Normative Narratives


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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.

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Conflict Watch: Syria (Update), Seperating “Positions” and “Interests”

Negotiation almost always plays a part in resolving any political, economic, or philosophical / ideological divide. Negotiation theory proposes that by moving past each side’s positions (which tend to be incompatible), and instead focusing on each sides interest, bargaining space can be created where seemingly none exists. Whether arguing with a friend, or trying to negotiate the end of a bloody civil war, the first step is almost always getting the right people to come to the table together and talk with open minds:

“The [Syrian National Coalition] regime must take a clear stand (on dialogue) and we say we will extend our hand for the interest of people and to help the regime leave peacefully,” he said in separate comments to Al Jazeera television.”

But Assad thinks he can win the war against the rebels, whom he still describes as terrorists:

“Assad has described the rebels as foreign-backed Islamist terrorists and said a precondition for any solution is that Turkey and Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab states stop funding, sheltering and arming his foes.”

Both sides have maintained that the other side must stop doing what it is doing as a precondition for negotiations. If neither side will budge, then Syria will be in what is known as a “hurting stalemate”, a situation whether neither side of a conflict advances or regresses meaningfully. Resources continue to be depleted, while people die as a result of fighting and malnutrition and Syria loses years [possibly decades] of economic progress and development. Alkhatib, a SNC leader, has drawn unfair criticism from some of his more radical supporters in offering to negotiate with Assad:

“Alkhatib said it was not “treachery” to seek dialogue to end a conflict in which more than 60,000 people have been killed, 700,000 have been driven from their country and millions more are homeless and hungry.”

Yesterday, the rest of the SNC seemed to have officially fallen in line with its leader’s softer stance; The opposition hopes Assad will be open to leaving if he is given amnesty for his role during the 22 month Syrian civil war:

Syria’s opposition coalition gave qualified backing on Monday to its leader’s surprise offer last week for a dialogue with President Bashar al-Assad to end the civil war, pressing him to respond definitively and even offering the added inducement that he could avoid trial if he resigned and left the country… “We say we will extend our hand for the interest of people and to help the regime leave peacefully,” Sheik Khatib said in the interview. “It is now in the hands of the regime.”

“Mr. Bunni [a Syrian human rights activist] also said, “If this goal, Assad stepping down, can be achieved through a political solution, then we are going to receive it in a positive way.”

The SNC has backed off its position that Assad must step down before negotiations can take place, in hopes of pursuing its interests of ending the bloody civil war and ensuing humanitarian crisis in Syria. It remains to be seen if Assad has reconsidered his position and is willing to put his interests (keeping his life and avoiding the shame/punishment resulting from a trial for war crimes against the Syrian people) ahead of his position that he will never willingly leave Syria.

The only way any progress can be made in the Syrian conflict is if: A) The two sides of the conflict agree to drop preconditions for talks or B) An outside power shifts the tide of the conflict by increasing support for either side (realistically, only the rebels have hopes of getting additional support, as Assad has few supporters left.)

One of Assad’s few remaining supporters, Iran, has seemingly become increasingly disenfranchised with Assad’s prospects for victory. If Iran decides Assad must go, then Assad will be without any official supporters in the region, and will have to seriously consider the SNC’s offer of amnesty:
“The army of Syria is big enough, they do not need fighters from outside,” Iran’s Salehi said in Berlin on Monday.

“We are giving them economic support, we are sending gasoline, we are sending wheat. We are trying to send electricity to them through Iraq; we have not been successful.”

“We believe that (deciding) whoever stays or goes is the right of the Syrian people. How can we interfere in that? We must strive to achieve national understanding, and free elections.”

Salehi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden all met Alkhatib in Munich at the weekend and portrayed his willingness to talk with Syrian authorities as a major step towards resolving the war.”

However, questions still remain as to who will fill the power vacuum left by Assad’s departure, which has caused reluctance among Western powers to arm the Syrian rebels:

“The majority of the insurgents are Islamists but those affiliated with al Qaeda are smaller in number, although their influence is growing. For that reason, Western states have been loath to arm the rebels despite their calls for Assad’s ouster.”

The power vacuum created by Assad’ removal, coupled with the large costs associated with direct military intervention (not to mention such an action has been vetoed numerous times by China / Russia in the U.N.S.C.) have resulted in relative inaction by the West at the expense of the Syrian people. While the West slowly decides how best to handle the situation in Syria, regional actors Iran and Egypt may be able to play a bigger role in ending the civil war:

“Egypt is concerned by Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is trying to crush an uprising inspired by the revolt that swept Mubarak from power two years ago. Egypt’s overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim population is broadly supportive of the uprising against Assad’s Alawite-led administration.”

I have supported Morsi’s rule in Egypt for exactly this reason. If Egypt can champion democracy and modernization in the Middle-East, while remaining an Islamic state, then it will be proof that Islamic culture and “Western values” can coexist, setting a valuable precedent in the region. Egypt can be a strong ally geopolitical ally to the west, both in the Middle-East and Northern Africa thanks to its location. Because of its Islamic population, other countries are much more likely to listen to what Egypt has to say than a Western power (Islamic nations often accuse the west of trying to impose “Western values” at the expense of tradition. Egypt can show them this is not true, that modernization and tradition are compatible).

One way or another, something has to give in the Syrian civil war. It is promising that there seem to be multiple avenues working towards Assad’s removal and a political resolution to the Syrian civil war. However, all this is contingent on Assad being a rational person and reconsidering his position in light of his increasingly bleak outlook. If Assad remains unwilling to come to a political compromise, military intervention may remain the only way to end the war.