* This article was published first by the NewYork Times on 17/09/2016
Sunday, September 18, 2016
By BEN HUBBARD
Syrian Arab News Agency, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
BEIRUT, Lebanon — On the day after his 51st birthday, Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, took a victory lap through the dusty streets of a destroyed and empty rebel town that his forces had starved into submission.
Smiling, with his shirt open at the collar, he led officials in dark suits past deserted shops and bombed-out buildings before telling a reporter that — despite a cease-fire announced by the United States and Russia — he was committed “to taking back all areas from the terrorists.” When he says terrorists, he means all who oppose him.
More than five years into the conflict that has shattered his country, displaced half its population and killed hundreds of thousands of people, Mr. Assad denies any responsibility for the destruction.
Instead, he presents himself as a reasonable head of state and the sole unifier who can end the war and reconcile Syria’s people.
That insistence, which he has clung to for years even as his forces hit civilians with gas attacks and barrel bombs, is a major impediment to sustaining a cease-fire, let alone ending the war.
The new cease-fire, less than a week old, is already tenuous. On Saturday, the United States acknowledged carrying out an airstrike that killed Syrian government troops in eastern Syria. Attacks have resumed across the country, and aid meant for besieged residents of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, is still stuck at the Turkish border.
Mr. Assad has become a central paradox of the war: He is secure and kept in place by foreign backers as his country splinters, although few see the war ending and Syria being put back together as long as he stays.
Although he remains a pariah to the West, and scores of militant groups continue to fight to oust him, even his opponents acknowledge that he has navigated his way out of the immediate threats to his rule, making the question of his fate an intractable dilemma.
The rebels are unlikely to stop fighting as long as the man they blame for the majority of the war’s deaths remains.
But fear of what might emerge if Mr. Assad is ousted has deterred many Syrians from joining the insurrection and may have helped prevent countries like the United States from acting more forcefully against him.
The result has been a crushing stalemate. Mr. Assad’s standing as leader of Syria is diminished — and yet stable.
“The problem is that he cannot win, and at the same time he is not losing,” said Samir Altaqi, the director of the Orient Research Center in Dubai. “But at the end of the day, what is left of Syria? He is still the leader, but he lost the state.”
Indeed, recent events give the impression that Mr. Assad has succeeded in muddling through, without being held accountable.
August came and went with little mention of the anniversary of the chemical attacks by his forces that killed more than 1,000 people in 2013.
Turkey, a key backer of the rebels, dropped its demand that he leave power immediately, and the United States has stopped calling for his removal.
And the day before Mr. Assad’s birthday on Sept. 11, for which his supporters created a fawning website, the United States and Russia announced a new cease-fire agreement with surprising benefits for Mr. Assad.
Besides making no mention of his political future, the agreement brought together one of his greatest foes, the United States, with one of his greatest allies, Russia, to bomb the jihadists who threaten his rule.
Years ago, few assumed that Mr. Assad would join the ranks of the world’s bloodiest dictators.
Self-effacing and educated as an ophthalmologist, he had not planned on a political career but was summoned from London by his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, when the heir apparent, Bashar’s elder brother, Bassel, died in a car accident in 1994.
After Bashar succeeded his father as president in 2000, many hoped he would reform the country. But those hopes dwindled, evaporating entirely with the start of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, when Mr. Assad sought to quell initially peaceful protests with overwhelming violence.
The conflict escalated from there.
Despite widespread opposition to his rule, a combination of factors has enabled Mr. Assad to persevere, analysts say. His foes have remained divided and have failed to convince many Syrians, especially religious minorities, that they would protect their rights or run the country better than Mr. Assad.
As continuous battles have ground down his forces, Mr. Assad has been the beneficiary of significant military support from Iran, Russia and Lebanon’s Hezbollah — aid much more significant than what the United States and its allies have given the rebels.
And the rise of jihadist organizations like the Islamic State and the Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, recently renamed the Levant Conquest Front, have led many Syrians and some of Mr. Assad’s international opponents to conclude that he is the lesser evil. While he may be brutal to his people, the thinking goes, he does not directly threaten the West.
His victory tour on Monday showcased the desolation of the town of Daraya, a longtime rebel stronghold whose remaining residents were bused out last month after an extended siege by government forces.
In videos released by the Syrian government, Mr. Assad arrived in towndriving his own car, a silver Subaru; fidgeted though a sermon praising him for protecting Syria; and performed prayers for the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday.
Then, as martial music played, the camera jumped between images of the area’s destruction and scenes of Mr. Assad leading a determined entourage through town.
A reporter stopped him for questions, and Mr. Assad spoke in soft tones about reconciliation and reconstruction. He mocked his foes as “rented revolutionaries,” a dig at their foreign backing, and laughed at his turn of phrase.
His entourage got the cue and laughed as well.
For many Syrians, the message was clear.
“He is a man who wanted to show all Syrians that this would be their luck if they opposed him,” said Murhaf Jouejati, the chairman of the Day Afterorganization, which aims to prepare Syrians for a democratic future.
Malik Rifai, an antigovernment activist from Daraya now displaced to northern Syria, said he felt numb watching Mr. Assad walk the streets of his empty hometown, but shared a video of a flock of birds that had flown over as residents were leaving. He interpreted it as a sign that they would return, he said.
“Those birds were a deep message from heaven, whereas Bashar’s presence was just a parade, showing the muscles of a weak person,” Mr. Rifai said in an online chat.
Mr. Assad’s dark suits and calm tones have given him a public image more sophisticated than that of other Arab autocrats like Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein of Iraq, who often brandished weapons and gave thundering speeches, threatening their enemies.
“He’s a different kind of bloodthirsty dictator, the kind who shops online on his iPad,” said Nadim Houry, who oversaw the work of Human Rights Watch on Syria for a decade. “He’s sort of Arab dictator 2.0.”
Colonel Qaddafi and Mr. Hussein were both killed after foreign interventions aimed at removing them from power — a fate Mr. Assad appears to have escaped, even though the death toll on his watch has exceeded that of his more colorful colleagues.
His perseverance has frustrated those who feel Mr. Assad should be held accountable.
“The fact that many leaders are considering or willing to deal with him today as if he has not gassed his own people or tortured thousands to death is an indictment of the current policy environment across the world,” Mr. Houry said. “There is a level of cynicism, a lack of ambition.”
But analysts note many weaknesses in Mr. Assad’s position.
After years of war, he holds less than half of Syria’s territory and his forces are depleted, making it hard for them to seize and hold new areas.
Military aid from Iran and Hezbollah on the ground and from Russia in the skies has held off rebel advances, but they have also made him more dependent on foreign powers looking out for their own interests.
Diplomats who track Syria say that while Iran remains committed to Mr. Assad, the Russians could negotiate him away if their interests were protected. And signs of Russian displeasure with Mr. Assad have occasionally surfaced.
In June, Sergei K. Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, visited Syria apparently without informing Mr. Assad that he was coming — a major embarrassment for a president who speaks often of national sovereignty.
“A pleasant surprise!” a beaming Mr. Assad said in a video of the meeting. “I did not know that you were coming in person.”
But Mr. Assad still has significant support in areas he controls, including among many Syrians who want the war to end and see no alternative to his rule.
“If God gives him life, I see that he’ll be president until Syria comes back the way that it was,” said Bouchra Al-Khalil, a Lebanese lawyer who meets regularly with Syrian officials and knows Mr. Assad.
She dismissed the idea that the violence of Mr. Assad’s government would make Syrians reject him after the war.
“People love their homeland,” she said. “All that hate and aggression will go away in the end.”
· * Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.
* This article was published first by the NewYork Times on 17/09/2016
* This article was published first by the NewYork Times on 17/09/2016
Tuesday, September 13, 2016
A new cease-fire brokered by Washington and Moscow just went into effect. But there’s a long list of ways the deal could fall apart.
By Randa Slim*
As the sun set in Syria on Monday, the country’s citizens — and the United States and Russia — all hoped the guns of war would fall silent. After marathon negotiations, Moscow and Washington reached a deal in the morning hours on Saturday to reinstate the failed “cessation of hostilities” negotiated last February, enable humanitarian assistance to reach besieged areas in Syria, and pave the way for U.S.-Russian military cooperation targeting the Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliates in Syria.
The next step would be to use the agreement as a springboard for reaching a negotiated settlement to the conflict, by relaunching the stalled U.N.-led negotiations in Geneva. The U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, will consult with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sept. 21 about setting a date for the next round of intra-Syrian talks. Although the Syrian government declared its support for the deal, President Bashar al-Assad vowed on Monday that he will keep fighting the “terrorists” to reclaim all of Syria.
Skepticism abounds that this deal will succeed. Many argue that at best it will provide a short reprieve for Syrians living under daily bombardment by regime planes and suffering from starvation under sieges imposed by the Syrian army and pro-regime militias. A short-term improvement, however, is not nothing: As a survivor of the 15-year Lebanese civil war — during which hundreds of cease-fire deals were negotiated, only to be violated shortly thereafter — I can attest that even temporary reprieves mean a lot to people living in fear for their lives.
· * Randa Slim is director of the Initiative for Track II Dialogues at the Middle East Institute and a non-resident fellow at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute.
· * This article was first published in Foreign Policy on 12/09/2016
Monday, August 29, 2016
By Stephen Blank*
Vladimir Putin and Bashar al Assad (Source: kremlin.ru)
A year ago, President Obama opined that Russian intervention in Syria would turn into a quagmire. One year later, however, Russia is expanding and consolidating its positions and goals in Syria. Bashar Assad’s rule looks more secure than ever, buttressed by Russian weapons (including chemical weapons), intelligence, diplomatic support, and money. Moreover far from reducing its military footprint, Russia is expanding it. The Duma is about to ratify agreements essentially giving Russia permanent air bases like Hmeymim air base and Tartus. Thus Moscow, for the first time in over forty years, now has permanent bases in the Middle East, both in Syria and in Cyprus. Moreover, it is an open secret that Moscow would like to obtain a base at Alexandria like the one it had in the 1970s. In August 2016 Moscow revealed that it is now operating out of the Hamadan air base in Iran. However, within days the Iranian government pulled the plug on Russia, criticizing its inconsiderate and ungentlemanly attitude. Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan also noted that Moscow acts like and wants to show that it is a great power. Obviously this episode cries out for explanation but it should not be taken as indicating that Moscow has now descended into a quagmire or, in the Russian phrase, stepped on a rake.
While this episode strongly suggests that Russo-Iranian ties are more fragile than Moscow believed, it does not disprove the fact that both sides have hitherto collaborated quite well up to this point in Syria and that they share a common objective of preserving the Assad regime in power. Iran apparently could not stand the publicity about this base and was upset that Moscow had “blown its cover” by announcing it was flying missions form Hamadan. Evidently Tehran would have preferred not to open itself up to charges from the entire Middle East (and presumably Washington) or to the domestic opposition within Iran about letting foreign powers have a military base in Iran from which they could launch sorties with impunity. Indeed, the presence of this base was surprising for the following reasons. Moscow’s acquisition of the right to use an Iranian air base is the first time the Iranian regime has allowed any foreign military presence in Iran, something that contravenes the fundamental message of the Iranian revolution of 1979 that is the regime’s claim to legitimacy. It also represents a violation of UN Resolution 2231 forbidding foreign bases in Iran — passed as part of the 2015 deal to prevent Iranian nuclearization. It may well be the case – though we cannot be certain – that once the implications of this fact became clear to Tehran, notably that it jeopardized the continuation of the agreement with the 5+1 of 2015 regarding Iranian nuclearization and could lead to serious economic harm that second thoughts about having this base prevailed. Beyond that, this base, especially if it had continued, would have extended Moscow’s rapprochement with Tehran and the two states’ military cooperation beyond arms sales. As it is, Iran has not only now acquired the formidable S-300 surface to air anti-pair missile, it is now negotiating for Sukhoi fighter jets. And that negotiation appears to be unaffected by the decision to suspend Russian use of the base.
Russia’s and Iran’s violation of UN resolutions in this context are not totally unexpected, since Iran’s ongoing missile program is also a violation of Resolution 2231. The Russian use of incendiary weapons against civilians in Syria violates the Chemical Weapons Convention going back to 1925. Thus both Iran and Russia have ignored agreements while Washington and the international community look the other way, and are basically saying, we will do as we please whether you like it or not and you either cannot or will not do anything about it. So while this episode suggests that Irano-Russian ties are more problematic than Moscow might have imagined, there is no reason to see here a rupture of those ties or a divide in the fundamental identity of Russian and Iranian interests regarding Syria. Nor is this an obstacle to these two governments’ further cooperation on Syria and other issues.
None of this should surprise anyone. Since Catherine the Great, Moscow has sought bases in the Mediterranean, and even the Adriatic Sea. Thus Catherine’s forces occupied Beirut for 18 months in 1772-74, and a generation later Paul I went to war on behalf of Malta, undoubtedly with similar objectives in mind. Throughout the nineteenth century Russian encroachments on the Ottoman Empire and the Balkans were a fundamental aspect of European diplomacy. In World War I, in the allied negotiations around bringing Italy into the war on the side of the Entente, Russia sought to gain a naval base through Serbia in the Adriatic. Stalin sought bases and colonies in the Mediterranean after World War II; Brezhnev obtained and lost the base at Alexandria. And now Putin has obtained the bases in Cyprus and Syria and has sought a naval base at Bar in Montenegro on the Adriatic and a land base at Nis in Serbia. Indeed, Moscow has consistently sought bases for what is now its Mediterranean Eskadra (Squadron) – even when it did not have the capacity to operate or utilize them – in order to lay down a marker, stake a claim, and force others to recognize it as a great power with a sphere of influence in the Mediterranean. These bases would also challenge NATO’s Mediterranean presence, guarantee Russian freedom of maneuver in the Black Sea, and encircle Turkey, a centuries-old Russian objective.
But the loss of the base at Hamadan does upset Russian plans. Had it been able to preserve that base, Russia would then have been able to project power constantly throughout the Levant, (the Eastern Mediterranean) and the Middle East, and force its way to an equal status with Washington in determining future security outcomes there. Apart from its logistical and tactical advantages in having a base in Iran from which to pursue Syrian targets and objectives, Moscow would also gain from a base in Iran because it could then project Russian air power all the way out to the Gulf where the US Fifth Fleet is stationed. Acquiring such a capability is a long-standing Russian objective; so Iran’s decision does strike at Russia’s larger ambitions. In 2014, Moscow indicated its desire, even well in advance of its actual naval capabilities, to project power into the Gulf and the Indian Ocean, so this base could have been a down payment on that ambition as well. Meanwhile Washington keeps appealing for Russian cooperation in Syria only for Russia to break every agreement and intensify its support for Assad to the point of using chemical weapons in Aleppo, if not elsewhere.
While Russia will undertake the occasional bombing of ISIS, it clearly is more interested in equal status with Washington in an anti-terrorist coalition against Assad’s opponents, not Washington’s. And this is the case even though ISIS clearly presents a threat to Russia by its own admission and has evidently now carried out some small-scale terrorist operations in Russia, even beyond the North Caucasus. Therefore we can expect that Moscow will use its ever-stronger position in Syria and the Middle East to coerce Assad’s opponents still further into preserving his state if not his leadership. It will also likely demand that Washington support Assad’s remaining in power, or at least his regime’s remaining in power. Moscow appears wedded to Assad personally, especially as Putin has told him that Russia would not let him down. So while there may be interludes where the attack on Aleppo is stopped for a while ostensibly for humanitarian reasons, it is most likely that the overall battle will continue on Assad’s and the Russians’ part to vanquish the insurgents and force them to accept his rule over most, if not all of Syria.
We may also expect broader diplomatic initiatives by Russia to extend its weapons and economic connections to Iran, and not only regarding the Middle East. The revelations of a Russian base in Iran suggest as well that Moscow is looking for other bases in the greater Middle East even if this episode has had an unfortunate ending for Russia. In this context we should remember that, since “power projection activities are an input into the world order,” Russian force deployments into the greater Middle East and economic-political actions to gain access, influence and power there represent competitive and profound attempts at engendering a long-term restructuring of the regional strategic order. And that region is not just the Middle East.
The recent tripartite summit with Azerbaijan and Iran clearly signals an effort to involve Iran in the latest of Russia’s transcontinental trade and transportation initiatives of a railway from Russia to Iran thorough Azerbaijan. Moscow will also undoubtedly continue to pursue expanded arms sales to Iran and endeavor to persuade Iran and other Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, to raise energy prices by curtailing production or by some other means. Russia’s position in Syria will undoubtedly be used as leverage to induce Riyadh to accept such ideas although there are clearly no guarantees of success. We can also expect Russian efforts to insert it into schemes for a Gulf security bloc and to sell more weapons to Middle Eastern clients (e.g., Egypt and Algeria). Indeed, past experience shows that energy deals, arms sales, and the quest for Russian military bases are all intimately linked as part of a grand design. Russia will continue, for example, building an anti-access area denial air and ship capability for its Mediterranean Squadron at its bases in Syria, Cyprus, and in the Caucasus as it already is doing.
Finally, Moscow has successfully forced Turkish President Erdogan to come to St. Petersburg and fawn all over Putin, and not just for supporting him against the insurgents who tried to oust him in a coup on July 15, 2016. Erdogan now says Turkey will implement the Turkstream energy pipeline, Akkuyu nuclear plant, and engage in military-technical cooperation with Russia. Indeed, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has offered many recent statements attacking NATO, and all but saying that Turkey will buy weapons in the future from Russia among other producers. Both sides are also establishing a mechanism for ongoing military-intelligence coordination, supposedly against ISIS. Apart from this Russo-Turkish cooperation against ISIS there are signs that Turkey might have to agree to a “decent interval” for Assad to stay in power before leaving as part of a projected settlement. Yet Putin has certainly not stopped supporting the Turkish or Syrian Kurds whom Ankara suspects of having committed recent terrorist attacks in Turkey. Neither is Russia going to be deterred from supporting Assad, and it will only lift its economic sanctions on Turkey dating back to the end of 2015 only gradually. Meanwhile Turkish officials have more than once hinted at offering Moscow access to Incirlik Air Base. Therefore it is hardly surprising that there are mounting reports in the media sounding alarms that Turkey is in fact compromising its membership in NATO as Erdogan ruthlessly moves to stamp out all opposition and re-establish an authoritarian-cum-Islamist state in Turkey rather on the model of what Putin has done in Russia.
Even with losing the base in Iran Russia has achieved virtually all of its strategic aims in Syria including some it had not originally sought or expected. In addition we also see the evisceration of the pro-Western Kemalist Turkey, the expansion of Russian military power throughout the Middle East – even if that expansion has hit a temporary bump in the road – and the continuing disarray – to put it mildly – of U.S. policy. Indeed, insofar as Syria is concerned, it is not inaccurate to say that Washington neither has a strategy, nor a coherent policy, or any idea how to use the instruments of power at its disposal to achieve anything in Syria. One year after intervening, Putin – rather than entrapping himself in a quagmire – has achieved his avowed political and military objectives: coordinating with virtually every Middle Eastern state, exposing the fatuousness of U.S. policy, forcing Washington to accept its leadership in Syria, and establishing permanent and expanding military lodgments, all at a very low and affordable cost. Indeed, it is the U.S. that appears to be in a quagmire in Syria, not Russia. Given this unbroken and consistent series of successes for Putin in the Middle East, the prospect of a Russian quagmire seems low.
· * This article was published first by Foreign Policy Research Institute on August 23, 2016
Saturday, July 30, 2016
Hezbollah is the right target of U.S. in Syria
The military situation in Syria has turned against the U.S.-supported opposition over the past year, due mainly to Russian intervention. Now, the failed coup in Turkey and subsequent crackdown there stand to reduce the capabilities of a key U.S. ally. Without some rebalancing now in favor of the opposition to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the prospects for a satisfactory negotiated political transition are dim.
But Hezbollah is a non-state actor. It is also a U.S.-designated terrorist group that has murdered Americans, among many others. Most Republicans and Democrats would applaud an attack on Hezbollah, even if some in both parties would bemoan a move that suggested widening commitments overseas.
Washington could inform Tehran, Moscow and Beirut that Hezbollah should withdraw from Syria by a certain date or the United States would target any of its troops attacking non-extremist opposition forces in and around Aleppo and elsewhere. If Hezbollah failed to withdraw, the United States would then need to be ready to attack as soon as the ultimatum expired.
In short, U.S. targeting of Hezbollah would mostly please and embolden Washington’s friends and discomfit its antagonists. It would also reassert U.S. commitment to fighting terrorism of all sorts, renew Washington’s commitment to holding Hezbollah accountable, hasten an end to the Syrian civil war and make a political settlement more likely. That is not a bad balance of risks and benefits.
* The writer is a professor and director of the conflict management program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, as well as a scholar at the Middle East Institute.
* This opinion was published first by Washington Post on 27/07/2016