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Syria’s Brutality Continues at Will: Michael Gerson, Washington Post, Oct. 28, 2013 — While chemical weapons disarmament proceeds in Syria, so do mass attacks on civilians. In the eastern suburbs of Damascus, where the regime used sarin, it now conducts a siege, blocking the entrance of food and the exit of refugees.
Syrian Stalemate: Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, Jerusalem Report, Oct. 7, 2013— The dizzying events of the past few weeks, in which an imminent American military strike against Syria was delayed pending congressional approval and then indefinitely shelved by a US-Russian deal to quarantine and ultimately dispose of Syria’s massive chemical weapons arsenal, have highlighted anew a number of enduring features of modern Middle East politics.
Hezbollah Prepares for Syria Showdown in al-Qalamoun: Jamie Dettmer, The Daily Beast, Oct. 29, 2013— The Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah is poised to launch a much-anticipated offensive to the north of Damascus in a counterinsurgency campaign that is likely to prompt hand-wringing in Washington and more Saudi frustration with Western inaction in Syria.
Druse State in Syria Could be Israeli Ally: Ariel Ben Solomon, Jerusalem Post, Oct. 29, 2013— Whether one wishes it or not, Syria may be on the way to partition or some kind of de facto break-up along the lines of ethnic division, regardless of what locals or the West want. Would such a break-up work in Israel’s favor?
Mr. Kerry’s Empty Words on Syria: Editorial Board, Washington Post, Oct. 28, 2013
Putting Out the Syrian Fire: Rami G. Khouri, New York Times, Oct. 23, 2013
For Syrian Refugees in Jordan, Aid From Israel Comes in a Whisper: Debra Kamin, The Times of Israel, Oct. 20, 2013
Syria’s War Viewed Almost in Real Time: Melik Kaylan, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 27, 2013
Washington Post, Oct. 28, 2013
While chemical weapons disarmament proceeds in Syria, so do mass attacks on civilians. In the eastern suburbs of Damascus, where the regime used sarin, it now conducts a siege, blocking the entrance of food and the exit of refugees. This technique involves less sophisticated chemistry, but it is still effective. Aid workers report hunger and malnutrition. Through trial and error, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is finding ways to attack women and children that the world finds more acceptable.
Events in Syria strain recent historical comparisons. Only Syria and Afghanistan have experienced the displacement of more than 6 million people. Only the violence in Syria and Rwanda has displaced tens of thousands in a single day. A third of the Syrian population has been forced from their homes; perhaps 100,000 are dead. As the conflict grows more chaotic, it becomes more opaque. Fewer journalists are willing to risk the growing anarchy, banditry and kidnapping. And the proliferation of rebel groups, some disturbingly radical, have left many confused about whom to pull for. The result is a vast tragedy within Syria and a vast emotional numbing outside it. Sooner or later the moral sensations return, leaving historians to wonder how such atrocities were allowed to recur. But Syria is not only a humanitarian nightmare. The rise of jihadist groups in the Syrian civil war — which has dissipated American sympathy for the rebellion — has also raised the strategic stakes of the conflict. The establishment of safe havens for these jihadist groups in large portions of Syria would destabilize the region and expand the capabilities and reach of global terrorism. (Recall what creative extremists accomplished from bases in Afghanistan.)
The main strategic question comes down to this: Who will be able to fight al-Qaeda? America doesn’t want the job. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we have spent tens of billions on training and equipment, attempting to transfer this role to their governments. In Syria, the government is brutal, sectarian and propped up by outsiders (Hezbollah and Iranian forces). Even with this support, Assad will not be able to reestablish effective control over regions he has alienated or savaged. He has shattered his legitimacy along with his country. Few would disagree on the best outcome: An interim government composed of moderate opposition elements and members of the Assad regime (other than Assad) who want to be part of a new Syria — a government that can begin to reduce violence in much of the country while going after al-Qaeda. But Assad believes he is winning and that the chemical weapons deal assures the continuation of his power. And the moderate opposition is weak — caught in a two-front war against the regime and al-Qaeda, and inadequately supported by the United States.
America is accustomed to arming and training friendly governments, but the training of non-state actors is a riskier proposition. It has caused serious objections in Congress and in parts of the Obama administration. The resulting indecision has further complicated matters. The Syrian National Coalition — the main opposition umbrella group — has fractured in frustration. And aid to the responsible opposition has gotten no easier with every border checkpoint between Turkey and Syria controlled by extremists. After years of inaction, America now stares some unpleasant strategic realities in the face: Six months from now, will any responsible opposition be left to support? Will America have any acceptable partners in the fight against al-Qaeda in Syria?
With limited leverage on the ground, American policy increasingly depends on a desperate Russian play. For a year and a half, the Obama administration has argued that Russia’s support for Assad is resulting in a disintegrating state that may transform northern Syria into Somalia or Yemen. Does this really serve Russian interests? If it was too risky to allow chemical weapons to float around in a disintegrating Syria — which terrorists might gain and use in Moscow — isn’t it also risky to allow terrorist havens so near Russia’s southern border? Wouldn’t it be better to offer Assad a nice dacha somewhere, allowing a consensus government to emerge out of peace negotiations? The argument has the virtue of being correct. But there is no indication the Russians are buying it. It is tempting — with civilians under siege, millions displaced, Congress conflicted and Russia intransigent — to conclude that engagement is pointless because things could hardly get worse. Unfortunately, things could get much worse — unless someone in Syria is readied to oppose the extremists.
Jerusalem Report, Oct. 7, 2013
The dizzying events of the past few weeks, in which an imminent American military strike against Syria was delayed pending congressional approval and then indefinitely shelved by a US-Russian deal to quarantine and ultimately dispose of Syria’s massive chemical weapons arsenal, have highlighted anew a number of enduring features of modern Middle East politics.
As has been the case for more than two centuries, the Middle East continues to be an arena for great power competition and rivalry. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union inaugurated a very brief, and largely illusory, period of American hegemony, beginning with Mikhail Gorbachev’s acquiescence to the American-led 1991 Gulf war against Iraq, a longtime Soviet ally. Vladimir Putin has been determined to avoid a replay of those events, and the more recent sidelining of Moscow while another longtime regional ally, Muammar Gaddafi, was toppled by NATO military intervention. Russia’s success in staving off US military action against Bashar Assad’s regime marks its return to Great Power status. Nonetheless, this does not transform Russia into the new hegemony, or return the region to the days of the Cold War, in which local wars carried the potential of morphing into a Soviet-American conflagration.
The Obama-Putin deal should not be seen only in zero-sum game terms, and carries at least the potential for enhancing international prohibitions against the use of weapons of mass destruction and legitimizing military action to punish violators. The proof will be in the pudding.
Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, nearly a century ago, no regional hegemony has emerged, which can bring order to the region, and none is on the horizon. Great Britain and France had their fleeting, but oft-difficult, moment of dominance between the two world wars. From 1945 onwards, various bids for all-Arab leadership, mostly emanating from either Egypt or Iraq, ran up against countervailing local and international forces. The recent New York Times op-ed by two influential Saudis calling for the League of Arab States to shoulder its regional responsibility by organizing a massive force to intervene in Syria and oversee a transitional regime was utterly divorced from the reality of a weak and divided Arab state system. Turkey has made a concerted bid for regional leadership during the last decade, evoking descriptions of neo-Ottomanism, but currently finds itself with limited influence and at odds with most of its neighbors. This includes the ruling Egyptian military, which detested Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s support of the now-deposed Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. Ankara’s early abandonment of Assad in favor of the Syrian opposition failed to produce the desired results, left Turkey with few options, and opened it up to harsh domestic criticism.
Thanks primarily to its alliance with the Assad family business, Iran has projected power into the eastern Mediterranean region to an extent not seen since late antiquity, just prior to the rise of Islam in the 7th century. American reluctance to unsheathe its sword against Syria was certainly noted with satisfaction in Tehran, which will be watching closely as to whether the framework for dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal is translated into action. More generally, a US-Iranian dialogue on Iran’s nuclear program may soon be renewed, which could include discussions on Syria as well. The nightmare scenario for Sunni Gulf monarchies – a US-Iranian “grand bargain” at their expense – is not in the cards, but both the Saudis and Israelis will be watching closely. More generally, Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian tensions have become far more salient than in the past. However, the prospects for a grand Sunni alliance (Turkey, Egypt and Arab monarchies) to combat Iran and its allies are as remote as the “grand bargain” scenario.
The Syrian state that emerged out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent French mandate lacked the requisite social and political cohesion. Hafez Assad (1970-2000) combined an iron fist and considerable political skills to stabilize the country, which became an important regional actor in its own right. But the country’s centrifugal tendencies and pre-existing sectarian and communal loyalties have now reemerged with a vengeance, and the struggle to determine the future of an unraveling Syrian polity is now in full swing. For the time being, the violent stalemate in the civil war seems likely to continue, and a path towards political resolution remains absent. Assad can breathe easier for the moment, and Syrian rebel hopes for a deus ex machine in the form of American intervention have dissolved. Tragically, the millions of displaced Syrians will continue to suffer and, even worse, the number of dead (110,000) and wounded (untold) will continue to climb.
The Daily Beast, Oct. 29, 2013
The Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah is poised to launch a much-anticipated offensive to the north of Damascus in a counterinsurgency campaign that is likely to prompt hand-wringing in Washington and more Saudi frustration with Western inaction in Syria. The battle for mountainous Al-Qalamoun-a rugged region between the Syrian capital and Homs, the country’s third largest city-will be as significant in military terms when it comes, say diplomats and analysts, as the struggle in the spring for Qusair, a strategic town in sight of Lebanon, that was retaken by the Syrian army thanks to Hezbollah, whose fighters were in the vanguard of the assault.
Qusair’s capture goaded President Obama in June to pledge he would arm the Syrian rebels-a promise that hasn’t been fulfilled because of the administration’s worries about the growing influence of al-Qaeda affiliates in the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad. The offensive will again pit Hezbollah fighters directly against jihadists and militant Islamists. The al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamist militias Ahrar al-Sham and Liwa al-Islamhave been reinforcing towns and villages in the region to prepare for the expected Hezbollah assault. Some reports claim that as many as 20,000 rebel fighters have poured into the region, some being redeployed from Damascus suburbs.
A grueling confrontation in Al-Qalamoun-an area 50 miles long and 25 miles broad that runs from the rural outskirts of the Syrian capital to the Lebanese border-could see Saudi Arabia accelerate its arming of certain rebel groups that the Obama administration considers dangerous to the West, adding to strained relations between Washington and Riyadh…In a news conference earlier this month, the head of Lebanon’s pro-Assad Arab Democratic Party, warned that Saudi Arabia was planning to set Lebanon alight if Hezbollah joined the battle for Al-Qalamoun. “Saudi Arabia warned Hezbollah against participating in the battle,” he told reporters. The Al-Qalamoun region is seen as vital both by Syrian forces and the rebels. Controlling Al-Qalamoun would allow the Assad regime to secure land links between Damascus and Homs and interdict arms supplies from Lebanese Sunni supporters for the rebels coming through the border around the town of Arsal. For the regime, consolidating its hold on Homs is a priority, as it represents a central link between Syria’s interior cities and the Mediterranean coast north of Latakia, a stronghold of President Assad’s minority Alawite sect.
Hezbollah officials have been briefing Lebanese media outlets on an upcoming Al-Qalamoun offensive as part of an effort to manage and prepare their own followers, many of whom in the south of Lebanon have begun to express doubts about the wisdom of becoming further embroiled in their neighbor’s raging civil war. In Shiite areas of the Bekaa Valley, backing for Hezbollah engagement in Syria remains high, partly because of close family ties between Shiites on both sides of the border. But in the south, rare behind-the scenes disgruntlement is growing with the Hezbollah leadership, says Hisham Jaber, a Shiite and retired Lebanese army general. He says southern Shiite families are questioning the wisdom of Hezbollah fighting fellow Muslims, even if they are Sunnis. “The family ties between the Shiite in the Bekaa and the Shiite in Syria is different than south Lebanon,” says Jaber. “People in south Lebanon don’t have such close ties with Syria.”
Lebanese officials and Western diplomats worry that Lebanon won’t be left unscathed in a prolonged battle for Al-Qalamoun. “This isn’t going to be a two-week battle like Qusair,” says a British military adviser to the Lebanese army. “The region is mountainous and the offensive will extend into the spring and there’ll be more chance of violent spillover into Lebanon.” A Hezbollah fighter acknowledged in an interview with NOW, a Lebanese website, that the battle for Al-Qalamoun would be different from the fight over Qusair and would take much longer “because of the nature of the terrain, which is made up of high mountains and deep valleys.”
An offensive in the region was predicted some weeks ago, soon after the retaking of Qusair by pro-Assad forces. Many of the rebel fighters who escaped from that battle headed to villages in Al-Qalamoun. A Hezbollah special forces commander interviewed by The Daily Beast in the summer suggested an offensive would be launched quickly but it was instead delayed, possibly because of diplomatic fallout from the August chemical-weapons attacks. FSA sources have warned of severe repercussions for Lebanon from a battle in Al-Qalamoun, involving a possible movement of rebel fighters into Lebanon and rebel rocket attacks on Hezbollah strongholds in the Bekaa Valley. In the summer, two car bomb attacks on a Hezbollah suburb of Beirut that left dozens dead frayed nerves. Last Thursday, the Lebanese security forces intercepted a car carrying 250 kilograms of explosives and clashed with Syrian rebels in the Bekaa Valley.
Opposition activists in Yabrud, a village in the Al-Qalamoun region, say airstrikes and artillery bombardments have picked up pace in the past few days.
Ariel Ben Solomon
Jerusalem Post, October 29, 2013
Whether one wishes it or not, Syria may be on the way to partition or some kind of de facto break-up along the lines of ethnic division, regardless of what locals or the West want. Would such a break-up work in Israel’s favor? According to some analysts, weak Arab states with internal strife and divisions, as well as the break-up of the existing Arab state order, plays to Israel’s strategic advantage. In this way, Israel can form alliances with various ethnic groups that are able to form their own state or autonomous region, such as with the Kurds or possibly the Druse in Syria. For example, Sudan, a hostile Muslim state, divided into North and South, saw Israel immediately allying itself with the independent animist and Christian South Sudan. Israel had previously had covert relations with inhabitants of the south and other non-Muslim or other minority sects in the Middle East.
Having more of these minority groups upgrade their status to states or greater autonomy, would allow Israel to create more powerful relations with them. Prof. Martin Kramer, an expert of the Middle East and president of Shalem College in Jerusalem said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post that, regarding the possibility of some kind of breakup of the country: “It won’t be possible to formalize Syria’s fragmentation, because no faction will ever be satisfied with its borders. More likely is cantonization, in which authority devolves to the lowest denominator of city quarter or rural area. Some sects and ethnic groups would end up with more than one canton. Rather than four or five quasi-states, Syria would look like a patchwork.”
It was the Sykes-Picot agreement reached during WWI that charted out how to partition the Ottoman Empire. The British and French carved up the region according to their interests, not paying adequate attention to ethnic groups. However, even knowing what we do today, and with advanced mapping techniques and technology, could one imagine a foolproof plan that would divide and satisfy the various radical Islamic movements, tribes, Shi’ites, Sunnis, Christians, Druse, Kurds, and so on? But, perhaps a better partition of the region could have been possible.
According to a recent article by the US-based Syria expert Gary Gambill, in an article published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, he states that a separate Druse state in southwest Syria could end up being an ally of Israel. Gambill states that Syria is not “going to become a stable, unified state again in the foreseeable future, let alone a remotely democratic one. It may be time to start thinking about alternatives.” He argues that Syria has essentially already broken into separate enclaves with the Sunni rebels controlling large parts of the north and east, while the Alawite regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad controls Damascus and major cities as well as non-Sunni coastal areas.
The Kurds control the border area in the northeast and the Druse are concentrated in the southwest. The country’s main minorities – Alawites, Kurds, Christians, and Druse – would mostly support partition, he says, if faced with the reality of an Sunni Islamist-dominated state, which would likely persecute them. The Islamist dominated Sunni rebels reject partition outright because they see themselves as the majority that should justly rule the entire state. Despite the fact that Islamists abhor the colonial drawn borders, they nonetheless have come to accept them for the time being, on the way to their goal of a unified Muslim Caliphate. In such a configuration in Syria, Gambill sees the Druse state as having good relations with Israel and Jordan, while the Alawite state would continue to ally itself with Iran and Russia and the Gulf states would wield influence with the Sunnis. When asked about a possible alliance between a Druse state and Israel and Jordan, Gambill stated, “In both cases, geographic proximity is the main driver – any landlocked Druse statelet determined to resist domination by the Sunni Arab successor state would have to be friendly with one or both.” Additionally, he said, in Jordan's favor is the community's close relations with the Hashemites prior to the Baath Party's 1963 seizure of power, when Sultan al-Atrash is said to have privately urged King Abdullah I to annex Jabal Druse. "In Israel's favor is the strong role of Druse in the Israeli military-security sphere," he said adding, "You may recall that Walid Jumblatt (an important Lebanese Druse leader) dallied with the Israelis back when Israel was in a position to help advance Druze communal interests vis-a-vis Lebanese Forces in the early 1980s." Kramer agrees that Jordan has a better chance of allying with a Druse entity stating, “Israel isn’t just anathema, its record of sticking by embattled minorities is mixed. Given a choice, and given the geography, the Druse will align far more naturally with Jordan.”
Mr. Kerry’s Empty Words on Syria: Editorial Board, Washington Post, Oct. 28, 2013 —According to Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad now is waging “a war of starvation” against his own people. In a robustly worded op-ed column posted Friday on ForeignPolicy.com, Mr. Kerry denounced what he said was “the systematic denial of medical assistance, food supplies and other humanitarian aid to huge proportions of the population.”
Putting Out the Syrian Fire: Rami G. Khouri, New York Times, Oct. 23, 2013 —The Syrian conflict has become the world’s greatest proxy war since Vietnam.
For Syrian Refugees in Jordan, Aid From Israel Comes in a Whisper: Debra Kamin, The Times of Israel, Oct. 20, 2013— Sultana is 23 years old and very hungry. She grew up in the suburbs east of Damascus, but when her house was firebombed by an airplane belonging to the Syrian regime, she fled the city in the night along with her husband and their five children.
Syria’s War Viewed Almost in Real Time: Melik Kaylan, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 27, 2013— In one video, two men in jeans and hoodies take a rocket tube to a rooftop and fire it. From another angle, we see three Syrian tanks in a row.
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