Planning for the Next Phase of the Syrian Civil War/ After Abbas

Dec 20, 2012

Planning for the Next Phase of the Syrian Civil War/ After Abbas

Update from AIJAC

December 19, 2012
Number 12/12 #04

This Update features two good pieces on the pitfalls in the upcoming phase of the Syrian civil war, especially in terms of US policy.

First up, repeat visitor to rebel-held regions of Syria Jonathan Spyer discusses the recent US decision to recognise the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), recently formed in Qatar, as the rightful Syrian government in waiting. Spyer argues that this decision appears to be a part of a larger strategy he feels is misguided, namely working with Muslim Brotherhood Islamists against the more extreme Salafists. He adduces considerable evidence to bolster his claim that the SNC is dominated by the Brotherhood, and also discusses the implications of the reaction of all opposition groups to a US decision to proscribe the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra opposition militia, a group Spyer discusses in some detail. For his argument in full, CLICK HERE.

Next up, is a summary of the views of four experts on the question of US policy toward Syria, as collected by the venerable Council on Foreign Relations in the US. Particularly notable are the comments of the American strategic analyst Max Boot, who argues for the immediate creation of a no fly zone, thus grounding the regime’s most important asset, and direct US supply of weapons to rebels in exchange for pledges about post-war behaviour. Also interesting are the views of the Washington Institute’s Andrew Tabler, who lived in Syria for a number of years as a journalist, and says the key policy needed is to cease concentrating outreach efforts on civilians in exile, and begin directly engaging the fighter factions inside the country. For the rest of their views, and also those of Ed Hussein and Brian Fishman, CLICK HERE.

Finally, on a separate topic, noted Palestinian affairs expert Jonathan Schanzer considers an important issue few have written about – what is likely to happen when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dies, becomes incapacitated, or loses his position. Schanzer notes that Abbas has named no successor and the result is very likely to be a Hamas takeover of Palestinian politics. He notes that under the current Palestinian constitution, the speaker of the 2006 Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council  is supposed to take over at least temporarily, and that this is Hamas member and convicted terrorism supporter Aziz Dweik. Moreover, even if Dweik does not take over, Hamas is very well positioned to win any post-Abbas struggle for power. For Schanzer’s suggestions about how the international community can start working to prevent such a worst-case scenario, CLICK HERE.

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The Revolt of Islam in Syria

Jerusalem Post, 14/12

The United States this week became the latest country to recognize the Syrian National Coalition, formed in Qatar a month ago, as the legitimate leadership of the Syrian opposition. The formation of a joint military council aligned with the coalition was also announced in Antalya, Turkey. At the same time, Washington designated Jabhat al-Nusra, the powerful Salafi armed group in Syria, as a terrorist organization.

All of these moves indicate that a coherent US and western policy toward the rebel side in the Syrian civil war is now emerging. This policy is in line with the Obama Administration’s broader regional orientation, and meets with the approval of key EU governments. It is also the preferred direction of Turkey and Qatar, the two countries who led the international response to the Syrian rebellion during the long period that the west preferred not to get directly involved.

The intention is to align with and strengthen Muslim Brotherhood-associated elements, while painting Salafi forces as the sole real Islamist danger. At the same time, secular forces are ignored or brushed aside.

This dynamic is plainly visible in the composition of the new military council. The founder of the Free Syrian Army, the secular former Syrian Air Force Colonel Riad Asaad, is notably absent. General Mustafa al-Sheikh, the first of his rank to defect to the rebels, is also not there. Sheikh is known for his fierce opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. Hussein Haj Ali, the highest ranking officer to defect so far, was similarly absent.

A Reuters report on the new joint military council calculated that the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies account for about two thirds of the 263 men who met in Antaliya and formed the new body. Salafi commanders are also there.

The new council is headed by Brigadier Selim Idriss, who is described as a non-ideological military man. But his deputies, Abdel-basset Tawil of Idleb and Abdel-qader Saleh of Aleppo governate are associated with the Salafi trend.

The domination by the Muslim Brotherhood of the new military council mirrors the movement’s leading position in the new civilian leadership body – the Syrian National Coalition. The leader of this coalition is Ahmed Mouaz al-Khatib, former Imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

Khatib is closely associated with the Damascus Branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The leader of the new coalition has a long history of antisemitic, anti-western and anti-Shia remarks (he praised Saddam Hussein, for example, for ‘terrifying the Jews’ and wrote an article asking if Facebook was an ‘American-Israeli intelligence website.’) He is also an admirer of the Qatar-based Muslim Brotherhood preacher Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

Within the body headed by Khatib, the Muslim Brotherhood dominated Syrian National Council controls around 27 of the 65 seats on the executive body of the new coalition. There are also Islamists and fellow travelers among the non-SNC delegates. The Brotherhood are by far the best organized single body within the coalition. One secular delegate at the first full meeting of the coalition accused the MB of “pushing more of its hawks into the coalition, although it already has half of the seats.”

So the emergence of the Syrian National Coalition and the associated Joint Military Council means that the west and its regional Sunni allies are now backing a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated coalition as the preferred replacement for the Assad regime.

The al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra organization, now designated a terror organization by the US, is a powerful, jihadi force on the ground. The western desire to declare this group off limits is entirely understandable. But the attempt to build it up as a kind of bogeyman to be contrasted with so-called ‘moderate’ Islamist groups has little basis in reality. The difference between the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated groups is one of degree, not of kind.

Exemplifying this, the US designation has led to a furious response across the board among the Syrian rebels. 29 rebel groups have now issued a statement saying ‘we are all Jabhat al-Nusra.’

Their perception is that the US sought to avoid contact with the armed rebels, but now wants to be involved, because it glimpses the possibility of a rebel victory. The jihadis of Jabhat al Nusra, on the other hand, have been there since the start and have proven themselves among the most militarily capable of the rebel units.

This perception largely accords with the facts.

The media focus on Jabhat al Nusra may well be exaggerated. Even those articles claiming it is now playing a dominant role in the fighting admit that it constitutes only a small fraction of the total number of rebel fighters (9% is the number often quoted, though it is difficult to see on what basis this suspiciously precise figure was reached).

The focus on Jabhat al Nusra should not obscure the fact that the better-organized, non-Salafi, home grown, Muslim Brotherhood elements that the US is backing are no less anti-western and no less anti-Jewish.

Could things have been different? As with Egypt, perhaps, if the west had perceived the risks and opportunities clearly at the start. This might have triggered a vigorous policy of support for non-Islamist opposition and fighting elements, which were there.

A counter-argument could also be made according to which in the Arab world in 2012, a non-Islamist popular force able to rival the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis in commitment and organizational capacity would be highly unlikely. In any case, such a policy was never tried, and is not being tried now.

The result is that the force now facing the retreating Assad regime is split between differing brands of Sunni Arab Islamism, some aligned with the west, some directly opposing it, but all holding fast to fundamentally anti-western ideologies.

Given the level of life that has been lost in Syria, and the presence of chemical and biological warfare programs now in the vicinity of Islamist terror groups, it does not seem hyperbolic to recall a stanza from Percy Shelley’s famous poem ‘The Revolt of Islam’: ‘their complicating lines did steep the orient sun in shadow…and all around, darkness more dread than night was poured upon the ground.’

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What Should U.S. Policy Be in Syria?


Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Brian Fishman, Counterterrorism Research Fellow, New America Foundation, Fellow with the Combating Terrorism Center, West Point
Ed Husain, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Andrew Tabler, Senior Fellow in the Program on Arab Politics, Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Interviewer(s): Jonathan Masters, Online Editor/Writer

Council on Foreign Relations, December 12, 2012


Debate is intensifying over how the United States should respond to Syria’s escalating crisis. In recent days, Washington has formally recognized the Syrian opposition coalition, but thus far has refrained from providing rebel forces with direct military support. CFR’s Max Boot says Washington needs “to get off the sidelines” and build a coalition of allies to enforce a Libya-style no-fly zone. The New American Foundation’s Brian Fishman notes U.S. military intervention is unlikely to produce a stable Syrian government post-conflict, and recommends a patient approach of training and modestly arming rebels. CFR’s Ed Husain says Washington should avoid inserting itself directly in the twenty-one-month old conflict, a move that would jeopardize the credibility of the rebellion. The Washington’s Institute’s Andrew Tabler says the United States should transition from its covert “light footprint” support for armed Syrian opposition to overt outreach to non-extremist groups in the Free Syrian Army, including the provision of arms.

Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

The beginning of wisdom on Syria is the realization that the current policy—which consists of calls for Bashar al-Assad to step down coupled with a small amount of humanitarian and non-lethal assistance to his long-suffering people—isn’t working. The war continues to rage on, more cruel than ever (at least 40,000 killed so far), and it is spilling over into neighboring states (refugee flows, cross-border firing into Turkey and Israel, and increased instability in Lebanon), while in Syria itself, jihadist groups appear to be growing in strength.

It is high time for the United States to get off the sidelines as allies such as Turkey and Israel, Britain and France, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been urging it to do. As a first step, Washington should assemble a coalition to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria. The United States would have to take the lead in dismantling Syrian air defenses, but could then hand off the enforcement of the NFZ to allies, as was the case in Libya. (Even if the United States and its allies are not willing to send aircraft over Syria, a more limited NFZ could still be enforced by Patriot batteries in Jordan and Turkey.)

This would instantly ground Assad’s most potent weapon—he has been using airpower heavily, especially in the north, where he has lost control of the countryside. It would also interdict Assad’s main supply artery from Iran—flights over Iraq. If the Syrian air force is grounded, rebels will be able to establish liberated territory from the Turkish border to Aleppo. Eventually, coalition aircraft could provide close air support for rebel operations, with air strikes being called in by coalition commandos on the ground.

The United States should also provide weapons directly to the rebels. This would not only help to shorten the war, but increase U.S. influence with the rebel forces. Washington could provision the supply of weapons on pledges from rebel groups to work together and respect democratic principles in a post-Assad Syria. Even more importantly, training camps could be established in liberated territory to provide cohesion and unity of command to scattered rebel forces.

While all this military activity is going on, U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers should be working to buttress the provisional government that will take power after Assad’s downfall. It is vitally important to start planning now for a post-Assad Syria if it is to avoid becoming another Somalia—or even another Libya.

Brian Fishman, Counterterrorism Research Fellow, New America Foundation, Fellow with the Combating Terrorism Center, West Point

There will be no happy ending in Syria. In fact, the most likely scenario in the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad is no ending at all, rather, protracted war between various Arab Syrian rebel factions, the increasingly tattered—but still capable—remnants of the regime, Kurdish factions, and jihadi organizations.

U.S. military intervention could, of course, tip the scales against Assad’s regime, but it is unlikely to facilitate a stable government in the aftermath of regime collapse. Advocates of overt intervention have yet to offer a credible scenario for stability in Syria after Assad’s ouster, yet they propose deep U.S. political commitment to a country that is likely to face years of civil war even if Assad is killed or abdicates. This is unwise.

A better course of action is to provide training and small amounts of weapons to cooperative Syrian rebel groups, pressure the Assad regime diplomatically, and prepare for more forceful military engagement to secure or destroy Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, which must not be transferred to Lebanese Hezbollah or fall into the hands of Syrian rebels. This course of action is also unlikely to produce a positive outcome in Syria, but it avoids tying the United States to another costly Middle Eastern intervention with no clear endgame.

Advocates of intervention in Syria sometimes point to Bosnia and Libya, where U.S. intervention helped staunch civil war and overthrow a dictator. But all of the negative effects of U.S. intervention in Libya will be worse in Syria, and those analogies ignore two more relevant historical examples: Lebanon and Iraq. Both neighbor Syria, are more similar demographically, and underscore the costs and risks of U.S. military intervention in civil wars in the Middle East.

The challenge in Syria is particularly acute because of Jabhat al-Nusrah, an al-Qaeda-affiliated militant network that has become a major player in the Syrian rebellion. Advocates of intervention argue that a U.S. presence would check the growth of al-Qaeda in Syria. This is fantasy, which is encouraged by well-meaning and basically righteous Syrian factions hoping for U.S. help. While the United States’ passive approach likely has meant that various noxious Islamist militias have received support from Gulf states, it is nonetheless true that the specter of direct U.S. military intervention in the Middle East has been, is, and will be al-Qaeda’s most successful recruiting tool.

Overthrowing an Iranian-allied, terrorist-supporting, autocrat-like Bashar al-Assad is obviously a laudable goal. But a quiet, patient approach is a better and far less risky way to get there than overt military action.

Ed Husain, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Ending Assad’s days in Damascus would not mark the end of Syria’s conflict, but a new beginning. If the United States were to become directly involved in toppling the regime, it would also mean a commitment to helping build a new Syria amid the bitter sectarian, ethnic, and regional conflicts playing out inside the country. After recent forays into similar terrain in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States cannot afford (politically or economically) to insert itself directly in yet another bloody conflict.

Instead, U.S. allies Turkey, France, Britain, and the Gulf countries should lead efforts to oust Assad and build a new Syria. Their reluctance for greater involvement, however, is the surest warning for the United States to stay one removed from Syria.

Washington should continue to help the Syrian opposition by non-lethal means: aid, training, better communications devices, political recognition, facilitation, and strategic guidance. But the opposition’s triumph over Assad must be theirs alone for the sake of their credibility in the next battle: rebuilding Syria. Help from Turkey or the Gulf does not taint the opposition in the way that U.S. military intervention would.

Those who wish to weaken Iran by removing Assad are pursuing a dangerous line of thought. Iran has allies in Hezbollah, Gaza, Iraq, and Bahrain’s opposition. Is the United States going to interfere with these forces as well? And at what cost? Has Washington learned nothing from its mistakes in Iraq? Iran is a standalone problem—the road to countering Tehran’s mullahs’ ambitions does not go through Damascus.

Matters in Syria will get worse before they get worse. Indeed, this conflict will last several years. There is no appetite yet for compromise and a political settlement on either side. This is an Arab fight to the bitter end, with war crimes being committed on both sides. The United States will be more effective and smarter by leading through Europe and its regional allies.

Andrew Tabler, Senior Fellow in the Program on Arab Politics, Washington Institute for Near East Policy

For nearly a year, Washington has found new and creative ways of not dealing directly with armed groups in Syria, preferring instead to engage with civilians in exile in the Syrian National Council and its larger successor, the Syrian Opposition Coalition. But with the rapid advances of the various groups comprising the Free Syrian Army, it is now clear that those who are taking the shots at Assad will be calling the shots as he exits the scene.

The only way to help ensure that civilians play a leading role in post-Assad Syria—to reverse growing anti-American sentiment due to the perception that Washington stood by and did very little while Syrians were slaughtered, and to help the United States shape the political outcome—is for Washington to transform its covert “light footprint” policy of engaging armed groups through Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey into an overt political outreach to non-extremist groups in the Free Syrian Army.

Once written off as a cyber-opposition force, the groups comprising the Free Syrian Army have made dramatic gains against the Assad regime’s forces, driving them out of large swaths of now disputed territory in the east and north of the country. FSA groups, as well as jihadist groups that fight alongside the FSA but are not a part of it, have overrun regime weapons depots from which they have acquired SA-7 shoulder-fired antiaircraft weapons. The Syrian armed opposition is now shooting down regime combat aircraft in greater numbers, leading to concerns that an Assad regime desperate to halt the rebels’ advance may resort to chemical weapons. Regardless, the armed opposition is likely to soon transform this disputed territory into “liberated” territory: areas of the country where the regime can no longer project its power in any form.

Given the fragmented nature of the Syrian armed and civilian opposition alike, Washington will soon have to deal with a Syria, or perhaps Syrias, ruled by multiple groups with multiple leaders. The best way to influence this emerging leadership is to abandon the dream of dealing only with civilians and to engage armed groups as well. To accomplish this, Washington needs to determine clear criteria for targeting the groups—such as extremists—the United States will not deal with, engage the remainder to find out their immediate needs, and develop a method for providing this assistance.

Although this would naturally include the provision of weapons in some cases, there are other opportunities as well. Armed groups in the country are already struggling to deal with demands from civilians in areas ravaged by war, and Syrians will need extensive humanitarian and economic assistance as the longer battle begins to build a viable and democratic post-Assad Syria at peace with the region and the world.

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After Abbas

The Palestinian president will either be toppled from his throne, or die on it. And that may be Hamas’s chance to pounce


Foreign Policy, DECEMBER 13, 2012

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas went to the United Nations last month and brought his people one step closer to statehood. But amid all the fanfare, Western diplomats quietly conceded that the General Assembly vote to upgrade the Palestinians’ U.N. mission was not simply a step taken to advance their national project. It also reflected a desire to counter Hamas’s growing influence, particularly after the Gaza-based terrorist group claimed victory in its war with Israel in November.

In the overwhelming vote (138 to 9) to confer nonmember observer status on the Palestinians, the international community may have outsmarted itself. Abbas’s next steps are entirely unclear — he has threatened to pursue membership in the International Criminal Court, which he could then use as a bludgeon against Israel, but that tactic could take years to bear fruit.

The aging Abbas, however, may not have years. The Palestinian leader is 77 years old, a heavy smoker, and an incessant traveler. He reportedly underwent treatment for prostate cancer a decade ago, and in 2010 he was admitted six times to a Jordanian hospital for unspecified health reasons. In short, he’s not a picture of perfect fitness. This raises the inconvenient question: Who will follow in his footsteps?

Right now, the answer is Hamas. According to Palestinian Basic Law, Article 37, if the presidency of the Palestinian Authority becomes vacant “the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council shall temporarily assume the powers and duties of the Presidency of the National Authority for a period not to exceed sixty (60) days, during which free and direct elections to elect a new President shall take place.”

As it turns out, the current speaker is none other than Aziz Dweik. In January 2006, the last time Palestinians held legislative elections, Dweik ran and won on Hamas’s Change and Reform list. When Hamas emerged with a majority after that vote, he was sworn in as speaker.

Who is this leader waiting in the wings? He has spent two decades being pursued by Israel. In 1992, Dweik was one of 415 Hamas members exiled to Lebanon by Israel for their involvement in the nascent terrorist group. Following the 2006 kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the Israelis arrested him for being a member of Hamas. In June 2009, Dweik was released from prison, but was rearrested this January for “involvement in terrorist activities.” He was released again, only months ago, in July.

Of course, Dweik isn’t a shoo-in. Succession does not always proceed according to law, and the PLO could still appoint someone from its own ranks if Abbas could no longer lead that body. However, a power struggle is a recipe for another ugly clash between the PLO and Hamas — perhaps a reprise of the bloody 2007 civil war, in which Hamas seized the Gaza Strip. And right now, Abbas’s health and political fortunes are the only things standing in the way of this chaotic scenario.

Abbas’s political standing could be just as disconcerting as his advancing age. Since Hamas drubbed Abbas’s secular Fatah party in the 2006 election and pushed his security forces out of Gaza in 2007, Abbas has leaned heavily on the United States and Israel for military, intelligence, and financial assistance to maintain his tenuous grip on the West Bank. His government, meanwhile, has become ossified, eroding his support among many West Bankers.

In September, frustration boiled over when the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) coffers began to dry up and government workers’ salaries went unpaid, prompting thousands of Palestinians to pour into the streets. The demonstrations raised troubling questions about whether the PA might soon collapse. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s recent threats to withhold PA tax revenues for several months have only revived those concerns.

Abbas continues to hang on, but he still doesn’t seem to stand for anything other than the perpetuation of his own rule. He has failed to deliver peace, yet will not engage in violence against Israel. This “neither here nor there” approach explains why he was basically irrelevant during the most recent round of fighting between Israel and Hamas.

The question of who might succeed Abbas is not a new one. According to a leaked U.S. State Department cable, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat warned Americans as far back as 2006 that a “political vacuum” would elevate Dweik to the role of president. Other Palestinian insiders have also quietly expressed concerns about the Palestinian Authority’s succession plan.

Abbas, however, refuses to name a successor. Taking a page from deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, his old ally, he has no vice president and no heir apparent. Instead, he has led campaigns to weaken potential challengers. Mohammed Dahlan, the popular strongman of Gaza under the late Yasir Arafat, has endured particularly nasty treatment from Abbas, who has made moves to freeze his assets abroad.

This October’s municipal elections in the West Bank brought a handful of renegade Fatah leaders into office. This new crop of relatively unknown secularists may yet represent the future of the Palestinians. Ghassan Shakaa, for example, garnered attention in the New York Times as a leading figure “among dozens of Fatah activists ousted from the party [in October] because they had decided to run independently.” But rather than embracing political diversity, Abbas has reportedly isolated these figures — most recently refusing them a role in the festivities after the Palestinians earned their upgrade at the United Nations.

Abbas’s potential challengers cannot carve out a niche for themselves at the ballot box either. Owing to the bitter rift between Hamas and Fatah, Abbas refuses to hold new national elections. And Washington — fearful that Hamas might win again at the polls — has his back on this.

In other words, Abbas has solidified his position as the unquestioned leader of the Palestinians, and he will continue in that position either until a time of his own choosing or until his demise.

To put it mildly, this is not a viable strategy for maintaining a partner for peace in the West Bank. Nor is supporting a bureaucratic maneuver at the United Nations, which merely granted Abbas a temporary boost in approval. Such moves, in fact, only exacerbate the brewing Palestinian succession crisis because they bolster the current leadership without pushing for much-needed reform.

If the international community is serious about Palestinian statehood, it should start thinking about who is next in line to govern the Palestinian people and how to forge the infrastructure needed to ensure good governance. More importantly, it should demand that Abbas take steps to ensure that legitimate contenders have the opportunities to ensure their political voices are heard.

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