The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged intervention
Arguments on Syria

I understand misgivings about US military action in Syria, but I don't understand skepticism over the regime's use of chemical weapons. You don't need to argue that the rebels gassed themselves to be against intervention. The specter of Iraq hangs over us; but in this case there seems to be wide-spread agreement that the regime had the weapons (it's offering to give them up now, after all), the opportunity and the motive. Here for example is Human Rights Watch's report:

The evidence concerning the type of rockets and launchers used in these attacks strongly suggests that these are weapon systems known and documented to be only in the possession of, and used by, Syrian government armed forces.

Meanwhile the Italian journalist Domenico Quirico -- just released after 152 days in captivity in Syria -- has this dispiriting description of his captors:  

"Our captors were from a group that professed itself to be Islamist but that in reality is made up of mixed-up young men who have joined the revolution because the revolution now belongs to these groups that are midway between banditry and fanaticism," he said.
"They follow whoever promises them a future, gives them weapons, gives them money to buy cell phones, computers, clothes."
Such groups, he said, were trusted by the West but were in truth profiting from the revolution to "take over territory, hold the population to ransom, kidnap people and fill their pockets".

But in the pages of the New York Times, Syrian dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh argues that jihadism isn't an argument against intervention, and is a by-product of the Assad regime's brutality: 

In the West, reservations about supporting the Syrian rebels that once seemed callous and immoral are now considered justified because of the specter of jihadism. But this view is myopic.
Jihadist groups emerged roughly 10 months after the revolution started. Today, these groups are a burden on the revolution and the country, but not on the regime. On the contrary, their presence has enabled the regime to preserve its local base, and served to bolster its cause among international audiences.
It is misguided to presume that Mr. Assad’s downfall would mean a jihadist triumph, but unfortunately this is the basis for the West’s position. A more accurate interpretation is that if Mr. Assad survives, then jihadism is sure to thrive.

Then there is this contribution to the argument against intervention, which I embarrassingly did not at first recognize as satire: 

"Someone needs to explain to me why gassing Arabs is such a bad thing," she replied. "I mean aren't these the same people that attacked us on September the 11th? Look, the system is working. Arabs are killing Arabs and that means in the future there will be fewer of them trying to kill us.
"I say we send them all the chemical weapons we have, and let them sort it out amongst themselves. Hopefully when it's all over we'd be left with some empty space to colonize. Personally I'd like to see megachurches and Home Depots outside Damascus."

This was too much even for a Fox anchor, who asked:  

"Yes, but these are innocent human beings caught in the crossfire of a terrible civil war," Kilmeade persisted. "Don't you feel any empathy for them at all? I mean Arabs are just as human as we are and should be entitled to the same level of dignity and respect, right?"


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.

Ankara, for its part, denies it is helping arm the rebels, and even the recent shootdown of a Turkish fighter jet in Syrian airspace is unlikely to result in directly military action by NATO. Indeed, Turkey’s reluctance to “get involved” more proactively remains a major stumbling block for interventionists. (Ed. note: is it Turkey that is holding back NATO, or the reverse?)

The Times report paints a picture of a more engaged American intelligence effort in Syria, one that critics of both intervention and non-intervention say has been lacking since 2011. The perception of expanded US handling has been buttressed by recent reports in The Wall Street Journal and TIME that the US is assisting activists on the ground report on atrocities ascribed to the Syrian Army and pro-regime militias accused of committing civilian massacres in the conflict.[1]

As has been the case with reports on US efforts in Yemen, it is not clear whether the government sources speaking for these reports are engaging in unsanctioned leaks, or are going to the press with the White House’s acknowledgment. Despite years of talk about regime change in Syria and past US support for Syrian dissent groups in Istanbul and London, the Syrian uprising - like those in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia and Bahrain - clearly caught the Obama Administration (and Syria’s neighbors) by surprise. The White House has been scrambling to implement something it’s “leading from behind” model for Libya in building an international consensus to take more decisive action, though denies Russian claims that through NATO, it intends to directly intervene in Syria.

Recently, there have been several spats between Washington and Moscow, which is Assad’s main arms supplier. The UK Foreign Office managed to fire a warning shot across Moscow’s bow over the Syrian crisis when The Standard Club withdrew insurance for the MV Alaed, a Russian freighter carrying repaired Syrian attack helicopters and “air defense systems” to Syria. This act of “lawfare” forced the Alaed to turn back to port. Shortly before this incident, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton raised Cain over the use of Russian-made helicopter gunships by the Syrian military. One of the outcomes of this diplomatic protest, though, has been some embarrassing revelations about US-Russia defense sector links.

These moves were plainly aimed at signaling to Russia that it needs to exercise more influence on Assad in ways favorable to the West’s demands, or to back away from the dictator. A CNN report that the US military has revised/prepared contingency war plans for Syria is also part of this messaging - as is the Iranian media pushback in the form of announcing war games to be conducted in Syria by the Russians (these reports have been denied by Russia and do not seem credible).

More concretely, Russia has dispatched three amphibious landing craft to its naval base in the Port of Tartus, increasing their security presence there. Significantly, this force is thought to include heavy weapons and advanced anti-air systems. Russia’s mistrust of Washington’s efforts to address the conflict stems from fears that Syria will turn into Libya again, where the Russians and Chinese essentially allowed the UN Security Council and NATO to invoke a “responsibility to protect” that turned into a coordinated effort to oust the late Colonel Qadhafi from power. Russia’s stated principles are closely linked to its national interests. Arms, allies and naval basing rights matter too, analyst Dmitri Trenin notes, but “Moscow is concerned that allowing the United States to use force at will and without any external constraints might lead to foreign interventions close to Russian borders, or even within those borders.” So even absent the Libyan card, for Russia, there are few prices short of war the Kremlin will not pay to avoid the humiliation of “losing Syria,” it’s sole remaining Arab ally in the region.

So while the arming of rebel groups under US auspices is ostensibly aimed at redressing this imbalance of firepower, so far, no policy has been articulated in public as to whether this aid is supposed to help take down Assad with extreme prejudice, or compel him to broker a ceasefire and exeunt, even though members of the Syrian opposition have now repeatedly rejected a “Yemeni solution.” Assad, for his part, shows no signs of backing down despite combat fatigue, desertions and attacks within the heart of Damascus itself.

The US is still not willing to take that bet for Syria, though, at least not yet. Moscow shows no signs of backing down. Syrian activist Haytham Manna recently told The Guardian that “foreign influence and arms have split Syria’s civil movement.” The continued failure of Kofi Annan’s ceasefire plan, and the efforts of the Syrian Army or the rebels to maintain secure zones for civilians, show that this split may be irreconcilable, even if foreign powers press harder on Assad by all means short of open war.

  1. While media activists have specific agendas and incentive to spin events, such activists have been politicized from the start in this conflict, with or without US dollars or cameras. Another complication is that the conflict has seen the deaths of Syrian media activists who were not associated with one particular armed camp or another, such as Bassel Shehadeh, who was killed by the Syrian Army in Homs this May. Ideally, third party sourcing to evaluate competing claims would be easier to come by. But even when such reports appear, the coverage quickly turns into a debate over the credibility of each outlet’s narratives.  ↩

Nir Rosen on Syria's future

I really recommend this article, the last part of a Q&A series with Nir Rosen, who has been in Syria in recent weeks. It covers the many reasons why intervention is unlikely to either happen, or if it does, to work in a satisfactory manner, how the conflict is likely to perdure short of a large-scale massacre, how Syrian society is likely to disintegrate as shortages become more common and tensions increase among communities, and no one seems to be able to really do something about it that doesn't risk making things worse. He concludes:

If this civil war comes to pass, it will lead to a humanitarian crisis. Already, there is a diesel shortage in much of Syria. And in much of the country, electricity is shut down at least some of the time - even if this is often done for punitive or offensive security reasons. In opposition strongholds, normal government services have ceased. Garbage is piled high; children do not go to school. Eventually, if this continues, infrastructure will start to collapse. Electricity will cease to be available. People will turn to generators if they have access to them. Fuel for cooking and heating will be even harder to come by. Already medicines for children and chronic conditions is hard to obtain in opposition strongholds. Neighbourhoods will be besieged, and tens thousands of families will flee for safety to other parts of the country.

Syria is crumbling before our eyes, and a thoroughly modern nation is likely to be set back many decades.

As seen in Iraq — indeed perhaps Nir is heavily influenced by his experience there, although at least Syria did not endure what Iraq did under the UN sanctions regime in the 1990s.

I often wonder whether Turkey could intervene in Syria (logistically supported by NATO). Nir thinks Turkey is unable to do it, and it is certainly reluctant. There would be a certain acceptability to Turkish intervention, in the manner that Vietnam intertevened in Cambodia in the 1970s. I think that they would have to do so in a brutal way that would empower their local allies (whatever they find) and crushes the Kurds. It could resemble, perhaps, the Syrian intervention in Lebanon in the 1970s, which was welcomed by the international community at the time. Ironically we may be seeing the Lebanonization of Syria, after all these years of Syrian power over Lebanon.

Will Sirte be the new Benghazi?

One of the greatest ironies of the Libya war may soon unfold before our eyes — or hopefully not.

The Libyan civil began because of an uprising in Benghazi, and the NATO intervention (supposed to be limited to a no-fly zone) was justified by the prospects of an aerial bombardment of the city. Now, as (with Sebha) the last urban bastion of Qadhadi loyalists, it is the key next target of the rebels. In the WSJ:

BRUSSELS—North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials said Tuesday their main focus has shifted to preventing a bloody battle for control of the north-central Libyan town of Sirte, where troops loyal to Col. Moammar Gadhafi have taken refuge.

The town of 75,000, 245 miles east of Tripoli and Col. Gadhafi's hometown, seems to be shaping up as one of the final stands by Gadhafi loyalists. "It is the last bastion," said NATO Col. Roland Lavoie.

The looming battle between rebels and loyalists poses a tricky question for the coalition: What to do if rebels start killing civilians inside Sirte?

NATO's mission, as mandated by the United Nations, is to protect Libyan civilians. Until now, that's meant taking on Col. Gadhafi's army, a morally clear and unambiguous task.

Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who leads the rebel National Transitional Council, said Tuesday he would give loyalists in Sirte until Saturday to surrender. Then, he said, rebels would storm the city, according to wire reports.

"We can't wait more than that," he said. "We seek and support any efforts to enter these places peacefully. At the end, it might be decided militarily. I hope it will not be the case."

NATO officials declined to speculate but seemed to indicate they would be ready to shoot to protect civilians, even supporters of Col. Gadhafi. "I will not speculate about how we will react to a given situation," said Col. Lavoie, speaking at NATO's weekly Tuesday afternoon briefing. "But I can assure you that our mission is to protect the civilian population, and we will do that with great care."

A few days ago Craig Murray (the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan who was fired after he protested about his government's connivance in human rights abuses) blogged this alarming post:

There is no cause to doubt that, for whatever reason, the support of the people of Sirte for Gadaffi is genuine. That this means they deserve to be pounded into submission is less obvious to me. The disconnect between the UN mandate to protect civilians while facilitating negotiation, and NATO’s actual actions as the anti-Gadaffi forces’ air force and special forces, is startling.

There is something so shocking in the Orwellian doublespeak of NATO on this point that I am severely dismayed. I suffer from that old springing eternal of hope, and am therefore always in a state of disappointment. I had hoped that the general population in Europe is so educated now that obvious outright lies would be rejected. I even hoped some journalists would seek to expose lies.

I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

The “rebels” are actively hitting Sirte with heavy artillery and Stalin’s organs; they are transporting tanks openly to attack Sirte. Yet any movement of tanks or artillery by the population of Sirte brings immediate death from NATO air strike.

I have not seen any reports that the rebels are bombarding Sirte using artillery (which is what Qadhafi did to Benghazi when his planes were interdited), but perhaps I missed them. There has been fighting on the outskirts of Sirte but if the WSJ story is accurate, the rebels are holding off from a major assault for now and talks are underway. But they are moving in the direction of Sirte with NATO air support, according to the FT

Libyan rebel forces on Tuesday continued their advance on Muammer Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte, the last major stronghold of support for the ousted leader who has not been seen since the capital Tripoli fell last week.

Backed by an escalating Nato bombing campaign, the rebels have advanced past the village of Bin Jawad, east of Sirte, securing the Nawfaliya junction. In the desert to the south, Gaddafi loyalists were also holding out, notably in the city of Sabha.

Reuters also reports NATO bombing on Sirte, although it does not specify the targets:

NATO warplanes struck at Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast, for a third day on Sunday, a NATO spokesman said in Brussels. Britain said its aircraft also attacked artillery fired by Gaddafi forces near Sidra, west of the oil town of Ras Lanuf.

Al-Jazeera suggests that the Qadhafi loyalists may not surrender and are telling locals to "fight to the death":

Rebel fighters were organising units advance towards Sirte from both Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad in the east and from Tripoli and Misrata to the west.

"We will move further, but we will not enter Sirte now because it is not secured so far - there are ongoing
negotiations between tribe elders in Sirte and rebel leaders and we are receiving orders from our field
commanders and we are waiting for their commands," rebel fighter Taleb al-Karaty told the Reuters news agency.

Senior rebel commanders said they had 4,000 fighters on the western front with Sirte and that they estimated that they would come up against about 1,000 pro-Gaddafi soldiers if negotiations for the town's surrender fail.

In Sirte, forces loyal to Gaddafi urged people to fight or be killed, complicating efforts to arrange a peaceful surrender of the city, according to NTC officials.

"We have difficulty with the regime people from Tripoli," said Hassan Droy, the NTC representative for Sirte, who is based in the eastern city of Benghazi.

"They're trying to tell the people that the battle is no longer for Gaddafi but to protect themselves," he told Reuters.

Three days ago a message from Gaddafi was broadcast in Sirte, urging people to fight to save themselves, he said.

While the deposed leader's whereabouts are still unknown, the city is a strategic and symbolic prize for Libya's rebel government as it tightens its grip on the vast North African country.

Sirte is where the NATO mandate, already stretched way beyond its internationally approved mission, will be most tested, and where the narrative of just war of liberal interventionism could fall apart. Realistically, the new government in Libya cannot allow Sirte (or other cities) to remain under separate leadership. But having rejected negotiations throughout the civil war (and likewise Qadhafi also rejecting negotiations towards his stepping down), it may not have much desire to negotiate now when it is on the ascendant and the forces the TNC supposedly controls have large degrees of indepedence from the leadership (and could have revanchiste aims). NATO, for its part, could find itself in a position where it has to fire on rebels to fulfil its mission, which would greatly complicate the remainder of TNC-NATO relations. Either that, or decide not to do anything in Sirte if war crimes are committed in the name of bringing the civil war to an end. What a pickle.

For if Sirte becomes the new Benghazi, in the sense that Benghazi faced a massacre last February, the Libyan civil war will have ended with the triumph of a dictator's fall and the shame of having acted just as he did when the tables where turned.

If the tide turns: some pros and cons of military intervention in Libya


In the last few days there have been a number of calls for international intervention to try to stem the atrocities that the Qaddafi regime is carrying out against Libyan civilians, including military measures such as the imposition of a no-fly zone. (Sanctions and other steps have also been proposed, but I doubt that they would have much impact on a regime fighting for its life).

We might be past the point where the declaration of a no-fly zone would make a major difference -- the Libyan air force (that part which has not defected) does not appear to be terribly effective and airlifted mercenary forces in the east seem to be contained. The city of Tripoli and several other towns on the west coast do appear to be at the mercy of loyalist mercenaries and militias, and are suffering terribly, but there is probably little that could be done militarily, short of a massive and prohibitively problematic amphibious invasion, to rescue them. Rebels in Benghazi are reportedly beginning to mobilize to move west, so it's quite likely that Libyans will be able to complete the overthrow of Qaddafi without outside help.

However, dictators have come back from the brink before: Saddam in 1991, for example, although his hold on the country was probably never as tenuous as Qaddafi's is right now. If there is any chance Qaddafi were to stage a major turnaround, and bring major rebel-held cities like Benghazi or Misrata under siege, then the United States and other powers capable of intervention in Libya should consider what might be done to prevent a terrible humanitarian disaster.

Here are a few thoughts, both for and against intervention, mostly extrapolated from my experience in Iraq. I have focused here on the likely local impact on Libya, as opposed to issues of legality or sovereignty, of precedent, or of any larger strategic or historical picture.

1) Little is known about what would emerge from a post-Qaddafi Libya, but a Qaddafi victory would be absolutely dismal. Firstly, the behavior of regime loyalists in Tripoli suggests that there would be terrible reprisals. Secondly, it would probably many dark years ahead for the people of Libya. A people who have been crushed once tend not to rebel again, at least not in the form of mass urban uprising, for some time -- a decade, perhaps for as much as a generation. (Prolonged guerrilla warfare is different, but that has all kinds of other nasty fallout).

The world could not possibly return to business as usual for Libya after a Qaddafi victory, but ironically treating a nation as a pariah frequently only appears to strengthen the regime in place. The public begins to resent the outside world, while elites begin to scale their ambitions to what the regime can provide locally. This removes an incentive in future crises to remove an oppressive leader so as to remain international citizens in good standing. (I am thinking Saddam's praetorians contrasted with Mubarak's, here).

2) A no-fly zone would probably not suffice to prevent major assaults on rebel-held cities, should they materialize. Maybe aircraft flying threateningly overhead would be enough to deter regime assaults. But if it doesn't, then even a small number of tanks and artillery pieces can make it very difficult for defenders to hold ground, and we don't know if rebel armor is operational. An intervention force would probably need to be prepared to strike ground targets, like the Bosnian Serb artillery positions hit in 1995, to provide any sort of guarantee for the defenders of rebel-held cities. This could lead to any number of terrible errors -- it might be extremely difficult to judge from the air, from context, whether any given vehicle column were moving to attack a rebel-held city, or moving to its relief.

3) Iraq is doubtless what comes to mind when one contempates Western military intervention in the Arab world. But intervention in Libya would not necessarily be a repeat of Iraq, or rather, it would not be Iraq 2003. Rather, it would be Iraqi Kurdistan in the summer of 1991, or Bosnia in 1995. An invasion that comes at a time of relative calm, on the invader's timetable, is terrifying even to those who loathe the incumbent regime. An intervention that targets an imminent threat, which alleviates fears rather than triggers new ones, may be seen very differently.

4) Any foreign incursion into Libyan land or airspace risks tainting the rebellion as foreign-backed. Most battalions in the Libyan military do not appear to have committed to either side. Some units may see international aircraft overhead, conclude the jig is up for Qaddafi, and commit to the rebels. But that's an optimistic view. Libyans troops in uncommitted battalions might be very isolated at this point. Their perceptions of what is going on right now might be very different from the international narrative. Some officers who deeply desipise Qaddafi might nonetheless fight against any transgression of national sovereignty -- perhaps calculating, as Iraqi officers did after 2003, that participating in a national struggle was a better investment in their political futures than "collaboration." (Some officers who have defected to the rebels have cited Qaddafi's use of mercenaries as a decisive factor). Also, a regime which falls completely due to the efforts of its own people, rather than to the work of foreigners, would be more likely to lead to its moral collapse -- ie, you would be less likely to have Qaddafi revanchists threatening other Libyan factions in the future.