deal secured with the Assad regime would be amenable. Yet, accepting this coalition, which rejects negotiations with Assad, suggests otherwise. Of course, arguably the Brahimi track is dead and buried. Nabil Arabi suggested as much a few days ago, in comments I am told were not picked up by the papers or news agencies.

  • Syria's Internal War Turns Against the Regime - The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • France recognises Syrian National Coalition -
  • PM warns of harsher response to Syria as border tension drags on
  • France Recognizes Syrian Opposition Coalition -
  • France recognises Syrian National Coalition -
  • Preacher takes opposition lead -
  • Finally, Leadership « P U L S E
  • Syria Comment » Archives » “The Formation of Syria’s National Coalition: An Assessment and Analysis,” By Amr al-Azm
  • Syria Comment » Archives » New Syrian Leadership Electrifies Opposition: Ten Countries Promise Recognition
  • De la prétendue laïcité du régime syrien | Un oeil sur la Syrie
  • Syria's opposition: Come together | The Economist
  • M of A - Syria: The New Coalition For Further Destruction
  • Landis: Syria Disintegrating

    Syria Disintegrating

    There is no stopping it now. Syria is unleashed. Guns rule and the strong will eat the weak.  Brahimi speaks of Syria turning into Somalia and a “big catastrophe.” If that happens, it will become a prime target for American and Israeli drones, which will troll the skies in hunting aL-Qaida and those with a long beards, as is the case in Pakistan and Yemen.

    Obama's new Syrian opposition council

    Obama's  new Syrian opposition council

    This really sounds like a legitimate body — an opposition council that has to be put together by the State Dept? Josh Rogin for The Cable:

    Syrian opposition leaders of all stripes will convene in Qatar next week to form a new leadership body to subsume the opposition Syrian National Council, which is widely viewed as ineffective, consumed by infighting, and little respected on the ground, The Cable has learned.

    The State Department has been heavily involved in crafting the new council as part of its effort oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and build a more viable and unified opposition. In September, for instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with a group of Syrian activists who were flown in to New York for a high-level meeting that has not been reported until now.

    The weirdest thing about this is that it doesn't even have Turkish support. Who if not Turkey needs to be behind this for it to even have half a chance to work?

    Also look at the qualifiers used by this State Dept. source:

    "There's a rising presence of Islamist extremists. So we need to help these [military council leaders], the majority of them are secular, relatively moderate, and not pursuing an overly vicious agenda," the official said.

    Sounds reassuring.

    Influx of Iraqi Shiites to Syria Widens War’s Scope

    Influx of Iraqi Shiites to Syria Widens War’s Scope

    Yasir Ghazi and Tim Arango, in the NYT, write that Iraqis are continuing their sectarian fight in Syria:

    BAGHDAD — Militant Sunnis from Iraq have been going to Syria to fight against President Bashar al-Assad for months. Now Iraqi Shiites are joining the battle in increasing numbers, but on the government’s side, transplanting Iraq’s explosive sectarian conflict to a civil war that is increasingly fueled by religious rivalry.

    Some Iraqi Shiites are traveling to Tehran first, where the Iranian government, Syria’s chief regional ally, is flying them to Damascus, Syria’s capital. Others take tour buses from the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Iraq, on the pretext of making a pilgrimage to an important Shiite shrine in Damascus that for months has been protected by armed Iraqis. While the buses do carry pilgrims, Iraqi Shiite leaders say, they are also ferrying weapons, supplies and fighters to aid the Syrian government.

    “Dozens of Iraqis are joining us, and our brigade is growing day by day,” Ahmad al-Hassani, a 25-year-old Iraqi fighter, said by telephone from Damascus. He said that he arrived there two months ago, taking a flight from Tehran.

    The Iraqi Shiites are joining forces with Shiite fighters from Lebanon and Iran, driving Syria ever closer to becoming a regional sectarian battlefield.

    Iran and Turkey Join Syria Peace Envoy in Truce Call

    Iran and Turkey Join Syria Peace Envoy in Truce Call

    NYT's Anne Barnard and Rick Gladstone report on UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's attempt to secure a cease-fire between the government and rebels in Syria:

    Both Turkey and Iran publicly endorsed Mr. Brahimi’s effort on Wednesday. Those endorsements were significant because Iran is the most influential regional supporter of Mr. Assad’s, while Turkey supports Mr. Assad’s armed adversaries, is host to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees and has repeatedly called on Mr. Assad to resign.

    In the past few weeks Turkey also has banned Syrian aircraft, moved armed forces close to its 550-mile border with Syria and engaged Syrian gunners in sporadic cross-border shelling, raising fears that the conflict in Syria could turn into a regional war.

    President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, who met this week with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey at a regional summit meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan, was quoted by Iran’s state-run news media on Wednesday as saying he supported the Syria truce proposal and “any group that derives power through war and means to continue war has no future.”

    Sounds like the Egyptian initiative to engage Iran on Syria is fast becoming a Turkish initiative. 

    Update — Also, this from the Turkish paper Zaman:

    Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Tuesday he had suggested to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad three-way talks including Egypt on the Syria crisis, given the apparent Saudi objection to Iranian involvement in a current quartet.

    So who's doing the leading here? Not sure Cairo would have so easily dismissed a Saudi role.

    Jihadists Receiving Most Arms Sent to Syrian Rebels

    Jihadists Receiving Most Arms Sent to Syrian Rebels

    David Sanger in the NYT:

    WASHINGTON — Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster, according to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats.

    That conclusion, of which President Obama and other senior officials are aware from classified assessments of the Syrian conflict that has now claimed more than 25,000 lives, casts into doubt whether the White House’s strategy of minimal and indirect intervention in the Syrian conflict is accomplishing its intended purpose of helping a democratic-minded opposition topple an oppressive government, or is instead sowing the seeds of future insurgencies hostile to the United States.

    “The opposition groups that are receiving the most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it,” said one American official familiar with the outlines of those findings, commenting on an operation that in American eyes has increasingly gone awry.

    In related news, from this FT report: "The sense that Qatar has bitten off more than it can chew is a widespread topic of conversation."

    Cordesman: Give Syrian rebels weapons with off switch

    A Technological Fix for Safely Arming Syria's Rebels

    Strategic studies wonk Anthony Cordesman advocates giving Syrian rebels advanced weaponry that is time-limited or can be remotely shut off to prevent it falling into the wrong hands. It's a Dr. Strangelove of insurgency moment:

    At the same time, the risks of transferred weapons falling into the wrong hands are clear. Iraq, Afghanistan, and the evolving patterns of modern terrorism have shown all too clearly the risks that such weapons could pose in the hands of extremist groups-as has the U.S. inability to control the leakage of Stingers to Iran and outside Afghanistan. The leakage of such weapons to extremist groups in Libya and outside it is a major ongoing threat.

    Another clear risk is that extremist networks centered around al Qaeda or the Iranian Al Quds Force could rapidly transfer such weapons far outside the region in which they were originally supposed to be used: allied territory or that of the United States. The risks that such weapons could be turned on the United States and its allies are critical, and we and our allies are far less willing to bear the political costs or casualties of "incidents" than extremists and dictators if things go wrong.

    There do, however, seem to be technological solutions that could largely reduce the risk of transferring such equalizers. As pocket cameras with a global positioning system (GPS) show, a small chip can be inserted into these weapons that could continuously read their location once activated. If such a chip was tied to a device that disabled the weapon if it moved to the wrong area, it would greatly reduce the risk of its falling into the wrong hands.

    Advanced encryption chips can be equally small and cheap and could perform a number of additional functions. They could have a time clock to disable the weapon at a given time, with the option of extending the life if a suitable code was entered. Activation codes could be built in so the weapon was never active without a code restricted to moderate elements and timed so that such elements had to keep entering a different code over time.

    The equivalent of an identification friend or foe (IFF) capability could be built into that disabled the weapon in the presence of U.S. and allied forces or civil aircraft. A similar enabling code could be tied to the presence of a U.S. or allied adviser or covert partner.

    Given today's solid-state technology, all of these functions could be built into an MANPAD or ATGM. A rocket or mortar might be somewhat more difficult to modify, but building in such capabilities seems possible. The same seems true of remote triggering devices that can be used in bombs or the equivalent of IEDs or in providing antiarmor capabilities like explosively formed penetrators.

    I'm not sure how you make these tamper-proof, or produce them fast enough to be useful, or what it means about the future of  warfare by proxy. Imagine weapons with a GPS tracker: you could arm the rebels, no matter how nasty they are, and then track and kill them once they are no longer useful. So not happy with the current government of South Sudan, for instance? Just arm the Lord's Resistance Army with these and let them at it until you change your mind. Handy to see Bashar al-Assad go because it hurts Iran? Give al-Qaeda fighters MANPADs (which are not a hygiene product for men) that can be turned off when they're done wrecking the kind of havoc you don't have too much of a problem with. If they don't sell them to an unknowing PKK fighter who wants to use them in Turkey first! It'll be turned off eventually, right? 

    In his last paragraph, Cordesman writes:

    One thing is clear. The United States should not remain trapped in the dilemmas it faces in Syria or remain forced into the kind of hollow posturing both U.S. presidential candidates now bring to dealing with this issue. We need practical answers for both the military and political dimensions of what promises to be a decade of "expeditionary diplomacy," and these are tools that would be cheap and often help do the job.

     Why does it have to be a decade of "expeditionary diplomacy" at all? If the lesson of the last decade of interventionism is that it's better to develop technologies that allow us more control over the mercenaries, proxy groups and occasional loonies we get to do the job, we are in trouble.