Assessing the prospects of success for the Syrian peace talks
Jan 24, 2014
Update from AIJAC
January 24, 2014
Number 01/14 #04
This Update looks at the “Geneva II” indirect talks between representatives of Syria’s government and some opposition groups. The talks, to nobody’s surprise, have not started off well, and practically all analysts have doubted they will result in any meaningful outcome.
First up is Adam Garfinkle from The American Interest, who wrote earlier this week, just ahead of the talks, about Syria as part of a four-part essay critiquing the Obama Administration’s policy on the Middle East. Putting the current talks in Geneva into the context of what he described as Washington’s “feckless” response throughout Syria’s three year civil war, Garfinkle concludes that “diplomacy can indeed be harmful if leaders fail to grasp that force and diplomacy are compliments [sic], not opposites.” He adds that “all this conference has done, is doing and will do is end up getting more people killed as all sides jockey for battlefield advantage.” For more of this harsh assessment, CLICK HERE.
Next, Dr. Yaron Friedman, a Middle East commentator for the Israeli website Ynet, notes similarities between the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and the Palestinian Authority when it comes to negotiations. Neither the Palestinian Authority nor the SNC, Friedman writes, have effective control on the ground in all the territory they claim to represent or have the ability to implement an agreement that would be respected in those areas. The conference, he continues, downplays the fact that al-Qaeda and extremist Salafist groups hold large swaths of territory in Syria. Friedman also voices the possibility that the US is not blind to the futility of the talks and may have “no objection in principle either for Shiite and Sunni terrorists, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda continuing to destroy each other.” For more of Dr. Friedman’s commentary, CLICK HERE.
Finally, the Washington Institute’s Jeffrey White offers a timely look at the large number of foreign soldiers fighting for Syria – forces with their own interests at stake. The involvement of these non-Syrian fighters means that Assad has surrendered some of his authority to his allies – including those, like Iran, who are not part of the Geneva talks. White observes, “at this point, President Bashar al-Assad probably cannot decide the regime’s course for the war on his own — like Rome inviting the barbarian tribes to defend its gates, he has effectively mortgaged his independence to his Iranian, Hezbollah, and Iraqi allies, and their withdrawal would likely turn the war back against the regime.” For White’s full analysis, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Khaled Abu Tomaeh asks how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will end when a conference held in Ramallah to promote dialogue between pro-Palestinian Israelis and Palestinians was disrupted by anti-normalisation protesters threatening the safety of Israeli participants.
- Jeffrey Goldberg contrasts the absurdity of Iran’s President Hasan Rouhani’s ongoing charm offensive at Davos with his country’s policies in support of terrorism and the development of nuclear weapons.
- Iran experts Mark Dubowitz and Emanuele Ottolenghi show that the supposed limited sanctions relief agreed to by the P5+1 designed to halt Iran’s nuclear program is a myth. Investors are flocking to Teheran and the unfreezing of “$7 billion into Iran’s troubled economy might not sound like a lot in today’s world. But it represents roughly 35 percent of Iran’s fully accessible overseas cash reserves, which are estimated at $20 billion. And the sanctions relief figure might be much higher and more difficult to reverse.”
- The new constitution in Egypt that entrenched the military’s control was adopted by a 98.1 per cent “yes” vote with only 38.6 per cent of the potential voters bothering to vote, in an atmosphere of intimidation that does not bode well for the country’s future, according to Elliott Abrams.
- David Weinberg of the Begin-Sadat Centre analyses the strong support shown by Canada over the years for Israel, particularly under current Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who became his country’s first leader to address the Knesset.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Or Avi-Guy looks at how Palestinians in Syria, particularly in the Yarmouk refugee camp, are facing real starvation as both sides prevent aid reaching civilians who are living under what amounts to an actual siege, as compared to the partial blockade that applies to Gaza.
- Sharyn Mittelman on two important statements of support for Israel. The first by Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop who attended the funeral of Israel’s former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and an address at the Emirates Centre For Strategic Studies and Research in Abu Dhabi by former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
- An opinion piece by Ahron Shapiro that ran in the New Zealand Herald explained that contrary to the media’s preferred image, Ariel Sharon was at heart a peacemaker.
- Also: a video clip of ABC News Breakfast’s recent interview with AIJAC’s Jeremy Jones over the passing of Ariel Sharon.
Syria Policy, Up Close and Ugly
The American Interest, January 21, 2014
Let’s turn now to a few of the discrete decision points enumerated above, and try to make our way through the policy thickets. Despite the interconnectedness of much of the portfolio, we’re going to take the topics one by one, and do our knitting as the need arises.
First Syria. The best way to begin an understanding of U.S. policy toward Syria is to start with Libya. In March 2011, before the upheaval in Syria really amounted to anything, the President decided to throw in with Britain and France and start a war in Libya. Administration counsels were divided as the mayhem in Libya increased. Defense Secretary Bob Gates and all the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed intervention. So did Vice President Biden and then-National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, who was “Biden’s guy.” So did lots of others outside the Administration, including the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and, for what little it’s worth, me.
The President seemed ambivalent, and so he laid down a series of strenuous conditions before he would countenance intervention—included Arab League support and a UNSC Article 7 resolution. But the President heeded the war party when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was won over to it, and, perhaps to his chagrin, all of his conditions were improbably met. While we’ll have to await candid memoirs to know for sure, my guess is that the President soon regretted his decision in light of the many dour and unintended consequences of the Libya intervention. Thanks to the allies’ failure, yet again, to plan for the post-combat phase of the war, some of these dour consequences have affected Libya (and led to the September 2012 Benghazi raid) while others have spread all the way to Mali, northern Nigeria and, arguably, Algeria.
So when his aides divided again over Syria a few months later, this time President Obama was determined to stay out. How much partisan political considerations came into play as the 2012 election approached is hard to say, but I think they probably mattered a lot (and I said so at the time). In any event, even without election politics affecting his judgment, U.S. passivity with respect to Syria was over-determined.
No doubt a good deal of analysis and spleen was laid before the President early on over Syria. My own view is that the ricochet of excessive caution from Libya was unfortunate. An early exercise of American leadership, in conjunction with Turkey and with NATO backing, could have staunched the violence before it metastasized, radicalized into sectarian camps and spread to other countries. U.S. boots on the ground and even early no-fly zones were not necessary to achieve this, and were not even desirable. There are means to exerting influence short of putting lots of U.S. troops in harm’s way: that’s why we have allies, intelligence operations, special forces and an array of dirty cyber-tricks. But the Administration discouraged the Turks, and the policy of passivity it adopted has turned out to be the most expensive policy of all.
In all fairness, Syria was always a hard problem. Unlike Libya, which is an island from a military point of view and a small country in population terms, Syria is larger, harder to get at militarily and was known to have chemical and perhaps biological weapons stocks. Stand-off weapons like cruise missiles are not very good at cratering airfields or working in close coordination with rebel ground forces, and JCS Chairman Martin Dempsey spoke volubly about the need for 700 sorties to take down Syria’s air defense system before U.S. planes could operate overhead.
That’s a big number, and was made to sound like it. Unlike Libya, however, some serious stakes attended the Syrian case, most of them linked to Iran. That’s what made it hard: the combination of real national interest stakes with no simple military options.
By the time the Administration got around to serious consideration of arming the rebels (it started by helping to coordinate third-party deals, like one from Croatia, and by getting the CIA to move some weapons stocks from Libya to the Syrian rebels), radical Sunni jihadis started showing up in large numbers, coalescing into Jabat al-Nusra. That made what was hard to start with even harder. It was not foolish to be concerned about U.S. weapons ending up in the wrong hands, and so non-lethal assistance became the preferred currency of aid. But concern need not be paralyzing, unless one wants to be paralyzed and have some reason to justify it.
Even the non-lethal aid was slow and small in coming, leading some observers to suspect that the Administration now wanted the Assad regime to survive (never mind that wayward “Assad must go” comment when it looked like it would happen anyway) as a counterbalance to Sunni jihadis. It has led some to claim further that passivity in Syria was a bargaining ploy meant for Iranian delectation. Maybe so. Now that we know the extent and the dates of secret contacts with Iran, run in part through Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman from his station at the UN in New York, it’s plausible to imagine American body language, if not also literal language, saying to the Iranians, in effect: Look, do what you want in Syria; we Americans are not determined to interfere with your interests in your own neighborhood. We don’t even have ambitions of regime change, and here the Administration’s early “engagement” policy, one that led to a standoffish U.S. attitude toward the surge of Green opposition in 2009, could have been put forward as evidence of non-aggressive intentions.
We will return to the Iran portfolio below, but it is important to understand that the Obama Administration, from the start, saw Syria as a lesser-included problem set within a policy focused on Iran. In this it was consistent with previous Administrations’ policies. The United States has never really had a policy as such toward Syria. Syria has always been an adjunct to more important policies—Arab-Israeli, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, and so on. In the past, this tendency had some very unfortunate consequences, even allowing the Syrian regime to kill Americans and otherwise attack U.S. interests—as in Iraq, for example—and really pay no price for it. This time around, it made at least a little more sense.
Of course, it can be argued that a more forceful U.S. policy toward the Assad regime would have gained more with respect to Iran, but that is not the approach the Obama Administration took. With Iraqi WMD programs no longer something the Iranians feared, a rather ironic turn of events given the President’s attitude toward the Iraq War, I suspect that the Administration view was that if we no longer appear to be a mortal threat to the Iranian regime, we will change the calculations in Tehran as to the costs and benefits of acquiring nuclear weapons. With sanctions we will raise their costs, and with diplomacy we will reduce the benefits of so risky a course—and then maybe we can bank that new Iranian calculation in a formal agreement. But let’s stick with Syria for now.
As U.S. passivity amid the Syrian civil war became protracted, the tide of battle turned in favor of the regime. Clearly, one of the reasons for initial U.S. passivity was the sense, confirmed by intelligence assessments, that the rebels would win with or without U.S. help. High-profile Sunni defections from the regime, like that of Manaf Tlas and others, were seen as evidence of this verdict. But as has long, long been the case in Syria, the Sunnis could not agree among themselves, and could not effectively cooperate to move their successful early effort to the regime-kill phase. Meanwhile, the Russians poured in arms and advisers, including advisers experienced fighting in Chechnya, and the Iranians via Hizballah and the Al-Quds brigades began to provide crucial help to Assad. The tide turned, and still the Obama Administration did nothing—except now the policy focus moved to Syrian chemical arms, and the White House drew the first of two “red lines” against chemical use.
My guess is that the President thought the first chemical weapons red line was a freebie—a way to look strong and engaged without actually risking anything. At that point no chemical weapons had been used in combat and there was no military reason to think they would be used. This was a fundamental misreading of the Alawi regime and its principals. The Administration should have paid more attention to how much skill the Syrians applied to humiliating Kofi Annan, and how much delight they took in doing it. Indeed, the Syrian regime might never have used chemicals had President Obama not warned them against it—in truth they did not really need to do so for strictly military reasons.
Sensing Obama’s timidity about military engagement, the Syrian regime did what it does best: bullying, taunting, sparring psychologically with a less committed party. And by using chemicals without paying any price, they signaled to the rebels the highly credible taunt that the Americans will, in the end, leave you hung out to dry.
Then came the second chemical weapons red line, and we all remember what happened next. The Syrians, having shown only a very little chemical ankle before, testing what the American response would be (there was none), now used chemicals in a big way and for all to see. Some credulous Americans (James Fallows prominent among them) were sure the opposition did this stealthily in order to tar the regime, but this only exposed their ignorance and bad judgment. The Russians leaned into that lie, too, but that was to be expected of them as Assad’s lawyer.
Amid all this noxious virtual gas, the Administration strained to ignore evidence of repeated chemical use, lest it be forced to act. This was too embarrassing to persist for long, as evidence mounted from far and wide, coming even from French and British intelligence sources. Then the Administration suddenly got its back up and prepared to act, going so far as to send six cruise-missile armed ships into the Mediterranean. But then, just as suddenly, following the withdrawal of British support thanks to an unanticipated defeat in Parliament, Obama decided to be no less democratic than Britain and go to Congress for approval.
It’s still unclear whether Obama thought he would get approval, or if he knew he would not and then be able to blame Congress for his not doing something he never really wanted to do in the first place. Whatever the case, the episode evoked Administration comments about an attack with stand-off weapons being “incredibly small”—Secretary Kerry’s absurd and hurtful remark designed to appease Congressional skeptics worried about a slippery slope, and a remark the President felt obliged to contradict in public (“The U.S. military doesn’t do pinpricks”). But the deed was done; the Secretarial tongue had flapped, robbing a prospective attack of most of its impact before anyone had so much as caressed a trigger. In the end, as we know, the President did a bait-and-switch on himself, wrong-footing most of his own aides in the process, forgoing the use of force for a charade of a chemical weapons deal under Russian aegis.
There is nothing wrong with eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons in the face of a possibly crumbling Syrian state, but the deal does not eliminate all of Syria’s chemical weapons. It may end up eliminating only those the regime itself declared—and we have no reliable means of verifying the existence of what was not declared. Very likely, the most up-to-date and lethal munitions were not declared, leaving the so-called international community—mainly the United States, as it predictably turned out—to play the role of hazmat garbage collector, and to foot the bill to boot.
Now, the process of watching the President go from red line to red line to congressional ploy to Russian diplomatic life-preserver (an idea that was not as impromptu as the Administration made it seem at the time) was painful in the extreme. The new NSC Advisor, Susan Rice, was shown to be essentially incompetent as she presided over, or tried to chase, the most embarrassing excuse for a foreign policy decision process I have ever seen.
And what was the result? First, as many pointed out, the chemical weapons deal legitimated Assad and turned him into a partner for implementing the agreement—in direct contradiction to the “Assad must go” policy. The same contradiction also emerged in the delay in getting any of the chemicals out of the country. Why the delay? Well, Syria is a war zone, and the ground-transportation needed to be made safe before the chemicals could be brought to a port. Who made ground-transportation problematic? Our putative allies, the Free Syrian Army and its associates. So we were put in a position of complaining that our allies were causing a delay in implementing a deal we had made with their and our enemy. In other words, the side we wanted to win overall we now wanted to lose temporarily and locally so that a mostly decorative arms control agreement divorced entirely from the rest of the civil war could go forward. If that’s not proof of incoherent fecklessness in a policy, I don’t know what is.
However this looked here in the United States, the FSA interpreted it as a betrayal, and so did the Saudis. The Syrian regime accelerated its military actions in the wake of the chemical weapons deal; now that Assad was certain the United States would not use force, he went for broke in trying to smash the opposition. He focused on the connective tissue linking the Damascus area to Latakia province (where the battle for Al-Qusayr was critical—just look at a map), and further north on retaking Aleppo. He has since done well in both areas.
Why the hurry? Well, one reason is the Geneva II conference, slated back in May to begin tomorrow.
In June 2012 nine nations met in Geneva, some of the nine to try to work out a transition away from the Assad regime. Ah, but two of the nine wanted just the reverse: no agreement on any such thing. The Action Group meeting, as it was called, represented the last-ditch, tail-end part of the Kofi Annan UN-sponsored effort to stop the war. Like all the rest of the Annan effort, it failed, as everyone with eyes to see knew it would. Russia and China blocked any language that called for Assad’s ouster. The lowest-common-denominator agreed statement referred feebly to the need to create a transitional regime. It did not explicitly state that Assad could not be a part of that transitional regime. Indeed, it states that the transitional regime “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.”
The rest of the communiqué was pie-in-the-sky nonsense for the most part about ceasefires that never were or could have been, about democracy in a place that had never in four thousand years known it, and so on. It was not without its unintentionally humorous aspects, however. As innocents by the thousands were being butchered by their own government in Syria, the UN drafters took time to include a demand that women be represented in all phases of the transition. That’s nice.
In the run-up to Geneva II these past few days the wheels have progressively threatened to come completely off the bus. Both the fecklessness and the incoherence of the policy have been revealed anew for all to see.
Against the background of vicious internecine violence among rebel groups, and that the regime has taken advantage of in the Aleppo area especially, the U.S. government has been trying to get the FSA coalition to attend the Geneva II meeting. But there are 144 groups in the coalition, and the recent fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has riven the coalition even further. Most opposition groups do not want to go if the terms of the conference do not stipulate that Assad must go, and that is why Kerry in recent days has reiterated that this is the U.S. understanding of the terms of the conference. But if any opposition groups go even as many do not, the net effect will be to further divide and hence weaken the military coalition on the ground in Syria.
How the State Department can read the June 30, 2012 communiqué this way I cannot understand. It is not the plain meaning of the text, and it is certainly not how the Syrian regime or the Russians read it. Kerry has lately accused the Syrians of “revisionism” in interpreting the June 30, 2012 document, but the accusation just as easily fits headed in the other direction.
That is how UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon could at the last minute invite the Iranians, an invitation the U.S. government both opposed and sort of favored. After all, Kerry has been in recent weeks most solicitous of the Iranians being in the conference mix, but not as attendees since they supposedly did not endorse the U.S. understanding of the conditions for the conference. But the Iranians can endorse them as laid down on June 30, 2012 without prejudice in any way to Assad’s future. Moon saw that—he can read, after all. Hence the invitation.
This infuriated Kerry. No U.S. Secretary of State enjoys having his knees cut out from under him by the likes of any UN type, especially done without warning at a particularly sensitive moment. So the State Department demanded that Moon rescind his invitation to Iran, even though it was inviting U.S. body language toward Iran in the first place that probably convinced Moon to issue the invitation. Moon complied, quickly but grudgingly. Now some representation from the FSA might show up, and the rescinding saves the U.S. government from having to withdraw from its own sponsored conference, an event into which we have diligently stuffed so much futile, fake and frothy hope in recent weeks.
But maybe that would have been best. Given the state of the battlefield and the unwillingness of the United States to do anything even remotely effectual about it, this conference cannot possibly achieve what the Administration hopes for it. The antagonists insist on a zero-sum attitude, and the conference sponsors do not agree on first principles as regards to purpose. That was clear already many weeks ago. U.S. failure will thus be seen throughout the region as a confirmation of U.S. impotence, and as a victory for Assad, the Iranians, the Russians and utterly ruthless brutality against civilian populations. Why we should ever have been willing to be an accomplice to that I swear I cannot understand.
The plaint that this round of Geneva diplomacy doesn’t stand a great chance of success, “but it’s the only thing we have left to try”—and words to that effect have actually been uttered in public by U.S. officials—just shows once again that, yes, diplomacy can indeed be harmful if leaders fail to grasp that force and diplomacy are complements, not opposites. Bleatings that this is only the beginning of a long process, or that the conference will encourage defections from the regime, or that an alternative vision to war is itself useful amount to so much mental rubbish. You cannot stop a full-fledged civil war with strongly worded Hallmark cards and silly pablum about “getting to yes.” All this conference has done, is doing and will do is end up getting more people killed as all sides jockey for battlefield advantage.
Want another example of how harmless one-eyed diplomacy can be? In the run-up to Geneva II the United States has formally joined with Russia in trying to persuade both sides to declare pre-conference ceasefires as a means to ultimately end the war. But we have indisputable evidence from the ground that what the Syrian regime is offering are not local ceasefires, but terms of surrender. The regime is offering dribs and drabs of food and medicine to besieged civilians in return for allowing the Syria flag to fly over this or that neighborhood, but as soon as regime operatives get inside they are demanding information about rebel fighters’ whereabouts, they are arresting some people, and they are simply shooting others who try to walk away. This is a Chechnya-style “ceasefire.” Can John Kerry possibly not know this? If he does know it, how can he encourage it? Is he so cynical that knowingly betraying U.S. allies is a price he’s eager to pay to end the war?
However exactly it turns out, the spectacle of Geneva II is already a disgrace to the great tradition of U.S. statecraft. Would that its dark shadow remain confined to the Middle East, but one has to wonder what, say, Japanese decision-makers are thinking privately these days. As to Kerry, all he is saying, apparently, is give appeasement a chance.
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Geneva II Conference doomed to failure
Dr. Yaron Friedman
Ynet, January 21, 2014
It’s been a long time since Western leaders pinned so many false hopes on a peace conference with such slim chances of succeeding like the Geneva II Conference. The failure of peace conferences is guaranteed when the participating parties are not really interested in reaching an agreement, are pushed into it by external forces, or when one of the sides has no control of the ground and is incapable of imposing any order in the area he pretends to represent.
In the Geneva II Conference, all negative conditions exist. Will a comprehensive peace agreement be possible in a place where a ceasefire cannot even be reached for one day, not even on Christmas or Eid al-Adha? Here is an explanation why the chances for the success of the Geneva II conference for peace in Syria are extremely slim.
In a way, the Geneva conference is reminiscent of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Both sides are not serious about the efforts of peace, and the negotiations appear to be about the actual meeting. There is no trust at all between the parties, and the only goal of the negotiations is to satisfy the powers or the West, thereby guaranteeing ongoing financial support.
Mahmoud Abbas’ real authority among the Palestinians is as questionable as his chances of imposing a future agreement with Israel on the ground, if it is indeed reached. The Palestinian representatives are negotiations while half of the territory under discussion, the Gaza Strip, is not in their hands. Senior IDF officials have estimated many times that if the Israeli army withdraws from the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority government will collapse and the Hamas organization will take over the territory.
In Syria the situation is even more complicated as the Syrian National Coalition has almost completely lost its ability to control the area. Therefore, it does not have the actual ability to implement any agreement.
In the West’s eyes, the Palestinian Authority and Syrian National Coalition represent the only chance for imposing an agreement that will lead to a secular, democratic country. But in both cases, the Western countries’ dream is completely cut off from the tough reality on the ground and from the impossible gap between the sides’ positions.
The troubling question is which forces in Syria are represented in the Syrian National Coalition which will be arriving in Geneva? The al-Qaeda organizations, the significant force on the ground, don’t accept the coalition’s authority. The Salafi Islamic organizations, led by the Islamic Front, doesn’t see the opposition in Istanbul as their representative either.
Daash (“The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria”), al-Qaeda’s Iraqi wing, is waging an all-out war against all of the opposition factions and is gradually taking over all northern cities in Syria. In fact, the only force which was capable of implementing the opposition’s decisions in the conference was the armed rebels’ organization, the Free Syrian Army. But this body has been in a state of disintegration for several months now.
The announcements made by Free Syrian Army commander Salim Idris are transferred in a recording apparently outside of Syria. The entire territory which was controlled in the past by the Free Syrian Army is controlled by Islamic organizations, which are now fleeing as well from the Daash organization. At the last moment before the conference, Turkey and Qatar are trying to convince the Islamic organization which are not affiliated with al-Qaeda, led by the Islamic Front, to support the positions of the Syrian National Coalition.
Although it was a secret ballot, the Muslim Brotherhood representatives within the Syrian National Coalition appear to have led the objections to sitting next to the Assad regime’s delegation. The absence of their leader, Ali Sadreddine al-Bayanouni, from the vote ahead of the participation in Geneva II was obvious.
It should be noted that in this vote, which was held several days ago, only 75 of the 120 members were present. Fifty-eight of them voted in favor of participating, 14 voted against and two abstained. This means that the decision in favor of participating in Geneva was made by less than half of the members of the Syrian National Coalition. It’s safe to estimate from the short and problematic history of the Syrian opposition in Turkey that even if a compromise is achieved, there is no guarantee that it will be approved by the majority of the Coalition members.
The attitudes presented by the two sides to the negotiations show that there is a completely unbridgeable gap between the sides. Syrian National Coalition Chairman Ahmad Jarba is demanding that the conference end with the downfall of the Assad regime and that he is put on trial in an international criminal court. Jarba is accusing Bashar Assad of bringing Daash (al-Qaeda) into the Syrian arena in order to prove that he is fighting terror.
Jarba even warned on Saturday that he would demand that Assad remove all his “mercenaries” from the Syrian arena: Daash and his Lebanese allies from Hezbollah. It seems that this radical stance was the only thing that could have made it possible to secure the desired majority in the coalition for participating in Geneva II.
The Syrian president declared in an interview to a Russian network, in response to Jarba’s remarks, that he has no intention of arriving at the conference in order to surrender or step down. In the past he said he would accept only what he referred to as “the Syrian people’s decision.” About a year ago, President Assad claimed he wanted to hold general presidential elections in Syria, but several factors are delaying the “democratic” elections.
In the territories he doesn’t control in northern and eastern Syria, no one will agree to participate in the elections on behalf of Assad, definitely not Islamic organizations. In the territories he controls in the western part of the country, there will be no credibility for the election process and Assad is expected to win a 97% majority again, like in the 2007 elections.
The refugee problem is also preventing the participation of about 10% of the population in the elections. About two million Syrians live in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey today.
In spite of the smiles and handshakes between the Russian and American foreign ministers, Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry, and the compliments given in public by the West’s representatives to the delegation in Geneva, one cannot overrule the possibility that in reality there is no real interest in ending the crisis in Syria.
One can even assume that it’s quite the opposite and that Russia is interested in seeing the current situation continue and the Assad army, which it is arming, slowly continue to gain strength until it regains control of the entire country. In the meantime, Assad will kill tens of thousands of jihadists threatening Russia, mainly Chechens and Caucasians. The US has no objection in principle either for Shiite and Sunni terrorists, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, continuing to destroy each other.
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states understand very well that the Syrian opposition is arriving at Geneva II at a disadvantage. They have been trying for quite a while, unsuccessfully, to establish a moderate Islamic force which would take over the territory, and they realize that the opposition is in an extremely tough situation. They have no doubt as to the chances of the conference, and their approach is characterized by cynicism and despair.
Iran’s position is no different from its rivals’ position. President Hassan Rohani expressed his frustration over the fact that Iran was not invited to participate in the talks, and warned that any discussion without his country’s participation was doomed to failure.
Iran is interested in taking advantage of the Syrian crisis in order to advance its nuclear project. In order to gain support from the West, Iran will try to appear as a mediating element allegedly trying to achieve reconciliation in Syria.
But on the ground Iran will continue riding two horses at the same time: Both advancing its nuclear program and helping Assad win. Several days ago, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Syria in order to coordinate position ahead of Geneva II.
Minister Zarif and President Assad say the conference’s goal is to “fight terror.” The Syrian National Coalition has also declared that its goal is to “fight terror.” So it seems that on January 22 there will be an agreement on a war on terror, but an argument will build up on the identity of the real terrorists: The rebels or the regime.
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Assad’s Indispensable Foreign Legions
The Washington Institute, January 22, 2014
Since 2012, the Syrian regime has drawn from its allies to create a force of foreign combatants that have become essential to its survival. The presence of these fighters is a major factor in the conflict and will have significant influence on the eventual military or political solution. At this point, President Bashar al-Assad probably cannot decide the regime’s course for the war on his own — like Rome inviting the barbarian tribes to defend its gates, he has effectively mortgaged his independence to his Iranian, Hezbollah, and Iraqi allies, and their withdrawal would likely turn the war back against the regime. According to Assad’s narrative, the Syrian Arab Army is winning the fight against the rebels, but it is the foreign legions that have made such claims possible.
Several factors have led to the presence of foreign forces in Syria. First, the dynamics of the war created a need for large numbers of additional infantry. Based on reported casualties and the estimated effects of defection, desertion, and unreliability, the regime’s regular forces have been whittled down from over 300,000 to perhaps less than 100,000, with even fewer available for combat operations. Data from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) indicates that some 37,000 regular forces have been killed in combat, and the actual number is likely thousands higher. Many more have been wounded. Defections, especially from the army, have further reduced the available manpower, as has the unreliability of Sunni personnel whom the Alawite regime has asked to help pacify the country’s largely Sunni populace.
The regime has responded to the decline of its regular forces by creating a variety of irregular forces (shabbiha militias, Popular Committees, local militias, the Baath Party Militia) and then merging them under the so-called National Defense Forces. According to Israeli estimates, Damascus has already generated over 50,000 personnel for this umbrella force and is aiming for 150,000.
The ready availability of forces from regime allies has been a factor as well. Hezbollah fighters, Iraqi Shiites, Palestinians, and Iran have produced some of the manpower Assad needed. As with regime irregulars, these foreign forces have become more effective in their military roles over time. Combat operations in places such as al-Qusayr, Aleppo, and Damascus have made clear that the regime is more successful where its foreign allies are present than where they are not. Without them, the regime would likely be unable to undertake significant ground offensives at this point in the war, and it would have difficulty defending some areas of the country where it is still holding on.
The two main groups of foreigners fighting for the regime are Hezbollah personnel and Iraqi Shiites. They provide the extra combat power the regime requires. Hezbollah has been the most important contributor because of the wider scope of its activities, but the Iraqi role has been significant and appears to have expanded over time.
Hezbollah probably maintains around 4,000 men in Syria at any one time, and it has likely rotated much larger numbers through the country — perhaps as many as 10,000. The group’s fighters are found on all key battlefronts, and it plays an important role in training, advising, and bolstering regime regulars and irregulars. It was instrumental in the regime’s victory at al-Qusayr last spring, in the defense of Damascus and Aleppo throughout much of 2013, and in offensive operations in Aleppo province and the Damascus suburbs later in the year. The casualties Hezbollah has suffered testify to its deep involvement: at least 300 have reportedly been killed (probably many more) and hundreds wounded.
Iraqi Shiite fighters are also present in large numbers, joining a number of different Shiite formations and often fighting alongside Hezbollah. Originally centered in the Damascus area — especially the Sayyeda Zainab shrine, but also the broader southern suburbs and East Ghouta — they can now be found on other battlefields, including Aleppo and Qalamoun. Multiple Iraqi-associated combat units have been identified in action, the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade being the most cited. Like Hezbollah, the Iraqis are taking significant casualties, with around 300 killed based on SOHR reporting.
Palestinians have played a much smaller role. Members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command have fought on the regime’s side in refugee camps around Damascus, especially the hotly contested Yarmouk camp in the southern suburbs.
Iran’s role has been primarily as a coordinator and facilitator of foreign forces in Syria; its direct role in combat appears to be quite limited. Tehran encouraged — and perhaps dictated — Hezbollah’s decision to intervene directly in the war, and it has helped Iraqi Shiite fighters with training, movement, and arms. In addition, it provides military assistance, advice, and technical expertise to the regime, in some cases by deploying military specialists on the ground. Although Iran does not appear to have committed large numbers of combat troops, personnel from the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force are operating in Syria, and some have been killed.
Small numbers of other foreigners have been reported on the regime’s side as well, including Yemeni Houthis, Turkish Alevis, Russian “mercenaries,” Afghans, Pakistanis, and even North Korean. But the evidence for this is limited, and in any case their effect on the fighting would be minimal. Overall, Israeli and other estimates indicate that something like 10,000 foreigners are currently fighting for the regime, though the figures are soft.
The importance of the foreigners lies in their effect on the war, not in their numbers. Allied fighters perform a wide variety of roles for the regime. Hezbollah and Iranian personnel are reportedly involved in determining the war’s strategic direction and the conduct of combat operations — according to a regional security source, they have formed a joint command center with the regime.
On the ground, foreigners provide critical military capabilities, especially reliable light infantry. Their willingness to fight has been crucial to regime offensive and defensive operations in Homs province (al-Qusayr), the Damascus suburbs, and Aleppo province and city.
In addition, Hezbollah and Iranian Qods Force personnel have reportedly played a key role in training regime regular and irregular forces for counterinsurgency and urban operations. This has allowed the regime to raise thousands of irregular forces to compensate for casualties among its regular units, and to reorient regular forces to a counterinsurgency mission.
Without the foreign legions, the regime’s ability to conduct the war would likely have declined dramatically and perhaps decisively in 2013. Instead, its downward trend was arrested and its military fortunes improved. The synergy among regime regular and irregular forces and the foreigners has fostered success on the battlefield. Rebel forces have suffered defeats in Homs and Aleppo provinces and the Damascus suburbs, and their combat losses have increased.
When the regime chooses to commit significant firepower and combat forces, including foreigners, the rebels have not been able to respond effectively. And while the foreigners have suffered casualties, especially Hezbollah and the Iraqis, the losses seem manageable thus far.
The role of foreign Islamist extremists in the Syrian opposition has tended to obscure the role of foreigners on the regime side. Yet there are likely as many or more foreigners fighting with Assad than against him. This issue should be addressed in the international Geneva II negotiations currently under way, especially if the regime attempts to focus the discussions on “foreign terrorists” supposedly conspiring with Western and regional governments against Syria.
Assad’s foreign legions have been instrumental in keeping the regime in the war. They are not the only factor that has done so — the regime’s internal mobilization and the provision of financial assistance, diplomatic support, and weapons from its allies have played major roles as well — but they are important. The foreigners have helped prolong the fighting and changed the slope of the battlefield in the regime’s favor. Their departure would be a major blow to the regime, arguably more damaging than the departure of Sunni foreign fighters would be to the rebels. They also give Iran and Hezbollah a voice in the military and political processes that will eventually end the war. In short, Assad is still standing, but he is not standing alone — and he likely no longer makes decisions alone either.