May 3, 2012
Number 05/12 #01
Today’s Update looks at the options for dealing with the ongoing violence in Syria in the wake of the apparent failure of the ceasefire put forward by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as part of his plan to settle the conflict and halt the killing (with at least 23 people killed on Tuesday).
First up is a good report on the aftermath of the Annan plan, consisting of numerous quotes from knowledgeable on all sides , written by Neil McFarquhar of the New York Times. He finds there is general agreement that the plan has failed, but little sense of what might come next from various quarters, and still very little appetite for any serious intervention from Western policymakers – few of whom, it seems clear, ever expected the plan to succeed in the first place. The piece also makes it clear why many cling to the Annan plan and the monitors it is supposed to bring to Syria, even while acknowledging it is doing very little – attractive alternatives simply seem unavailable. For this important backgrounder on where the Syrian situation is now, CLICK HERE.
Next up is former senior American official Elliot Abrams. He argues that, despite the good intentions of Annan, he has become “objectively speaking the greatest asset of the Assad regime. His failed mediation, or investigation, or negotiation, or whatever it is called, is what is blocking additional action against the Syrian regime.” He strongly urges that Annan and his plan be moved off the political stage as quickly as possible – not least for the sake of Annan’s own reputation. For Abrams’ argument in full, CLICK HERE.
Finally, this Update features the unique perspective of a former Syrian General, Akil Hashem, discussing the military situation in Syria. General Hashem says, without outside intervention, a long period of stalemate lies ahead with neither the rebels, nor the government able to subdue the other. He also says the formidibility of the Syrian military is being heavily over-estimated, and outlines four models of outside intervention, any of which he predicts would unseat the Assad regime quickly. For the unique insights from this Syrian military insider, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- American columnist Charles Krauthammer criticises US President Obama on Syria for failing to either act or make the case that it is not in the US interest to do so. Other interesting criticisms of US Syria policy come from former officials Paul Wolfowitz and Kurt Volcker.
- Some commentators are suggesting that Washington’s policy on Syria may have a negative effect on its ability to credibly dissuade Iran from going nuclear – including former American UN Ambassador John Bolton and Jamie Fly and Robert Zarate.
- An al-Jazeera host notes that a “gazillion” times more Syrians have been killed than Palestinians when Syrian television devotes a day to the killing of Palestinians at Deir Yassin in the 1948 war.
- Lee Smith on current regrets in some quarters over past glowing coverage of Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad.
- Some additional looks at that Egyptian decision to cancel the contract to the supply natural gas to Israel, making it clear that, despite the claims of both sides, this was not simply a commercial decision – here and here.
- Israel appears to be heading for early elections, probably in September.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- What the conviction of former Liberian President Charles Taylor may mean for Middle Eastern dictators like Assad.
- Sharyn Mittelman on the stories of anti-Zionists who learned to appreciate and even love Israel.
- Ahron Shapiro on Palestinian Authority internet censorship.
- Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz on the Muslim debate about visiting Jerusalem holy sites.
- Or Avi-Guy on the deteriorating situation of women in Egypt.
- What IDF Chief of Staff Benny Ganz really said about the Iranian nuclear program.
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
The New York Times, April 29, 2012
BEIRUT, Lebanon — A United Nations-backed cease-fire has neither stopped the fighting in Syria nor forced the government to pull its troops from civilian neighborhoods. It has been called a failure by activists still dodging bullets on the streets of Syria and by senior Obama administration officials questioned in Congress last week.
But no one has offered a plausible alternative.
The result is a bloody stalemate, with the West still endorsing a peace plan even while calling it unrealistic, and the Syrian government, if anything, empowered by the paralysis, even more confident it can weather the fractured and diffuse international pressure.
Despite months of fighting, Western and Arab sanctions that have sapped the national treasury and defections that have eroded the unity of the military, the Syrian government is not on the verge of falling nor abandoning its use of lethal force.
The rest of the world, fearing the chaos that further militarizing the conflict might bring, remains reluctant to arm the opposition.
Even Saudi Arabia, which has repeatedly called for an international effort to do so, has been hesitant. “I have talked to the British, the French, the Americans, Turkey, everyone,” said Walid Jumblatt, one of the few politicians in Lebanon outspoken in his support for the Syrian opposition. “They all say no weapons because it will lead to civil war, as if it is not a civil war now.”
The broader fear that Syria will truly be torn apart, spreading chaos in a combustible region and giving jihadis a new playground to nurture terrorists, has helped cement a stasis that seems to work fine for everyone involved except the Syrian opposition, with hundreds of members killed since the peace plan took effect.
The West, Turkey and the Arabs want time to shape the opposition, divided by bickering and lacking a solid constituency within Syria, into a credible alternative government. They also hope to convince Russia, Syria’s main ally, that the government is to blame for the violence.
The Russians, dragging China in their shadow, want time for the plan to work. Their revived prestige as a superpower rests partly on its success. Both Russia and Iran also want to preserve enough of the current government to maintain their strategic relations, analysts said, which could mean their pushing President Bashar al-Assad toward political compromise.
The Assad government evidently wants more time to try to crush the opposition before being forced into the political negotiations that are part of the agreement brokered by Kofi Annan, the United Nations and Arab League special envoy.
“What is obvious and indisputable is that the Kofi Annan plan has failed,” Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said Thursday at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Assad has not abided and will not abide by a cease-fire.”
Since the Syrian government accepted the plan a month ago, at least 1,000 Syrians have died and thousands more have been displaced, Mr. McCain said. “The United States and the world are failing the people of Syria, and every day that we refuse to lead, more Syrians will die,” he said.
Derek Chollet, President Obama’s nominee to be an assistant secretary of defense, and Kathleen Hicks, nominated to be principal deputy defense secretary for policy, agreed with Mr. McCain at the hearing that the Annan plan was “failing.”
But supporters insist the plan is better than the alternative.
“The desired outcome is not collapse and civil war and a failed state and a couple lost decades for Syria,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, adding that resolving the crisis requires time for both raising the pressure and providing an exit.
“Without pressure the regime will not look for an exit, but without an exit they are going to fight to the death,” Mr. Salem said.
Supporters also hope an increase in United Nations cease-fire monitors, from about 15 in Syria now to 300 when the full complement arrives over the next few months, will deter the violence.
Mr. Annan and others have said the unarmed monitors have already had an effect. But Syrian government forces have attacked cities as soon as monitors have left them, and the opposition has accused the government of assassinating nine activists in Hama who had met with the United Nations team.
How much impact even 300 observers can have is a gamble. Numerous analysts pointed out that the short-lived international observer mission in Kosovo more than a decade ago had 2,000 observers for an area one-seventeenth the size of Syria and with about one-tenth of Syria’s population of 23 million.
In public and privately, senior administration officials made clear that they had no expectation that Syria would implement the Annan plan. Instead, Washington hopes to rely on sanctions; diplomatic pressure; increased engagement with the opposition, including nonlethal aid like bulletproof vests for peaceful activists; and the looming threat of prosecution — all the tools at its disposal short of military intervention.
Stronger action by the United Nations Security Council would require Russian acceptance, but there is no sign that the problems implementing the peace plan are leading in that direction. Although the Russian Foreign Ministry called on Syria last week to “carry out in full its obligations,” it also continued to blame the opposition for the violence. Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov told state television on Friday that the truce had yet to jell “for the most part because armed opposition groups are engaging in provocations, explosions, terrorist attacks and shootings.”
That echoed the attitude in Damascus. The Syrian Foreign Ministry sent a letter to Mr. Annan detailing 1,149 “documented and verifiable violations, by armed elements, of the Annan plan,” said Jihad Makdissi, the ministry spokesman. Security Council members should act “evenhandedly toward violations” and refrain from using the Council as a platform to pursue the policies of individual states, he said without naming any.
Mr. Annan is scheduled to make his next report on the situation byMay 7, and update the Council every 15 days. The United States has said it will not extend the observers’ mandate past the original 90 days if Syria flouts the truce.
A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of diplomatic negotiations, said Washington would not wait the full 90 days to try to end the mission if there was no sign of compliance.
Another, Ms. Hicks, said at the Senate hearing that the Pentagon was doing “a significant amount of planning for a wide range of scenarios, including our ability to assist allies and partners along the borders.”
The administration official alluded to a “basket” of options for the next step, but not humanitarian corridors, which would require military enforcement. “Right now it is not part of our strategy,” said the official, because armed protection would need international approval.
There is a basic consensus among the nations supporting the opposition that arming it is too risky while it lacks a command and control structure. Just where the money and arms might end up remains murky.
But there has undoubtedly been some cross-border smuggling. Lebanese intelligence and judicial sources reported the seizure overnight Saturday of three containers crammed with weapons, including machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Discovered near a port outside the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, the cargo was believed bound from Libya for Syria. In addition, the Syrian military foiled an attempted infiltration from the sea near Turkey, with a number of soldiers killed or wounded in a firefight, state-run media reported.
In the midst of an election campaign, the Obama administration will try to avoid getting entangled in a new Middle East war. But one plan believed under consideration is a short, sharp airstrike on tanks or other limited targets, a kind of shot over the bow warning the Assad military that it cannot act with impunity forever, said George Lopez, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and longtime United Nations adviser.
While few expect the Annan plan to succeed alone, supporters hope it can create the conditions that allow change.
Louay Hussein, a leader of a nascent opposition party still in Damascus, said the closer that Russia and the West were on a Syria strategy, the less wiggle room for the government. “I don’t place any hope on Bashar to do anything,” he said. “We have to try to force this regime to accept the political solution.”
The monitors will not solve the problem, he said, nor is there yet any likely blueprint for peaceful change, but the more the monitors “calm the violence on the streets, the more we will see peaceful activists emerging.”
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by Elliott Abrams
Council on Foreign Relations, April 25, 2012
Kofi Annan is a very nice man. All the people around the world who would second that notion, or indeed advance it with great energy, should be joining together now to salvage his reputation.
As Secretary-General of the United Nations, Annan did not achieve much and did not push the great powers hard. But that is precisely why he was chosen to be the SG, and then re-elected. He got along with everyone, and unlike Kurt Waldheim did nothing that brought opprobrium on the institution. So he emerged with his reputation intact in 2006, and kept it that way: no dirty deals for quick millions, no associations with rotten causes.
Until now. Now, Annan is objectively speaking the greatest asset of the Assad regime. His failed mediation, or investigation, or negotiation, or whatever it is called, is what is blocking additional action against the Syrian regime. Assad is murdering scores of citizens, day after day, making a mockery of Annan and his peace plan. The decline in violence lasted a couple of days, and now Assad is back to normal. Annan has said he is alarmed at the surge of violence, but his solution is his 300 UN “observers,” whom Syria is delaying and who, in any event, are not going to stop the Assad killing machine. So those who want to do nothing now hide behind Annan and his “plan,” and behind its facade Assad expands the devastation. The day that Annan acknowledges these facts and resigns this post is the day the United States and the EU will have to face facts about Syria–and do something.
This is the week the President chose to speak about preventing atrocities, and to do so at the Holocaust Museum. The new mechanisms he outlined are useful, and will serve well whenever any president is determined to act. When a president is determined not to act, they will have no impact. There are always mechanisms available when officials wish to avoid facing a problem, just as there are means to act when the desire to do so is there.
Right now the best reason the United States, and everyone else, can offer for avoiding action on Syria is Kofi Annan and his peace plan. Annan owes it to himself, and friends of his ought to be telling him, to quit–now, immediately. A clear statement outlining all the efforts he has made and all the lies, deceit, and killings by the Assad regime would restore Annan’s own reputation (indeed, enhance it greatly) and force the United States and the EU to face the fact that the UN mission in Syria is dead. As Secretary General, the structures of the UN gave Annan some excuses for failing to speak truth to power. Today, he has no excuses.
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Without Intervention, No End in Sight
Foreign Affairs, April 16, 2012
As international observers land in Syria, the UN-brokered truce between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the opposition remains tenuous. Daily reports of clashes spill out of the country daily. In total, the unrest has left more than 11,000 dead. For a military perspective, Foreign Affairs’ Jordan Hirsch spoke with former Syrian Brigadier General Akil Hashem about the overall state of the rebellion, the capabilities of the military and the opposition, and what it will take to oust Assad. Excerpts:
Over a year after the uprising in Syria began, what is the state of the revolution?
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is rapidly escalating its military campaign and will continue killing no matter what. But at the same time, the revolution will continue no matter what. This stalemate will not end unless the international community intervenes militarily.
One of the main reasons given by Western powers for their reluctance to intervene in Syria is the power of Syria’s military and air defenses. As a former brigadier general, what is your assessment?
I cannot believe that the United States, Britain, and France, with all of their intelligence capabilities, do not realize that the Syrian military is weak, largely thanks to rampant corruption. It’s one thing to have equipment and weapons, but it’s another thing to have the leadership to deploy them. And the leadership of the Syrian military is particularly decrepit. It starts with junior officers who ask soldiers to buy them cigarettes and then refuse to pay them back and goes all the way up to division commanders who divert army matériel to build their castles, villas, and mansions, ordering soldiers to construct them without compensation.
What about matériel?
The Syrian military is relatively well equipped, but the weapons that it does have are severely outdated. The T-72 tank, the top-of-the-line tank in Syria now, entered service in 1979. The air defense missiles, except for some new ones from Iran, were purchased in that era as well. The same goes for armed vehicles. So this notion that Syria has a sophisticated air defense system or army is ridiculous.
If the situation within the Syrian military is so bad, why haven’t there been mass defections?
There is no place for deserters to go within Syria; most have gone to Turkey, which is difficult given the circumstances. The rest of the officers remain because they are largely Alawites, who have functioned as a sort of Swiss Guard for Assad. Alawites make up about ten percent of the Syrian population, and according to my estimation, there are more than 150,000 Alawites in the elite units of the intelligence agencies and of the armed forces. Although the Assad regime cannot rely on Alawites alone, it has packed the intelligence agencies and the military officer core with them — the Alawite community is poor, with little educational or professional opportunity, and recruiters promise power and money. Families then rely on their sons for their financial livelihood, so you have to triple the number of Alawites directly invested in the regime. Given their investment in Assad, they have largely avoided defecting.
Another reason for the lack of defections is that Assad carefully watches his own forces. The Syrian army has 12 divisions. Of those, the Fourth Division, a particularly loyal outfit, is distributed among them to control them and prevent defection. They literally stand behind the regular forces and among them, a kind of police for the military. Whenever they detect the potential for defection, execution is the only punishment — right away, without trial.
Where do you see the uprising heading over the next several months?
Assad cannot put down the rebellion. More than 10,000 people have been killed, but there are millions of Syrians participating directly or indirectly in the revolt, so the revolution will continue. That said, the rebels cannot win on their own. If the international community does not intervene, the conflict will persist indefinitely unless there is a military coup, an assassination of Assad or of top members of his regime, or a mass defection among the Alawite sect itself. The battle could continue like this for at least a year, if not longer.
If Western countries were to intervene, what should an intervention look like?
There are four options. The simplest would be airstrikes, similar to the NATO operation against Slobodan Milosevic in 1999. Such a campaign would target the security headquarters of the four major Syrian intelligence agencies: State Security, Air Force Intelligence, Military Intelligence, and the Ministry of Interior. It would also seek to destroy vital military outposts, government infrastructure, and communications systems. The United States and other Western powers could conduct this operation without any casualties, using cruise missiles and drones alone.
The second option is the establishment of a safe zone within Syria. This would require Western air forces to create a no-fly, no-drive zone within a small area in Syria, likely on the Turkish border. This zone would provide safe haven for the Free Syrian Army to regroup, for defectors to seek shelter (particularly those with heavier weapons, such as tanks), and for aid organizations to enter. That alone would turn the political and military situation upside down.
The third option would be the creation of a full no-fly zone over all of Syria. And the fourth option would be a campaign almost exactly like that in Libya, with a no-fly, no-drive zone extending across the entire country and constant airstrikes to contain the movements of the Syrian military.
The likelihood of these last two options is very low, given the political climate in the West. But given the weakness of the Syrian military, any of these four plans would unseat the Assad regime.
What would it take for the West to intervene?
Western countries will only intervene if the Assad regime escalates its killing, or there is a massacre on the scale of Srebrenica. According to my sources, the regime actually regulates how many should be killed per day. At the beginning of the armed uprising, the number was about 50; after the assault on the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, the number increased to 100. Assad knows that if he commits a large-scale massacre, he will trigger intervention. So if the numbers climb to 30,000 or 40,000 dead, or many thousands are killed at once, then you may see the international community act. Syria may also provoke its neighbors — similar to what happened last week, when Syrian troops fired across the border into a Turkish refugee camp.
If Assad were to fall, what would Syria look like?
There will be chaos. It will be like Iraq — a totalitarian regime that controlled everything suddenly collapsing, opening the door for all kinds of problems, even sectarian violence. But anything that comes after the regime would be a million times better than what we currently have. The doomsday scenarios of the Muslim Brotherhood or al Qaeda taking over Syria are ridiculous. Eventually, the opposition forces in the diaspora and within the country will find a way to unite to establish a free, democratic country.
Akil Hashem is a former brigadier general in the Syrian Army.