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The Syrian Conundrum

Mar 4, 2014

The Syrian Conundrum

Update from AIJAC

March 4, 2014
Number 03/14 #3

In the wake of the complete failure of the Geneva 2 talks in late February to make any progress toward an agreement that would end the Syrian civil war, journalists, columnists and academic experts have been exploring what foreign policy options now exist to try and change that ugly situation there. This Update incorporates some of their thoughts and advice.

First up is an editorial from the Washington Post, which criticises the US Administration’s approach leading up to Geneva. The paper argues that it was always clear that Assad would not agree to step aside as part of the transition and that the Russians, in whom US policy, as enunciated by Secretary of State John Kerry, appeared to place much faith, were never going to force him to do so. The paper argues that a new approach is needed aimed at “directly weakening the Assad regime’s ability to wage war” and strengthening the moderate opposition. For the paper’s full argument, CLICK HERE. A similar argument comes from an editorial in the Wall Street Journal.

Next up is prominent American columnist Michael Gerson, who offers his thoughts from a refugee camp in Jordan full of Syrians who have fled the fighting. He notes that US policy so far has not worked and is being re-examined, but warns against an approach of strategic despair –  a belief that nothing can be done to change the outcome in Syria – leading to a policy, advanced by some, of accepting Assad’s persistence in power and merely seeking to work with him. Gerson rejects this council of despair and offers some policy alternatives which he argues can make a difference. For the rest of what he has to say, CLICK HERE. Also critical of the way the US is approaching the Syrian problem is noted Middle East academic expert Fouad Ajami.

Finally, Washington Institute Syria specialist Andrew Tabler has a different idea for increasing the pressure on the Assad regime to agree to end the conflict. He suggests that UN Security Council Resolution 2118, passed last year to put into effect the US-Russia deal to remove the Assad regime’s chemical weapons, is the key to increasing the pressure on Damascus, and indeed on their backers in Russia. Tabler notes that the Syrians are not only clearly dragging their feet on implementing the resolution (they just asked for a new delay last week), but openly defying it by refusing to destroy twelve declared chemical weapons sites as agreed and called for in the resolution. For Tabler’s advice about how this defiance can be used to pressure the regime back to the bargaining table, CLICK HERE.

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Editorial: Mr. Kerry’s futile Syria initiative

Washington Post, February 22

NOW THAT the “Geneva 2” conference on Syria has collapsed, Secretary of State John F. Kerry is trying to distance himself from the wreckage of an initiative that he made the focus of the Obama administration’s Syria policy for nine critical months. Last Sunday, after the talks between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and a Western-backed opposition coalition ended in impasse without a renewal date, Mr. Kerry issued a statement blaming “the Assad regime’s obstruction” for the failure. In a news conference the next day he faulted Russia for “enabling Assad to double down” on the battlefield “rather than come to the negotiating table in good faith.”

Mr. Kerry’s analysis is correct, so far as it goes. The Assad regime made no pretense of taking seriously the nominal purpose of the Geneva talks, which was to agree on a cease-fire, the opening of corridors for humanitarian aid and a transitional government acceptable to both the government and the opposition. Nor did Russia pressure its ally to go along with that agenda. Instead, both tried to turn the talks into a forum for discussing how to combat “terrorists” in Syria — a label that Damascus and Moscow apply not just to al-Qaeda but to all armed groups that oppose the regime.

That still leaves the question of why Mr. Kerry spent months insisting that Mr. Assad and his Russian backers would go along with a negotiated settlement — and therefore that pursuing Geneva 2, as opposed to more robust measures to stop the mounting bloodshed, was the best U.S. policy. Prior to launching the Geneva 2 effort last May, Mr. Kerry had been a proponent of “changing the calculations” of the Assad regime by providing more military support to the opposition.

Following a visit to Moscow and a meeting with Vladi­mir Putin, however, Mr. Kerry abruptly changed his tune. At a May 7 news conference he heaped praise on Mr. Putin for a discussion that “contributed significantly to our ability to map a road ahead.” He declared that Russia and the United States “are going to cooperate in trying to implement” a plan under which “the government of Syria and the opposition have to put together, by mutual consent, the parties that will then become the transitional government.”

“Our understanding” of the plan, Mr. Kerry said of himself and Mr. Putin, “is very similar.”

The first question on that first of many occasions when Mr. Kerry touted the Geneva 2 formula was telling. Asked a reporter: “What makes you think that President Assad would be willing to take part in a negotiated political solution if, as the United States has repeatedly said, he must leave power?” The obvious answer: Mr. Assad wouldn’t. But for nine months Mr. Kerry stubbornly insisted that just that scenario would unfold. As late as Jan. 16, when even U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi was trying to focus Geneva 2 on the more modest goal of providing humanitarian aid to one neighborhood in one city, Mr. Kerry reiterated that the conference’s “sole purpose” would be to create a transitional government.

Mr. Kerry’s calculus was that even if Mr. Assad were not willing to step aside for such a government, he would be pressured into it by Mr. Putin. But there was never any good reason to believe the Russian ruler — who employed scorched-earth tactics similar to those of Mr. Assad to subdue an uprising in the Russian republic of Chechnya — would support the U.S. goal. On the contrary, Mr. Putin stepped up weapons deliveries to the regime, blocked efforts at the United Nations to open humanitarian corridors to civilian areas under siege by regime forces and echoed the propaganda that Syria’s main problem was “terrorism.” Not for the first time, Mr. Kerry and the Obama administration badly misjudged the Russian leader. 

Throughout the last nine months, Mr. Kerry claimed that his transparently futile initiative was worthy because, as he put it in Moscow, “the alternative is .  . . even more violence . . . the alternative is that Syria heads closer to an abyss, if not over the abyss, and into chaos.” Yet that is exactly what happened in the following nine months. Chemical weapons and barrel bombs were dropped on civilians, al-Qaeda strengthened its hold on parts of eastern Syria, and many thousands died — all while the United States eschewed steps to stop the carnage on the grounds that the Geneva 2 talks offered, as Mr. Kerry put it, “the best opportunity for the opposition to achieve the goals of the Syrian people.”

In that assessment, Mr. Kerry was profoundly wrong. Now he says that “the international community must use this recess in the Geneva talks to determine how best . . . to find a political solution.” But more appeals to the world will not end Syria’s nightmare or the growing threat it poses to vital U.S. interests. That can be addressed only by a new U.S. policy, one that aims at directly weakening the Assad regime’s ability to wage war and that strengthens the moderate forces opposing it and al-Qaeda. It won’t happen in Geneva.

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Syria’s uncontainable threat

By Michael Gerson

Washington Post, Feb. 20

“We are not just fighting Assad,” says one man. “We are fighting Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.” Accurate. “The Western countries,” adds another, “are just waiting around.” True enough. Their sympathies are with the more moderate Free Syrian Army, but the radical Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra “gives us food and assistance.” It is clear who has more resources. The discussion might have taken place at a Washington think tank, except that one man had been in Ghouta in August during the chemical weapons attacks. “I couldn’t get near,” he recalled, “because of all the commotion and screaming. After a while, it was quiet.” After a while, it was quiet.

The Obama administration is reexamining its failed Syria policy. At some point, it becomes hard to play down the worst refugee crisis since Rwanda and a death count approaching that of the Bosnian war . Bashar al-Assad is an utterly committed and murderous opponent. Russia seems unlikely to abandon a strategy that has returned it to the center of Middle Eastern power politics. A variety of radical Islamist groups, including tens of thousands of foreign fighters, contribute to and feed on the chaos.

From a U.S. perspective, this disaster is not just humanitarian but strategic. A Somalia-like future for Syria would be an uncontainable regional and global threat. Lebanon is already being overwhelmed, with one out of four people now a Syrian refugee , adding tension to a combustible sectarian mix. In Jordan, the influx has left public services near the breaking point. Jordanian border guards routinely intercept automatic weapons, hand grenades and bombs with remote detonators coming out of Syria. “Some are headed to sleeper cells in Jordan,” a Jordanian general told me, and “others are in transit to other countries.”

One of the largest challenges related to Syria is strategic despair. It is easy to argue that any given policy change would be inadequate, late or risky.

This has led some to propose a radical option: Tacitly concede defeat, accept that Assad is ascendant and engage him in a counterterrorism strategy. But that would not only reward mass atrocities, it would also be the acceptance of Russian and Iranian strategic dominance in the Middle East and the betrayal of our current friends. And it would reward mass atrocities.

Obama’s alternatives are difficult, but not nonexistent. Additional help to acceptable rebels? This is beginning to happen. Leaders of aid organizations in Jordan report seeing trucks with Saudi aid driving north across the border into Syria each night. The consistent U.S. fear has been that arms and assistance will fall into the wrong hands. But it seems a more urgent problem, as the Zaatari refugees indicated, that radical groups have resources while more moderate forces have little to offer.

Some U.S. officials believe it is possible to identify acceptable rebel groups, particularly in southern Syria, where there are fewer foreign jihadists. And not every Islamist group is favorable to terrorism. The hope is that Syrians, not generally known for religious radicalism, will marginalize religious radicals in a post-Assad government. But first the rebels must survive.

Create humanitarian havens within Syria to relieve refugee pressures on neighboring countries? Again, the Saudis are already moving in this direction, providing tents for encampments in southern Syria. But refugee magnets can easily become targets. Effective havens would require military protection and a flow of supplies — a major, sustained commitment. Yet several regional powers might be persuaded to join an effort similar to the creation of havens during the Bosnian conflict.

Take out the Syrian planes and helicopters? President Obama was once on the verge of aerial strikes — always a grim, final option and a risky escalation. But he might decide that the final option has been reached to stop the barrel bombs from being dropped on neighborhoods and to push back the range of regime attacks to the reach of their artillery.

With Russia blocking any decisive action at the United Nations, any mix of these approaches would require a coalition of the willing. But many nations — including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and France — seem to be willing. The United States is not alone; it has simply not led. And a paralyzing fear of unintended consequences, it turns out, can result in massive unintended consequences.

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The Key to Pressuring Assad Is UNSCR 2118

Andrew J. Tabler

Policy Watch, February 21, 2014

By focusing on the Syrian regime’s faltering commitment to eliminate its chemical weapons, Washington can decisively push Damascus and Russia toward real progress on larger issues — and also set the table for limited military strikes if they prove necessary.

The Syria peace talks in Geneva ended in deadlock on February 16, with the Assad regime seizing the personal assets of opposition negotiators and UN Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi blaming Damascus for the failure to schedule the next round. Brahimi accused the regime of refusing to address the very basis of the talks: a negotiated political transition. It is now patently clear that President Bashar al-Assad feels no need to negotiate, be it a political solution to end the crisis or humanitarian access and evacuation from areas besieged by the regime. Similarly, his backers in Moscow refuse to pressure him into fulfilling his political obligations under the Geneva Communique of 2012. According to U.S. ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, nearly 5,000 Syrians were killed during the latest rounds of talks in what she described as “the most concentrated period of killing in the entire duration of the conflict.”

To make matters far worse, the regime is dragging its feet on disposing of its chemical weapons (CW), with only 11 percent of only the first shipment transferred out of the country so far. And on January 30, U.S. authorities reported that the regime has “revised” its initial declarations to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), refusing to destroy its twelve declared weapons sites.

Taken together, these developments show that Assad is not only playing a ruthless game to hold on to power, but also escalating the crisis. By starving out the opposition and obstructing a political solution, he is ensuring that the country remains in a permanent state of partition, with terrorist havens on both sides. And by not following through on his commitments to the OPCW, he is threatening to supercharge the conflict — the longer such weapons remain in the country, the more likely they are to be used by the regime again or fall into the hands of terrorist groups. In short, the situation presents a clear threat to regional and international security.

Accordingly, the United States should turn the tables on Assad, using Syria’s September decision to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention as leverage to gain compliance on two other issues: a political transition as outlined in the Geneva Communique, and humanitarian access/evacuation. While the Security Council has shown little agreement on the humanitarian issue, compliance with the OPCW and the Geneva Communique are both enshrined in the same Security Council document: Resolution 2118, which is enforceable by Chapter VII measures such as sanctions and use of force following the passage of a subsequent Chapter VII resolution. Pushing now on 2118 would create a useful dilemma, forcing Moscow to reveal whether it is unable or simply unwilling to goad the Assad regime into eliminating its CW program and negotiating a political transition. This approach would also prepare the American public for a possible military showdown with Assad this summer over his refusal to dispose of chemical agents.


As Brahimi noted, the peace talks broke down because of the Assad regime’s refusal to discuss a “transitional governing body” as outlined under the Geneva Communique, the internationally accepted “Action Plan for Syria” agreed on by the United States and Russia and enshrined in Resolution 2118. Instead, the regime has put forward a forced political solution centered on Assad’s “reelection” to a third seven-year term; his current terms expires July 7, but he is virtually guaranteed to win the rigged election slated for this spring. This is a nonstarter for the opposition. And given the regime’s inability to reconquer and hold all the territory it has lost, this solution would make it impossible to reunite Syria under central leadership, leading to permanent partition along the lines of Somalia.

Meanwhile, the regime’s efforts to remove “chemical agents and key precursor chemicals” have — as U.S. ambassador to the OPCW Robert Mikulak put it on January 30 — “seriously languished and stalled” in at least two respects. First, only a small percentage of the first scheduled shipment has been transported to the port of Latakia for transfer outside Syria and destruction. The shipment is supposed to include 500 tonnes of the most toxic chemicals, with another shipment of 700 tonnes due out thereafter. Mikulak’s assessment was not surprising: reports indicated that shipments had been remarkably small for some time, leading Assad to blame the OPCW for the “slow” provision of equipment in a January interview with Agence France Press. This was in reference to Syrian requests for extra equipment due to “security concerns” in the Qalamoun area along the M-5 highway north of Damascus, through which CW shipments are transported. Mikulak branded such concerns as “without merit” and said they displayed a “bargaining mentality rather than a security mentality,” since the regime and its Hezbollah allies were already known to have consolidated much of their position in that region.

Second, and much more worrisome, Damascus has sought to revise its initial declaration to the OPCW in order to keep its twelve declared CW weapons sites intact. The regime now wants to render these sites “inactivated” by “welding doors shut and constructing interior obstacles” — measures that Washington has said are “readily reversible within days” and therefore well short of Syria’s original commitment to “physically destroy” the sites “as provided for by the Convention and the precedents for implementing that requirement.” The proposal followed Assad’s statement in the AFP interview that Syria’s only obligation was “preparing and collecting data and providing access to inspectors.” “The rest,” he said, “is up to other parties.”

The site request indicated that Damascus was backtracking on its commitments under Resolution 2118 and the Convention on the Destruction of Chemical Weapons, which the regime acceded to last year under threat of U.S. military force. In response, Mikulak stated that the United States was willing to “explore an approach” where the roofs of seven hardened aircraft hangars used as chemical sites could be collapsed. The five remaining CW sites are underground; although Mikulak noted that they present a “more challenging destruction problem,” he recommended collapsing the tunnel portals and compromising the “structural integrity” of the tunnels at “key junctures.”


The best way to prevent Assad from escalating the crisis and domineering the transition is to pressure him into complying with the timetable for disposing of CW and destroying chemical sites. Increased shipments out of Syria would take away a strategic weapon that the regime has repeatedly has used and keep it from falling into the wrong hands. But there is another compelling reason to push Assad on 2118: the regime has made itself vulnerable on other fronts by dragging its feet on the OPCW. Focusing on the effort to rid Syria of CW would help Washington determine exactly where it stands not only with the Assad regime, but also with Moscow. The sequencing of this strategy could unfold as follows:

  1. Create diplomatic pressure around Resolution 2118 in terms of both CW destruction and the transitional governing body outlined by the Geneva Communique. The CW problem is the only Syrian issue on which there is clear Security Council agreement regarding the steps Assad must take, and the transition process outlined in the Geneva Communique has broad international acceptance. Emphasizing these two issues by focusing on compliance with Resolution 2118 would keep the regime on agenda and steer it away from attempting to justify its onslaught against civilians as a war on “terrorism.” At the same time, the U.S. government should continue pushing on the current UN draft resolutions regarding humanitarian access and evacuation in response to the regime’s recent uptick in violence and continued besieging of approximately 200,000 Syrians. Given the urgency of the matter, any such resolutions should have clear consequences in the event of noncompliance.
  2. Build public pressure against the regime based on its delays in implementing 2118. By increasingly highlighting the Assad regime’s recent barrage against the opposition, Washington can build pressure not only on Damascus, but also on Moscow, determining once and for all whether Russia will convince Assad to meet his commitments on CW and political transition. In addition, such an approach would prod Moscow on the humanitarian front.

A campaign of diplomatic and public pressure could also build opposition support for the United States following its nadir last year, when the Obama administration decided to delay punitive airstrikes after the regime reportedly used CW against civilians. This goodwill could in turn be used to obtain guarantees from rebel elements along the Qalamoun-Latakia route not to attack or commandeer CW convoys. Such an approach would cement the good impression made by Washington’s strong diplomatic stand at the latest peace talks, particularly in keeping Iran away from the table unless it accepted the Geneva Communique.


Thus far, the Assad regime has radically changed course only when confronted with the credible threat of U.S. military force last autumn. This is similar to Assad’s shift in the face of Israeli military strikes against convoys attempting to transfer strategic weapons to Hezbollah. It is therefore important that Washington emphasize a point President Obama has already made: U.S. strikes on Syria were only delayed last year, not cancelled, while Washington explored the regime’s willingness to deliver on its commitments under Resolution 2118. Taking this tack would not only instrumentalize the credible use of force and create pressure to move, it would also prepare the American public for the necessity of a limited strike in the increasingly likely event that Damascus misses the final June 30 deadline to eliminate its CW program.

This is not just a matter of American credibility being on the line: by escalating the violence, spurning real negotiations, and holding onto its chemical arsenal, the Assad regime has ensured that the Syria crisis will increasingly threaten the United States and its allies in Europe and the Middle East. The domestic political timing adds increased urgency: President Obama will likely face increased Republican criticism over his handling of a crisis to which there will be no easy answers any time soon, and such pressure is already emerging via tight congressional races that could end Democratic control of the Senate and, with it, the president’s ability to govern assertively the next two years. At the same time, the relative economic and political cost of limited military intervention using offset assets (e.g., cruise missiles) is decreasing as Washington’s financial and military commitments to curb humanitarian suffering in Syria grow. As the Syria crisis enters its fourth year next month, dealing effectively with the Assad regime’s behavior now by pressing for implementation of Resolution 2118 — and a potential new humanitarian resolution — is the right move, both politically and morally.

Andrew J. Tabler is a senior fellow in The Washington Institute’s Program on Arab Politics.

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