The Syrian situation and policy alternatives

Aug 12, 2016

Update from AIJAC


August 12, 2016

Update 08/15 #02

This Update contains some recent information on the ongoing, bloody Syrian civil war. It also contains some analysis suggesting Western policy, led by the US, is not working – with some proposed alternatives provided by knowledgeable sources.

First up is Washington Institute expert Fabrice Balanche, who discusses the implications of the Syrian regime’s recent gains against rebels around Damascus. He reviews how the situation in the Syrian capital has reversed since 2014, with Assad now feeling increasingly in charge of the situation. He then makes an argument that, as a result, Assad will now feel less dependent on Russia, and more on Iran, meaning that US-led hopes to reach an agreement with Russia that would include Assad stepping down look unlikely to be practicable. For his full argument, CLICK HERE. In addition, Balanche has a subsequent piece about recent rebel gains around Aleppo, Syria’s other major city, but argues that the military and political significance of these gains should not be over-estimated.

Next up are veteran US Middle East mediator Dennis Ross and Syria expert Andrew Tabler arguing that current US policy in Syria – cooperating with Russia to bomb Islamist extremist rebels – is flawed. They say the assumption the US Administration is making – that Russia is looking for a way to limit involvement in the Syria civil war – is very doubtful, and cite numerous dangerous loopholes in the US-brokered deal which will allow Russia to support the regime against all sorts of rebels with US blessing. Ross and Tabler argue that the only sensible alternative is to increase the pressure on the Assad regime – and by extension the Russians – including through strikes on Syrian military airfields as punishment for truce violations. For their complete argument, CLICK HERE

Finally, former senior US official Elliott Abrams calls attention to the sorts of things the current US policy is requiring the US to effectively ignore. He cites the recent bombing of a hospital at Idlib – one of many similar attacks – the use of incendiary bombs and chlorine gas barrel bombs on civilian areas, and besieging civilian neighbourhoods, all of which he says are war crimes. And he argues that the current US policy in response amounts to “begging Russia and the Assad regime to stop slaughtering civilians” which he says is “the moral equivalent” of doing nothing. For Abram’s argument against passivity in Syria, CLICK HERE.  Also worth reading on the subject of the Assad regime’s alleged war crimes is this forum of three experts, Wa’el Alzayat, Stephen J. Rapp, and Ben Taub, discussing the prospects for eventually bringing Assad and others in his regime to justice.

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Article 1

Damascus control emboldens Assad nationally


By Fabrice Balanche

PolicyWatch 2665, August 2, 2016

Without a real military threat to the capital, neither the Syrian leader nor Iran will accept a political transition, even if Russia agrees to one.

The next round of Geneva peace negotiations for Syria is set to begin this month, but President Bashar al-Assad’s recently tightened grip over Damascus already has the Syrian opposition in a tough spot. Indeed, focus on the battle of Aleppo, where regime forces have also advanced recently (see “Kurdish Forces Bolster Assad in Aleppo”), has distracted attention from the Syrian army’s slow but sure recapture of the rebel-held outskirts of the Syrian capital.


Since the 1970s, the Syrian army has had a considerable presence in the Damascus area, with large military bases occupying the south and west of the capital. Officially, this military posture has been intended to protect Damascus against Israel, given that the Golan front is some fifty kilometers away. The unofficial goal of this setup, designed by former president Hafiz al-Assad, was better control of Damascus. Bashar’s father believed that whoever held Damascus held Syria. Part of the elder Assad’s effort to control Damascus after seizing power in a coup in November 1970 was to station tens of thousands of troops, along with Alawite officials and their families, in the city. Whereas in 1947 only 300 Alawites lived in Damascus (out of about 500,000 metropolitan-area inhabitants), that figure had soared by 2010 to more than 500,000 (of about 5 million in the metro area), or a quarter of Syria’s Alawite community. More Alawites thus lived in Damascus than in any other Syrian city.

Beginning in the 1970s, the regime also sought to distribute Alawites strategically throughout the city. In this arrangement, regime officials still live in Malki, around Assad’s private residence, while lower-ranking civil servants inhabit Mezzeh 86, a large area overlooking the wealthy neighborhoods of Mezzeh. Also attracting Alawites are the originally Druze-Christian suburban towns (e.g., Jdeidat Artouz, Jaramana, and Sahnaya), which offer a more sustainable lifestyle than the conservative Sunni areas of Ghouta (e.g., Douma, Daraya, Zamalka) — which have become strongholds of the rebellion.

Since Hafiz al-Assad’s rise, the Syrian regime likewise allowed Alawite, Druze, and Christian neighborhoods to expand close to the strategic axes linking Damascus to the rest of the country and Lebanon, while also interrupting the city’s “Sunni crescent.” This is the case in the large suburb of Jaramana, which beginning in the 1980s was developed along the road to Damascus International Airport, fitting the regime’s strategic plan to separate the city’s Sunni suburbs — West and East Ghouta.


In the city’s northeast, mostly non-Sunni officials and employees in industrial public-service jobs are housed in public units in Dahiyat al-Assad, Maarat Mahmoud, and Adra, loyalist neighborhoods helpful in supporting defense of the city’s northeastern entrance. Thus, given that the direct route from Damascus to Homs has been under rebel fire since April 2012, traffic has been diverted to the northern ring road, from which it can reach the Damascus-Homs highway. In the city’s southwest, densely situated military camps and Druze-Christian communities facilitate the protection of roads to Beirut, Quneitra, and Deraa. The Sunni localities of Moadamiya, Daraya, the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp — which is officially a Damascus neighborhood — and Babila are bordered to the south by the Druze-Christian belt, reinforced since the 1970s by increasing numbers of Alawites, and the southern ring road, which has become an important line of defense for Damascus against the rebel-controlled suburbs.

As a whole, the city is surrounded by a large ring road and cut by wide avenues that create breaks in the urban space. These streets, designed in the 1970s, were not meant to ease traffic flow, a point made especially clear when one considers that few Syrians then had private cars and that developers did not expect private car ownership to balloon. Rather, this was a classic example of security planning, with the road layout optimized for the deployment of armored vehicles to deter any major event. In the late 1970s, Damascus’s Old City fell victim to this strategy when a portion of its souks was razed to make way for a shopping area with wide streets that intersected at right angles. The regime did not create wide avenues everywhere, though, allowing informal suburbs with narrow, mazelike streets to proliferate outside the city. These suburbs ultimately became the stronghold of the uprising.


The rebels’ failure in Damascus can be attributed mainly to their inability to unite West and East Ghouta and cut off the road to the international airport. Jaramana was strongly defended by the Syrian army and, above all, by local Druze members of the pro-regime National Defense Army. The population has withstood the rebels’ assaults, which have included car bombs and rocket attacks. Thus, from Jaramana the Syrian army has expanded its hold on the two sides of the airport road, encircling both Sunni parts of Ghouta.

The military siege on the rebel areas around Damascus is being accompanied by a food embargo and airstrikes intended to scare civilians. The basic principle of counterinsurgency, to separate civilians from rebels, is being applied here primitively, as it has been in Aleppo. In Daraya, only 4,000 people remain, according to the United Nations, of an original 80,000 inhabitants in 2010. This siege is also meant to encourage other rebel localities to accept a modus vivendi with the regime. Babila, Moadamiya, Qudsaya, al-Qabun, and Barzah have thus concluded ceasefires with the Syrian army, preventing their destruction and the starvation of their populations.

Since spring 2016, the Syrian army has retaken one-third of East Ghouta, and its forces continue to advance from the east. This regime offensive was aided by conflict among the rebel groups Failaq al-Sham, the Fustat Army (led by Jabhat al-Nusra), and Jaish al-Islam. The last of these had been exercising nearly hegemonic control over East Ghouta since 2012, but the death of its founder, Zahran Alloush, on December 25, 2015, has weakened the militia. Alloush’s death also represented a deep setback for Saudi Arabia, given that he had been promoted to coordinator of the Syrian opposition in the Geneva talks. For the first time, the political and military opposition had been united. Alloush’s successor, his younger brother Mohammed Alloush, has not been up to the job, either locally or internationally, being quickly marginalized in Geneva in favor of Riyad Hijab, the former Syrian prime minister.


After the July 18, 2012, attack that claimed the lives of several regime officials, including Assef Shawkat, Bashar al-Assad’s ambitious brother-in-law, the rebels seemed close to capturing Damascus. Four years later, the Damascus military situation has been completely reversed. The Syrian army and its allied Shiite militias now encircle the rebel areas around Damascus. Further, the rebels have lost hope of being rescued by outside intervention because the Amman-based Military Operations Center (MOC), which helps coordinate rebel actions, no longer prioritizes supporting an offensive against the Syrian regime but rather one against the Islamic State. The potential conclusion of a U.S.-Russia cooperation agreement against IS and Jahbat al-Nusra could accentuate the feeling of abandonment among rebels and consequently encourage many groups to negotiate with the regime or join the jihadists.

In Damascus, the regime is strongly supported by Hezbollah and Iran. This is largely because the Syrian capital and especially its airports are the main gateway for Iranian weapons to Hezbollah. The influx of Shiite fighters into Damascus is also part of an effort to defend the Sayyeda Zainab shrine, a major Shiite pilgrimage site that, before 2011, welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Each time a rocket falls on Sayyeda Zainab or a car bomb explodes in the area, the news reverberates throughout the Shiite world, helping attract new fighters to the front. For Iran, Sayyeda Zainab cannot be allowed to meet the same fate as the Samarra mosque, destroyed in an al-Qaeda attack in February 2006.


As compared to government-controlled western Aleppo, which is being buffeted by rebel rocketfire, the Syrian capital is relatively calm. Public services are operating normally, and barring the sound of artillery from Jabal Qasioun pounding rebel areas, the war seems far away. The international airport is operating again, and the main roads to Homs, Deraa, and Beirut are safe. Such developments can only reassure Assad. Although he still does not control most of the country and his army can barely preserve the recent territorial gains facilitated by the Russian air force’s intervention, Assad feels less threatened because he holds Damascus. And because he no longer needs Putin to defend the airspace over Damascus, he will be less likely to bow to Russian pressure, not to mention other international pressure, to cede power. What Assad does still need in Damascus is continued strong defensive military support from Iran, its proxy Hezbollah, and Iraq Shiite militias. As it stands, without a real military threat to Damascus, neither Assad nor Iran will accept a political transition in Syria, even if Russia agrees to one.

Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor and research director at the University of Lyon 2, is a visiting fellow at The Washington Institute.


Article 2

The Case for (Finally) Bombing Assad

Dennis Ross and Andrew J. Tabler

New York Times, August 3, 2016

If Russia does want to limit its involvement in Syria, the threat of limited strikes should persuade it to make the Syrian leader behave.

The Obama administration wants to reduce the violence and suffering in Syria and, at the same time, quash jihadist groups there. This is why the White House is now pushing a plan for the United States to cooperate with the Russian military in Syria, sharing intelligence and coordinating airstrikes against the Islamic State and the Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. In return, Russia would force the government of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to stop using barrel bombs and air attacks in areas in which neither extremist group is present.

Wiping out terrorist groups in Syria is an important goal and, after years of death and destruction, any agreement among the country’s warring parties or their patrons may seem welcome. But the Obama administration’s plan, opposed by many within the CIA, the State Department and the Pentagon, is flawed. Not only would it cement the Assad government’s siege of the opposition-held city of Aleppo, it would push terrorist groups and refugees into neighboring Turkey. Instead, the United States must use this opportunity to take a harder line against Mr. Assad and his allies.

Secretary of State John Kerry hopes that this understanding with Russia will help lead to progress on other issues, including restoring the “cessation of hostilities,” a partial truce that began in February and broke down in May, and returning to negotiations on a political transition. These are reasonable goals, which are also embodied in a United Nations Security Council resolution adopted last December.

But a leaked text of the proposed agreement with Russia shows that it is riddled with dangerous loopholes. American and Russian representatives are now delineating areas where the Nusra Front is “concentrated” or “significant” and areas where other opposition groups dominate but “some possible Nusra presence” exists. This will still allow Mr. Assad and his Iranian and Russian backers to attack the non-Nusra opposition in those areas, as well as solidify the Syrian government’s hold on power.

More worrying is that the Assad government lacks the manpower to hold rural Sunni areas and so will rely on Hezbollah and other Shiite militias to do so. These brutal sectarian groups will most likely force the Nusra Front and other Sunni rebels to decamp to Turkey, bringing them, and the threat of militant violence, closer to the West. The fighting will similarly displace Sunni civilians, leading more of them to try to make their way to Europe.

The administration’s initiative with Russia is driven by either hope or desperation, but surely not by experience. During the partial truce, Russia took advantage of similar loopholes that permitted it and the Assad government to keep fighting the non-Nusra and non-Islamic State opposition. Such violations have allowed Mr. Assad and his allies to gain territory and besiege Aleppo.

The Obama administration appears to believe that President Vladimir V. Putin is looking for a way to limit Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, but here is reason to good doubt this.

The Obama administration appears to believe that President Vladimir V. Putin is looking for a way to limit Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. We doubt it. Mr. Putin is more interested in demonstrating that Russia and its friends are winning in Syria and the United States is losing. He will not alter his approach unless he becomes convinced that it has grown too expensive. Instead, because Mr. Putin knows the United States will not take action to punish Russia for its support for the Assad government, he and Mr. Assad will probably treat the emerging agreement no differently from the previous ones.

There is an alternative: Punish the Syrian government for violating the truce by using drones and cruise missiles to hit the Syrian military’s airfields, bases and artillery positions where no Russian troops are present.

Opponents of these kinds of limited strikes say they would prompt Russia to escalate the conflict and suck the United States deeper into Syria. But these strikes would be conducted only if the Assad government was found to be violating the very truce that Russia says it is committed to. Notifying Russia that this will be the response could deter such violations of the truce and the proposed military agreement with Moscow. In any case, it would signal to Mr. Putin that his Syrian ally would pay a price if it did not maintain its side of the deal.

If Russia does want to limit its involvement in Syria, the threat of limited strikes should persuade it to make Mr. Assad behave. Conversely, if the skeptics are right that Mr. Putin will get serious about a political solution only if he sees the costs of backing Syria’s government increasing, the threat of such strikes is probably the only way to start a political process to end the war.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry have long said there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict. Unfortunately, Russia and Iran seem to think there is — or at least that no acceptable political outcome is possible without diminishing the rebels and strengthening the Syrian government. It is time for the United States to speak the language that Mr. Assad and Mr. Putin understand.

Dennis Ross is the counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute and former senior Middle East advisor to President Obama (2009-2011).

Andrew Tabler is the Martin J. Gross Fellow in the Institute’s Program on Arab Politic.


Article 3

War Crimes in Syria: the Lives We Did Not Save

by Elliott Abrams

Concil on Foreign Relations, August 9, 2016

A few items in today’s news give an accurate portrait of the disaster to which Obama policy in Syria has led.

First there is the bombing of hospitals by the Assad regime: “A hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders and specializing in pediatrics in a rebel-held northern Syria province has been destroyed in a series of airstrikes over the weekend that killed 13 people, including four staff and five children, the international medical charity said Monday…. two of four airstrikes directly hit the hospital in Millis, in the northern province of Idlib and put it out of service. Six other hospital staff members were wounded in the broad daylight airstrikes Saturday. The bombing of the hospital that serves as a reference centre specializing in pediatrics also destroyed the operating theatre, intensive care unit, pediatric department, ambulances and a generator, the charity said.”

A hospital destroyed by an aerial bombing in Millis town, Idlib Governorate, Syria on Saturday 06 August 2016, killing four hospital staff and nine others, including five children and two women. 

This is a deliberate policy and a pattern, testimony to the UN confirmed: “Experts painted a graphic portrait of barrel bombings, attacks on medical facilities, chemical weapons use and the ongoing suffering inside the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, shaming the international community for its inaction at an informal Security Council meeting Monday organized by the United States….15 health care facilities had been attacked in July alone.”

Then there is the use of incendiary bombs by Russia to attack civilian targets: “In June 2016 Syrian opposition groups filmed and reported a number of incendiary bomb attacks on towns and cities across Syria. Activist frequently blamed Russian jets for the attacks, and on June 20 2016 Russian Today was caught editing footage of Russian jets in Syria to remove footage showing RBK-500 ZAB 2.5SM incendiary bombs.”

What is the reaction of the United States?

“We cannot allow this to happen,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said. Citing U.N. figures, Power said Syrian government forces were to blame for nearly 80 percent of the besieged areas throughout Syria. Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city before the outbreak of the conflict five years ago, has been divided between government forces and rebels since the summer of 2012. “We once again urge Russia to stop facilitating these sieges and to use its influence to press the regime to end its sieges across Syria once and for all,” she said.

The reaction of the United States is to “urge Russia” to stop. There is “no military solution,” the President keeps saying. So despite Power’s statement, we absolutely can allow this to happen, and we are actually allowing it to happen.

In fact, the use of barrel bombs and chlorine gas by the Syrian “air force,” and the repeated deliberate targeting of hospitals, are war crimes. Urging Russia to stop, and urging Russia to stop its ally Assad, is not a policy; it is the pathetic substitute for a policy. The Obama administration has decided to do nothing, or the moral equivalent thereof. I suppose we will read in Mr. Obama’s memoirs about how difficult and complex and trying the Syria problem was, and why he did the absolute maximum. Nothing more could sensibly have been done, he will write. But when U.S. policy is reduced to begging Russia and the Assad regime to stop slaughtering civilians, that is going to be a hard argument to make. When Mr. Obama sits down to write next year he might begin with remarks made at the Holocaust Museum in 2012:

“never again” is a challenge to nations. It’s a bitter truth — too often, the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale. And we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save.

That was a speech by Barack Obama.

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR’s guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.




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