On Egypt's Syria policy — and the end Morsi's honeymoon

I have two new pieces — I take a closer look at Egypt's Syria policy, which some interesting old and new ideas in it, in The National. And ponder Morsi's recent speech and the schedule ahead (constitutional referendum, new parliamentary elections) that has put him in campaign mode just as the reservoir of post-election goodwill he had begins to evaporate. That's in the IHT blog, Latitude

In Syria, a rebellion calls for revolutionary measures

In Syria, a rebellion calls for revolutionary measures

Anecdote from Syria about a revolutionary marriage of convenience, in the LA Times:

Her marriage, Hanadi said, is simply one of convenience.

In August, she wed the commander of the militia she had joined, the 30-member Thul Nurain, based in the Tadamon neighborhood.

“It was to prevent people from talking — ‘Why is she sitting among all those men?’ ” she said.

“Tadamon is a conservative place and it’s a big deal to have an unmarried girl among a group of men,” said Abu Majid, 34, who worked as a deliveryman before he took up arms.

He asked her father’s permission and was turned down, but a local sheik agreed to marry them anyway.

They publicized the marriage within the neighborhood and among rebel groups in order to stop the wagging tongues. For weeks, she didn’t tell her family.

Abu Majid’s first wife still doesn’t know.

Ignatius: the US should back FSA against other militants in Syria

Face to Face with a Revolution

David Ignatius visits Syria, talks to FSA commanders and writes:

On that long drive into the heart of Assad's Syria, the only thing that made the fighters nervous was when they heard the sound of a helicopter overhead. Assad rules the skies, and it's probably only American missiles that could change that deadly balance.

If the U.S. wants the rebels to coordinate better on the ground, it should lead the way by coordinating outside help. The shower of cash and weapons coming from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and other Arab nations is helping extremist fighters and undercutting any orderly chain of command through the Free Syrian Army.

It will probably eventually come to this: everyone backing the rebels against Assad at first, and then backing individual factions against each other when they fight for control of post-Assad Syria.

Citing U.S. Fears, Arab Allies Limit Aid to Syrian Rebels

✚ Citing U.S. Fears, Arab Allies Limit Aid to Syrian Rebels

Robert Worth, writing in Riyadh for the NYT, sees growing sign of Saudi buyers' remorse on their backing for jihadists in Syria — US reluctance is an excuse:

Many Saudi and Qatari officials now fear that the fighting in Syria is awakening deep sectarian animosities and, barring such intervention, could turn into an uncontrollable popular jihad with consequences far more threatening to Arab governments than the Afghan war of the 1980s.

“If the killing continues, the youth will not listen to wise voices,” said Salman al-Awda, one of this country’s most prominent clerics, in an interview at his office here. “They will find someone who will encourage them, and they will go.”

Already, there are signs of an uptick in the number of young men crossing illegally into Syria from Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries, and of private fund-raising efforts across the gulf to help the rebels acquire heavier weapons. The fighting has also spilled into Turkey, which shelled Syria for four days last week after a Syrian shell killed five Turkish civilians.

Saudi Arabia has long had an antagonistic relationship with the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and sees itself as the protector of Syria’s Sunni majority in a country governed by Mr. Assad’s Alawite minority. But the prospect of an increasingly sectarian civil war in Syria is deeply troubling to many here, where the Afghan jihad spawned a generation of battle-tested zealots who returned home and waged a bloody insurgency that was brought under control only recently.

“The government really doesn’t want to repeat the experience we had with the guys who went to Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Mshari al-Zaydi, a Saudi columnist and an expert on jihadi movements. “The damage from Al Qaeda was worse in Saudi Arabia than it was in the U.S.A.”

The fight in Syria is now terrible, but imagine what the fight will be like when the various countries backing the rebels start backing individual factions...

Among the Alawites

Among the Alawites

Nir Rosen in LRB, with another angle on the question of sectarianism in Syria's civil war:

What becomes of the Alawites if the regime falls, and what becomes of Bashar’s support base as a whole, are not the same question. Bashar’s following includes other minorities besides the Alawites, not to mention Sunnis. From the outset the government has described the opposition as motivated by sectarianism – an accusation that encourages the very tendency it claims to deplore – but it has carefully refrained from any show of sectarianism itself, even if its Alawite supporters are less fastidious. Loyalists say that they are diverse while the opposition is almost entirely Sunni. Yet Sunni officers and soldiers belong to some of the most elite army units such as the 4th Division and the Republican Guard, and many opposition intellectuals have admitted that if the government’s base was confined to Alawites, it would have fallen long ago. Were this struggle to be reduced to a bald conflict between Sunnis and Alawites the government would lose its Sunni support and be left with only 10 per cent of the population behind it, plus a few stragglers from the other minorities.

Syria: Who Are the Saudis and the Qataris Arming?

Syria’s Secular and Islamist Rebels: Who Are the Saudis and the Qataris Arming? | World | TIME.com

Great reporting by Rania Abu Zeid for TIME:

As TIME reports here, disorder and distrust plague two of the rebels’ international patrons — Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The two Gulf powerhouses are no longer on the same page when it comes to who among the plethora of mushrooming Syrian rebel groups should be armed. The rift surfaced in August with the alleged Saudi and Qatari representatives in charge of funneling free weaponry to the rebels clearly backing different factions among the groups – including various shades of secular and Islamist militias–under the broad umbrella that is the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

. . .

According to sources who have dealt with him, Saudi Arabia’s man in the Istanbul control center is a Lebanese politician named Okab Sakr. He belongs to the Future Movement, the organization of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, which has a history of enmity with Damascus (Syria was accused of complicity in the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father Rafik). The party has not made Sakr available to TIME, denies his involvement in any weapons deals and insists that Sakr is in Belgium “on leave” from his political duties.

However, Sakr appears to have been in the southern Turkish city of Antakya in late August. A TIME inquiry with an Antakya hotel confirms Sakr was in the area at the time. According to rebel sources who dealt with him, theLebanese politician was there overseeing the distribution of batches of supplies — small consignments of 50,000 Kalashnikov bullets and several dozen rocket-propelled grenades – to at least four different FSA groups in Idlib province as well as larger consignments to other areas including Homs. The FSA sources also say he met with some commanders but not others – a selectivity that led to much chagrin.

. . .

The situation is compounded by Qatar’s man — a major who defected from Assad’s army who has not yet responded to TIME’s request for comment. The Qataris want to focus on aiding the regional military councils, FSA groupings within Syria set up earlier this year partly in order to get around the favoritism of the representatives. (There are at least 10 military councilsscattered throughout the country.) Goods would be delivered to a council, and then distributed to the brigades under its umbrella. In practice, it wasn’t quite as easy, or smooth. “We were given lists by brigade leaders of their men, but we stopped believing the numbers,” says a member of the Istanbul room from Syria’s Idlib province. However, the Saudis – via Okab Sakr – appear to only want to support certain groups within the councils, but not others.

Soon there will be more — the Americans, French, etc. will also have their favorites, which does not bode well for if and when Bashar falls.

The colonial-era division of spoils draws a map of Syria's uncertainty

The colonial-era division of spoils draws a map of Syria's uncertainty - The National

Charles Glass in The National draws parallels between the French domination of Syria post-WW1 (aided by Arab allies) and foreign backing for some of Syria's rebels, writing:

In 2012, a new armed force, calling itself the Free Syrian Army, is rising in Syria. It has taken temporary hold of many Syrian towns and parts of its main cities. Like Feisal's volunteers, its members are a mixture of idealists and opportunists.

There are other similarities: they receive weapons, training and commands from outsiders; they have no idea what demands the foreign powers - among them the old imperialists Britain and France, as well as the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar - will make of them if they should seize power in Damascus; and they do not know where their insurrection will lead the country.

When the rebellion's foreign patrons discuss Syria's fate, their own interests will inevitably prevail - as Britain's and France's did in 1920 - over the desires of a "native government".

But in this case, who will be calling the shots? Far away Western powers or closer powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Qatar? And does this make a difference?

Leadership Rifts Hobble Syrian Rebels

Leadership Rifts Hobble Syrian Rebels

This story from last week, by the WSJ's Charles Levinson (a blog alumni!), hits the sweet spot of what journalism should be in a difficult situation like Syria, where solid information is scarce. It doesn't try to impose a point of view, it guides you through a complicated situation and puts the reader in a place where they can try to understand the multiple narratives that might exist for the people covered. It doesn't spin. It presents the necessarily subjective facts, and the reporter never gets in the way.

Essential reading.

Syria linkdump

This is a bit lazy, but here is a series of links on Syria that I never got around developing into a post. It has a bunch of French links because I was wondering what François Hollande is playing at when he says France will recognize a Syrian government in exile if one is formed: what consensus exists to form one? And why after spending so much time distancing himself from Sarkozy is he talking about repeating the Libyan model that France pioneered, when it very suddenly recognized the Benghazi rebels as the legitimate government of Libya, which was a major push in the international diplomacy over Libya?

Here are the remains of the day:

  • Syrie : pas d'intervention !
  • Syrian opposition plans 'The Day After' in Berlin | World | DW.DE | 28.08.2012
  • Le Figaro - International : Syrie : Hollande veut un gouvernement provisoire
  • Le Figaro - Flash Actu : Hollande n'exclut pas d'intervenir en Syrie
  • President Hollande calls on Syrian opposition to form govt, says France would recognize it |
  • Syrian Army Drops Leaflets Over Damascus |
  • Le Figaro - International : Syrie : Hollande veut un gouvernement provisoire
  • Le Figaro - International : L'opposition syrienne planche sur l'après-Bachar el-Assad
  • Syria’s rebels: More than they can chew | The Economist
  • François Hollande calls on Syrian rebels to form provisional government | World news | The Guardian
  • Iran Said to Send Troops to Bolster Syria

    Iran Said to Send Troops to Bolster Syria

    Not just the FSA's foreign fighters in Syria, according to the Wall Street Journal report from Farnaz Fassihi in Beirut:

    A commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, appeared to offer Iran's first open acknowledgment of its military involvement in Syria.

    Reuters Syrian Speaker Mohammed Jihad al-Laham, left, and Alaeddin Boroujerdi of the Iran parliament's national security committee Saturday in Damascus.

    "Today we are involved in fighting every aspect of a war, a military one in Syria and a cultural one as well," Gen. Salar Abnoush, commander of IRGC's Saheb al-Amr unit, told volunteer trainees in a speech Monday. The comments, reported by the Daneshjoo news agency, which is run by regime-aligned students, couldn't be independently verified. Top Iranian officials had previously said the country isn't involved in the conflict.

    I am slightly amazed that the WSJ has these sources:

    Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word in all state matters, has appointed Qasim Solaimani, the commander of the elite Quds Forces, to spearhead military cooperation with Mr. Assad and his forces, according to an IRGC member in Tehran with knowledge about deployments to Syria.

    The Quds Forces are the IRGC's operatives outside Iran, responsible for training proxy militants and exporting the revolution's ideology. The U.S. blames the Quds Forces for terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    "Solaimani has convinced Mr. Khamenei that Iran's borders extend beyond geographic frontiers, and fighting for Syria is an integral part of keeping the Shiite Crescent intact," said the IRGC member in Tehran. The so-called Crescent, which came together after Saddam Hussein's fall, includes Shiites from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

    Iran is now sending hundreds of rank-and-file members of the IRGC and the basij—a plainclothes volunteer militia answering to the guards—to Damascus, said two people in the IRGC familiar with the movements.

    Many of the Iranian troops hail from IRGC units outside Tehran, these people say, particularly from Iran's Azerbaijan and Kurdistan regions where they have experience dealing with ethnic separatist movements. They are replacing low-ranking Syrian soldiers who have defected to the Syrian opposition, these people said, and mainly assume non-fighting roles such as guarding weapons caches and helping to run military bases.

    Iran is also deploying IRGC commanders to guide Syrian forces in battle strategy and Quds commanders to help with military intelligence, Mr. Sazegara and the current IRGC members said.

    Syria: The Day After

    The Day After » Supporting a Democratic Transition in Syria

    This is the site of a group of 45 intellectuals who drafted a report on what to do in Syria once the Assad regime is gone. It deals with six basic issues:

    1. rule of law
    2. transitional justice
    3. security sector reform
    4. electoral reform and forming a constituent assembly
    5. constitutional design
    6. economic and restructuring policy

    From a very quick glance it appears to try to hit all the right notes but give few suggestions on implementation. My biggest question, however, would who amidst the various personalities and groups involved in the insurrection against the Assad regime has signed up to this? And what are the steps envisaged from getting to Assad fleeing the country or being killed to forming a transitional government capable of taking these recommendations on?

    There is also much wishful thinking here, such as this puzzling sentence:

    Therefore, Syrian leaders must take care to ensure that elections produce not merely democratic (in the sense of majoritarian) results, but rather legitimate results. 

    What does that mean?

    Update: Some people have had difficulties getting the PDF report from the above-linked site, here is a copy.

    When neocons ♥ jihadis

    Two Cheers for Syrian Islamists - By Gary Gambill

    Gary Gambill in Foreign Policy:

    So long as Syrian jihadis are committed to fighting Iran and its Arab proxies, we should quietly root for them -- while keeping our distance from a conflict that is going to get very ugly before the smoke clears. There will be plenty of time to tame the beast after Iran's regional hegemonic ambitions have gone down in flames.

    How did that work out for you in Afghanistan, Gary? 

    Sometimes I think that the ideas of some policymakers and analysts in the US and Israel (this guy is from Middle East Forum, a neocon / Israel lobby outfit) amounts to "let's set the whole region on fire" if it hurts Iran.

    When Assad falls, Kurds in Syria say they’ll take back lands given to Arabs

    When Assad falls, Kurds in Syria say they’ll take back lands given to Arabs

    David Enders reporting for McClatchy:

    ALI FARO, Syria — Sattam Sheikhmous still farms wheat on what’s left of his grandfather’s land, shrunk from more than 32,000 acres to less than 5,000 by the Syrian government in 1966.

    “They said it was a socialist policy, but we believe it was political,” said Sheikhmous, now in his 60s, referring to the government confiscation of land that began when Syria joined with Egypt, then ruled by Gamal Abdel Nasser, to form the United Arab Republic in 1958.

    The land confiscation took place across the country. But in the predominantly Kurdish province of Hasaka, in Syria’s northeast corner, the resettlement of Arabs from another part of the country in the 1970s created ethnic tensions that could manifest themselves violently when the Syrian government fully relinquishes control of the area, now seen by many as only a matter of time.

    “We have to ask them to give us our land back. If they don’t, we have to do whatever we need to do,” said Sheikhmous. “It’s not just our land, it’s Kurdish land. If they don’t leave peacefully, we will use weapons.”

    What fantastic legacies these regimes are leaving behind. Of course, in this case, it may be more a question of recovering the property of large landowners that was redistributed by progressive policies than doing anything for the sake of "Kurds" — unless he intends to distribute that land to all and any Kurds.

    Syrians are torn between a despotic regime and a stagnant opposition | Hassan Hassan | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk

    Syrians are torn between a despotic regime and a stagnant opposition

    From a piece by Hassan Hassan for The Guardian:

    Moulhem Droubi, a senior member of the Brotherhood, has said the organisation represents 25% of the Syrian population.

    Mr Droubi appears to be a big fat liar. How could an organization that was crushed in 1982 and ruthlessly oppressed for the next 30 years have the presence in Syria to gather such a following? If one day there are elections, it may do well, but but right now the Syrian MB represents a mostly exiled leadership, surely.

    The rest of piece is illustrative of the confusion over the opposition.

    How the Syrian uprising turned violent

    La révolution syrienne, entre piège de la violence… et manœuvres du régime

    From Un Oeil Sur La Syrie, Le Monde's great blog on Syria, a long post on how the anti-Assad movement waited to take up violence:

    Il aura fallu plusieurs mois avant que les soldats et officiers qui avaient déserté, parce qu’ils ne pouvaient se plier aux ordres de "tirer pour tuer" qui leur étaient donnés, commencent à s'organiser, se fixent pour mission d’assurer la protection des quartiers d’où ils étaient originaires, et lancent les bases de ce qui est devenu l’ASL. Même pour se défendre, le recours aux armes n’a été pour les révolutionnaires ni spontané, ni naturel. Ils espéraient, par leur patience et leur courage, dissuader leurs jeunes compatriotes, appelés ou engagés, de participer à la répression ordonnée par le régime. Ils imaginaient que leur persévérance suffirait à convaincre des sous-officiers et des officiers que la vérité, la dignité et la justice étaient du côté de ceux sur lesquels on leur demandait d’ouvrir le feu, et non dans la défense d’un système prédateur prêt au pire pour assurer sa survie. Ils pensaient parvenir à rassurer les membres des communautés minoritaires, dont ils comprenaient l’hésitation à s'engager dans une aventure dont l’issue était pour tous incertaine. Ils croyaient qu'en surmontant leur propre peur et en persistant, semaine après semaine, à affronter la mort dans les rues, ils aideraient leurs compatriotes à dominer leur angoisse. Ils entendaient leur démontrer que le régime mentait lorsqu'il agitait devant eux le spectre des affrontement interconfessionnels. Ce qu'ils voulaient, c'était la vie et non la mort : ils ne mettaient pas en jeu leur existence aujourd'hui pour le plaisir insensé de pouvoir, demain, supprimer ceux qui ne les avaient pas accompagnés ou soutenus dans leur combat.

    Google translation into English here.

    They also feature this great poster — which plays on the slight difference in spelling, in Arabic, between the word "peaceful" ("silmiyya", which was chanted in the early protests) and "salafist" ("salafiya"), with the note at the corner saying "Open your eyes, there is no dot" while pointing to a "m" that could easily be turned into an "f".

    Peaceful not Salafist

    Rebel: 70% of Aleppo with the regime

    Syrian rebels fight on for Aleppo despite local wariness

    Martin Chulov reporting for The Guardian:

    More than a month into the battle for Aleppo, the rebels who seized control of much of the city sense that its residents do not yet fully support them. Opposition fighters – around 3,000 of them – are almost the only people moving around the eastern half that the Free Syrian Army now controls. The small numbers of non-fighters who remain seem to pay them little heed. Few seem openly welcoming.

    "Yes it's true," said Sheikh Tawfik Abu Sleiman, a rebel commander sitting on the ground floor of his fourth new headquarters – the other three were bombed. "Around 70% of Aleppo city is with the regime. It has always been that way. The countryside is with us and the city is with them. We are saying that we will only be here as long as it takes to get the job done, to get rid of the Assads. After that, we will leave and they can build the city that they want."

    I'm sure a lot is going to be made of that quote, because it raises some very legitimate questions. Aleppo is not Benghazi, where there was massive local support. The rebels are not mostly locals, an indeed may include many foreigners. Residents, which include many minorities that are the most worried about a long civil war, are understandably not happy their city has been turned into a war zone. Aleppo is a strategic point to control the north, that is why the battle has been brought there. The countryside vs. urban sentiment the rebel brings up leads on to many other questions. One doesn't want to extrapolate from a single quote, but therein lies the dilemma of the Syrian civil war: there still is not substantial evidence that there is an overwhelming sentiment among the Syrian population for it — not that many support the regime, but simply that many may not think it's worth it. In wars, though, the undecided and the reluctant rarely decide.

    Embedded in Syria

    We've had at least a decade of debate about the merits of embedding with military forces while covering conflicts — certainly  a major debate during the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, or perhaps since the 1990 Gulf War. The practice certainly has its drawbacks, but also offers an opportunity to do reporting from the front lines and on the combatant forces. In Syria, it offers the opportunity to get a clearer picture of who the insurgents are. These are all fine pieces and photos that would have been impossible otherwise, although I wish I could trust Fisk's reporting — who here has the merit of embedding with the Syrian army, which no doubt has attracted much misplaced criticism — after so many past disappointments. 


    Climate change and the Syrian uprising

    Climate change and the Syrian uprising | Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

    From the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a fascinating piece on climate change and drought as a cause of the Syrian uprising by Shahrzad Mohtadi:

    From 1900 until 2005, there were six droughts of significance in Syria; the average monthly level of winter precipitation during these dry periods was approximately one-third of normal. All but one of these droughts lasted only one season; the exception lasted two. Farming communities were thus able to withstand dry periods by falling back on government subsidies and secondary water resources. This most recent, the seventh drought, however, lasted from 2006 to 2010, an astounding four seasons -- a true anomaly in the past century. Furthermore, the average level of precipitation in these four years was the lowest of any drought-ridden period in the last century.

    While impossible to deem one instance of drought as a direct result of anthropogenic climate change, a 2011 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration regarding this recent Syrian drought states: "Climate change from greenhouse gases explained roughly half the increased dryness of 1902-2010." Martin Hoerling, the lead researcher of the study, explains: "The magnitude and frequency of the drying that has occurred is too great to be explained by natural variability alone. This is not encouraging news for a region that already experiences water stress, because it implies natural variability alone is unlikely to return the region's climate to normal." The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that global warming will induce droughts even more severe in this region in the coming decades.

    It is estimated that the Syrian drought has displaced more than 1.5 million people; entire families of agricultural workers and small-scale farmers moved from the country's breadbasket region in the northeast to urban peripheries of the south. The drought tipped the scale of an unbalanced agricultural system that was already feeling the weight of policy mismanagement and unsustainable environmental practices. Further, lack of contingency planning contributed to the inability of the system to cope with the aftermath of the drought. Decades of poorly planned agricultural policies now haunt Syria's al-Assad regime.

    [Thanks, J.]