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The UK Decision on Syria 6, January 2016

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The following article was published by King’s College London’s Defence in Depth blog back in early December 2015.

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An outline of a modus vivendi with Russia is required if there is to be any progress in the fight against Da’esh. Otherwise, the vaunted 70,000 strong ‘moderate’ forces promised by the likes of UK Prime Minister David Cameron to help coalition forces combat Da’esh will continue to be attacked by Russia. Indeed, their bombing campaign to date has been almost exclusively focused on forces other than those of the Da’esh and the Assad regime.

Of equal importance is persuading this 70,000 – or as many of them as possible – that they must concentrate on Da’esh and not the Assad regime. Presently, reports emerging from representatives of these forces claim quite the opposite: that the Assad regime is their primary enemy. As long as this is the case, Russia will continue to attack them and they will be of little use to Cameron and others seeking to primarily attack Da’esh.

On paper, at least, it looks like there is a deal to be done here.

Russia does, in fact, at some stage, want to counter Da’esh. This motley group killed hundreds of its citizens in the Sinai plane attack, and it has released a propaganda video of the execution of a Russian citizen. But Russia wants to guarantee its role in a future Syrian scenario too. This is the primary reason that it is so eagerly fighting the array of extremists and moderates ranged against Assad: it is protecting the Syrian regime.

Similarly, these moderates want Assad to go above all else. They – rightly – see him as the ultimate cause of the Syrian civil war and the one who indirectly founded Da’esh through policies actively stoking extremism. But this will simply not happen as long as Russia supports the Syrian regime. This statement of basic geopolitical fact needs to be relayed to these groups and driven home.

The deal is, therefore, quite obvious. The bulk of the Assad regime remains in place – Russia will not have it any other way – but Assad himself is scheduled to pass on power in a designated timetable. For this concession, Assad is saved from prosecution, Russia gets a say in the future government to guarantee its interests, the 70,000 and those they represent get rid of Assad and can have some (likely minor) say in a future government, and everyone can concentrate on dismantling Da’esh.

Doubtless, an approximation of this bargain is being discussed. But the fundamental problem is the fractured nature of the opposition groups. Persuading the dozens of militias and fronts that make up this 70,000 grouping of relatively moderate fighters to sign up to such a plan will be likely be near-impossibly difficult. In the end, Cameron and his allies will likely have to support and work with far fewer local forces.

The overarching ‘solution’ to this crisis is, then, political and involves a range of distasteful compromises. That British fighter-jets are now attacking targets a few hundred miles west from their current zone of operations in Iraq will not – cannot possibly – make any wider, strategic difference.

But it can, of course, make a tactical difference. Well targeted attacks can slowly degrade Da’esh capabilities. Especially in conjunction with allied support, it is plausible to suggest that the group’s abilities to operate in parts of Syria could be hampered.

Ultimately, the success or failure of this vote and of the resulting campaign depends on what its goals are. Destroying Da’esh is an absurd, impossible aim. It is an insidious franchise that can demonstrate that it has ‘won’ (i.e. not been wiped out) by any individual anywhere on earth with a flag, a camera, and an internet connection, to say nothing of its resilience in the great lawless swathes Syria, Iraq, Libya, or Nigeria.

The hope, then, is that this move by the British government is more important for its symbolic value signalling a new era of concerned international political alignment and pressure, than for its kinetic impact on the ground in Syria.

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Why IS militants destroy ancient sites 3, September 2015

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The following article was published by the BBC on 1 September 2015 and can be found here.

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Many will wonder why anyone would so actively seek to raze historical and cultural marvels that have lasted millennia.

But for the IS bulldozers, the rationale is straightforward and fulfils several readily identifiable goals.

As IS notes in the eighth issue of its own publication, the glossy Dabiq magazine, they see ancient cultural heritage as a challenge for the loyalties and legitimacy of Iraqi or Syrian people to IS itself.

Destroying such heritage is thus a part of their duty, as they see it, to reject such a “nationalist agenda” that the statues, temples, and indeed, cities represent.

In a wider sense, the IS brand of intolerant Islam motivates it to attack polytheism wherever it is found and to reject the worship, as they would put it, of idols that they see these sites as representing.

Elsewhere, it is also no surprise to see IS destroying Shia and Sufi sites, and even Sunni shrines.

If anything, IS ideology despises other variants of Islam even more than Christianity or Judaism. Liberally sprinkle such intolerance with a self-serving, simplistic, context-free reading of a few scriptures and a “religiously” justified policy – or commandment even – is put forth.

But there are more political, expedient motives afoot not noted in Dabiq.

Chipping off parts of statues and otherwise selling stolen antiquities in markets around the world is a good way to earn hard cash. The UN believes that this is being done on an industrial scale, adding tens of millions of dollars to IS’ wider war economy.

Launching and especially prolonging a bloodthirsty campaign of butchery, terrorism, mass murder, torture, enslavement and ethnic cleansing is hard work.

After the initial horror, the kuffar (infidel) media and their kuffar audience eventually become inured to the repetitiveness, the sheer numbers killed, and pressing news stories elsewhere relegate the focus on IS.

Capturing and retaining attention thus becomes more difficult. This is problematic when a group needs to encourage new recruits and new sources of income.

Equally, those already recruited who are bogged down in warfare, sporadically getting picked off by drones and jets, who are (to their surprise) losing territory, or who begin to miss the comforts of home need to be reassured that the group they joined is as influential, as proactive, and as in vogue as ever.

Lastly, videos of iconoclastic destruction spark outrage, mark out IS as unique, and increase the drum beat for further intervention from Western (or other) states.

Thus the logic of former al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden – his desire to entangle the US in a bloody, unwinnable land war “against Islam” – is once again employed.

This is not to say that there should be no reaction, but any considerations need to be mindful that a part of the whole IS strategy is to elicit a reaction in the first place.

To some degree, describing such desecrations as a “war crime”, as the UN has, nicely plays into IS’ hands – as do articles on the subject.

But the internet cannot be un-invented, and unless we are to surrender some of our closest held beliefs on freedom of speech, we cannot stop dissemination of such depressing stories.

We must, therefore, respond however we can.

Calm reasoning exposing the hypocrisies, the practicalities, and the banalities of IS’ policies is a step towards demystifying and debunking the likes of IS as just yet another political organisation.

Palmyra and the logic of loss 25, May 2015

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The following article was published by the BBC on 23 May 2015.

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In Syria alone, the Great Mosque and the Citadel in Aleppo, the castle of every child’s imagination at Crac des Chevaliers, and the ancient city of Bosra have been damaged or destroyed. Arguably Syria’s most impressive and arresting site, the sprawling ruins at Palmyra (Tadmur to Syrians), is now under Islamic State control and many fear the worst.

Having visited Palmyra and these other sites while studying Arabic at Damascus University back in 2007, I am far from alone in feeling that something truly terrible is happening. That these symbols from a bygone era might be destroyed by modern-day barbarian forces when they have survived for hundreds or even thousands of years seems somehow deeply offensive and wrong.

Nevertheless, while I feel an acute sadness at the loss of these sites, I understand those who may feel a certain sense of unease at the outpouring of grief and anguish over their desecration. From this perspective, Palmyra is, after all, a collection of stone; albeit stone exquisitely carved and impressively presented, imbued with huge historical import. And compared to the staggering loss of life and widespread humanitarian disaster afflicting the Syrian people, bemoaning the loss of a historic tourist site seems crass.

But there are cogent arguments, of course, suggesting that sites like Palmyra are far more significant than that.

Important cultural sites are often pointed to as focal points that can be used to (re)unify a people. Sites can act as potent symbols of a united past that may cross ethnic, tribal, linguistic, or cultural lines. In essence, their importance can be seen and used as a low common denominator to promote reconciliation in a post-conflict environment.

Most famously, the reconstruction of the old bridge in Mostar in Bosnia-Hercegovina acted as a focal point of wider metaphorical bridge-building between Serbs, Bosniaks (Muslims) and Croats after the civil war in the 1990s when the bridge was demolished. In Syria, too, there have already been tentative attempts towards this kind of a goal, with meetings between regime and opposition officials nominally in charge of antiquities.

Similarly, the sheer barbarism of IS, exemplified in its brutality against people and against shared cultural monuments, could be a foil to coax more unity among the dispersed opposition groups and factions.

Moreover, these kinds of sites are the heritage and birthright not just of this generation of Syrians so adversely affected by the conflict, but of all Syrians henceforth. As such, focusing on the protection of sites of great historical concern is just, it can be argued, given that the ultimate goal is to preserve and protect the essential character of a people for hundreds of years to come.

Some may find it distasteful that many seem to be increasingly inured to the human toll in Syria, while interest is piqued by attacks on historical sites. Doubtless, they might prefer that some of the yardage given over to glossy pictures of Palmyra in its glory days be given over to reporting of the day-to-day devastation faced and experienced by ordinary people. On the same theme, one can hope and advocate for better, longer, more in-depth pieces or more funding for foreign reporters.

A righteous lament this may be, but it is an ineffectual one. The numbing reality is that if these were the types of stories that were demanded, more news services would answer the call. It must also be remembered that there are rarely mutually exclusive choices here. The words written and arguments elucidated over the importance of saving cultural heritage sites are also a part of wider discussions and pressure to cobble together anything approaching a meaningful plan to intervene or otherwise halt the worst excesses of the violence in Syria.

The takeover of Palmyra has generated a unique media storm, flinging the Syrian conflict back to wider consciousness. If that can be harnessed in the uphill struggle to galvanise a plan going forward, then no-one will complain.

Whatever the intellectual or moral merits of focusing on such examples of historical desecration, the fact remains that, for me – and I doubt I’m alone – there remains a unique sadness in the loss of such sites. The abstract and horrifying numbers of deaths that the conflict has produced are not undermined or further ignored, as it were, by the focus on the fate of the likes of Palmyra. The loss of Syria’s cultural heritage represents the loss of far more than some tourist attractions, but the loss of connection between multiple generations.

As with all things, politics is but the art of the possible. So leveraging the fate of these magnificent and important monuments in the wider hope of incrementally building a pressure to bear on the powers that be is a just and vital thing.

On Cameron’s defeat in Parliament over Syria 30, August 2013

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By a margin of 13 votes British Prime Minister David Cameron lost a vote that would have led to the UK joining in punitive military action against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad for his presumed use of chemical weapons.

This defeat despite the difficulties being telegraphed beforehand with Labor Leader Ed Milliband’s intransigence clear to all came as something of a shock and many columnists have seized upon it to tout a range of apocalyptic headlines. Some say that this is a huge blow to the US-UK ‘special relationship’, others see this as the UK abrogating its role as a world power, while others are heaping derision on Cameron emphasizing how this is humiliating for the Prime Minister.

I disagree with much of the commentary. I think much of it stinks of journalists cooped up in Westminster for hours on end and getting caught up in the emotion and adrenalin of one of the most extraordinary nights in British politics for many years.

Democracy

…is alive and well in the UK. Nice to see. Whatever the reasons (and many of them are far from pure, judicious deliberations of the matters at hand) Parliament stopped a powerful Prime Minister from making a key policy decision. Given the carnage that a modicum of democracy spurred on in parts of the Middle East, this is not a facet of British political life that we should take lightly.

Ed Miliband

…is playing a dirty kind of politics. I personally fear that his decision to stand against the motion to punish Assad had far more to do with political posturing and point scoring than with the facts on the ground, such as we know them. I think it was a spineless, short-term decision that will embolden Assad and his ilk  and will do no good to the UK’s position in the world.  I was tempted to switch to Labour at the next election from the Lib Dems: no longer.

Britain’s role as a ‘world power’

…is concept that has now truly seen its day. For decades now the UK has not had anything like the power and influence of a true world power, but part of the British establishment nevertheless thought that by virtue of our language, the soft power of the UK and modest but still potent military power the UK’s role still far outstripped what one might expect from a country with the UK’s typical metrics. However, this decision not to intervene, to stand back and not to protect a central implicit rule of the international system – not to use chemical weapons – indicates that British Parliamentarians do not feel – by a small majority – that this kind of thing falls on the UK to enforce. This, it strikes me, is perhaps a seminal moment in this context; of the UK finally coming to terms with its middling power status, on whom the arduous burdens of enforcing tacitly understood laws in the international community does not fall.

The special relationship

…hasn’t been hugely special for a long time now. Nevertheless, the UK and the US were very close allies before the vote and will remain very close allies after the vote. While this leaves the US almost alone in potentially taking action, there can hardly be a bitter retort towards the UK: this action was taken by the British Parliament and is what we’re all about in the West…you know, democracy.

Arab indignation

…that castigates the UK for failing to help Syrians and for tacitly supporting Bashar Al Assad needs to redirected quickly, for it is getting increasingly irksome. The UAE and Saudi Arabia, for example, have over 250 top-line combat aircraft positioned in many ways in a far better location to be effective against Bashar. Though doubtless some exists, I have seen precisely no commentary whatsoever or call for Arab nations to actually do something meaningful. Moreover, this is a resolutely a situation in the heart of the Middle East; one might think that the Arab world would feel more obliged to actually do something [and I’ll not even start on Yemen: a catastrophic situation on the very doorstep of many of the richest nations on earth but which is nevertheless failing spectacularly]. Say what you will about Qatar and its efforts in Syria, but at least it was trying as opposed to much of the rest of the Arab world that cowers away, bleating sporadically against and then for the West to ‘do something’ as the mood dictates.

The chemical attack

…was most likely carried out by the regime. Though the motivations are difficult to fathom, it seems unlikely that anyone else could have procured the necessary tons of chemicals and found a way to deliver them effectively. This, as far as I see it, is the top and the bottom of the case. Add to this panicked intercepted communications among the Assad forces, and the case appears to be relatively clear: it was the regime that carried out the attack. Whether it was ordered by Assad himself I think is a secondary consideration; he is the leader and he bears the responsibility for what his Government and forces do.

Reprisals

…are justified in my opinion. I think that they – if they ever come – will be extremely limited. Empty army and intelligence headquarters will be destroyed as well as (hopefully) aircraft, helicopters and tanks that have been to regularly used to attack civilian neighborhoods. This strikes me as entirely reasonable. Not only will this retard to some degree Assad’s ability to kill his people, but it will not force him from power and leave a vacuum. Also it will indicate that – eventually – the use of chemical weapons is punished. This is a taboo that is worth keeping taboo.

Syria: borders and international issues 22, July 2012

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Twenty-four hours after a bomb killed three of the most important regime hardliners in Damascus, rebel forces took over the main border crossings to Turkey and Iraq. Though the current state of affairs is murky, latest reports indicate that the rebels still control all the Iraqi border crossings.

Importance of the Borders

Two weeks ago the rebels managed to take a Turkish border crossing briefly but not only was it retaken by Syrian forces but the Turks closed the crossing when it was under rebel control, so these recent events are not unique. Nevertheless, coming in the aftermath of the rebel surge that began with Operation Damascus Volcano, these incidents highlight that the rebels are gaining in strength relative to the Syrian armed forces.

Holding a border crossing is important. Theoretically, it could facilitate far easier the shipping of money, weapons, goods, and people into Syria. Yet Syria’s 2200km of land and sea borders have been porous for months. It has been the explicit policy of Qatar and Saudi Arabia at least to supply the rebels with some combination of money and arms since February and though uncovering concrete evidence of money trails or weapons shipments is notoriously difficult, it is reasonable to conclude that they have been true to their word.[1]

Indeed, one can observe the number and size of the weapons belonging to the ‘Free Syrian Army’ increasing steadily and it seems likely that their recent successes would be fuelled by some form of significant support, be it in terms of money, weaponry, or training.[2]

The international community is well aware of just how porous the Iraqi-Syrian and Turkish-Syrian borders are. It is with Turkish connivance that their border area is seemingly awash with supplies and Special Forces of all stripes while one of the key tribes living across the Iraqi-Syrian border is the Al Shammar. Not only was the mother of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia an Al Shammari but one of his many wives is from that tribal confederation too; the links are strong along the Euphrates for Saudi Arabia.

If the rebels can take, hold, and consolidate control of significant chunks of land in Syria, ideally abutting a neighbouring country as most of the more transient ‘zones’ have been thus far, then this is potentially of huge strategic significance.

In the Libyan operation the fact that the rebels so early on had a significant base from which to operate – Bengazi and its environs – was key. This meant that there was an area in which the rebels could congregate and begin to undertake a meaningful assessment of their inventory and capabilities. Moreover, these safe areas were critical to the influx of foreign support. The Special Forces of Qatar, for example, that played an important role in Libya,[3] are understandably risk averse: seeing one of their soldiers captured by loyal Government forces would be devastating. Yet if there are reasonable guarantees of a safe zone in which to operate, then one can expect more support from countries such as Qatar.

Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah: ignoring political realities

Nevertheless, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah will not give up. Thus far this triumvirate has done its utmost to ignore the reality of the situation, disregarding the brutal humanitarian crackdown, in the vain hope that somehow Syria will return to the status quo ante bellum. At the beginning, from a cold, realpolitik point of view, there was a chance that Assad could have nipped the rebellion in the bud and their stance would – from their point of view – have been vindicated. Yet this is not what has happened and for some months now the three have continued their sunk cost accounting; ploughing on  heedless of the genuine change in the status quo in Syria.

Hamas made the tactically astute move some months ago of distancing itself from Syria,[4] despite the support that it offered over the years. But only a day after the devastating rebel attack on Syria’s elite, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, gave a defiant, resoundingly pro-regime speech as a desperate attempt, it seems, to forestall the inevitable demise of the Assad regime.[5] He sought to remind his followers of Syria’s critical role in supporting and arming the group in their struggle against Israel. By raising the spectre of Israel he is not very subtly trying to use the Middle East’s perennial political distraction to divert attention from Assad’s brutality. For once, he will surely fail.

Rational political calculus would dictate that Russia and Iran are working on a Plan B. Their forlorn goal of Assad staying in power is no longer viable. Their options for retaining a significant say in the future of Syria; access to the Mediterranean and checking Turkey’s influence (for Russia); and access to the Levant (for Iran) are slim to non-existent. Any kind of a candidate that could offer Iran and Russia such promises after the bloodletting brought on by Assad would be unacceptable to any future Syrian alliance. Indeed, it appears that Russia and Iran have almost guaranteed their estrangement from a future political arrangement by virtue of their political and material support for (and indifference to) Assad’s brutality.

While they may realise the futility of their position, without a viable exit plan they may feel they have no option but to carry on regardless. Better to accept their position in Syria is lost than accept this reality and be humiliated in a policy reversal.

Iran will react to this by upping their efforts to destabilise any transition in favour of palatable candidates that they will support. Given the make-up of the polity in Syria and their levels of penetration over the years, Iran may be able to retain limited operational capacity in a future Syria, even if it pales in comparison to their prized role in past.

Russia’s reaction, meanwhile, is more difficult to assess for they are engaging in a significant gamble. Clearly, Russia is largely unfazed about alienating swathes of the Middle East not to mention the majority of Syrians, believing that in time their position can be reasserted reasoning that states in the region will always need a counterbalance to the West, either diplomatically (security council votes), politically (backing certain politicians), economically (lucrative contracts or sanctions busting), or militarily (selling otherwise unavailable weaponry). Aside from the concern of taking a resolutely cold war mindset and applying its logic to the Syrian uprising in the midst of the Arab Spring in 2012 in an era of rising Asian powers, there is a potential hamartia in this plan.

Russia would do well not to underestimate the depth of the hatred it is fostering. Certainly, the next political class in Syria may see the advantages of engaging with Russia for one reason or another, but the public in Syria as elsewhere throughout the Arab World are no longer passive in politics and may not countenance such a move. Certainly, if Assad is foolish enough to use chemical weapons and were Russia still to play its perennial blocking role as one might expect, talk of an embargo of Russia across the Middle East would doubtless surface at the very least.

Western and Arab States cannot merely berate Russia and Iran; instead, they need to – as unpalatable as it may be – deal with their stance and try to find a way for these key states to deescalate their positions. If this were the 1940s, then the great powers would slide a note across the table to Russia, noting that they could retain x% influence over the future Syria, as Churchill did to Greece and other European nations in Moscow in 1944. But in a vastly different age where no such agreement could be enforced or countenanced, there are no obvious options available.

One alternative would be to cut Russia in particular out of discussions; bypass the UN Security Council entirely, while trying to mitigate their pernicious influence in Syria by upping the levels of military support using the new zones and suggesting and equipping an assault on the Russian port of Tartus to block off a key transit point for Russia’s reinforcements. This kind of bitterly difficult calculation would rely on the logic of greater losses of life in the immediate term for saving lives in the longer term and can only be conceived after deep deliberation not only of the logic of supplying of weapons but of the post-Assad Syria political makeup.

 

 


[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/saudi-qatari-plans-to-arm-syrian-rebels-risk-overtaking-cautious-approach-favored-by-us/2012/03/01/gIQArWQflR_story.html

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/21/world/middleeast/cia-said-to-aid-in-steering-arms-to-syrian-rebels.html?pagewanted=all

http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/13/syria-arms-rebels-idUSL2E8IB63H20120713

[3] http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204002304576627000922764650.html

[4] http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/3516

[5] http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4257633,00.html

Bloody days ahead as the Assad regime is decapitated 20, July 2012

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I wrote the following article with Michael Stephens for RUSI.

On the afternoon of 18 July a bomb blast in central Damascus striking at the heart of the regime of Bashar al-Assad did more to turn the conflict on its head in a few short seconds than months of fighting between the Syrian Army and the ‘Free Syrian Army’ or deliberations in the Security Council. The rule of the Assad dynasty in Syria is now facing the most testing period of its forty-one year reign. Four of Assad’s top advisors, Defence Minister Gen Dawud Rajha, Deputy Defence Minister and also brother in law of President Assad, General Assaf Shawkat, Deputy Vice President Gen Hassan Turkomani are dead, and Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar has reportedly also been killed . The national security headquarters in Rawda which collates information from peripheral centres around the country lies in ruins.

A tactical master stroke

News of the attack initially stated that Rajha and Shawkat had been killed. These two men were in the trusted inner circle of President Bashar Assad and their loss represents a profound blow to the regime. Both Shawkat and Rajha held extensive sway over the operations of the armed forces, they knew the urban battlefields well, and were ruthless in exploiting weaknesses among rebel forces. Even though a new Defence Minister – General Fahad Jassim al-Furayj – was soon named, these central figures with decades of contacts and experience are not that easy to replace. But before the regime had time to digest the magnitude of the loss, both Turkomani and al-Shaar also reportedly died of their injuries.

Initially thought to be a suicide attack, it then emerged from various sources claiming it was a remotely detonated device with suggestions that the attack had been planned for up to two months, with explosives being slowly smuggled into the building. On the day itself, apparently during a meeting in Shawkat’s office, the device was triggered killing the four key players.

The attack proved to be a tactical master-stroke. Not only did it shake the regime – perhaps fatally – to its core, but it more than achieved its immediate strategic effect, while filling the ‘Free Syrian Army’ with hope and celebration and rallying support. It also demonstrated a level of tactical cunning that had not been expected from the motley temporary band of confederates that are loosely referred to as the ‘Free Syrian Army’.

That a bomb was both smuggled into and detonated inside one of the most heavily defended buildings in one of the most heavily defended areas of Damascus raises questions as to the loyalty of Assad’s closest circle and those entrusted with their security. While the regime will pretend outwardly that all is well, the remaining key advisors will be nervously looking over their shoulders and keenly searching for signs of treachery around every corner. Cohesiveness among the remaining core of Assad loyalists will surely be tested in the coming days and the prevention of dissent and internecine conflict will be high on the agenda for Syria’s beleaguered President.

Tactical worries for the regime

Aside from tactical questions regarding the effect that this will have on Assad deploying his forces, arguably the more salient issue is the effect that this will have on the level of desertion in the Syrian Armed Forces. Estimates suggest that in addition to the twenty generals that have defected to Turkey they are joined by around one hundred soldiers per week. This rate shot up in the aftermath of this attack. In Idlib unconfirmed reports suggested that two and a half thousand soldiers had crossed the line while other reports suggested that 120 tanks had defected elsewhere, in addition to reports of defections across Syria.

If these reports prove to be correct and this trend continues, it is difficult to see how President Assad could regain momentum with his Armed Forces being riven with fear and the hugely buoyed ‘Free Syrian Army’ having their ranks swelled not only in manpower but potentially with heavier weapons.

This key attack was a part of Operation Damascus Volcano, the bombastically named assault on Damascus launched by the ‘Free Syrian Army’. Aside from a swift upsurge in attacks in the Damascene suburbs the day before, the army barracks overlooking President Assad’s Palace in the hills above Damascus was set ablaze the night before: a visual cue of what was to come.

The initial reaction of the Assad regime appears to have been to give their thug militia, the Shabiha, licence to storm into what are believed to be ‘rebel supporting’ districts of Damascus to exact revenge. Unfortunately, it seems that a stream of horror stories of brutality will be emerging from this specific incident in the days ahead, and cities all around the country will suffer as Assad exacts a brutal and unforgiving revenge.

Indeed, within hours of the explosion regime forces launched aggressive counterattacks in the neighbourhoods of Jaber, Mezzeh, Kafar Soseh, Qaboon, and Al Qadam. The rebels for their part have bedded into the mazy streets of the city but they will need to conserve ammunition, ensure supply lines remain open and well-defended, and maintain morale if their swift advances into the heart of Damascus are not to be tempered by an equally swift retreat.

One must not forget the salutary lesson from Yemen where, even after a near-fatal attack on President Saleh himself – leading to several months recuperation in Saudi Arabia -he was nevertheless still not ousted from power. Nevertheless, it appears that barring a major reversal of fortune, Assad’s downfall is to be measured in days or possibly weeks as opposed to months.

Yet this only enters Syria into the next chapter. One thing that unites all Syria analysts and watchers is a deep fear of a bloodbath of revenge as and when the Assad regime falls. Government attacks and ones that they have sponsored have been deeply brutal and have torn the social fabric of Syria asunder, profoundly polarising communities.

The role of the international community

The international community needs to move swiftly towards a plan that can be implemented to prevent deep purges taking place as and when the Assad regime finally falls. The Security Council whose deliberations were halted following the news of the attack will now sit later in the week to discuss a radically different situation. The Americans will look to seize the initiative and push through a strong resolution empowering the UN monitors to place the final clamps on the regime by bringing it financially to its knees if it engages in further violence against its citizens, which the regime surely must do to survive. These discussions will no doubt sit along with proposing a role for an international peacekeeping force to enter Syria post haste to ensure calm should Assad’s regime suddenly topple.

But for this to happen much will depend on Russia whose government has steadfastly stood by its increasingly beleaguered ally. But the corridors of the Kremlin will be filled with worried brows as a critical blow has been struck that may well signal the beginning of the end for Assad and for Russia’s strategic position in the region. If a diplomatic solution cannot be worked out before the regime fails Russia risks being faced with a hostile Syrian government comprised of opposition groups and those who have long suffered at the hands of Assad and his henchman. Such a result would be catastrophic for Moscow.

It remains to be seen of the Russians can break out of their dogmatic position on Syria and show some flexibility in the coming days, for the risks for the Kremlin in continuing to tow its obstinate path are high. Much will need to be considered as to how best they play out the coming end game, for Assad will now surely fall; the question is not if, but when.

Arguments Against Military Intervention in Syria 9, February 2012

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Published on RUSI.org, here are some thoughts militating against military intervention in Syria. For the other side of the coin from @the_steevo_uk see RUSI.
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Thirty years ago this February Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad, the father of current President Bashar Al Assad, launched a brutal, targeted and effective crack-down on mounting opposition in the town of Hama. Estimates of the death toll typically range from 15000 to 40000 in the Army-led offensive.

Like father, like son: Bashar Al Assad seems to be similarly minded with attacks from the Syrian Army increasing in severity in recent months. Unsurprisingly, this escalation has led people to ever more vociferously decry that something must be done, particularly after Russian and Chinese vetoes of the United Nations Security Council motion to condemn Assad.

While such sentiments are noble if not just and necessary, working out exactly what must be done is a fiendishly difficult thing to do and anyone who says that they have a solution is likely grossly underestimating the domestic and international complexities involved in Syria.

Intervention by analogy will not work

Some may look to Libya and the international intervention there as an example of what to do, for there are generic similarities: both are Arab countries with popular rebellions and have bloodthirsty despots for leaders. But the fact is that these situations are startlingly different and must be treated as such.

Libya is one of the least populated countries on earth, with three times as few inhabitants as Syria, but in a country nine times larger. Practically, this meant that there were vast swathes of land into which Libyans could retreat, organise themselves and in which foreign countries could drop weapons and deploy military trainers to help the ‘rebels’. This is just not the case in Syria where there are, thus far, no large areas of the country remotely under ‘rebel’ control.

Also, the Syrian Army appears to be far from buckling as completely and as quickly as their Libyan counterparts. And key cities including Aleppo on the northern border from where a foreign intervention would be easiest to organise, are still resolutely in Assad hands.

Sending weapons?

After the Russian and Chinese veto, the worsening bloodshed and the ineffectualness of the Arab League, it seems likely that now money and arms will be sent to the Free Syrian Army. Indeed, trainers may find their way into Syria too. Yet, given the issues noted above, the effectiveness of these measures will be questionable. Not only are there concerns that the weapons may be intercepted by the regular army, thus augmenting their supplies, but if there is the appearance that the ‘rebel’ side is being armed externally then Russia is likely – having made their reprehensible position perfectly clear – to supply Assad’s army even more.

Russia would not be Syria’s only benefactor. Iran has a crucial stake in Assad’s continuing rule as this affords them and their proxies (i.e., Hezbollah) room for operation, which may be denied them in any future Syrian configuration. Iran will not limit its support to merely weapons given that reports indicate that Kassam Salimani the commander of the Quds Force – the Iranian Revolutionary Guard special forces unit – is now in Syria aiding Assad’s army.[1] Whether this indicates that Syria is preparing for an asymmetric, guerrilla response or civil war is impossible to say, but Iran’s dedication to Assad’s continued survival cannot be questioned.

In short, history and common sense indicates that internationalising a civil war, with Russia and Iran supplying one side and Western states and Gulf States supplying the other, is a recipe for nothing other than a deep protraction of the conflict and increased regional instability.

Lack of planning

No plans yet conceived have any understanding of what post-Assad Syria might resemble. What would happen to the currently empowered Alawite minority of around one in ten Syrians or other Shia minorities? Undoubtedly the attacks need to be stopped but arresting the massacre of one tranche of the population to be replaced by attacks on another is not a solution. And is anyone in any doubt as to the vicious retribution that would be meted out?

It would need a savant to work out the geopolitical implications of a post-Assad Syria. What about a resurgent Sunni nationalism (likely to be used as a force to corral people together) and the Golan Heights or Lebanon? What would happen to Hezbollah and what would Iran do to safeguard this group which Tehran sees as intrinsically important to its asymmetric defence? In terms of wider significance, how would an even more enraged Russia, potentially embarrassed, beaten and shorn of its key Mediterranean Sea port, react? Surely not well.

Certainly no one can ever have all the answers to these frankly impossible questions, but equally some kind of idea is required for a post-Assad Syria before states scatter the Syrian countryside with weapons hoping – for that is all it is a lot of the time – that they fall into the right hands.

Alternatives?

Removing Russian, Chinese and Syrian Ambassadors from Arab states would be a superbly symbolic move, showing that amoral policies have real consequences, but would likely to have little impact. Instead, if Arab States truly feel as anguished as they claim, then they can, as they have before, club together and use energy supplies as a weapon.

First, it could be used as a punishment for states that continue to support or trade with Syria. While Middle Eastern states will be loath to interrupt China’s imports given its status as a key long-term customer and rising power, this weapon could be used more effectively closer to home to ratchet up pressure on Syria’s regional trading partners.

Second, at the same time, discounted energy could be used to coax compliance with emerging international initiatives. Turkey imports 90 per cent of its oil and similar amounts of gas mostly from Russia and Iran. Similarly Jordan imports 96 per cent of its energy demands with an eye to importing yet more in the near future. While it will not persuade states to act against their long term interest, undercutting existing prices for a set amount of time could encourage these countries to bandwagon and add to Syria’s isolation where possible, while also tangentially impacting upon Russia and Iran.

Such ploys, while weakening the Syrian regime perhaps significantly, would also show the world that Arab States are serious about what they say and would allow the regional community to come together to plan for a putative post-Assad Syria.

On the darker side of diplomacy, there may be room to make a grand bargain involving the protagonists. Syria, Russia and Iran want to maintain the status quo, ideally (though clearly not exclusively) with less killing of civilians. Western states want to stop the killing, which is just too egregious to ignore; any more Machiavellian goals to remove Assad are likely to be trumped by profound fears of the post-Assad unknown. Arab States like Saudi Arabia and Qatar feel personally betrayed by Bashar and feel that he must go to stop the killing. It is debatable whether Saudi Arabia, for example, wishes to get rid of Assad in order to break the Shia Crescent, empowering regional Sunnis and deal a blow to Iran. But Saudi Arabia, typically a state that doggedly follows a conservative, cautious agenda, is also likely to be highly concerned about the post-Assad fallout.

Russia’s involvement may increase in the near future as it seeks to guarantee a stake in the key future decisions in Syria. If not remotely for humanitarian reasons, Russia may push the Syrian regime to reel in its brutality. Continued violence, from the Russian perspective, could worsen their strategic outlook in Syria by drawing on such vociferous criticism and subsequent support for the Free Syrian Army.

It is possible, therefore, that Iran (for similar reasons) and Russia could be persuaded to significantly pressure the Assad regime in return for some understandings among international actors that the broad status quo in Syria be maintained.

Certainly, there are numerous concerns and problems to overcome in such a plan, not least of which is whether the Syrian authorities could practically find a way to deal with the burgeoning revolt more peacefully. Whether a suitable accommodation could be reached between Arab States and the Syrian-Russian-Iranian axis, balancing the apparent need to see the end of Assad the ability to mollify such demands sufficiently, is also questionable. But it must not be forgotten that it is the status quo, not Assad himself, that is the key for many of these actors.

This difficult and wholly unedifying policy may be the least worst option: it may prompt a hiatus in the killing and prevent a range of states littering Syria with weapons and money, adding arms and ammunition to an escalating, combustible situation.

The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

NOTES


[1] 6 February 2012 ‘Report: Top Iran military official aiding Assad’s crackdown on Syria opposition’ Haaretz  http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/report-top-iran-military-official-aiding-assad-s-crackdown-on-syria-opposition-1.411402

For the arabists 20, October 2011

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Something for the arabists, even part-time, recalcitrant, dopey and forgetful arabists like myself. Translation here.

 

French & US Embassy in Damascus attacked 11, July 2011

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Reports are emerging that pro-Assad protestors have been attacking the US and French Embassies in Damascus, Syria.

Guards at the French Embassy apparently had to shoot into the air to drive back the crowds.

I cannot see how the US Embassy in Damascus could possibly have been ‘stormed’ as some of the more incorrigible reports have been claiming. Countless security assessments would have been carried out in recent weeks on this exact topic and it’s not like the US don’t have a rather bitter recent-ish memory of such incidents. Moreover, from what I remember, the US Embassy in Damascus is a fortress in a cage: it would take a lot more than some protestors to break it, methinks.

Still, attacking the Embassy and damaging it in some way, shape or form will likely have serious repercussions for Assad, despite the fact that he will surely claim it as a spontaneous reaction of loyal Syrians.

Update:

Reuters notes that the attackers have now left the Embassy complex. In other words, they perhaps got through the outermost layer of security. I’d venture to guess that they stood no chance of getting through any more layers. Apparently, the Syrian police response was “slow and insufficient’. Shocking.

The first Arab film nude scene 5, October 2010

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Al Arabiyya has an interesting article (no, really…) on Nihad Alaeddin who is described as acting in the Arab world’s first nudity scene.

“We have to bring sex to the cinema because our audience is frustrated,” she told the New York Times. Good for her.

She first disrobed in a Robin Hood-type file filmed in Syria in the 1970s. Though, according to the article and the longing prose of its author it wasn’t overly salacious.

Profoundly shocking at the time, the scene is hardly considered as a scorching ‘hot’ one by modern standards with frugal glimpses of flesh during a mellow love scene.

I love how he wrote “frugal glimpses”: clearly, he wanted more.

She maintains that she

took off…clothes for a principle…If I wanted to do it for money I could have done it in the dark and made a lot more.

While this might sound like a ponsy artistes justification for smut, I really think that there’s an interesting grain of truth to it. It is surely so profoundly unnatural to – as clerics would prefer – try to strip sex and sexuality out of life and live a sanitized, chaste existence. They are fighting against the grain of human instinct and biology.

Indeed, a brief trip to Dubai or Bahrain to see drunk Saudis wobbling on the dance floor with red wine spilled all down their dishdashas and the legions of prostitutes frequenting hotels suggests that such repression is not working.

The most egregious case of open, obvious prostitution that I’ve ever seen in all my travels across America, Europe and Asia was in the Meridian Hotel in Damascus. At the stroke of 8pm around 20 heavily made-up women trooped into the bar and sat down by themselves. I’ve never seen a sight quite like it. Men would then go and sit down with them and have a 30 second conversation, some would tactfully drop their hotel key card down their cleavage and they would then leave the bar together. How romantic.