On Wednesday, Syrian President Bashar Assad appeared in public for the first time since the uprising against his rule began 10 months ago. Addressing a rally in Umayyad Square in Damascus, he pledged to triumph over “terrorism,” the clearest indication to date that he does not intend to surrender power or relax his government’s brutal crackdown on anti-regime protests.
Assad’s appearance immediately followed his first public address since June, in which he blamed foreign conspiracies, the international media and terrorists for the revolt against his rule and the approximately 6,000 deaths estimated to have occurred since March. “Victory is near, provided we stand against the conspiracy,” Assad told an audience of students at Damascus University. “The priority today is the return of security, which cannot be achieved unless terrorism is hit with an iron fist,” he said.
Coupled with the Arab League’s failing observer mission to Syria—a reality which led Anwar Malek, a monitor, to recently quit in disgust after witnessing “scenes of horror”—the country is edging closer to civil war. According to US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, “an estimated 400 additional people have been killed” since Arab monitors began their work in Syria, “a rate much higher than was the case before their deployment.”
As the death toll rises, however, a fragmented “international community” continues to dither. It seems the Syrian people are destined to fend for themselves.
AMERICA AND THE SOLITUDE OF THE SYRIANS
Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2012
Nearly a year into Syria’s agony, the Arab League [in late December] dispatched a small group of monitors headed by a man of the Sudanese security services with a brutal record in the killing fields of Darfur. Gen. Mohammed al-Dabi, a trusted aide of Sudan’s notorious ruler, Omar al-Bashir, didn’t see anything “frightening” in the embattled city of Homs, nor did he see the snipers on the rooftops in the southern town of Deraa.
A banner in Homs, held up by a group of women protesters, saw into the heart of the matter: “All doors are closed, except yours, Oh God.” Indeed, the solitude of the Syrians, their noble defiance of the most entrenched dictatorship in the Arab world, has played out against the background of a sterile international diplomacy.
Libya had led us all astray. Rescue started for the Libyans weeks into their ordeal. Not so for the Syrians. Don’t look for Bashar al-Assad forewarning the subjects of his kingdom—a veritable North Korea on the Mediterranean—that his forces are on the way to hunt them down and slaughter them like rats, as did Moammar Gadhafi.
There is ice in this ruler’s veins. His people are struck down, thousands of them are kidnapped, killed and even tortured in state hospitals if they turn up for care. Children are brutalized for scribbling graffiti on the walls. And still the man sits down for an interview last month with celebrity journalist Barbara Walters to say these killer forces on the loose are not his.…
But the truth is that the House of Assad and the intelligence barons around them are owners of a tormented country. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, was a wicked genius. He rose from poverty and destitution through the ranks of the Syrian army to absolute power. He took a tumultuous country apart, reduced it to submission, died a natural death in 2000, and bequeathed his son a kingdom in all but name.
Thirty years ago, Assad the father rode out a ferocious rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood, devastated the city of Hama in Syrian’s central plains, and came to rule a frightened population that accepted the bargain he offered—political servitude in return for a drab, cruel stability. Now the son retraces the father’s arc: Overwhelm the rebellion in Homs, recreate the kingdom of fear, and the world will forgive and make its way back to Damascus.
A legend has taken hold regarding the strategic importance of Syria—bordered by Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq—and the Assad regime has made the best of it. Last October, the Syrian ruler, with a mix of cunning and bluster, played off this theme: “Syria is the hub now in this region. It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake. Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans? Any problem in Syria will burn the whole region.”
There is no denying the effectiveness of this argument. The two big autocracies in the world—Russia and China—have given this regime cover and sustenance at the United Nations. A toothless resolution brought to the Security Council last October was turned back, courtesy of these two authoritarian states, and with the aid and acquiescence of Brazil, India and South Africa. (So much for the moral sway of the “emerging” powers.)
For its part, the Arab world treated the Syrian despotism rather gingerly. For months, the Arab League ducked for cover and averted its gaze from the barbarisms. Shamed by the spectacle of the shabiha (the vigilantes of the regime) desecrating mosques, beating and killing worshippers, the Arab League finally suspended Syria’s membership.
An Arab League “Peace Plan” was signed on Dec. 19, but still the slaughter continued. The Damascus dictatorship offered the Arab League the concession of allowing a team of monitors into the country. Bravely, the Syrians came out in large numbers to greet them and demonstrate the depth of their opposition to the regime. Some 250,000 people reportedly greeted them in the northern city of Idlib; 70,000 defied the regime in Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus. Nevertheless, the killings went on.
The Western democracies have been hoping for deliverance. There is talk in Paris of “humanitarian corridors” to supply the embattled Syrian cities with food and water and fuel. There has been a muted discussion of the imposition of a no-fly zone that would embolden and protect the defectors who compose the Free Syrian Army.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been a true cynic throughout. An erstwhile ally and patron of Assad, he finally broke with the Syrian ruler last fall, saying “You can remain in power with tanks and cannons only up to a certain point.” But the help Ankara can give is always a day away. The Syrian exiles and defectors need Turkey, and its sanctuary, but they have despaired of the false promises given by Mr. Erdogan.
The U.S. response has been similarly shameful. From the outset of the Syrian rebellion, the Obama administration has shown remarkable timidity. After all, the Assad dictatorship was a regime that President Obama had set out to “engage” (the theocracy in Tehran being the other). The American response to the struggle for Syria was glacial. To be sure, we had a remarkable and courageous envoy to Damascus, Ambassador Robert Ford. He had braved regime bullies, made his way to funerals and restive cities.…
But at the highest levels of the administration—the president, the secretary of state—the animating drive toward Syria is one of paralyzing caution.… With no faith in freedom’s possibilities and power, U.S. diplomacy has operated on the unstated assumption that the regime is likely to ride out the storm.…
Syrian rulers and protesters alike ought to be able to read the wind: An American president ceding strategic ground in the Greater Middle East is no threat to the Damascus regime. With an eye on his bid for re-election, President Obama will boast that he brought the Iraq war to an end, as he promised he would. That applause line precludes taking on Syrian burdens. In Obamaland, foreign policy is full of false choices: either boots on the ground or utter abdication. Libya showed the defect of that choice, yet this remains the worldview of the current steward of American power.
Hafez al-Assad bequeathed power to his son, Bashar. Now Bashar, in turn, has a son named Hafez. From this bondage, the Syrian people are determined to release themselves. As of now, they are on their own.
THE ARAB LEAGUE’S PHONY MISSION
Globe and Mail, January 2, 2012
The events in Syria have claimed the Arab League as another casualty of Syria’s bloody crackdown. Continuing violence by security forces is showcasing the League’s impotence and irrelevance and dashed any hope that League observers might help stem the bloodshed. According to Syrian activists, the reverse is true—protesters have faced a growing assault since the observers arrived.
Their mission appears to have been designed for failure. With [some 150] monitors on the ground…the number of atrocities is too many and their locations too vast for observers to even scratch the surface. The observers are completely dependent on the Syrian government for transport and security and are unable to speak to victims without tipping off authorities, who have reportedly hidden hundreds of detainees in off-limits military sites. Without unrestricted access to hot spots, the results of any observer mission will lack credibility.
The choice of a Sudanese general to head the Arab League mission underlines why the League’s member states, many with atrocious human-rights records, are incapable of monitoring one of their own. Lieutenant-General Mohamed Mustafa al-Dabi has held key security positions in the regime of President Omar al-Bashir, who is himself wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of committing genocide in Darfur—charges the Arab League has denounced. Appointing the former chief of a military intelligence branch accused of atrocities to head a mission monitoring a peace initiative would be amusing if more than 5,000 Syrians, mostly civilians, had not already died in a vicious nine-month government crackdown and many more lives continue to be at stake.
The League’s lackadaisical approach to monitoring reflects the organization’s ambivalence. Comprised of despots who share much in common with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, not least their disdain for the human rights of their respective citizens, Arab League members were reluctant, just until two months ago, to pressure their old friend, Mr. al-Assad, to stop the massacres. Until now, the Arab League has merely lent legitimacy to an illegitimate process and helped prolong the abuses that the Syrian government continues to orchestrate unchecked. If it wishes to salvage what remains of its reputation, the Arab League should replace Lt.-Gen. al-Dabi, assign more observers and stop Mr. al-Assad from manipulating its mission.
WHAT’S OBAMA’S PLAN B AFTER ARAB LEAGUE MONITORS?
Now Lebanon, December 29, 2011
The Arab League’s observer mission in Syria is coming under criticism a mere couple of days after its initial deployment, as the regime of Bashar al-Assad continues to gun down its opponents, seemingly unfettered. Already, France has cast doubts on the effectiveness of the mission while the US has wavered between a cautious wait-and-see attitude and an unspecific threat to consider “other means to protect Syrian civilians.”
The lack of a credible, clearly articulated Plan B has been a critical problem in the Obama administration’s Syria policy. So far, Washington has viewed the Arab League’s initiative as a possible vehicle for a peaceful transition that would require no direct foreign intervention or further US involvement.
An anonymous Arab League official explained this line of thinking, which is shared by some Arab governments. “The League wants regime change but at the lowest possible cost,” the official, who is skeptical about the monitor mission, said. He then laid out the scenario envisioned by those who supported the League’s initiative: “If the regime implements the removal of tanks and troops from the streets, 10 million Syrians will take to the streets and occupy all main squares, making the regime’s collapse a matter of time.”
This was the Obama administration’s hope as well. But as that Arab official proceeded to note, “Assad will never allow this, and the Arab League will be accused by more Syrians of complicity.” And that is precisely where we find ourselves today.…
Consequently, one could deduce precisely why the Russians advised Assad to sign the League’s initiative. In the weeks of haggling that preceded the signature, a group of states in the Arab League led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar were pushing to refer the Syrian case to the UN Security Council. But, according to some Arab officials, other League members remained wary of foreign intervention, and the observer mission was “their best compromise.”
There is, therefore, a divide within the Arab League that the Russians and Assad may have sensed they could exploit to prevent the emergence of a consensus calling for further, international action against the regime. If the Gulf Arab states were seeking referral to the Security Council, another camp, led by Egypt, was more invested in the success of the monitor mission, believing it could lead to more popular protests that may force Assad’s departure.… While it may be slightly premature to speculate about how this process will unfold, it is safe to say that the administration’s desire for the Arab League to take the lead on Syria simply won’t pan out as initially hoped.
Which brings us to the heart of the matter: what is the Obama administration’s plan after the likely failure of the Arab League initiative?
[It was recently] reported that top officials in the administration are “quietly preparing options for how to assist the Syrian opposition,” including “preparing for another major diplomatic initiative,” whose details remain unclear.… However, none of these plans involve intervention in any form, which raises questions about their effectiveness.
In fact, one administration official even said bluntly that Washington was “intentionally setting the bar too high [for intervention]…which is to do nothing.” One critic of the administration’s policy recently called this approach “masterful inaction.” In the Arab divide between those (Gulf) states seeking international intervention and those wary of it, the Obama administration continues to fall on the side of the latter. Even as it realizes that “the status quo is unsustainable”, the administration believes that “the risks of moving too fast [are] higher than the risks of moving too slow.”
We are, therefore, in a waiting period. The commentator Jamal Khashoggi may have said it best: “We are all buying time, not only the Syrian regime [but also] the Arab League, the Turks, the Arabs in general.… They’re avoiding the inevitable, which is direct involvement in Syria.” He, of course, is not alone in this assessment. Earlier this month, [US] Congressman Steve Chabot told the administration’s point man on Syria, Frederic Hof, essentially the same thing: “ultimately [physical force] is probably going to be necessary.”
In the end, there is one constant, recurring theme. While the Obama administration entertains hopes that regional states would take the lead, in reality, these governments are waiting for the US to assume its traditional leadership role. Whether it’s Turkey or the Arab League, everyone, one way or another, is throwing the issue back at Washington. The notion that the US can remain above the fray in Syria and still shape an outcome in line with its interests was never a realistic option.
(Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.)