Friday, August 24, 2012

Are Syria’s Rebels Getting Too Extreme?

Syria’s 18 month-long conflict is deepening sectarian divisions, breeding more and more openly Islamist Sunni rebels talking about the rebellion ushering in Sharia law—and raising the prospect of an ungovernable post-war nation.

By Jamie Dettmer

Syria
Syrian rebels pray at a military base north of Aleppo July 24, 2012. (EPA / Landov)

While the international media focuses on whether al Qaeda has latched onto the escalating Syrian conflict, opposition activists and human-rights observers are less alarmed than the Pentagon about the trickle of foreign fighters arriving in the war-torn country than about the home-grown hardening of sectarian attitudes among Syrians and the adoption by rebels of more muscular Islamist views.

They worry that the prolonged strife and blood-letting is disfiguring the rebellion, turning what started out as a more secular effort to oust President Bashar al-Assad and his minority Alawite-led government into a sectarian confrontation between Sunnis and religious minorities that could render Syria so fractured it is ungovernable as a single state.

“The conflict has become more sectarian and more Islamic,” says Ole Solvang of Human Rights Watch. “It was a lot more secular a year ago.” He says he’s noticed in the last 12 months more fighters sporting beards and more wearing headbands proclaiming, “There is no God but God, and Mohammed is His Messenger.” Fighters are becoming radicalized and talking openly of the rebellion ushering in an Islamist state based on Sharia law. When asked whether they are fighting for democracy or Islam many are now emphasizing the latter.

Above all, hatred for Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that some Sunnis reject as not being Islamic at all, is growing, adding to a toxic mix of Islamism and sectarianism that’s already leaching poison beyond Syria’s borders into neighboring Lebanon. On August 15, gunmen from a Lebanese Shia clan abducted more than 20 Syrian Sunnis in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon in response to the kidnapping of a clansman by rebels in the Syrian capital of Damascus. And earlier this week, a dozen were killed and scores more injured when fighting erupted in the Lebanese city of Tripoli involving the Alawites and Sunni Muslims.

Radwan Abu-Alsha, a commander with the Tawheed brigade in Aleppo, is not unusual in rejecting brusquely the idea that there can ever be reconciliation between Sunni rebels and Alawites, whom he says butchered his wife and children last March in Homs. “Alawites were my friends and neighbors, but no one should ask me to live side-by-side with them again,” he told The Daily Beast. Along with several Tawheed colleagues who nodded vigorously in agreement, he stressed the responsibility of the Alawites in the pro-Assad Shabiha militia for many of the worst excesses in Homs this winter and spring and elsewhere in the country.

Many Sunnis have worked closely with the regime since Hafez al-Assad established it 40 years ago. Sunnis who have benefited from it in terms of power and wealth continue to fight to preserve it. But the 18 month-long conflict is exacerbating Syria’s sectarian divisions, testing the loyalty of senior Sunni members to breaking point and prompting an increasing number to defect.

Last week, the most senior defector since the uprising against the government began, Riad Hijab, the country’s former prime minister, urged Syrian troops and officials to join the rebellion, labeling Assad the “enemy of God.” Some Syrians interpreted this as a coded message suggesting that, as an Alawite, Assad is not a true Muslim.

On August 19, Assad appeared to respond to the charge by making a rare public appearance to pray at the Hamad mosque in Damascus at the start of Eid al-Fitr, a three-day holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. It was the first time he’d been seen in public since July’s bombing in Damascus in which top security and defense aides were killed.

Like his father, Bashar has sought to obscure the regime’s Alawite roots, but he appears to be hedging his bets now, praying at a Sunni mosque one day but using the Alawite-dominated Shabiha to raise the sectarian temperature by carrying out atrocities such as the massacre in May in Houla in which 108 Sunnis died. Syria observers believe this is part of a last-ditch effort by the regime to divert the conflict into a sectarian war and to make it less about Assad. And it appears to be working.
“In order to survive, Assad and his Alawite generals will struggle to turn Syria into Lebanon—a fractured nation, where no one community can rule,” argues Syria expert Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma on his blog, Syria Comment. He terms this Assad’s Lebanon option.

The Assad regime is stoking the fear among the country’s minorities, from Assad’s Alawite sect—15 percent of Syria’s 22.5 million population—to Christians and Druze, that a rebel victory will trigger Sunni triumphalism and unleash a religious cleansing.

And some increasingly Islamist rebel forces are falling into Assad’s trap, forcing out Christians from their homes in Homs and other towns, including 9,000 Christians from the western Syrian city of Qusayr, following an ultimatum by a local rebel commander. Christian refugees from the Syrian town of Kusair claim that radical Islamists who had joined the fight against the Assad regime have murdered many of their relatives.

Gregorios III Laham, the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Damascus, says it isn’t foreign jihadists who are doing this. Talking to Sky News, he said they were local Muslims “moving into peaceful Christian areas.”  He said he fears Christians could be forced out of the country after the civil war, as happened in neighboring Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, where 600,000 fled, many going to Syria.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, two senior Sunni mosque leaders in the rebel-held town of Al Bab insisted post-Assad Syria should be run according to Sharia law, but that minorities should not be afraid. “Islamic law accepts other religions. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims and so they want Sharia law,” says Abdulbaset Kuredy. “We only fight people who carry weapons and those who don’t, have nothing to fear.”

He says, though, that Alawites are not Muslims, as they don’t apply “our teachings.” Is he afraid that the civil war will become more sectarian? “Hundreds of years ago we lived next door to each other and in peace. Assad is exploiting sectarian divisions,” he says.

Opposition activist “Tony” al-Taieb, who works with the Free Syrian Army-linked military council in Aleppo, says it is not surprising that religion is playing a more prominent role and that sectarian feelings are growing. “People are suffering and experiencing terrible things and it is natural for attitudes to harden as this goes on,” he says. He blames Western nations partly for the increasing sectarianism, arguing that the rebels feel neglected by the U.S. and European nations, which should be doing more actively to help rebels finish Assad. “There are more risks for the West from hanging back than intervening,” he adds.

Among the troubling risks is that as sectarianism increases more foreign fighters and jihadists will be attracted to Syria, further distorting what started as a reform movement into a holy war. Observers on the ground—from journalists to human rights groups—have seen only small groups of foreign fighters, some possibly linked to al Qaeda. But as the conflict becomes prolonged, the numbers are likely to grow.

-This commentary was published in The Daily Beast on 24/08/2012
- Jamie Dettmer is an independent foreign correspondent. He has been a staff journalist for The Times of London, Sunday Telegraph, Scotland on Sunday, and Irish Sunday Tribune and was recently the comment editor of The Hill

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Air War In Aleppo

The battle for Syria's north is not a fair fight. But the rebels are winning anyway.

BY JUSTIN VELA in Aleppo, Syria



For insurgents that are outgunned and lacking support, Syria's rebels are a consistently cheerful lot. It's not hard to see why: Here in the country's northern Aleppo province, they have largely driven Syrian troops out of the countryside, and are forcefully challenging President Bashar al-Assad's grip on the city of Aleppo.

The green, white, and black flag of the Syrian opposition flies at the Bab Salama border crossing with Turkey, which the rebels captured on July 22. A few weeks after it was taken, the Turkish government agreed to reopen the crossing as if the rebels were the recognized government. Even now, though, it is possible to walk through the border gates between Turkey and Syria, get your passport stamped by a grinning rebel at an immigration post, and hitch a ride south in the back of a truck. It may not be luxurious, but it is a far cry from the illegal and dangerous hike across the Turkish frontier that many reporters and activists were previously forced to take to enter Syria.

Syrian rebels have largely cleared regime troops from the area between the Turkish border and Aleppo, the country's economic hub and largest city. Abdul Nasser al-Khatib, a rebel commander in the newly formed al-Tawhid ("Unity") Brigade, an organization of rebel groups around Aleppo, claimed that opposition forces hold an approximately 125- by 25-mile area in the north.

"We have made our buffer zone," said Khatib, a burly former interior decorator. Roads snaking through the rich, dark brown farmland of northern Syria are devoid of regime checkpoints. There are even a few Free Syrian Army (FSA) checkpoints. Free from a threat in the countryside, the rebels have moved almost all their fighters to the city of Aleppo, where battles are still raging.

Al-Tawhid, which consists of about 8,000 fighters, was formed in July, before rebel forces entered Aleppo. It is an umbrella brigade for all the different battalions that have driven regime forces from the towns and villages of the Aleppo countryside and have come to fight in the city. While it is the main force in the area at the moment, Khatib said that the group would not continue after the fall of the regime and would do its best to help foster civil structures. The brigade is dominated by conservative Muslims -- not unusual for a force from the rural countryside -- but Khatib maintained that Islamist extremists would have no power in the future Syria.

"It is good for Aleppo," said an activist named Yasser Haji, speaking about al-Tawhid. But he laments that the rebels haven't organized and created other alternative structures beyond the regime anywhere near fast enough. "We have been too slow," he said.

Freedom is in the air. But the Assad regime still possesses tools to terrorize residents and thwart the rebels' designs: Calm countryside mornings are shattered by the afternoon, as airplanes and shelling strike towns and villages in attacks that continue throughout the night. For the rebels, it is impossible to feel fully liberated -- or confident about their success -- when death could come from above at any moment.

"[W]hat we need is not a buffer zone. We need a no-fly zone," Khatib told me. "Without a no-fly zone we will be finished."

I experienced this only too closely on Aug. 15 in the city of Aleppo, when I accompanied a group of rebel fighters on a mission to help take back a captured roundabout from regime forces.

Earlier in the day, regime troops and tanks had emerged from a military base just outside of Aleppo -- one of the regime's last strongholds in the countryside. Most of the time, the soldiers stayed inside the base and were resupplied by helicopter. But on Aug. 15, they attacked the rebels at a roundabout along the road ringing the city, in the suburb of al-Jandou, and took control of it.

A rebel named Abdullah, a former English literature student at Aleppo University, said this was the first attack from the north of the city in about 13 days. By mid-morning, rebel forces had launched a counterattack, but fighter jets and helicopters thwarted their advance. The rebels did not have the weapons to repel the aerial assault, and a sustained fight broke out amid the stalemate.

The squad of rebels I was with, who were based in Aleppo's Sha'ar neighborhood, about a 20-minute drive from the roundabout, wanted to join the battle. But they lacked ammunition. They spent the morning on their radios trying to find bullets, but by the time they found some were instructed to stand down, as the situation looked like it was under control for the moment. They sat on the floor and listened to the reports of fighting on their radios. The sound of shelling in other parts of the city could be heard nearby. Their base had been bombed only a few nights before. At one point, they tensed. "A fighter has been killed," said one of the rebels.

It was not until mid-afternoon that the squad was called up to act as reinforcements by Hajji Marea, one of the main leaders of al-Tawhid. The floor of the covered truck in which we drove to al-Jandou was covered in gasoline -- a fact that didn't stop one of the fighters from smoking. Parking away from the fighting so as to not announce their arrival, the rebels dismounted from their vehicles and walked into the neighborhood.

They walked spread out, not bunched together as amateur fighters might. Every man had an assault rifle. Of the approximately 20 men, two had rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Extra rockets rested in holders on their backs. One man held a heavy machine gun, bullets draped around his neck and metal handcuffs on his side, in case prisoners were taken. Two rebels carried extra boxes of ammunition for the group.

The sounds of fighting were still in the distance and neighborhood residents stood outside their houses. As we approached the battle, residents began offering assistance: They directed the rebels, most of who were from the countryside and did not know the area, to navigate the winding back roads. "Hey, guys, this way," they said, pointing the rebels through the streets. As they went, the rebels stopped to consult with people about what was happening and the best way to approach the scene of the battle. It was hot, and some of the neighborhood's residents offered them water from inside their homes.

Suddenly, we were there. A regime jet, probably an L-39 Albatros, screamed low overhead as rebels who were already engaged in battle fired on it with two truck-mounted Dushka guns. A fighter firing one of the weapons, a Soviet-era heavy machine gun, watched open-mouthed as the plane darted overhead. His truck sped down the street after it, but it was already out of range. Absent extraordinary luck, the rebels' weapons were simply incapable of downing the jet.

Before the rebels from Sha'ar neighborhood reached the roundabout, the Albatros came back around and seemed to locate them. They ducked into a house just before it fired a rocket. The explosion reverberated down the street, hitting about three houses down.

The rebels pushed into a stairwell in the house and listened to instructions from a commander. The neighborhood had been abandoned. The plane was hitting the streets around us with machine guns and rockets. The rebels seemed to be only too happy under direct attack from the plane. I was not. German photographer Daniel Etter and I -- after some yelling at a rebel who clearly preferred to stay and, somehow, continue forward -- ran back out into the street with two rebels and began to retreat, leaving the others behind.

It was in this slow procession up the dirt street -- the fighter plane swooping overhead and a buzzing helicopter apparently acting as its target spotter -- that I fully understood the frustration faced by Syria's rebels. Was Assad not an international criminal? Was it not clear, from everything the rebels had accomplished with so little international support, that the regime would not last? The status quo the Assad regime had long upheld in the Middle East was over. With more advanced weaponry, the rebels could better protect innocent lives. Including mine.

One of the two rebels with me refused to run, apparently out of defiance. "No, no," he kept saying. "Allahu Akbar!" Then he made me yell "Allahu Akbar!" -- twice, as if the phrase could keep the plane away. Then he kissed me hard on the cheek and finally ran a short way. We passed the smoke, a twisted car chassis, and other debris left by a rocket running until we were forced to flatten ourselves against a wall as the jet swooped down again, trying to kill us, blowing people's empty homes to bits in the process.

Eventually, a man let us clamor into the back of his truck and drove us out of the neighborhood. The back of the building where we had arranged to meet our driver had also been bombed. With Assad's air force circling overhead, nowhere was truly safe: "This building will be bombed today," the tense activists at a nearby media center predicted.

The attack on the roundabout was just one sign that the regime was expanding the fight around Aleppo. After eventually making it out of the city, we learned that a town called Azaz, only about four miles from the Turkish border, had been hit by airstrikes and about 40 people killed.

But while the Syrian military's use of air power temporarily delayed the rebels' advance in the city of Aleppo, jets and helicopters alone are not capable of reversing the regime's losses. It would take more than 24 hours, but the rebels would seize back the roundabout, after an all-night battle against tanks. The next day, planes, which did not attack at night, once again returned to harass the rebels. But they were not accompanied by regime troops.

"I think what [the rebels' success] shows is a degree of tactical proficiency, effective command and control at least tactically or locally, and a reasonable state of supply for ammunition," said Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy via email. "Very important was the state of morale, i.e. willingness to fight and no real fear of combat aircraft."

Khatib, the rebel commander from al-Tawhid, said that that even if they did not procure better anti-aircraft weapons, the rebels would continue the same strategy against the regime.

"Bashar al-Assad, he will give up Syria. Before he gives up Syria, he will destroy Syria," he said. "He knows the FSA will destroy most of his army. But he can kill people ... sleeping at home, by fighter jets."

-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 22/08/2012
-Justin Vela is a writer based in Turkey

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Don't Pity the Nation

Syria's crisis may be spillling over into Lebanon, but Hezbollah and its rivals are perfectly capable of screwing up the country on their own.

BY MITCHELL PROTHERO in Beirut



There are many ways to define "democracy," but they all share one critical dimension -- the notion that the people themselves grant their consent to a government that reflects their cultural mores and values. But how to classify a state whose authority is little more than the leftover scraps that the real powers don't want to deal with? I'd suggest a one-word definition: Lebanon.

This tiny Mediterranean country seems to be coming apart at the seams. So far this week, a minor dispute over the launching of fireworks sparked a running gun battle between Sunnis and Alawites in the northern city of Tripoli that has so far left dozens injured and seven dead. In the predominantly Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut, residents have taken to the streets in abject fury over reports that suspected Hezbollah members captured by Syrian rebels in May had died in a regime air strike. And in the same neighborhood, a small but powerful Shiite clan went on a kidnapping spree -- targeting Syrians, Turks, and Gulf Arabs -- as leverage to gain the release of one of their compatriots captured in Damascus.

Even by Lebanon's famously liberal standards of civil unrest, it has been a nasty week. And the fate of Hezbollah, the heavily armed Shiite group and staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is the central question in this drama. The cabal of anonymous, serious-minded men who run the party have clearly realized that the Syrian regime is doomed, and have begun preparing the battlefield in Lebanon for whatever comes next.

On Aug. 15, families of the men kidnapped in Syria -- openly assisted by Hezbollah's military and security wing, though the party would later tepidly deny providing help -- tore around southern Beirut and other parts of Lebanon in dark sport utility vehicles sans license plates with masked gunmen shooting into the air to clear traffic as they delivered unlucky Syrians to their captivity.

"Hezbollah is not responsible for this," said one of the group's unit commanders, jumping in my car for a quick chat amid the overt military operations being conducted around us. "We cannot control all the [Shiite] tribes in Lebanon. This is the fault of the Gulf states who want to bring Lebanon to its knees next to Syria. We will not get involved in these fights between the family and the government. It is the responsibility of the government to protect Lebanon and its people, not the Resistance."
Even as he unabashedly lied to my face, his best friend, sitting next to me, broke into a huge grin.

"Look around at how everyone seems relieved," said this longtime Beirut resident, who was sympathetic to the party. "Finally Hezbollah is letting the Shiite respond to these insults from the Sunnis and the Syrian rebels. They can't admit that they're involved, but they had to let this happen to ease the frustration. Finally the Shiite feel like they have some power again."

In that scene, at that moment, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable analysis. But wait a second: Hezbollah isn't just the most powerful political and military element of Lebanese society, but in terms of its ability to actually get things done, it might represent the only functioning authority in the entire country. So why is Lebanon's only politically cohesive sect -- backed by a military organization that puts the nation's military to shame -- so insecure?

It all goes back to Syria. The Assad regime is going down -- maybe not imminently, and certainly not peacefully, but there doesn't seem to be any way around it. Even as the Syrian military frantically and brutally pummels the insurgency, the rebels only grow stronger with each passing week. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly lauded Assad -- in a speech last month, he praised Syria as a "real military supporter of the Resistance," saying that during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, "the most important missiles that were falling on Haifa and central Israel were Syrian missiles."

Given Lebanon and Syria's interconnected politics, Assad's fall threatens to rebound against Hezbollah in Beirut. Throughout its decades-long involvement in Lebanese politics, the Syrian regime craftily ensured that there was a pro-Syrian faction in each of Lebanon's dazzlingly complex array of religious sects. Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt might be the dominant figure in his community, for example, but Wiam Wahhab and Talal Arslan -- figures bolstered by Syria's resources and political weight -- were always around to defend Assad's interests among the Druze. Even devout Sunni Salafists -- those most inclined to hate the "secular" Syrian regime -- have leaders like Sheikh Maher Hammoud in the Sunni bastion of Sidon, whom Lebanese say Assad keeps on the payroll to deliver at least the appearance of support.

In exchange for supporting Syrian interests, these otherwise marginal figures got a seat at the table in Lebanese politics. As a result, there's an entire political class that has punched above its political weight for decades, and is currently panicking about the end of Assad's financial, political, and even military support.

This house of cards is beginning to come down -- and it's depriving Hezbollah of some important allies. On Aug. 9, former Information Minister Michel Samaha -- a Christian and Assad's most prominent powerbroker in Lebanon -- was arrested on charges he was plotting a series of bombings against Sunni targets to inflame sectarian tensions. The accusation was bizarre: It's not hard to imagine Samaha being involved in pro-Syrian maneuvering, but one might expect that the rarefied air of Syrian and Iranian influence that Samaha breathes would also mean that he'd be above personally trafficking explosives. Even his most bitter political enemies alternated between laughter that one of the most powerful Syrian allies in Lebanon had been arrested -- a concept so foreign to Lebanon-watchers that it's still hard to wrap one's head around -- and complete confusion.

"I have no problem believing that Samaha would order a murder, but explosives in his car? Seriously? Does he even know how to use explosives?" read one message I received from a prominent Western journalist who knows the man well, and even admits to liking him.

A Lebanese security official with anti-Syrian leanings, but who has kept his head down given the uncertain political landscape, told me that it did defy imagination. However, he suggested it was possible Syria's intelligence infrastructure has been so overwhelmed by the revolution that it needs all the operational help it can get.

"I choked on my coffee when the warrant was issued," he said. "The explosives were in his car. We think he was helping get them into Lebanon past the border. They're panicking in Damascus and you'll see more of it here as the Syrian loyalists in Beirut realize that they're losing their protection. Terrified people can be very dangerous."

Even President Michel Sleiman, a careful politician with some sense of sympathy to Lebanon's Syrian neighbors, spoke openly about the evidence behind the arrest of Samaha being legitimate. In public remarks, he expressed his "hope" that no Syrian officials were involved in the plot -- but made it clear that he would require reassurances from the very top of the regime. "I expect [Assad] to call me, but he has not yet," he said. Making such demands of Assad would have been unthinkable even a few months ago.

These are dangerous developments for Hezbollah. As much as it needs to protect the regime in Syria, it also needs a semblance of political stability in Lebanon to protect its rear flank. Normally, Hezbollah has been happy to let its pro-Syrian Lebanese allies maintain control over Beirut's streets, considering their own highly trained men too valuable to waste in street clashes with disorganized and poorly equipped rivals when they need to be in bunkers along the border with Israel preparing for the next war.

But with kidnappings targeting their own people in Syria, Lebanese Shiites had grown impatient with Hezbollah's reluctance to escalate on the street. The Shiite community had expressed frustration that Hezbollah wasn't responding in a tough enough manner to the 11 prisoners taken outside Aleppo -- to the point where Hezbollah members told me that if the men were killed, the reaction might not be containable.

Even the arrest of Samaha, a staunch supporter of the party, was met with a muted response from Hezbollah. The fact that Hezbollah appeared unwilling to expend any of its influence to save Samaha suggests the group is quietly conserving its substantial resources.

But unlike most Arab regimes, Hezbollah derives its power from the respect it commands from its community. More than any Arab leader in the modern era, Hassan Nasrallah wakes up each morning concerned how his actions will play with his supporters -- and for that reason, he could not ignore the Shiite families who were enraged that their relatives were deprived of their freedom in Damascus. So Hezbollah's military leadership had to let the clans blow off some steam and remind everyone in Lebanon that just because Bashar is on the ropes, it doesn't mean that Shiites can be targeted. And at the same time, Hezbollah preserved the right to (somewhat truthfully) argue it was helping moderate the response from the enraged street, while still sending a firm message without the disastrous fallout of widespread violence.

The Lebanese government seems more interested in bemoaning its fate than in attempting to halt the descent into chaos. Officials in Beirut have politely asked the gangs of masked gunmen to please stop abducting people off Beirut's streets -- a stark reminder that they wield no power except when Hezbollah decides to let them. In the case of both the last week's kidnappings and Tuesday's battles in Tripoli, Prime Minister Najib Miqati was reduced to implying that "some parties" wanted to push Lebanon into strife, and calling upon the authorities to "do what they could" to stop it.

That notion became clear for the Lebanese Army last Wednesday night on the airport road, as a friend and I quietly walked on foot into the giant gang of kids, families, and Hezbollah military officials watching from the shadows. A giant pile of burning tires blocked the road, so that airline passengers had to walk with their luggage to pass in or out of the airport. It was clear that IDs and accents were being checked as the crowd hunted for Syrians, Turks, and Gulf Arabs to kidnap, with most passengers left hassled but unmolested.

Just beyond the burning tires was a unit of Lebanese Army troops in riot gear, passively watching the crowd block the road and interrogate unarmed civilians. As my friend quietly tried to film the surreal scene with a small video camera, an angry officer and his men sprung into action, demanding that she halt filming because it was against regulations.

Just down the road, an angry crowd controlled Beirut's streets and the fates of ordinary people walking by, in plain view of armed officials of the Lebanese government.

As he demanded to see her footage and then insisted she erase it, you could hear the sound of the crowd banging on the hoods of cars, demanding to see the drivers' identifications. If the officer recognized the humiliating irony of his position, he didn't let on. As he insisted it was illegal for us to film -- although under Lebanese law it wasn't -- the sound of crowds banging on the hoods of cars, deciding whether the passengers should join the more than 20 people they'd abducted earlier in the night, echoed in the background.

After a few minutes of watching her shuffle around on the camera's menus and being told the footage was erased, he seemed appeased to have shown at least someone on Earth he had some dignity and authority left.

But of course, she hadn't erased anything. Just as he had no understanding of the role of a government or his own obligation to the people of Lebanon, the officer didn't know how to work a video camera.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 21/08/2012
-Mitchell Prothero is a writer and photographer based in Beirut

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

KABOOM

Everyone calm down: Israel is not going to bomb Iran. Well, at least not in 2012.

BY AARON DAVID MILLER



Worried about a war with Iran, regional instability, more terrorism, rising oil prices or plunging markets? Don't be -- at least not yet. Think 2013. If Israel can't get assurances that the U.S. is prepared to use force, then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak will act later this year or early next.

But for now, there will be no war and certainly no deal over the nuclear issue. And the reason for that is pretty compelling: the mullahs, the Israelis, and the Americans all don't want one right now -- and here's why.

1. It's not necessary

Nobody should trivialize the danger posed by a nuclear Iran or underestimate Israel's concerns about that possibility. Even if we had divine assurance that Iran wouldn't use nukes against Israel, an Iranian bomb would embolden Tehran's regional aspirations, erode American deterrence, trigger an arms race in the region, and give a repressive power an additional hedge on its own security.

At the same time, few buy the case for an immediate strike, either. Indeed, let's be clear about something: Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapon. As far as we know, it hasn't tested one, produced enough fissile material for a sustainable program, or mastered the weaponization of a nuclear warhead -- yet. Right now, in August 2012, there's only one country that believes it's imperative to strike Iran: Israel. And even that is somewhat misleading, because there's no consensus within the Israeli public, political elite, or security establishment about the need to attack. According to one recent poll, 60 percent of Israelis were against an Israeli strike.

Still, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has framed the idea as one of necessity. For just about everyone else in the world (though actually, the Saudis might want someone to take a whack at Teheran so long as the mullahs don't take it out on them), including the United States, Israel's closest ally, attacking Iran's nascent nuclear capacity would be a war of choice -- and a galactically risky one at that.

Look at the return-to-risk ratio. The attack might go badly, in which case planes and pilots would be lost or taken hostage. Even if everything goes according to plan, oil prices could surge, markets and fragile economies might tumble, terror would likely increase, and Iranian missiles could conceivably strike Israel. Attacks against Americans in Afghanistan would almost certainly intensify, and Israel's stock abroad, perhaps even in America, would plummet precipitously.

And for what? The possibility that Iran's nuclear program will be set back for a few years? And who's going to measure how much damage has been done? Or turn around and tell the Iranians they don't have a legitimate reason to ramp up their nuclear program? What happens to sanctions, without which Iran would probably already have a nuclear weapon?

For Israel to court those kinds of risks on the grounds that within three to six months, Iran will have entered a nebulous zone of immunity where its sites will be so redundant, so hardened, and so diffused that they will be beyond Israel's capacity to strike effectively is not a sufficient or credible basis on which to trigger an international crisis with global financial, security, and economic consequences. This is doubly true when you consider that the returns -- a temporary crippling of Iran's nuclear program that isn't even guaranteed -- are so tentative.

2. Israel doesn't really want to do it

And the Israelis know it. The fact is they have no intention of doing anything now; for the time being, it's far less risky to maintain the status quo. Sanctions are tough and might get tougher, cyber and covert war have had some effect, and the unraveling situation in Syria -- where Iran has remained a stalwart ally of embattled President Bashar al-Assad -- has isolated Tehran even further. Meanwhile, the Israelis can keep the world focused on their agenda and on the edge of their collective chairs, worried about a military strike and perhaps willing to do even more to hammer the Iranians. It's far from ideal, but not half bad for a strategy that doesn't require firing a single shot or missile.

Make no mistake: The Israelis are prepared to strike Iran. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has a plan and believes it can succeed. But he knows Israel's capacity to inflict a crippling blow to Iran's nuclear program is limited. It's akin to mowing the grass, really -- a move that would buy Israel a couple of years at most. What a unilateral strike will do, however, is not only to legitimate Iran's quest for nuclear weapons but also accelerate it. That's precisely what happened when the Israelis struck Saddam Hussein's plutonium reactors in 1981. And the Israelis know that, too.

3. Let America do it

What the Israelis really want is to persuade the United States to bring the full force of its military might to bear on the problem. Washington could do extensive damage to Iran's unconventional and conventional military capacity. Ultimately, however, a U.S. attack would probably also fail to stop Iran's nuclear program permanently -- producing only a more substantial delay.

But for the Israelis, the advantages of letting Washington take the lead are considerable. They would avoid a crisis in their relationship with the United States as well as the international censure that would accompany a unilateral strike. The damage to Iran's nuclear facilities would also be much greater.

And while the mullahs could handle, and perhaps even profit from, an Israeli strike, a war with America -- involving a sustained air and missile campaign that lasts for weeks -- is not something they want. The "rally around the flag" effect could be dampened by the severity of an American attack and, who knows, questions might even be raised about the wisdom of pressing ahead with the nuclear project. The Israelis probably even have dreams of regime change in Tehran.

All of this augurs for putting the proverbial ball in America's court -- and not surprising and alienating the Obama administration by striking before the November elections. The last thing Netanyahu wants is a reelected and angry American president. Sure, Netanyahu doesn't want to see Barack Obama reelected at all. But the one way to guarantee that would be to strike before the elections. There's probably no way America could stay out, depending on the nature of Iran's response. And if the United States did become involved militarily, there would be a positive rally-round-the-president effect. Mitt Romney would be left applauding from the sidelines.

Still, the Israelis really do have a problem. Sanctions aren't doing nothing, but they aren't enough to stop Iran from going after a weapon, and negotiations aren't working either. At the same time, Iran is committed to at the very least developing the capacity to weaponize, should it decide to do so. And the fall of the Assads, when it comes, may only add to Tehran's fear of Sunni encirclement and accelerate its drive for the ultimate weapon.

None of this means it ain't gonna happen. If you're betting on a war with Iran, think year's end or early next. Netanyahu will probably split the difference: delay his strike until after November to placate Obama and give the Americans one last chance to persuade him they will do it themselves. But the prime minister could be waiting for a long time. Obama's heart just isn't in this one.

Ultimately, Israel will act. No Israeli prime minister, certainly not this one, will ever be fingered as the guy who allowed the Iranians to weaponize without doing everything in his power to stop it, even if an attack only delays the program and causes Israel a lot of grief in the process. The  kaboom is probably coming -- just not quite yet.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 20/08/2012
-Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His new book, Can America Have Another Great President?, will be published this year

Syrian activists Say Pledges Of U.S. Communications Aid Are Largely Unfulfilled

By Greg Miller in Istanbul


 Fighting in Syria: Violence escalates between government and opposition forces in the key Syrian cities of Aleppo and Damascus.

 Even as the Obama administration hardens its rhetoric on Syria, members of the Syrian opposition say the United States has failed to deliver promised communications and other equipment intended to support those seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

President Obama used his toughest language yet Monday to warn Syria that any movement or use of its chemical weapons would cross a “red line,” the closest he has come to threatening the use of force. Until now, the administration has ruled out a direct intervention and has made the provision of communications gear the centerpiece of U.S. involvement.

But opposition activists say they have smuggled hundreds of satellite receivers and other gear they have acquired on their own into Syria in recent months in part because they have not received significant quantities of such equipment from the United States.

The activists’ accounts contrast sharply with assertions by the administration that it has spent millions of dollars and provided about 900 satellite phones and other pieces of equipment to the Syrian opposition.

In Istanbul this month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton cited the shipments during a public appearance. “We are providing $25 million in nonlethal aid, mostly communications, to civil society and activists,” she said.

With a major international airport in Istanbul, a 500-mile border with Syria and a supportive government in Ankara, Turkey is a crossroads for supplies flowing to Syrian rebels from Europe and the Middle East. But Syrian activists said they have been frustrated by unfulfilled pledges from U.S. officials that equipment is on its way.

“Our groups have not received anything from the U.S. side,” said Imad Eddin al-Rachid, a former assistant dean at the Islamic Law College in Damascus, who has met with Clinton and other high-level U.S. officials in Turkey in recent months.

More than a dozen Syrians directly involved in smuggling equipment said they have delivered hundreds of devices to groups in Aleppo, Damascus and other beleaguered cities but were unaware of any gear that had been provided by the United States.

Seeking to bolster its support to opposition groups, the State Department recently established a program to provide equipment and instruction to anti-Assad activists. But the program requires participants to travel to Istanbul for training before they are given any gear.

U.S. officials and Syrian nationals involved in the program said that it is slated to expand in the coming months but that fewer than two dozen laptop computers and satellite modem kits had been distributed so far.

U.S. officials acknowledged that the program, known as the Office of Syrian Opposition Support, only started work two months ago and had been hampered by bureaucratic and diplomatic delays. Among them, officials said, was concern by the Turkish government that OSOS could emerge as a rival to other Syrian groups or secretly be used to ship weapons into Syria.

It is “fair to say that it’s very much a work in progress,” said Rick Barton, the assistant secretary of state who oversees the program. “We are moving as aggressively as possible now that we have cleared many of the cobwebs in our own system and with our allies.”

Nonlethal supply chain

In the meantime, Syrian activists said they have assembled elaborate supply chains that account for the bulk of electronics, cash, medical supplies and other material being moved through Turkey by Syrian opposition groups. Activists said separate networks funnel weapons to the rebels.

A key outpost in the nonlethal supply chain is an office in a high-rise near the airport in Istanbul. Inside, activists oversee an informal procurement operation that takes orders from groups inside Syria, buys electronics from suppliers in Britain and has them shipped to Paris, where the devices are packed into suitcases by Syrians flying to Istanbul.

Among the recent arrivals was a pair of Astra 2 satellite receivers earmarked for opposition leaders in Homs and Hasakah. From Istanbul, the gear is carried to the border, often by bus, then picked up by smugglers and activists making regular runs into Syria.

The two devices were all that were left “from a large shipment of 70 units we bought last month,” said a 30-year-old Syrian who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, Abu Lina, citing concern for the security of his family inside Syria.

Every shipment is logged in a ledger that records serial numbers, names of recipients and phone or Skype contact information to confirm deliveries and provide technical support.

The Astra 2 typically comes with a conspicuous satellite dish. But Abu Lina said his group sends only the center “needle” so that it can be slipped into a standard television dish indistinguishable from those that top almost every apartment building in the Middle East.

Satellite connections are no substitute for weapons in a conflict that the United Nations estimates has killed at least 18,000 people and plunged Syria into civil war. But activists said communications gear is nevertheless essential to the survival of opposition groups.

The equipment enables activists to coordinate even during ­government-imposed Internet blackouts, providing warnings to civilians about approaching Syrian troops or sharing locations of makeshift medical facilities.

The gear is also used to document the brutality of the Assad crackdown, as well as broadcast propaganda, including footage recently posted online that purported to show a Syrian military pilot captured after his plane was shot down.

Abu Lina said his group, which gets funding and office space from the umbrella group Syrian National Council, has sent at least 200 satellite receivers and 100 satellite phones into Syria in recent months. Asked how many he had gotten from the United States, he replied: “None whatsoever. Just promises.”

Others provided similar accounts. An activist with ties to opposition elements in the Syrian city of Latakia said his most recent shipment included 50 radio handsets — referred to almost universally among Syrians as “talkie-walkies” — and an 18-foot antenna that, because of its length, had to be delivered to the border by bus.

The money to buy the equipment comes “from donors outside the country,” said the activist, Abdul Rehman Selwaye. He added that neither he nor others in his group had received U.S. gear, saying that American aid “is all virtual.”

U.S. training program

U.S. officials said Syrian opposition groups may be unaware of how much gear came from the United States because it was largely distributed through nongovernmental organizations. The officials also suggested that activists may be unhappy with the amount they have gotten or convinced that rivals have gotten more.

Edgar Vasquez, a State Department spokesman, said the department had “provided more than 900 pieces of nonlethal equipment, mostly communications gear, to civilian activists and opposition groups.”

He declined to elaborate, saying that “given the Syrian regime’s intense and sophisticated efforts to crack down on opposition activity,” doing so could “put people’s lives at risk.”

An initial $10 million in non­lethal aid was provided through the department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative, officials said. An additional $15 million is being administered by the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations.

The latter includes the recently created OSOS. The program was set up by a British company under a State Department grant and operates out of an office in the tourist-heavy Taksim area of Istanbul. Its staff members include nine Syrian volunteers who are paid stipends and whose living expenses are covered.

OSOS officials defended its training-first approach, citing the need to ensure gear is going to Syrians who know how to use it and saying that they follow security measures designed to protect their signals from serving as targets for Syrian government strikes. The State Department emphasizes that it provides only nonlethal aid.

In a swipe at critics, an OSOS consultant said the office was created to prepare groups for the aftermath of Assad’s expected fall, not merely to funnel material to “armchair activists” in Istanbul.
OSOS has had 18 trainees go through its two-day instructional course on using satellite kits, which include a laptop, a portable satellite receiver and a 50-meter cable to run a connection from a rooftop to a basement or bunker.

“We were taught when we hear jet fighters to turn off the devices,” as well as using code words and encryption, said one of the recent trainees, a 20-year-old student from Aleppo University who asked to be identified as Abeer. Her only complaint was that her package included “only 100 megabytes” of access to satellite service, barely enough to cover a few sessions on Skype, although OSOS officials said she could receive more.

-This report was published first in The Washington Post in 21/08/2012
-Julie Tate contributed to this report

Monday, August 20, 2012

Sectarian Jihad in Syria: Made in the USA?

By Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

syria-civil-war-aleppo-islamist-militants

As the onslaught on Aleppo continues to spiral out of control, the future of Syria looks increasingly uncertain. Clashes between Assad’s forces, including tanks and helicopter gunships, and Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels have led to an exodus of 200,000 people from their homes. Former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who recently defected to Jordan, has declared that the Assad regime is collapsing “morally, financially, and militarily,” and now controls only 30 percent of Syrian territory.

What began on March 15th, 2011 as an outbreak of peaceful public demonstrations has now become an armed insurgency complete with suicide bombings. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that over 19,000 have been killed so far, while between 1 and 1.5 million people have been internally displaced.

But what has been largely been reported as a civil war is, in fact, no such thing. In reality, Syria is a geopolitical battleground for rival foreign powers – with the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Gulf regimes, and Israel on one side and Russia, China, and Iran on the other.

Violence

The brutality of Assad’s regime cannot be underestimated. The Syrian Army has not only routinely fired into crowds of peaceful protestors. It has followed up with heavy artillery bombardments of civilian districts – including the use of fighter jets. Thousands of Syrians have been detained or arrested by Syrian authorities, many held incommunicado at unknown locations where torture and other forms of ill treatment are rife. Amnesty International has accused the regime’s forces of committing war crimes and of conducting a “scorched-earth policy” to root out rebellion by “deliberately ravaging some areas, killing or torturing civilians, shooting livestock and burning crops and homes.”

Such crimes follow from Assad’s institutionalized sectarianism, which has systematically favored Assad’s small Alawi sect – many members of which are relatives and tribal allies – over the larger Sunni population. Since 2001 in particular, Syrian politics has remained authoritarian even by regional standards, while Assad’s focus on IMF-backed market reform has accompanied an increase in unemployment and inequality. His “liberalization” program has worked to undermine the rural Sunni poor while expanding the regime-linked private sector through a sprawling web of corrupt, government-backed joint ventures that empower the Alawite military elite and a parasitic business aristocracy.

One of the most appalling episodes of Assad’s violence was the Houla massacre of May 25th, when at least 108 people were killed in the village of Taldo – including 49 children and 34 women. Initial reports on the massacre were contradictory, with some reports blaming Assad’s shabiha paramilitary forces and others blaming the rebels.

A report in the German daily Frankfurter Zeitung Allgemaine (FAZ), for example, cited anonymous opposition members who had visited the area and canvassed eyewitnesses. FAZ’s correspondent in Damascus, Rainer Hermann, concluded that the massacre had been committed by FSA rebels against “families of the Alawite and Shia minorities of Houla, the population of which is made up of 90 percent Sunnis.”

Other reports in the German national press offered similar accounts. But these were refuted by the UN Human Rights Council’s latest report on the massacre, which concluded based on interviews with about 700 Syrians that the perpetrators were government forces and shabiha fighters. Although the UN investigators had been denied access to Syria, an investigation by Der Spiegel had earlier corroborated the UN’s findings, citing on-the-ground interviews with named local eyewitnesses who confirmed unequivocally that the massacre was committed by Assad’s paramilitary forces. One Syrian Army defector, Col. Tayyib Baqur, said he was asked by Syrian intelligence to pay poor people from Houla to circulate the regime’s version of the massacre in Damascus.

Far from vindicating the Syrian regime, the very existence of these contrarian reports about Houla only underscores the insidious nature of Assad’s war against his own people—and the heinous lengths to which the dictator has gone to blame the victims.

Sectarianism

Although these crimes underscore the moral right of the Syrian people to rise up in the face of such brutality, FSA rebels have been implicated in similar atrocities, including sectarian violence. Worryingly, Assad is not the only one resorting to shameless propaganda to conceal war crimes.

Jon Williams, BBC World News editor, cautioned that “tragic death toll aside, the facts are few. … Those opposed to President Assad have an agenda. One senior Western official went as far as to describe their YouTube communications strategy as ‘brilliant.’ But he also likened it to so-called ‘psy-ops,’ brainwashing techniques used by the United States and other militaries to convince people of things that may not necessarily be true.”

Thus, the UN’s latest report points out that “war crimes, including murder, extrajudicial killings and torture, were perpetrated by anti-Government armed groups,” though not of the same gravity, frequency, and scale as those perpetrated by Assad’s forces.

Sources from the Jacob Monastery, for instance, told Dutch journalist Martin Jannsen that armed rebels had previously murdered “entire Alawi families” in the Houla region. In early April, Mother Agn├Ęs-Mariam de la Croix of the Monastery recorded in an open letter that rebel atrocities were being wrongfully repackaged in media accounts as regime atrocities. Rebels had, for instance, gathered Christian and Alawi hostages in a building in Khalidiya, Homs, which was blown up with dynamite and blamed on Assad’s troops. “Even though this act has been attributed to regular army forces,” she wrote, “the evidence and testimony are irrefutable: It was an operation undertaken by armed groups affiliated with the opposition.”

Some have questioned the nun’s credibility, describing her as merely “another Assad propagandist,” though as John Rosenthal points out, there is little evidence for this. After all, Rosenthal wonders, “Why in the world would Catholic priests and nuns want or need to serve as ‘Assad propagandists’? Is not the more simple and obvious explanation for their reports that religious minorities are in fact being threatened and persecuted in rebel-controlled territories?”

Indeed, 90 percent of Christians in Homs — over 50,000 people — have fled since “their homes have been attacked and seized by ‘fanatics’ with links to al-Qaida,” according to the Catholic News Agency.

Alfred Hackensberger in Berliner Morgenpost recounts similar disturbing eyewitness reports from his travels in Homs. According to a Christian resident of Qusayr, all Christians had been expelled from the city, while Muslims refusing to enlist their children in the FSA were shot. Another Sunni resident of Homs witnessed the targeting of Alawites when rebels apprehended a bus full of civilians: “The passengers were divided into two groups: on the one side, Sunnis; on the other, Alawis.” The nine Alawi passengers were decapitated.

Such accounts of rebel sectarian violence have been confirmed by the BBC, which reported on the stream of Iraqi refugees returning to Baghdad from their former homes in Sayyida Zainab, the Shia district of Damascus. “The Free Syrian Army ruined our lives,” said one Iraqi man arriving with his Syrian wife and daughter. “They evicted us,” said his wife. “They are not an army, they’re just gangs. ... [W]e fear for our children. They’re playing the sectarian card, especially in Sayyida Zainab.” One refugee said he had seen leaflets in Sayyida Zainab warning Iraqis there to leave within three days, while others reported FSA rebels shooting Shiites, including whole families, to death.

At least 12,680 Shiite Iraqis have so far fled a “rash of attacks against their community, apparently by Syrian rebel gunmen,” reports the Associated Press, noting accounts of beheadings in the streets and families being gunned down in their apartments. “The gangs of the Free Syrian Army started to spread in the area, killing women and some children as well as men,” reported one eyewitness, Hadi, who had lived with his family in Sayyida Zainab. “The bodies were left on the street for two days because no one could evacuate the casualties. My children were hysterical. They are spreading sectarian violence in Syria.”

To be sure, accounts of rebel violence hardly absolve Assad, whose consistent resort to tactics of collective punishment — exemplified in the recent bombing of an FSA stronghold at a schoolhouse in Aleppo — signify a regime increasingly desperate to hold onto power at any cost. This particular attack failed to takeout the rebel leadership, but instead killed nine members of a family living nearby.

But while Assad’s ruthless air campaign has terrorized Aleppo’s residents, rebel atrocities — though on a far smaller scale — are also alienating Syrian civilians. “The rebel unit’s bid to win the hearts and minds of nearby residents has not gone well,” reports the Guardian. “Guerillas there claimed to have captured three locals – thought to be the only residents to have remained there – whom they accuse of spying for the regime. ... Screams from some captives, particularly those thought to have been members of the loyalist Shabiha militia, have echoed throughout the night in recent days.”

The rebel strategy is apparently to arouse antipathy to the regime by provoking acts of violence. One rebel told The Los Angeles Times that when he heard that two government rockets had hit his neighborhood in northeast Aleppo, his first reaction was “Thank God.” According to the Times, he “believes that only by witnessing wanton destruction by forces loyal to Assad in their own backyard — rather than just watching propaganda on state television — will Aleppo’s residents fully support the rebels.” But many Aleppo residents, including prominent opposition activists, blame the rebels for bringing violence to the city. “What the rebels did was wrong, coming in and forcing all these civilians to flee. ... You came to protect civilians, but now you’re hurting them?” remarked one.

Proxies

The persistence and prevalence of these accounts suggest that those committing crimes amongst the rebels are not a small or isolated contingent. Despite this, the West has decided to ally with them. It recently came to light that the White House had crafted a presidential "finding" for President Obama, a highly classified secret directive authorizing greater covert assistance for the rebels. Although it was not clear whether Obama had signed the directive, it is clear that the United States has chosen to support the rebels indirectly by mobilizing its regional client regimes – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Turkey, and even Libya. “Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States,” reported the Washington Post, which also noted that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was playing a major role in financing arms supplies.

“We are in the early stages of contemplating an Assad aftermath,” one senior Obama administration official told CNN. The New York Times reports that the United States is “increasing aid to the rebels and redoubling efforts to rally a coalition of like-minded countries to forcibly bring down the government of President Bashar al-Assad.” U.S. officials, it adds, “have been in talks with officials in Turkey and Israel over how to manage a Syrian government collapse” – including “regular talks with the Israelis about how Israel might move to destroy Syrian weapons facilities.” U.S. diplomats are also meeting with “various Syrian opposition groups outside the country to help map out a possible post-Assad government.”

In fact, U.S. covert intervention began much earlier. A confidential email obtained by Wikileaks, authored by Statfor analyst Reva Bhalla, refers to a December 2011 Pentagon meeting attended by the U.S. Air Force Strategic Studies Group and four military officers. “After a couple hours of talking,” writes Bhalla, “they said without saying that SOF [Special Operations Forces] teams (presumably from US, UK, France, Jordan, Turkey) are already on the ground focused on [reconnaissance] missions and training opposition forces.” The mission of these forces is to “commit guerrilla attacks, assassination campaigns, try to break the back of [Assad’s] Alawite forces, elicit collapse from within.” Covert action was seen as preferable to air strikes, as “Syrian air defenses are a lot more robust and are much denser” than Libya’s – although those air defenses and potential targets had been mapped out extensively in preparation for a potential intervention.

Friends

The seeds of this clandestine alliance go back more than five years, when Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker that the Bush administration had “cooperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations” intended to weaken the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon. “The US has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria,” wrote Hersch, “a byproduct of which is “the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups” hostile to the United States and “sympathetic to al-Qaeda.” He also noted that “the Saudi government, with Washington’s approval, would provide funds and logistical aid to weaken the government of President Bashir Assad, of Syria,” with a view to pressure him to be “more conciliatory and open to negotiations” with Israel. One faction receiving covert U.S. “political and financial support” through the Saudis was the exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

Such intrigue continued post-Bush. According to Alastair Crooke, a former MI6 officer and Middle East advisor to EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, the Saudis have eagerly played the role of proxy partner in a bid to mobilize Islamist extremists in the service of regional U.S. interests: “US officials speculated as to what might be done to block this vital corridor [from Iran to Syria], but it was Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia who surprised them by saying that the solution was to harness Islamic forces. The Americans were intrigued, but could not deal with such people. Leave that to me, Bandar retorted.” This region-wide strategy involves the sponsorship of extremist Salafis in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq “to disrupt and emasculate the awakenings that threaten absolute monarchism.”

No wonder that John Hannah, former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, remarked early last year that “Bandar working as a partner with Washington against a common Iranian enemy is a major strategic asset.” Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to Washington, knew Osama bin Laden well – indeed, the late arch-terrorist thanked Bandar personally for the Prince’s “efforts to bring the Americans... to help us against... the communists” during the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan. The same logic still applies. Mobilizing extremist Sunnis “across the region” under “Saudi resources and prestige” can “reinforce US policy and interests,” rejoiced Hannah. They can “weaken the Iranian mullahs; undermine the Assad regime; support a successful transition in Egypt; facilitate Qaddafi’s departure; reintegrate Iraq into the Arab fold; and encourage a negotiated solution in Yemen.”

The strategy is strengthening Islamist terrorists – perhaps deliberately. The wave of suicide bombings in Syria underscores the infiltration of al-Qaeda jihadist ideology into Syria, including an influx of fighters from neighboring Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. “To them,” reports The Globe and Mail, “the real target is Shi’ism, and Iran, and the crescent of Shia forces from Tehran to Beirut.” One former U.S. Army intelligence officer noted the “rapidly evolving prowess” of the FSA, particularly in the “manufacture and use of bombs,” which comes in part from Syrian insurgents “who learned bomb-making while fighting US troops in eastern Iraq.”

According to Israeli intelligence officials, the presence of al-Qaeda fighters in the conflict is not a mere unfortunate accident. NATO and Turkish military authorities have discussed “a campaign to enlist thousands of Muslim volunteers in Middle East countries and the Muslim world to fight alongside the Syrian rebels. The Turkish army would house these volunteers, train them and secure their passage into Syria.”

Despotism

In northern Syria, the concrete impact of this ill-conceived strategy is becoming tangible. In and around the village of Qurqanya, for instance, a rebel-run "shadow state" has emerged. A rebel-appointed council of judges hears cases brought by the people, but applies strict Islamic law – in one case, a man was sentenced to 100 lashes for sex out of wedlock.

It is therefore far from clear that the FSA represents the sentiments of Syrian civil society. Even its civilian benefactor, the Syrian National Council (SNC) – an umbrella body for Syrian opposition groups formally recognized by the West as “a legitimate representative of all Syrians” – is merely a “liberal front for the Muslim Brotherhood,” according to Kamal Labwani, who resigned from his SNC post earlier this year. Labwani slammed the Council’s drift away from “democracy and modernity...towards a renewed form of [religious] despotism,” a complaint corroborated by activists on the ground, including the Council’s own Local Coordination Committees. “One day we will wake up to find an armed militia... controlling the country through their weapons,” warned Labwani.

Another SNC member, Randa Kassis, warned of “insurmountable differences” between “Islamist jihadi fighters and the majority of the population.” The Islamist groups, he said, “which are superbly financed and equipped by the Gulf states, are ruthlessly seizing decision-making power for themselves.” He warns of the danger that the Islamists will “replace the corrupt terrorism of the Assad regime with a religious tyranny.” Although the puritanism of the Islamists “makes a rapid end to the war unlikely,” unfortunately “the Americans have put their money on the Muslim Brotherhood.”

In fact, the Syrian opposition is deeply divided, with one meeting in Cairo in July breaking out into “scuffles and fistfights,” according to Reuters. One observer, an Arab League official, said of the opposition: “They are so different, chaotic and hate each other.” The continued militarization of the conflict only exacerbates internal friction, with opposition groups fundamentally disagreeing on foreign intervention, dialogue with Assad, and relations with the FSA. Andrew Spath of the Foreign Policy Research Institute warns that “A turn to violent opposition of any kind plays directly into the hands of government as it attempts to divide, and thereby weaken, the opposition.”

Many in the opposition know this. Representatives of a dozen Syrian opposition groups, for instance, convened in Rome earlier this month calling for a ceasefire and an internationally mediated national dialogue to craft a viable political solution, firmly rejecting violence. One delegate, Abdul Aziz Alkhayer of the National Coordination Body – who had been imprisoned by Assad for 14 years – said, “weapons just kill people, destroy things. They cannot build anything.” But continued disagreement has weakened the wider opposition movement dramatically.

Games

How liberal democracy will emerge from this process is difficult to imagine. The Syrian people – the driving force of the peaceful protests against Assad’s regime – are faced with a “choice” between Assad’s brutal dictatorship and U.S.-sponsored Islamist rebels allied with an exiled Muslim Brotherhood-dominated opposition. They have become unwitting pawns on a geopolitical chessboard in which the principal players are fighting a proxy war for strategic influence.

While the West steps up its covert support for the rebels, a fleet of Russian warships is now on the Syrian coast, amassing a contingent of marines in the event that Western or Israeli forces launch a direct assault on Assad’s regime. One of Russia’s growing concerns is Assad’s potential deployment of his chemical and biological weapons arsenal. Israel, Turkey, and Jordan would be first on his hit list, which could precipitate a regional war.

For the United States and United Kingdom, the three main goals are complementary and interlocking: first, to shore up the autocratic regional petroleum order in the Gulf against expanding Iranian power, and to defuse the impact of popular uprisings in the wider region; second, to counter the growing reach of traditional rivals Russia and China into the Middle East and Mediterranean; and third, to protect Israel against Iranian influence in the Levant through Syria.

But just as the West’s Islamist gambit during the Cold War (and after) paved the way for the global acceleration of al-Qaeda’s operations, the implications of this ill-conceived strategy could well be even more devastating. According to Michael Scheuer, the former chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, the current U.S. strategy is likely to lead to “the slaughter of some portion of Syria’s Alawite and Shia communities”; “the triumph of Islamist forces, although they may deign to temporarily disguise themselves in more innocent garb”; “the release of thousands of veteran and hardened Sunni Islamist insurgents”; and “the looting of the Syrian military’s fully stocked arsenals of conventional arms and chemical weapons.”

Equally, it is clear that Assad – like his contemporaries Mubarak and Gaddafi – is utterly bankrupt, his regime devoid of legitimacy. Unfortunately, foreign powers across the world are exploiting the crisis for their own short-term geopolitical gains. While publicly touting Kofi Annan’s peace plan, they have quietly undermined it by sponsoring violence. In the meantime, the specter of further militarization promises to escalate the bloodshed, empower the most criminal elements of both sides, and alienate the opposition movement’s support base.

So while the road ahead seems unclear, the options are few: While the Syrian opposition needs to overcome its internal differences to develop a more unified national platform, it also needs to exert far more oversight on the FSA to ensure that criminal and sectarian violence by rebels is not tolerated, but firmly prosecuted, so as to uphold the core non-violent character of the revolution that ultimately underpins its popular legitimacy.

The West should also be deeply wary of escalating military support for the rebels, since such intervention will provoke escalating military support to Assad’s regime from Russia, China, and Iran. This “arms race” dynamic suggests that there can be no military solution to the crisis. The Security Council powers should therefore consider coordinating maximum pressure on both sides to cease the use of force and come to the negotiating table through cessation of military and financial assistance, including sanctions on Assad’s regime. But sanctions will lack teeth if they do not also have buy-in from the other members of the Security Council. This is only conceivable if the great powers pull back and recognize that further militarization will thwart their respective geostrategic ambitions by intensifying sectarian conflict, accelerating anti-Western terrorist operations, and potentially destabilizing the whole Levant in a way that could trigger a regional war.

-This commentary was first published in Foreign Policy In Focus on 20/08/2012
-Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development in London, and Chief Research Officer at Unitas Communications Ltd. His latest book is A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It (2010), which inspired the award-winning documentary feature film, The Crisis of Civilization (2011). Ahmed’s international security research has been used by the 9/11 Commission, the Ministry of Defense Joint Services Command, and the US Army Air University. He has also advised the British Foreign Office, the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, the UK Defence Academy, the Metropolitan Police Service, the Home Office’s Channel Project, and the UK Parliamentary Inquiry into UK counterterrorism strategy

Lebanon's Growing Syria Crisis

By Sulome Anderson



Armed members of the Meqdad family, a powerful Shiite Muslim clan from the Bekaa valley in Lebanon, announced on Wednesday that they had kidnapped at least 40 Syrians and a Turkish national, sparking a wave of similar kidnappings and riots across Lebanon. Although the Meqdads claimed that the Syrians they kidnapped were members of the Free Syrian Army, a spokesman for the FSA denied this, saying that the hostages were ordinary Syrians who had fled to Lebanon to escape the violence in Syria.

In videos aired on Lebanese television and rebroadcast on Al Jazeera English, masked gunmen from the Meqdad family stated that they had taken the hostages in retaliation for the capture of one of their relative, Hassan al-Meqdad, in Syria by a group claiming to be members of the Free Syrian Army. The Saudi-owned television station Al-Arabiya broadcast a video on Wednesday of a bruised Meqdad confessing that he was a Hezbollah sniper sent to Syria to aid the Assad regime.

Both Hezbollah and the Meqdad family have issued statements denying that Hassan al-Meqdad is a member of Hezbollah. His family claims that he was living in Syria for over a year and working for a Lebanese bank. In fact, media reports from June describe the relationship between the Meqdads and Hezbollah to be contentious at best, sometimes erupting into violent clashes. To complicate things even further, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army denied ever kidnapping Hassan al-Meqdad in an interview with Lebanese television station LBCI.

Following threats made by members of the Meqdad family against nationals from Persian Gulf countries, which they see as aiding and abetting the FSA, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates began evacuating their citizens from Lebanon on Thursday. Rumors of another Lebanese civil war brewing have begun to appear in the media, and Sunni-Shiite tensions appear to be at an all-time high in Lebanon.

But who exactly are the Meqdads, and what is their connection to Hezbollah? A former diplomat who prefers to remain anonymous says that they are one of many Shiite clans from the Bekaa who maintain armed wings. The AP reported on Thursday that some of these clans are reputedly involved with the growth and trafficking of narcotics, but the source says the Meqdads are not major players in this trade.

"The Meqdads are basically a large business empire...not all very legal," he said. "Unlike other major clans they are not much involved in hashish production...but they do petty marketing of drugs over which they at times get in trouble with Hezbollah."

So are they Hezbollah or aren't they? Experts differ on this point. Bilal Saab, a fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, claims that despite past flare-ups between the Meqdads and Hezbollah, the two have always worked closely together.

"The Meqdads have fought alongside Hezbollah since its inception," says Saab. "If they clashed in the past, it might be because Hezbollah overstepped their boundaries, but Hezbollah works to maintain a partnership with the Meqdads because they provide them with recruits, territory, and loyalty. In return, Hezbollah provides them with social services and protection."

Saab stresses that Hezbollah exerts iron-fisted control over Dahiye, the southern suburb of Beirut where the Meqdad's hostages are reportedly being held.

"Nobody holds hostages in the Dahiye without the knowledge and consent of Hezbollah," he says. "I believe that this represents Hezbollah's attempt to support the Syrian regime inside Lebanon."

Asked why both Hezbollah and the Meqdad family have denied a relationship with each other, Saab says that Hezbollah doesn't wish to jeopardize fragile alliances with other factions in Lebanon.

"Maintaining plausible deniability is always important," says Saab. "Hezbollah does not want to portray itself as a group that is heavily involved with the Syrian conflict. They're attempting to create a delicate balance between maintaining their political alliances at home and supporting the Syrian regime."

However, Timor Goksel, former spokesman and senior advisor to UNIFIL in Lebanon and professor at the American University of Beirut, says that although they do maintain ties with each other, the Meqdad clan is a separate entity from Hezbollah and the two are frequently at odds.

"Today, you can find many Meqdads in the national army, police...and Hezbollah," says Goksel. "This is how they survive. As far as I know, Hezbollah maintains cordial, working relations with all the clans without interfering in their lives as long as Hezbollah's interests are not threatened. I am sure Hezbollah is not happy with the spate of kidnappings as they know well that they will be accused. I know they are trying to cool it off by discreet contacts but they won't openly declare war on a major clan that can tear apart the Shiite community."

Goksel doesn't believe that Hezbollah would be willing to take its support for Assad far enough to kidnap Syrians, even if they are thought to be members of the FSA.

"In the Bekaa, kidnappings have always been a traditional way of conflict resolution, long before Hezbollah emerged," he says. "Yes, Hezbollah vocally supports the Assad regime because their vital interests would be compromised should Assad be replaced by an unfriendly regime. But how far would Hezbollah go? It does care about the opinions of its own constituency who are not united in supporting the Syrian regime."

When asked for comment, Hezbollah Member of Parliament Ali Fayyad said that everybody affiliated with Hezbollah was under strict instructions not to speak with any members of the media.

Reuters reported on Thursday that the Meqdads had called a halt to their kidnapping operations and denied that they had ever meant to target Gulf nationals. Although they released 20 Syrians that were determined not to be members of the FSA, the Meqdads held on to a remaining 20 Syrians as well as the Turkish national. According to a report by the Daily Star, a Lebanese newspaper, this announcement followed a dispute that occurred when Ali Meqdad, a Hezbollah member of the Lebanese parliament who also belongs to the Meqdad clan, visited the family compound.

This makes sense, according to Goksel. "When Arab countries stop their nationals from staying in or visiting Lebanon, economically the biggest losers will be the Shiites who provide most of the tourism services," he says.

However, Goksel warns that the spate of kidnappings could lead to larger conflict.

"If the other major tribes decide to support the Meqdads, we are talking 100,000 armed men," he says. "If that happens, you don't want to be here."

Recent events seem to lend credence to this scenario. Although the Meqdads appear to have slowed their kidnapping spree, other Shiite clans have started to take up their cause. The New York Times reported on Thursday that members of the Zeeiter tribe, another large Shiite clan, announced that they had kidnapped four additional members of the FSA from hospitals in the Bekaa.

In the meantime, according to the Daily Star, Turkey, a regional sponsor of the Free Syrian Army, has indicated to Lebanon that any violence against its citizens will result in consequences for Shiites living in Turkey. This was echoed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE. The warning was made in response to threats against the Turkish national by members of the Meqdad family.

"If Hassan (al-Meqdad) is killed, the first hostage we will kill is the Turk," Maher al-Meqdad, the clan's spokesman, told Reuters.

In a separate incident, members of a previously unknown group calling themselves the Mukhtar al-Thaqfi Brigade announced that they had also kidnapped 10 members of the Free Syrian Army on Wednesday.

Sunni Muslims also reportedly rioted in the Bekaa valley on Thursday, protesting the kidnappings and expressing their support for the Free Syrian Army. Reuters reported that another Turkish national was kidnapped on Friday, and the U.S. Embassy issued a security warning to its citizens in Lebanon the same day. The Meqdads also announced on Friday that they had kidnapped Abdullah al-Homsi, a spokesman for the FSA.

Despite months of effort on the part of Lebanese politicians to keep violence in Syria from spreading across the border, it appears the Syrian conflict has ignited already simmering sectarian tensions in Lebanon. The next few weeks will determine to what extent happenings in Syria influence its war-weary neighbor.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 20/08/2012
-Sulome Anderson is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy and a recent alumna of Columbia University's graduate school of journalism.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Russian Policy On Iran And Syria In State Of Disarray

By Pavel Felgenhauer



Last month, the Russia Navy announced it was assembling a task force in the Mediterranean: one frigate, two corvettes, five landing craft with Marines on board, two rescue tugs and one tanker. Three of the landing craft were from the Northern Fleet and two from the Black Sea Fleet. It was announced the Russian flotilla will perform exercises and will be prepared “to defend Russian shipping in the event of a naval blockade,” presumably of Syria by NATO naval forces (RIA Novosti, July 11). By the end of July, the two landing ships from the Black Sea fleet returned to Sevastopol, but the rest continued to cruise the Mediterranean (RIA Novosti, July 28). This month, an unnamed Defense Ministry official told journalists in Moscow during a background briefing that the three landing craft from the North Fleet remaining in the Mediterranean “are planned to dock in Tartus” – the Russian naval base in Syria. The official confirmed that each landing craft is carrying “a reinforced company of Marines (120 men) and APCs [armored personnel carriers]” (Interfax, August 3). After docking in Tartus, the Russian military command was reportedly planning to send its ships into the Black Sea to dock at Novorossiysk naval base. According to the Defense Ministry official, “while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is in power,” Russia may keep the strategically important base in Tartus, but it would be lost if the opposition wins, “since they will not forgive Moscow’s support of Assad.” The eviction from Tartus “would mean the loss of any influence in the Mediterranean” and be almost as bad as a possible eviction from Sevastopol (Interfax, August 3).

A couple of days later and without explanations, the navy announced its ships will not go to Tartus. Instead, after receiving fuel out at sea from a naval tanker “Ivan Bubnov” that in turn picked up the fuel in Limassol, Cyprus, the small Russian flotilla in the Mediterranean will go directly to Novorossiysk – its arrival expected on August 12 (RIA Novosti, August 7). This week, Russian naval plans U-turned again without explanation: The Russian Mediterranean flotilla, decreased in size to 3 landing craft, 2 corvettes, a tanker and a seagoing tug, headed away from Syria not to Novorossiysk, but “to the Western Mediterranean to continue exercises” (RIA Novosti, August 13). At present the Russian amphibious task force passed Sicily and is deployed off Sardinia, “training to defend its convoy order from a sudden air attack or terrorists” (RIA Novosti, August 14).

The true meaning of the seemingly erratic Russian naval maneuvers in the Mediterranean has baffled observers in Moscow and is seen as a sign of weakness and indecisiveness in the face of the US “enemy” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoe Obozrenie, August 3). As the Assad regime is showing clear signs of disintegration, Russia’s ruling elite has seemingly lost a clear vision on what to do next. The Russian warships that seemed posed to land armed Marines in Tartus and a couple of days later sped away toward the shores of Spain may reflect infighting within Moscow. The internal dispute is to ether distance Russia from the Syrian crisis or stand by al-Assad to the bloody end, risking a humiliating exposure of weakness – after all, the small flotilla of outdated Russian ships without air cover and several hindered Marines cannot accomplish much militarily in Syria or the Eastern Mediterranean.

In another possible sign of growing divisions, this week the Saudi daily Al-Wattan published a telephone interview with Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov who, earlier this year, was put in charge of Russian Middle Eastern policies. Al-Wattan quoted Bogdanov as stating the brother of Bashar and commander of the Republican Guard, Mahar al-Assad, was severely wounded (lost both legs) in the explosion in Damascus on July 18 that killed a number of top Syrian generals. The maiming of Mahar, according to Bogdanov, seriously affected Bashar al-Assad, who is considering the possible terms of resigning from power (www.alwatan.com.sa, August 14). Bogdanov is known in Moscow to be a promoter of a more balanced, non-confrontational Middle Eastern policy. The Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed the Al-Wattan publication as “deliberate disinformation and provocation.” The audio file of the interview with Bogdanov, published by Al-Wattan as proof, has been declared “an unprofessional fabrication,” since Bogdanov “did not give Al-Wattan any interview” or speak about Bashar or Mahar al-Assad (RIA Novosti, August 15).

On the Syrian crisis Russia and Iran seemed to be working together, trying to keep the Assad regime in power, but the relationship appears increasingly strained. Last month, it became known that Iran is suing Russia for damages to the tune of some $4 billion in the Court of Arbitration in Geneva for canceling in 2010 a contract to sell five divisions of the S-300 long-range anti-aircraft missile system worth an estimated $800 million to $1 billion (see EDM, July 26). In an interview this month, the Iranian Ambassador in Moscow, Seyyed Mahmoud Reza Sajjadi, announced that Iran was seeking “only $900 million, while the Swiss arbitrators added $3 billion on their own.” According to Sajjadi, Tehran in fact does not want any money at all, but instead Moscow must resume the S-300 contract it canceled because of UN sanctions (Izvestia, August 1).

Again, Russia’s rulers seem to be split on how to proceed. This week, the Foreign Ministry has officially deplored the latest US sanctions against Iran as “unilateral and unacceptable blackmail.” Moscow insists it is complying with existing UN sanctions and that ”bilateral relations will be seriously affected” if Russian companies and banks doing legitimate business with Iran will be punished by the United States (www.mid.ru, August 13). Moscow is angry at Tehran too: Sources in the Kremlin are quoted as threatening to “stop supporting Iran on the nuclear issue” if it does not stop litigation on the S-300 immediately. Sajjadi’s explanations have not been accepted, and Moscow is planning to send to Tehran a top delegation to demand the case in Geneva be dropped, or “the Iranians will be on their own in dealing with the nuclear issue and the contact group of six [the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany]” (Kommersant, August 10). President Vladimir Putin has maneuvered Russia into a position in which it seems to have virtually no friends left at all.

-This commentary was published first in Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9, Issue: 157, on 16/08/2012