Normative Narratives


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Conflict Watch: (In Syria) Things Will Get Worse Before They Get Better

Perhaps nowhere does this old saying ring as true as in present day Syria. Two weeks ago I wrote about “The Deteriorating Syrian Civil War and Humanitarian Crisis” and since then things have not gotten any better on the ground. However, it seems that Western powers are finally organizing the support that legitimate factions of the Syrian opposition need to present a real threat to the Assad regime without relying on the help of extremist / terrorist organizations:

“Ministers from 11 countries including the United States, European and regional Sunni Muslim powers, held talks that Washington said should commit participants to direct all aid through the Western-backed Supreme Military Council, which it hopes can offset the growing power of jihadist rebel forces.”

“The meeting in Qatar brings together ministers of countries that support the anti-Assad rebels – France, Germany, Egypt, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Britain and the United States.”

“Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, whose country has been one of the most open backers of the anti-Assad rebels, said that supplying them with weapons was the only way to resolve the conflict.

“Force is necessary to achieve justice. And the provision of weapons is the only way to achieve peace in Syria’s case,” Sheikh Hamad told ministers at the start of the talks.

“We cannot wait due to disagreement among Security Council members over finding a solution to the problem,” he said. He also called on Lebanon’s government to halt intervention by Lebanese factions in the neighboring conflict.”

“‘We won’t get a political solution if Assad and his regime think they can eliminate all legitimate opposition by force, and so we do have to give assistance to that opposition,’ Secretary of State Kerry told reporters before the start of Saturday’s talks.”

“After a series of military offensives by Assad’s troops, including the recapture of a strategic border town two weeks ago, President Barack Obama said the United States would increase military support for the rebels

Two Gulf sources told Reuters on Saturday that Saudi Arabia, which has taken a lead role among Arab opponents of Assad, had also accelerated delivery of advanced weapons to the rebels.

‘In the past week there have been more arrivals of these advanced weapons. They are getting them more frequently,’ one source said, without giving details. Another Gulf source described them as ‘potentially balance-tipping’ supplies.”

One can only hope that this aid is not too little too late, and many questions emerge from the concerted arming of the Supreme Military Council by Western powers: Does the political will exist among the opposition to fill the power vacuum in a sustainable democratic fashion upon Assad’s removal? Would a new governing body protect the rights of minorities, including Alawites, in a post-conflict Syria? What will happen to the extremist factions the opposition once relied on (specifically al-Nursa)? Will these groups attempt to sabotage the Western backed opposition?

Despite all this uncertainty, one thing is clear; the Assad regime has lost all credibility and cannot remain in power / be allowed to run in future Syrian elections (having Assad involved in future elections would inherently distort the democratic process and risk reigniting the sectarian divide). It has also become clear that Russia will continue to honor its military contracts with Damascus, and that Assad has no problem turning the Syrian Civil War into a regional conflict if it helps his prospects:

“U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the meeting of 11 countries in Qatar was a chance to discuss “efforts to increase and coordinate support for the Syrian political and military opposition”. Kerry said Assad had allowed Iranian and Hezbollah fighters “to cross the lines from Lebanon and engage in the fight on the ground”.

“The Assad regime’s response to a legitimate global effort to try to have a peace conference was to in fact militarize the efforts and internationalize (the conflict) and make the region far more dangerous as a consequences,” he said.”

(In the spirit of fairness, the opposition is also guilty of turning the conflict into a regional one by enlisting other countries help–this is a reality of modern warfare especially in Africa and Middle-East where the sectarian / cultural divide–alongside human rights abuses–underpins the majority of conflicts in the region).

“President Michel Suleiman has called on the Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah movement to pull its guerrillas out of Syria, saying any further involvement in its neighbor’s civil war would fuel instability in Lebanon.” While coming from the right place, such a plea will ultimately be in vain–you cannot end a  2+ year old Civil War by shaming the fighters, as both sides believe they are fighting for a just cause.

Can arming the rebels really help lead to a peaceful compromise? Honestly, I do not think so–I think the idea of a peaceful political transition in Syria is a pipe-dream. Even in the face of defeat, I do not believe Assad will step down–I think he will go down with the ship. His family has been in power in Syria for over four decades, Assad knows nothing else and probably believes his power in Syria borders on “divine right“. I believe that Western powers are building up the capacity of the Supreme Military Council to keep Assad’s forces busy, as a covert “Gadaffi-style assassination” is planned. This may be an extreme position to take, but it is the only realistic solution that does not involve more civil war, human suffering and regional instability.

Former U.S. general Wesley Clark is more optimistic that arming the opposition can lead to a political transition:

“Mr. Assad knows that Mr. Obama can be surprisingly resolute, as in his approval of drone strikes and the military operation to kill Osama bin Laden. While the United States begins to supply the rebels, there is a crucial opening for talks. Russia or China could recalculate and help lead Syria to a real peace process, as Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, a former Russian prime minister, did in Kosovo in 1999. Iran could emerge from a truce with Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon (and its strong links to Iran) intact.

The formula for diplomacy is clear: a cease-fire agreement; a United Nations presence; departure of foreign fighters; disarmament of Syrian fighters; international supervision of Syria’s military; a peaceful exit for Mr. Assad, his family and key supporters; a transitional government; and plans for a new Syria.

The conflict, and the diplomacy needed to end it, are likely to play out simultaneously. All parties will be recalculating their options and risks, so any assurance Mr. Obama gives Americans that he will limit our engagement would reduce the chances of success. This is a nerve-racking time, but the consequences of inaction are too high. Working together, America, Russia and China can halt Syria’s agony and the slide toward wider conflict. Mr. Obama’s decision might be the catalyst to get that done.”

I personally do not see Assad as this calculating figure, but time will tell which version of Assad is closer to the truth.

Of course arming the rebels is no slam-dunk. Even if Assad woke up tomorrow and decided he cannot win this war and would leave (which he will not), arming the rebels inevitably creates the risk that one day our own weapons will be used against us, regardless of how thoughtfully weapons are dispersed.

“As the United States and its Western allies move toward providing lethal aid to Syrian rebels, these secretive transfers give insight into an unregistered arms pipeline that is difficult to monitor or control. And while the system appears to succeed in moving arms across multiple borders and to select rebel groups, once inside Syria the flow branches out. Extremist fighters, some of them aligned with Al Qaeda, have the money to buy the newly arrived stock, and many rebels are willing to sell.”

Even if the arms go directly to the Supreme Military Council, there is no telling where they will end up after this conflict is over.

“For Russia — which has steadfastly supplied weapons and diplomatic cover to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria — this black-market flow is a case of bitter blowback. Many of the weapons Moscow proudly sold to Libya beginning in the Soviet era are now being shipped into the hands of rebels seeking to unseat another Kremlin ally.”

The U.S. learned a similar lesson when arms and training given to Al-Qaeda in the 1970s to oppose Soviet interests backfired.

It is impossible to know where the weapons will ultimately end up–underpinning the ongoing debate of arming the Syrian opposition. Think of the Western world’s “best case scenario”–a legitimate Syrian opposition assumes power following Assad’s removal and attempts to setup a democratic Syria. There is no telling how long that democracy will last (often first attempts at democracy fail). These weapons could be stockpiled by a pro-Western power, only to be lost in a future military coup. The existence of these weapons poses the possibility that they will fall into enemy hands at some point in the future–especially as the conflict becomes a memory and international attention focuses elsewhere.

Still, steps are being taken to ensure the arms are channeled to legitimate branches of the Syrian opposition. If in the future these weapons fall into enemy hands, that will have to be dealt with in the future. Perhaps newer technology, such as GPS or even a remote “kill-switch”, are possible for bigger-ticket items sent to the opposition. If anybody knows anything about how donors keep tabs on military aid be sure to let us know in the comment section.

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Conflict Watch: The Deteriorating Syrian Civil War and Humanitarian Crisis

The Syria sinkhole

The Syrian opposition recently offered a dangerous ultimatum, which is symbolic of the overall deterioration for the prospect of a political transition in Syria:

“The Syrian opposition will not attend the proposed Geneva conference on the crisis in Syria unless rebel fighters receive new supplies of arms and ammunition, the top rebel military commander said Friday.

‘If we don’t receive ammunition and weapons to change the position on the ground, to change the balance on the ground, very frankly I can say we will not go to Geneva,’ Gen. Salim Idris said in a telephone interview from his headquarters in northern Syria. ‘There will be no Geneva.’”

“Mr. Assad’s military position has been strengthened by flights of arms from Iran and the involvement of thousands of fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group. The change of fortunes on the battlefield was illustrated last week when the Syrian military and Hezbollah fighters captured the town of Qusayr.”

“The proposal to hold talks in Geneva at a point when the Syrian opposition has suffered a bitter reversal has led many in the opposition to question the West’s strategy. In effect, they say, Mr. Kerry is insisting that the Syrian opposition sit down with representatives of a Syrian president who appears as determined as ever to hang on to power and at a time when the opposition’s leverage has been diminished.”

“‘There is agreement on one point within opposition circles: the regime, Iran and Hezbollah, supported by Russia, aim to win; the U.S. aims for talks,’ said Frederic C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former senior State Department official who worked on Syria transition issues. ‘This helps to explain the opposition’s reluctance to attend a Geneva conference and the difficulties it’s having organizing itself around a coherent goal.’”

“At the State Department, Mr. Kerry and his aides have long said that it is vital to change Mr. Assad’s “calculation” about his ability to maintain his grip on power in order to facilitate a political transition.”

“At a meeting in Istanbul in late April, Mr. Kerry announced that the Supreme Military Council should be the only funnel for providing Western and Arab military support to the opposition.”

“General Idris said that while the West has been debating how much military assistance to provide to the moderate opposition, extremist groups like the Nusra Front have begun to play a more prominent role in the struggle against the Assad government.

‘They are now winning sympathy from the people,’ he said. ‘They are very well financed.'”

This is essentially textbook protracted social conflict (PSC). The Syrian government denied the majority of Syrians the human rights they believed they deserved. Peaceful protests were met with violence, turning the ideological divide into a civil war. As the war has progressed, opportunistic extremist groups (Al Nursa for example), seeing a void in Western support for the rebels, have filled that void.

This further complicates American intervention, as arming the rebels could eventually lead to greater military capabilities for anti-American Jihadist organizations.

The call for greater European intervention is well heard, and steps have been made in order for Europe to put itself in position to provide weapons to the opposition should peace-talks not bear fruit (which is not unlikely, but they must at least be attempted). But the Syrian opposition has to realize it cannot try to force military aid, that it must play ball and prove in open forum that Mr. Assad’s “calculations” will not be changed (except to be further emboldened by bolstered support while the opposition loses momentum).

It is an order of operations thing; I truly believe that if the opposition comes to Geneva and makes a real attempt to negotiate a political transition, that if that attempt failed, European powers would provide more military support to the Syrian Supreme Military Council.

Another Western ally that is being dragged into the Syrian sinkhole is Israel. This past week, fighting broke out along the Golan Heights.

“The United Nations Disengagement Force (UNDOF) monitors the buffer zone between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.”

“Austria – which contributes about one-third of UNDOF’s troops – has announced its decision to withdraw its soldiers, reportedly citing a lack of freedom of movement and an unacceptable level of danger to its personnel.”

“‘Everyone agreed that UNDOF should continue in its mission, even if it is temporarily reduced in its ability to fulfill the current mandate,’ Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant of the United Kingdom, which holds the rotating presidency of the Council for June, told reporters after closed-door talks on the latest developments.

“‘Everyone felt that UNDOF played a key role in guaranteeing the 1974 ceasefire disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria and also acting as a conduit of communications, including in the last few days between Israel and Syria,’ he added. ‘It was therefore an important symbol of the stability across the Israel-Syrian border.'”

Russia has offered to replace the Austrian troops. Aside from the obvious conflict of interest Russian troops would represent in Syria, the offer was rejected on legal grounds:

The UN has declined a Russian offer to bolster the understaffed peacekeeping force in the cease-fire zone between Israel and Syria. Austria has said it would be withdrawing its troops from the Golan Heights.

UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said on Friday that permanent Security Council members were barred from deploying peacekeepers in the Golan Heights, under the terms of the 1974 cease-fire agreement between Israel and Syria.”

Israel would like to remain out of the Syrian Civil War, but the small military power continues to collect intelligence on the Syrian military and strongly reaffirms it’s right to protect itself:

“The confluence of events confronted Israel with the complex reality of a civil war just across the border in which both sides are hostile to the Jewish state. Hezbollah has vowed in recent weeks that it would facilitate attacks on Israel through the heights. And the most effective rebel force is made up of radical Sunnis aligned with Al Qaeda, while many of the other militias are led by self-identified Islamists.

The result has been a kind of paralysis in Israeli society, where options are debated but no clear consensus has emerged about which outcome of the Syrian crisis is preferable or how to prepare for it.”

If Western powers decided to intervene militarily, they would have to rely on Israeli military supremacy and geographic position to support the operation (Turkey is another important geopolitical ally, while Egypt remains a bit of a wild card). The Syrian opposition and Israeli leaders should be in communication with each other (if they are not already) as they are likely to need to have a working rapport in the foreseeable future.

All the while, the silent majority of Syrian refugees and internally displaced peoples continue to bear the brunt of the suffering and human rights violations, threatening regional stability in the Middle-East:

“The United Nations launched a $5 billion aid effort on Friday, its biggest ever, to help up to 10.25 million Syrians, half the population, who it expects will need help by the end of 2013.”

“The appeal comprises $2.9 billion for refugees, $1.4 billion for humanitarian aid and $830 million for Lebanon and Jordan, the biggest recipients of Syrian refugees.”

“The appeal updates and multiplies the existing aid plan for Syria, which sought $1.5 billion to help 4 million people within Syria and up to 1.1 million refugees by June. The worsening conflict soon overtook those projections.

The new forecasts expect the refugee population to more than double to 3.45 million from 1.6 million now, based on current numbers arriving in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

But it assumes the number of needy Syrians inside the country will remain static until the end of the year at 6.8 million. The number of internally displaced Syrians is also assumed to stay where it is now, at about 4.25 million.

That means the current plan could again turn out to be an underestimate if the fighting goes on.”

“‘We have reached a stage in Syria where some of the people, if they don’t get food from the World Food Programme, they simply do not eat,’ the WFP’s Syria Regional Emergency Coordinator Muhannad Hadi said.”

“A few months ago I would like to recall that there was a donors’ conference in Kuwait, and Persian Gulf monarchies promised to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to the U.N. agencies in order to help Syria,” Russian ambassador in Geneva Alexey Borodavkin added.

“I don’t think that the amounts mentioned in Kuwait ever reached these agencies and were ever used to help the Syrian people.”

World powers are famous for committing money for development / humanitarian purposes and falling short on those commitments. And often it is for understandable reasons, as it is difficult to be sure the money is going where it is supposed to go. But given the global attention and direct UN involvement in the Syrian humanitarian crisis, these fears need not prevent commitments from being fulfilled.

It is difficult to be optimistic about a political end to the Syrian Civil War. Mr. Assad seems recently emboldened, while the opposition continues to shoot itself in the foot. Hopefully the opposition rethinks its position; only with Western support can they hope to remove Assad from power, be it politically or militarily.  All Syria’s most vulnerable can do is sit back and watch, and hope the the UN can raise the aid needed to keep them alive as the conflict grinds towards its eventual conclusion.