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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: The U.S., Israel, and Syria

Israel launched an aerial strike on Syria yesterday, in response to growing tension in the Golan heights and intelligence that Syria may be moving advanced arms to extremist factions in the region (most notably Hezbollah in Lebanon).

“Many increasingly see no possible positive outcome of their neighbor’s bloody conflict, no clear solution for securing their interests in the meanwhile. Israel’s military leadership now views southern Syria as an “ungoverned area” that poses imminent danger.”

“For Israel, as for other nations, the Syrian civil war presents pressing security challenges, including the prospect of chemical and other sophisticated weapons falling into the hands of rogue groups, and radical Islamists ultimately coming to power. But speaking to members of Parliament from his faction this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled a new focus, saying, “The first and primary threat is an attack on our citizens and soldiers from the Golan Heights line.”

The U.S. is still weighing it’s options in Syria, although Israeli actions may force the Obama administrations hand. America and Israel both seem reluctant to send ground forces into Syria for different reasons, it seems that military aid and aerial support are the two most likely forms that increased intervention will take.

“So far, President Obama has been reluctant to get involved in the Syrian conflict. He has ruled out placing American forces on the ground, a stance he reiterated on Friday at a new conference in San José, Costa Rica, where he was meeting with Latin American leaders.

Mr. Obama told reporters he did not foresee a situation in which “American boots on the ground in Syria would not only be good for America but also would be good for Syria,” adding that he had consulted with leaders in the Mideast who agree.”

“Mr. Obama has always made clear that any action should be taken with allies and neighbors. But NATO has been reluctant, and Russia, which keeps a naval base in Syria, has been opposed. Israeli officials have said that they do not want to go into Syria, fearing that any Israeli attack would fuel Mr. Assad’s argument that the civil war in his country is the result of foreign provocations. Some Israeli officials have argued that the Arab League should be in the vanguard of any attack, but it has shown little interest in direct military intervention in the Syrian conflict.

That has left the same trio that led the attack on Libya in 2011: the United States, Britain and France. There has been constant discussion among their militaries about “options of every kind,” one official involved in the talks said this week. “Clearly, an airstrike would be much more complex than in Libya,” the official said, noting that most of the targets there were in the desert.”

By next week there should be lots to talk about on this front, and I will have much more time to look into the matter.

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