THE SYRIAN COCK-PIT: RISING ISLAMIST INFLUENCE, RUSSIAN AND IRANIAN INTRIGUE, NO U.S. “RED-LINE”

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(Please Note: articles may have been shortened in the interest of space. Please click link for the complete article – Ed.)

 

Syria’s Fate Hinges on Whom It Hates Most, U.S. or Iran?: Karim Sadjadpour & Firas Maksad, Bloomberg, Feb 5, 2013—As Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad clings mercilessly to power, hopes that his regime will be replaced by a stable, tolerant democracy are being dwarfed by fears of prolonged sectarian strife and Islamist radicalism. The outcome will hinge in part on a simple question: Whom do Syria’s diverse rebels hate more, the U.S. or Iran?

 

The Nonexistent Red Line: Lee Smith, Weekly Standard, Jan 28, 2013—The State Department cable, signed by the U.S. consul in Istanbul and based on interviews with doctors, defectors from the Syrian Army, and activists, made what one unnamed administration official called a “compelling case” that the Syrian military had used Agent 15, or BZ gas, in Homs last month against the Sunni-majority opposition.

The “Day After” Scenario in Syria: Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Dec. 21, 2012—The moment of truth is approaching in Syria. In an interview with the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar, published on December 17, Syria’s vice president, Farouq al-Shara, admitted for the first time that the war against the Syrian rebels could not be won: “I do not believe that what the security forces and the army units are doing will achieve a decisive victory.”

 

On Topic Links
 

Bombing the Syrian Reactor: The Untold Story: Elliott Abrams, Commentary, February 2013

Jordan Bracing for More Syria Spillover: David Schenker, Real Clear World, February 1, 2013

Damascus Clashes Rage as Troops Take Central Town: Now Lebanon,  Feb. 7, 2013
After Assad, Chaos?: Ramzy Mardini, New York Times, February 3, 2013

 

 

SYRIA’S FATE HINGES ON WHOM IT HATES MOST, U.S. OR IRAN?

Karim Sadjadpour & Firas Maksad

Bloomberg, Feb 5, 2013

As Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad clings mercilessly to power, hopes that his regime will be replaced by a stable, tolerant democracy are being dwarfed by fears of prolonged sectarian strife and Islamist radicalism. The outcome will hinge in part on a simple question: Whom do Syria’s diverse rebels hate more, the U.S. or Iran?

 

The anomaly of power in modern Syria — where an Alawite minority rules over a Sunni Arab majority — was never sustainable, and few countries stand to lose more from the regime’s collapse than the Islamic Republic of Iran. Syria has been Iran’s only consistent ally since the 1979 revolution, providing the leadership in Tehran with a crucial thoroughfare to Iran’s most important regional asset, the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

 

As a result, Iran has done its utmost to keep Assad afloat, providing billions of dollars of support as well as strategic aid to crush dissent. To relieve pressure on the Syrian military, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is reportedly training two paramilitary organizations, Jaysh al Sha’abi and the Shabiha, which boast 50,000 fighters and are modeled on the Bassij militia that violently quashed Iran’s 2009 popular uprisings.

 

This support can only delay, not prevent, Assad’s demise. Thereafter Iran will face a strategic decision: whether to continue supporting a predominantly Alawite militia that represents only a small fraction of Syrian society, or to engage the Sunni Islamists who are poised to wield power in Damascus once Assad falls. Iran’s leaders will try to embrace the Sunni radicals, and if that fails they will work with the Shabiha to prevent the formation of a stable, anti-Iranian order in Syria.

 

What’s most important for Iran is not the sectarian makeup of Syria’s future rulers, but a like-minded ideological worldview premised on resistance to the U.S. and Israel. As Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei once said, “We will support and help any nations, any groups fighting against the Zionist regime across the world.” Iran’s Sunni allies Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are cases in point.

 

Despite sharing common enemies with some Syrian rebels, there is no guarantee that Iran will be able to befriend the same forces it has helped to massacre over the past two years. Anti-Shiite, anti-Persian sentiment is rife among Syria’s rebels, and the attraction of Iranian petro-largesse is eclipsed by the deeper pockets of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

 

The question for the U.S. and allies such as Turkey is what can they do to ensure that moderate factions in the Syrian opposition come to dominate in a post-Assad Syria, and that they will prefer to work with the U.S. and its friends in the region, rather than with Iran.

 

That outcome isn’t guaranteed, either. Iranian influence tends to thrive in countries suffering power vacuums and tumult, which they can attribute to U.S. or Israeli policies. They helped create Hezbollah after the 1982 Israeli invasion of civil-war era Lebanon. And in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, they helped entrench an Iraqi political class that is closer to Iran than the U.S. As Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, Moshe Ya’alon, put it last year: “The Iranians know how to exploit every area and country that isn’t properly governed.”

 

This sordid history has made the Barack Obama administration reluctant to decisively enter the Syria fray, fearful of being sucked into an Islamist brier patch or another costly but fruitless exercise in nation-building. Benign neglect, however, hasn’t been so benign. Syria’s humanitarian crisis has reached epic proportions, with more than 60,000 people killed and 2.5 million people displaced. The sense of abandonment and desperation felt by many Syrians has served to strengthen the most radical elements of the rebel forces….

 

Syria’s hemorrhaging will continue to fuel radicalism until there is a change of political leadership in Damascus. In order to expedite this process, the U.S. administration must inhibit Iran’s ability to arm and finance Assad. This requires coercing the Iraqi government — the beneficiary of $2 billion in annual U.S. military aid — to halt the steady transit of Iranian military hardware and personnel to Syria. It also means making clear to Lebanon that it must curtail Hezbollah’s cross-border operations into Syria, and ensure that Iran can’t use Lebanese banks to evade international sanctions. The U.S. and its allies should expose the governments of both countries as abettors to Assad’s criminal regime, should they continue to be complicit in Iran’s operations….

 

A greater U.S. role won’t render Syria an American-allied democracy. That possibility, if it ever existed, has long been lost. But continued U.S. inaction risks leaving Syria at the mercy of Iran and Sunni extremists whose intolerance, and hatred of the U.S., dwarfs any concerns they may have for the well- being of Syria and its people. Such an outcome would haunt Syria, the Middle East and the U.S. for years to come.

 

Karim Sadjadpour is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Firas Maksad is director of New Policy Advisors, a Washington advisory group.

 

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THE NONEXISTENT RED LINE

Lee Smith

Weekly Standard, Jan 28, 2013

 

Last week, we learned of a secret State Department assessment that forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad had recently used chemical weapons. The State Department cable, signed by the U.S. consul in Istanbul and based on interviews with doctors, defectors from the Syrian Army, and activists, made what one unnamed administration official called a “compelling case” that the Syrian military had used Agent 15, or BZ gas, in Homs last month against the Sunni-majority opposition. Nonetheless, within 24 hours, the State Department challenged the news report and the cable’s conclusion, stating that it “found no credible evidence to corroborate or to confirm that chemical weapons were used.”

 

It’s hardly surprising the administration was eager to paper over a story that showed the cracks in its jerry-built Syria policy. After all, just last August Obama pledged that “seeing movement on the chemical weapons front, or the use of chemical weapons” by Assad would mean the Syrian dictator had crossed a “red line” and would trigger a U.S. response. If Assad had already used those weapons, that would mean Obama blinked.

 

The leak itself showed that even inside the administration there is a gnawing suspicion that the president’s Syria policy has come up short. The president has let a humanitarian crisis grow to enormous proportions during the last 24 months. Further, Obama has squandered an opportunity to advance American interests by toppling Iran’s only Arab ally, and has imperilled U.S. allies on Syria’s borders by failing to contain a crisis that is spilling over into Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon and may cause trouble for Israel as well.

 

The White House had previously bragged that in December, via private messages from Obama through the Russians and other interlocutors, it stopped the regime in Damascus from using chemical weapons. One senior defence official told the New York Times, “I think the Russians understood this is the one thing that could get us to intervene in the war.”

 

But in congratulating itself, the administration unwittingly underscored the fact that it could have intervened at any point over the last two years, during which time Assad has slaughtered more than 60,000 victims. Last week alone, Assad’s forces killed more than 100 people in Homs, who were shot, stabbed, and incinerated. Should we congratulate the Obama administration that they weren’t gassed?

 

Also last week, 80 were killed and more than 150 wounded in a regime airstrike on the University of Aleppo. At one time it seemed that the use of fixed-wing aircraft against civilians, like the students and displaced persons camped out on the university grounds, constituted an American red line. After all, the difference between Qaddafi and Assad, said Secretary of State Clinton in explaining why the United States had joined the NATO action against the former and was content to sit back and watch the latter, was that the Libyan dictator was using airstrikes against his own people.

 

One problem with Obama’s statement on chemical weapons last summer was that he was sending a message to Assad that carnage up to that supposed red line was acceptable. But the red line itself was problematic. Given the limited flow of information coming out of Syria, it was always going to be difficult to confirm the use of chemical weapons. The conflicting signals from the State Department last week made the issue plain. “When this particular message came in from consulate Istanbul,” said a State Department spokesperson, we “concluded at the time that we couldn’t corroborate it; we haven’t been able to corroborate it since either.”

 

Sure, the opposition might submit evidence that they’d been gassed, but how would anyone know if they were telling the truth? How would you verify their stories, or authenticate YouTube videos of people vomiting, choking, and dying? The Syrian rebels have an interest, after all, in bringing the United States into the conflict.

 

In any case, as outgoing defence secretary Leon Panetta explained earlier this month, it turns out the United States would only send in troops to secure Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile after Assad fell. The concern, said Panetta “is what steps does the international community take to make sure that when Assad comes down, that there is a process and procedure to make sure we get our hands on securing those sites?” In other words, as long as Assad is still in power, the White House is not going to do anything about his arsenal.

 

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THE “DAY AFTER” SCENARIO IN SYRIA
Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, December 21, 2012

The moment of truth is approaching in Syria. In an interview with the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar, published on December 17, Syria’s vice president, Farouq al-Shara, admitted for the first time that the war against the Syrian rebels could not be won: “I do not believe that what the security forces and the army units are doing will achieve a decisive victory.”

The rebel forces, led by allied jihadist groups, have the upper hand on the battlefield, and scored significant achievements when they took over a large military base in Aleppo well stocked with weapons and ammunition, and later in fierce fighting in communities surrounding the capital city of Damascus including the Yarmouk Palstinian refugee camp. The Free Syrian Army is now claiming to have gained control of most of the air defense bases in the Damascus Governate.2

Bashar Assad’s regime is fighting a rearguard battle and has already lost control over large parts of the country, which are still being subjected to aerial and artillery attacks by Syrian army forces still loyal to the regime. Assad continues to draw his strength from the Alawite community, which forms the backbone of the army, and from the political, military, and economic assistance he receives from Russia, Syria, Iran, and Hizbullah. The latter two have also sent forces to help with the fighting both in advisory and operational capacities….

 

With the Syrian crisis entering its final stage, what follows are the main implications. To begin with, Assad’s regime has long since lost its legitimacy to rule, and at most can survive for a further period through the growing use of firepower that is meant to inflict large-scale casualties among the rebels and the civilian population that supports them.

The rebels’ takeover of large parts of Aleppo will likely precipitate a final collapse of the army’s rule in the area. This will add momentum to similar processes in northern Syria, further enabling the mobilization and organization of forces for the decisive battle in Damascus – if the campaign being waged at present does not achieve a breakthrough. In attacking rebel forces and the Syrian population, the Syrian army has seen fit to use all the weapons in its arsenal except for chemical weapons. Strong messages on this issue from the United States and other Western countries, indicating that the use of such weapons will prompt Western military intervention expressly aimed at toppling the regime, have acted as a deterrent.

It is unlikely under the prevailing circumstances that Assad’s regime believes the use of chemical weapons can restore the previous situation in Syria, even if very heavy losses are inflicted on the civilian population. It appears probable that, should Damascus soon fall into rebel hands, the regime will instead seek to transfer most of the surviving loyal forces and strategic (including chemical) weaponry to the area of the Alawite enclave in the west of the country. These weapons would then serve as a deterrent to acts of revenge and a political card for ensuring the Alawite community’s status in a future Syrian order.

The Syrian National Coalition has indeed won international recognition and projects a moderate image for the Syrian opposition. The reality, however, is much more complex. The rebel forces regard the new leadership of the opposition as having been imposed on them, and are prepared at most to accept it as a temporary actor that can mobilize the international support needed to complete the endeavour of toppling the regime. In actuality, the dominant forces in Syria are the military frameworks that have waged the campaign against the regime since the revolution erupted in March 2011. These military frameworks, which enjoy great popular support, will likely demand their part in the new government and make their imprint on the shaping of the new Syria.

An analysis of the fighting forces’ ideological underpinnings shows that the overwhelming majority, if not all, espouse an Islamist, jihadist, Salafist outlook at different degrees of fervour. Their common denominator is a desire to establish a new Syria that is ruled by the Sunni Muslim majority and defines itself first and foremost as an Islamic state.

The Jahbat al-Nusra organization, which is identified with the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda, is considered one of the most powerful forces among the rebels and enjoys extensive popular sympathy both because of its battlefield achievements and the aid it provides to the population. A few days after the United States decided to add it to the list of terrorist organizations, there were mass demonstrations of support for the organization in Syria in the name of all the fighting forces, under the banner: “There Is No Terror in Syria But Assad’s Terror.” Despite its international connections, even the Syrian National Coalition rejected the U.S. decision to classify Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization. This full backing for a branch of al-Qaeda against the U.S. and the West likely indicates the future direction of the Syrian revolution, which appears ready to adopt Islamism as the main basis of the government that will replace the Assad regime.

Under the surface in Syria, two major Islamic forces are active: the Muslim Brotherhood via Turkey, and Hizb ut-Tahrir, which calls for the immediate creation of an Islamic caliphate. Officially, the Muslim Brotherhood has no fighting forces acting under its name. According to testimonies, however, some of the semi-military frameworks set up over the past two years are identified with the movement, and it controls numerous sources of financial aid from the Gulf states and thereby wields influence among the rebel forces. The Brotherhood is likely to take a higher profile after the revolution achieves its ends, and to strive, with the help of Turkey and Egypt, to unite all the Islamic factions under its leadership.

The overriding goal of the new regime, with Turkey’s support, will be to maintain Syria’s geographic coherence and prevent its division on an ethnic/religious (Sunni, Alawite, Kurdish, and Druze) basis. So far the rebel forces, except for specific acts of vengeance, have avoided massacres of the Alawite population. They want to leave an escape hatch for Alawite officers and soldiers who will encourage others to desert, thereby hastening the army’s collapse. Such restraint will not necessarily remain after the regime collapses, with not a few voices among the rebels already calling for retribution. One possible solution for the new situation is an eventual Syrian federation that would extend limited autonomous rights to the minority groups….

The fall of Assad, Tehran’s close ally, will be a harsh blow to Iran’s interests in the Middle East and could cause further shockwaves that weaken Iran’s influence even more. That pertains particularly to the Lebanese arena, where the Sunni Islamist forces are already organizing for the day after Assad’s fall in a push to alter Lebanon’s political and military balance of power, in which Hizbullah is now dominant. The collapse of the Syrian hinterland will likely spark violent clashes that could escalate to a civil war in Lebanon between the radical Sunni forces and Hizbullah. In Iraq, which has been under increasing Iranian domination after the U.S. withdrawal, Iraqi Sunnis will likely look to their Sunni allies in a post-Assad Syria in order to renew the insurgency campaign against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

At present the rebel forces view Iran, Russia, and China as partners in crime for fully backing the Assad regime. It is, however, undoubtedly possible that ties with them will be rehabilitated in the longer term. Russia has a major interest in maintaining its influence in Syria, and will likely play the card of banishment of Assad and his comrades in trying to pave a path to the rebels’ hearts. Although the animosity toward Iran has an ideological basis, the Muslim Brotherhood has shown that it ascribed supreme strategic importance to relations with Iran even while massacres were being perpetrated in Syria; the common interest is to counter Western influence in the Middle East and build a front against Israel. These considerations are likely to guide the new regime in Damascus.

 

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Bombing the Syrian Reactor: The Untold Story: Elliott Abrams, Commentary, Feb. 2013—As the civil war in Syria enters its third year, there is much discussion of the regime’s chemical weapons and whether Syria’s Bashar al-Assad will unleash them against Syrian rebels, or whether a power vacuum after Assad’s fall might make those horrific tools available to the highest bidder. The conversation centers on Syria’s chemical weaponry, not on something vastly more serious: its nuclear weaponry. It well might have. This is the inside story of why it does not.
 

Jordan Bracing for More Syria Spillover: David Schenker, Real Clear World, Feb. 1, 2013—So far, the war in Syria has proved expensive but not destabilizing for Jordan, in large part because Amman has extensive experience dealing with both refugees and foreign-borne subversion. If the situation in the north deteriorates further, however, the kingdom's security and humanitarian infrastructure may struggle to keep up.

 

Damascus clashes rage as troops take central town: Now Lebanon,  Feb. 7, 2013—Syrian regime troops took control of the central town of Karnaz on Thursday after 16 days of clashes with rebels, a watchdog said, also reporting three children among six killed in bombing of Damascus. Government troops seized nearby Mughir two days ago. This village is the gateway to Alawite villages in the west of Hama province.

 

After Assad, Chaos?: Ramzy Mardini, New York Times, Feb. 3, 2013—As the Syrian revolution approaches another anniversary, Syria’s political opposition is showing signs of failure. Without a new approach, especially from America, the lack of a credible opposition will render a political settlement unreachable, making it harder to set Syria on the course toward a stable future.

 

 

 

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