Syria's Bashar al-Assad praised his military today in a written statement and once again branded the uprising against the Baath regime as led by "terrorists." He vowed that his regime will win the Syrian civil war. "Today, as every day, our people look to you as you defend their honor and dignity and give the nation back its stability," his statement said.
But in fact, whatever unity existed among Syria's diverse population, where the minority Alawite sect Mr. Assad hails from has long held a privileged position, has dissolved during 17 months of war. This time the use of torture, summary executions, and collective punishment of whole families that had been so successful down the decades for Assad and his father Hafez has only served to enrage regime opponents, largely drawn from the country's Sunni Arab majority.
Rebel groups continue to hold out against a central government counterattack in parts of Syria's largest city and commercial capital, Aleppo; the country's economy is collapsing from both the war and international sanctions; and some rebel groups are claiming that more arms and money are flowing in from outside to support their cause. Unnamed rebels told NBC yesterday that they'd received a shipment of two-dozen "anti-aircraft missiles" via Turkey. While that report is unconfirmed, the rebels have been receiving outside support for some months now.
So the Syrian regime that is led by Assad is in big trouble, right? Well, yes and no, if a new report from the International Crisis Group report on Syria out this morning gets it right.
The ICG argues that while the Baath regime has been weakened, many Syrians see regime survival now as matter of personal survival. And that whatever chances there ever were for a negotiated end to the war from the side of Assad and his supporters has now vanished. The Sunni-dominated rebel groups, for their part, don't have the military capacity to win Syria's civil war any time soon. And that, the ICG argues, is a recipe for a much deeper humanitarian crisis, with the risk of full-on sectarian bloodletting.
"There are more than enough ominous trends, none more alarming than these: a regime seemingly morphing into a formidable militia engaged in a desperate fight for survival; an Alawite community increasingly embattled and persuaded its fate hinges entirely on the regime's; and an opposition that, despite sometimes heroic efforts to contain them, is threatened by its own forms of radicalisation. Together, this could portend a prolonged, ever more polarized, destructive civil war... both the regime – by design – and its opponents – through negligence – appear to have ensured that a large portion of the Alawite community now feels it has no option but to kill or be killed."
The ICG does propose steps that rebel forces could take to contain the danger. But they are steps that few organic uprisings have ever been able to take in modern history, requiring a great degree of leadership, accountability, and a willingness of commanders in the field to focus more on long term questions of reconciliation than the rough justice the men fighting under them, many of whom have lost family members in the war, will be demanding.
"The regime almost certainly will not change its ways, and so the burden must fall on the opposition to do what – given the immensity of its suffering – must seem an improbable undertaking: seriously address the phenomena of retaliatory violence, sectarian killings and creeping fundamentalism within its ranks; rethink its goal of total regime eradication and instead focus on rehabilitating existing institutions; profoundly reassess relations with the Alawite community; and come up with forward looking proposals on transitional justice, accountability and amnesty... No single indiscriminate massacre of Alawites has yet to be documented, but given current dynamics one almost assuredly lies around the corner."
The paper acknowledges repeatedly that taking those steps is unlikely. But it bears underlining. The so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) that is fighting the central government is an army in name only. It is a lose collection of semi-autonomous militias, with a variety of ideologies and political agendas behind them. And the Syrian National Council (SNC) that has sought to present itself as the civilian face of the uprising, a sort of government in waiting, is wracked with political divisions of its own.
A disunited opposition
Manaf Tlass, a Sunni whose father was one of Hafez Assad's strongest and closest hands and was himself a powerful loyalist of Bashar Assad, left the country a few weeks ago and has been shopping himself as a potential broker for a transition, someone who could help keep Syria's institutions – including its security apparatus intact – in the event of rebel victory. That has obviously made many supporters of the uprising uneasy, but has been music to the ears of many international powers, including the US, who now view the American decision to dissolve Saddam Hussein's military and to purge that country's Baath party from political life in 2003 as the single greatest cause of the horrific civil war that followed there.
The SNC, composed as it is of longtime exiles and recent regime defectors, has rarely been able to maintain the appearance of unity that was so crucial to the Libyan revolution garnering international support. A reminder of that came yesterday, with the announcement of the creation of the "Council for the Syrian Revolution," a competitor to the SNC.
So the various opposition personalities abroad are not united, and not really in control of the fighters opposed to Assad on the ground anyway. Local commanders, with new status and real power in their communities, are unlikely to take orders from the outside. The political apparatus around Assad is little better at this point, with his government reduced to governing by force and force alone. It's of course the rule of violence, and the corruption that surrounds it, that set the stage for the uprising. Greater doses of violence reconfirm to the rebellion the necessity of their war.
What kinds of violence? Torture and executions? Sure. Arbitrary shelling of civilian neighborhoods known to harbor rebels? Of course. But the report catalogs just how bad it has gotten. Both the Syrian military and the civilian shabiha militias fighting for Assad have, since the turn of this year, been engaging in "industrial-scale" looting of civilian homes and businesses in restive areas. Arson is a common tool of punishment.
"One of the distinctive traits of the so-called military solution has been the army’s tendency to shell towns and neighborhoods without ever undertaking a ground operation, as if recapture was not an objective," the ICG writes. "As a result, opponents have come to see the regime as capable of the most horrendous exactions. They have come to believe reports that it deliberately targeted children, massacred in cold blood entire families, and engaged in other forms of arbitrary killings, sexually abused women, summarily executed detainees and burned bodies."
What of the international community? Russia and China have successfully opposed international action, something that the US, at any rate, has little stomach for. Kofi Annan has failed as a peace envoy, both because of great-power rivalry and the domestic dynamics of the Syrian war.
The ICG authors write that the future of Syria will hinge on how the Alawites, which make up an estimated 10 percent of the population, are treated in the aftermath of regime defeat. They admit that for the opposition, doing the right thing will be difficult.
"How will it ensure, tomorrow, that the transition includes the Alawites as full-fledged partners? How can it dismantle the structures of the regime
without punishing the community that, more than others, depended on it? How creative and forward looking can it be regarding questions of transitional justice, accountability, amnesty and the safeguarding of some current institutions? There are no easy responses. As opposition leaders no doubt will be quick to point out, the mood on the street – which, so far, they have felt compelled to respect – hardly is amenable to generous, open-minded proposals."
This summer's fighting season, both the Taliban and US-led NATO forces have been grumbling. The bullets and other supplies both sides need to pursue the war in the style they've grown accustomed to have been more expensive to bring into the country because Pakistan had closed its border to NATO trucking. The US has had the better of it, with the ability to fund more expensive air drops and resupply through Central Asia. But both sides have been unhappy about the state of affairs.
After months of pressure from the US, Pakistan has finally relented. Resupply was allowed to resume on an interim basis a few weeks ago and today, an agreement was signed to allow NATO resupply into Afghanistan through 2015, and the deal has something for everybody. Pakistan receives $1 billion in military aid the US had frozen in retaliation. NATO resupplies its forces in the war zone cheaper, and faster. And the Taliban, which piggybacks off the vast NATO logistics operation to supply its own forces, is back in business.
What? Yes. That's right. It's been public knowledge for years that the Taliban make a mint from extorting protection money from the Afghan and Pakistani truckers who work for NATO. But this fact isn't discussed nearly enough when considering the dynamics of America's longest running war. In an indirect sense, US taxpayers, and to a lesser extent European taxpayers, are paying for the bullets and roadside bombs that target their own soldiers.
But for today, there's delight all around. Richard Hoagland, the deputy US ambassador to Pakistan, called the supply agreement a "demonstration of increased transparency and openness" between the US and Pakistan. A Pakistani defense official described the deal as a "landmark event," according to Agence France-Presse. The Taliban are smiling, too, according to the Associated Press.
"Stopping these supplies caused us real trouble," a Taliban commander who leads about 60 insurgents in eastern Ghazni province told The Associated Press in an interview. "Earnings dropped down pretty badly. Therefore the rebellion was not as strong as we had planned." A second Taliban commander who controls several dozen fighters in southern Kandahar province said the money from security companies was a key source of financing for the insurgency, which uses it to pay fighters and buy weapons, ammunition and other supplies. "We are able to make money in bundles," the commander told the AP by telephone. "Therefore, the NATO supply is very important for us."
Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt places on earth, and hundreds of millions of dollars of spending there have been siphoned off over the years by both corrupt locals and international workers. The fact that the Taliban are an ongoing concern, partially thanks to NATO's trucking arrangements, is just part of the problem. A broader one was highlighted yesterday by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which issued a report yesterday titled "Fiscal Year 2011 Afghanistan Infrastructure Projects are Behind Schedule and Lack Adequate Sustainment Plans." The US has allocated nearly $90 billion to Afghan reconstruction efforts in the past decade. The authors write:
More than 10 years after international intervention in Afghanistan, the U.S. government, the international community, and the Afghan government continue to face challenges in implementing programs to build basic infrastructure, particularly those efforts aimed at providing power to the largest cities and most critical areas in Afghanistan. For example, five of seven fiscal year 2011 AIF projects are 6-15 months behind schedule, and most projects may not achieve desired COIN benefits for several years.
"COIN" refers to the counterinsurgency strategy (here's a long report we did on the approach in 2009) that was once presented as the key to winning the war, but the US has quietly been backing away from as it plans to eventually exit the country. The US government is essentially saying that a lynchpin of the approach – creating support for the Afghan government by improving basic service delivery like electricity – won't be effectively in place before US troops, another key part of the strategy, have mostly departed the country.
In fact, SIGAR worries that "in some instances, these projects may result in adverse COIN effects because they create an expectations gap among the affected population or lack citizen support." As for "sustainment," that's the concern that the projects will wither on the vine without intense US financial and managerial involvement (a pretty safe bet in Afghanistan, as the history of US spending in the country in the 1950s makes all too clear). For instance, the report says that the Afghan government electricity company only collects payment for 30 percent of the power supplied in the city of Kandahar.
US officials continue to present the demise of his regime as an inevitability. But of course they would. That's the outcome they want, and a perception of inevitability can generate its own momentum. The more supporters of the regime believe the government is doomed, the more likely they are to jump ship.
The bloody events of recent weeks certainly don't look positive for him, particularly the fact that parts of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and commercial hub, remain outside of his control. That sends a powerful message of weakness about his regime, particularly given that the rebel forces Syria's Army is up against are seriously outgunned, without the artillery, tanks, or helicopters Mr. Assad has at his disposal.
Special Report – Inside Aleppo: Rebels repeal initial assault, setting up long fight
But the balance of military power remains heavily slanted in favor of Assad, so it's hard to count him out. A truly accurate prediction would require knowing far more than anyone seems to about the rebels' order of battle and the thoughts of millions of average Syrians who have stayed largely on the fence until now. If a collapse comes, it will probably come fast, involving the defections of members of his inner circle. Lots of important regime insiders could be thinking of such a exit strategy at the moment – or very few of them.
In a piece 10 days ago, C.J. Chivers, a former Marine who now works for The New York Times, argued that the writing is on the wall for Syria's Baath regime. His view is that the Syrian rebels have adopted the tactics that served Iraqi insurgents so well in the war against the US presence there, and that the government is going to slowly find its ability to move forces strangled.
The opposition’s rapid mastery of improvised explosives since the spring changed the character and momentum of this conflict, and put Syria’s army, notwithstanding what seems its enduring material strength, in a highly unenviable position... But the Syrian army’s continued capacity for lethality will not change the uprising’s military arc. And more killing might only exacerbate the Syrian army’s difficulties. Why? Because looked at coldly the Syrian army, which began the war as the biggest man in the bar, has been on a bloody and agonizing one-direction ride. You can make a social argument here, which should serve as a warning for other crackdown artists or champions of conventional military units’ roles in the irregular wars or our age: This is the modern-day outcome of using blunt force against a potentially large, determined and angry enemy on its own turf with a bulky and a doctrinally incoherent force that must make things up as it goes. That argument will probably stand. But then come the particulars that explain how an army, which set out pitted against an essentially unarmed foe, will lose. This is where the I.E.D. fits in. Once the armed opposition mastered the I.E.D. and spiked with bombs much of the very ground that any military seeking to control Syria must cover, and Syria’s army lacked a deep bench of well-trained explosive ordnance disposal teams and the suites of electronic and defensive equipment for its vehicles to survive, then the end was written.
Patrick Lang, the former head of the Middle East desk at the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, has a different view today. Col. Lang is a retired special forces colonel who fought in Vietnam, founded the Arab language program at West Point, and served as a military attache in US embassies in the Arab world. He predicts the rebels will be driven from Aleppo.
IMO, the rebels have miscalculated. Their force has not "evolved" enough to confront significant conventional forces in an urban environment or anywhere else that the conventional forces can "pin" them in place against terrain or some other obstacle. They will pay heavily for this error. They will lose a lot of men, and be driven from the city... This would not mean the end of the war. Following such a defeat the rebels are likely to spend an extended period re-building their force in Turkey and launching a long term campaign of revolutionary warfare based on guerrillas. They may eventually succeed in bringing down the present government if they take a long view of the need to wear the regime down one "mouse" bite at a time.
What's really happening and on what timetable? No one can say for certain. Regime propaganda says the government has won back Aleppo. Rebel propaganda says the opposite. All that's clear is that Syria's war is moving into a nastier stage, if such a thing is possible. The United Nations says that 200,000 people have fled Aleppo in recent days, ahead of what many fear could be a repeat of the 1982 sacking of the city of Hama by Assad's father, Hafez.
The New York Times, one of the few American newspapers left with full-time staff in Iraq, reported last week that 15 members of neighborhood governments in Baqouba, a city north of Baghdad, recently resigned because of fears they'd be murdered by Sunni jihadis.
The paper quoted the head of the Baqouba city council as saying the officials resigned “to save their family members’ lives because of living under threats from Al Qaeda and militants.”
They had good cause for concern. The official, Abdullah al-Hiali, told the paper that eight neighborhood representatives, known as mukhtars, have been murdered in Baqouba this year, and that half of the 100 or so mukhtars in Baqouba have resigned under growing militant pressure.
The Islamic State in Iraq, a Sunni militant group that describes itself as affiliated with Al Qaeda, has been seeking to reassert its presence in the cities it plagued during the height of Iraq's civil war. Local officials have long been targeted by insurgents in Iraq, and it's a problem that really never went away. How many have been murdered over the years? The number is almost certainly in the thousands, though it doesn't appear there's ever been a systematic effort to track assassinations of politicians and local government officials.
Shortly after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the US gave a contract worth up to $460 million to the Research Triangle Institute of North Carolina to set up neighborhood councils in a project that US officials said would build Iraqi democracy from the ground up. The results were different. Across Baghdad, the councils were devastated by murders and threats, and by early 2005, they had dissolved.
In 2004 I closely tracked two of the councils in Baghdad in what the Monitor hoped would be a series documenting progress building a new order in Iraq. At least five of the members of the councils I followed, who were generous with their time over the months, ended up dead, and many more went into hiding as Iraq's civil war raged.
Though no longer making the headlines, many of Iraq's problems remain unsolved. And it's not just coming from militants. Amnesty International complains today, in highlighting the sentencing of an elderly man for terrorism offenses, that torture remains a popular practice under the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and that Iraqi "justice" often appears to be of the same standard as under Saddam Hussein.
Amnesty International has condemned the trial in Iraq of a 70-year-old British man who has been sentenced to 15 years in prison after a hearing that lasted only 15 minutes.
Ramze Shihab Ahmed, a dual Iraqi-UK national who has lived in the UK since 2002, was sentenced by a court in Baghdad on 20 June after being found guilty of “funding terrorist groups."
Amnesty International has obtained and examined court documents and said it believes the trial proceedings were “grossly unfair.”
At his trial, the ninth in a series of trials (he had been acquitted in each of the earlier ones), Mr. Ahmed’s lawyer was not given the opportunity to challenge the prosecution’s case, or to cross-examine prosecution witnesses or call his own witnesses.
The court also failed to exclude from the proceedings Ahmed's “confession”, despite longstanding allegations that this was extracted under torture.
Amnesty says Ahmed was convicted based on secret evidence. He had returned home in November 2009 to seek the release of his son and was arrested in Mosul on Dec. 7 of that year.
"For nearly four months he was held in a secret prison near Baghdad, during which time his whereabouts were completely unknown to his family. During this period Ahmed alleges he was tortured – including with electric shocks to his genitals and suffocation by plastic bags – into making a false “confession" to terrorist offenses," the group writes.
That, like the assassinations in Baqouba, sounds familiar. Here's a piece of mine from November 2005:
The discovery of malnourished detainees, many bearing signs of torture, in an underground bunker at the Iraqi Interior Ministry came after a US Army 3rd Infantry Division soldier investigated an Iraqi family's complaints that one of its sons was being secretly held. When US troops raided the facility Sunday night, they expected to find at most 40 detainees, not 173 sickly men and boys, all Sunni Arabs. Iraqi officials have since confirmed that torture implements were also found there...
The most arresting interview was with a man who wanted only to identified as Abu Adhar. He was carried to the interview by four relatives. Injuries covered his face, back, and legs. He was abducted and thrown into the back of a car while investigating charges of abuse by the Interior Ministry for a Sunni mosque where he leads prayers. After driving through at least five Iraqi police checkpoints, they arrived at a house. He said he was tortured for two days with electric shocks and whips. "Then their commander said they were done, and to take me out and kill me."
The more things change...
Suicide bombing. Horrific. Unnatural. A special kind of human horror. And... part of the natural world.
While most of the discussion of suicide bombing in the press focuses on it as an inexplicable part of the human experience, one of those nasty human practices that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, a new paper in Science (pay-walled) discusses altruistic suicide bombing in Neocapritermes taracua, a termite species found in French Guiana, France's territory wedged between Suriname and Brazil.
The paper begins with a quote from EO Wilson's and Bert Hölldobler's 1990 masterwork The Ants -- "we send our young men to war... ants send their old ladies" -- a reference to the long understood tendency of many eusocial insects (all ants and many wasps and bees) to assign older members of the colony the most dangerous tasks.
In the case of these termites, some members develop the ability to become suicide bombers for their colony in times of danger as they grow older. As the termite workers age, the mandibles they use for work (chewing up wood) wear out, making them less effective at foraging. These older workers develop a pouch filled with a blue toxin (the color caused by the presence of copper). The older they get, the bigger the pouch.
"As the feeding efficiency of workers decreases, they build up their backpacks for suicidal fighting," the authors write. "Blue workers were more aggressive than white workers toward other soil-feeding termites... and they burst sooner after being seized by their opponents. Bursting liquid from blue workers was more effective than liquid from white workers."
Adding to the toxicity for the suicidal termites is the location of the pouch with the blue fluid near their salivary glands. The mixing of the termite's saliva and the poison makes it more potent, the authors found.
Much of America's grain belt is gripped in one of the worst droughts in 50 years, and grain prices are already surging.
While that's bad news for America's farmers, the real danger is the effect that will have in poor countries, where even small shifts in prices can have a big impact on the living standards of hundreds of millions of people from Central America to Egypt (the biggest wheat importer in the world) and right across to Indonesia and China.
The US is the world's largest wheat and corn exporter, and its third largest exporter of soybeans. This is less of a case of the beat of a butterfly's wings causing a storm on the other side of the globe then a storm here causing a catastrophe elsewhere. With the northern hemisphere summer less than half over, and no relief in sight for the US drought, the impact of rising food prices globally is set to become a big story in the months ahead.
IN PICTURES: Drought in the USA
Globalization has its upsides, but it also means that a peddler in Mexico City or a factory worker in Mumbai is more vulnerable than ever to the whims of North American weather and agricultural policies in the developed world.
Already some places are grappling with the issue. Take Indonesia, where soybeans are used to make tofu, the staple protein for the country's poor. There, soybean prices have risen 33 percent in the past month, and are already causing tensions. Yesterday, there were clashes in Jakarta and other major cities in markets as a coalition of tofu producers sought to enforce a national production strike protesting against a 5 percent soybean import duty.
At the Rawamangun wet market in East Jakarta, members of the Indonesian Tempeh and Tofu Cooperative (Kopti) attacked tofu and tempeh sellers who went against a verbal directive not to sell the two food items. Tofu and tempeh, derived from soybeans and eaten mainly with rice, are staples for many Indonesians as they are among the cheapest sources of protein... Suyanto, head of the East Jakarta chapter of Kopti, said the sweep was aimed to create a common goal between producers and traders as well as demonstrate against high soybean costs. The commodity’s price has risen 33 percent in the past three weeks to Rp 8,000 (85 cents) per kilogram, mainly due to a drought in the United States that has shortened supplies.
The government has already promised to scrap the 5 percent duty on Aug. 1. But you don't have to be a math genius to realize that a 5 percent cut in costs will have little impact on prices that have risen by a third. Indonesia's import duty is to protect local producers in a quest for domestic food security. But in practice, such measures amount to a tax on the country's landless urban factory workers and others among the poorest and continues, despite the government having removed long-standing soybean subsidies at the urging of international organizations like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund four years ago.
Food prices first and foremost affect nutrition, but they can also have profound impacts on the overall health of an economy and society as children are pulled out of school to save money and consumer spending declines as a greater percentage of household incomes are spent on food. And market costs are about more than supply and demand. Speculation and hoarding by traders at times of grain scarcity is almost as old as human history, and will certainly amplify price increases across the globe as this hungry year moves forward.
IN PICTURES: Drought in the USA
Earlier this week, researchers at New England Complex Systems Institute, published a paper predicting a surge in prices as speculators pile into grain markets and an impact on the stability of a number of countries.
During the last six years, high and fluctuating food prices have lead to widespread hunger and social unrest. While the spring of 2012 had a relative dip in the food prices, a massive drought in the American midwest in June and July threatens to trigger another crisis... We find that the drought may trigger the expected third food price bubble to occur sooner, before new limits to speculation are scheduled to take effect. Reducing the amount of corn that is being converted to ethanol may address the immediate crisis. Longer term, market stabilization requires limiting financial speculation... Recent food price peaks in 2007-8 and 2010-1 have resulted in food riots and are implicated in triggering widespread revolutions known as the Arab Spring
Is revolutionary upheaval in the offing for the year ahead? Who knows. But it's a safe bet that government planners across the globe are bracing for the worst and working furiously to find solutions.
One of the problems of supporting revolutions in sharply divided societies, riven by sectarian tension and with much of the population furious after decades of abuse by their central government, is it's hard to put a strong stable government in place once the head has been cut off of the ancient regime.
One popular method for trying to deal with this problem (rarely successful) is to promote an exile who promises to be BFFs to take control of the nation. For the US, in the case of Iraq, that was Ahmed Chalabi, a man who turned out to have very little popularity in Iraq and ended up aligning his political fortunes with Iran and being blacklisted by the US intelligence establishment that once hung on his every word (oops).
Influential supporters of the Iraq war are already calling for round 2 in Syria.
And today, a lonely foreign policy establishment is turning its eyes to Manaf Tlass, a recent defector from the Syrian regime. Mr. Tlass was a brigadier general in Bashar al-Assad's republican guard, and yet a member of the country's Sunni Arab majority (his father had served Assad's father Hafez as minister of defense). His family has profited handsomely from sweetheart business deals under Assad, yet this week he's promised to help usher in a new democratic era. And even better, the former regime henchman has a penchant for red wine and Cuban cigars; no Muslim Brotherhood supporter here! (He also has ties to some far-right groups in France.)
In the past few days after weeks of quiet in France, where he fled three weeks ago, he's been giving interviews and making videotaped statements. Today he traveled to Turkey, where he met with the foreign minister and promised to try to unite Syria's opposition.
Yesterday the Wall Street Journal cited unnamed US officials as saying they were "discussing ways to place Syria's highest-ranking military defector at the center of a political transition in the Arab state... the officials said Gen. Tlass is one of the few figures in opposition to the regime who could potentially help restore order in Damascus and secure Syria's vast chemical-weapons stockpile."
Most people who follow Syria doubt the rebels who have been fighting since early last year against the Assad regime will have much time for Tlass. But those interested in the man and what he stands for should have a look at this essay by researcher Bassam Haddad, who met the man a few years ago.
"That night, I was introduced to Tala’s husband, Manaf Tlass, as a “Syria researcher” working on the “Syrian economy.” At the time, Manaf was one of the regime’s top strongmen, working side by side with Mahir al-Asad (the president’s younger brother) as a commander of elite units in the Republican Guard. It was too dark to make out his features. Most of what I saw was the big round flame at the tip of the cigar that seemed surgically attached to his fingers, if not his lips. He asked a few questions. I answered politely. I knew who he was, and thought it was odd that he mingled so freely... On a subsequent trip, at a birthday party in another of those restaurants, I met Manaf again. This time, he asked someone to ask me to come to his table. Usually, that is not a good thing... Manaf was quite candid and seemed more interested in conversation than surveillance. Still, I hesitated for some time before friends advised me not to skip out on the meeting. At the time, Manaf was a rising star, quite close to the Asad family. Regime strongmen had regained their swagger after several years of “consolidation” that took place after the succession of Bashar to the presidency. It was a day to begin making Syria anew, with a younger and more contemplative, though less seasoned, leadership. The theme was less “reform” than “modernization,” less “change” than “continuity."
To be sure, some argue (like Joshua Landis, who lived in Syria for years and has good regime contacts) that he fled Syria after he favored more velvet glove, and less iron fist, in dealing with the uprising.
But in the end, Tlass is a child of wealth and privilege, closely associated with the abuses of the Assad regime, who only recently jumped ship. His star is unlikely to rise as quickly among Syria's rebels as it did among the Baath regime he served for so long.
Earlier this week, an open letter was released by a hawkish group of pundits and foreign policy analysts urging President Barack Obama to immediately take military action against the Syrian regime, warning that if he doesn't, weapons of mass destruction could fall into the hands of "terrorists," and that the US "must play a more proactive role than it has heretofore in ensuring the end of the Assad regime."
Who are the 62 signatories? They're the people who brought you the Iraq war. Among the signers are Karl Rove, J. Paul Bremer, Fouad Ajami, Doug Feith, Danielle Pletka, and Michael Ledeen, all pundits or officials who insisted the Iraq war was vital to securing America's interests. Nearly 10 years ago, they promised those interests would be secured by a short, low-cost invasion that would replace Saddam Hussein with a US-friendly democracy.
Undeterred by how the Iraq war actually unfolded, they're now running a similar playbook in the case of Syria and asking their judgment be trusted once again. This is not to say that the tragedy unfolding in Syria before the world's eyes isn't heartbreaking, or threatening to US interests and regional stability. It's just that the utility of unilateral US action is far from certain. Could it help? Maybe. Could it make things worse? That's the fear that motivates those urging the cautious approach taken by the US so far.
In their histories, some of the signatories seem to yearn for a new order in the Middle East to be forged in blood and fire. Take signatory Michael Ledeen, who in 2002 chastised Brent Scowcroft for warning that an invasion of Iraq could "turn the whole region into a caldron and destroy the war on terror."
Mr. Ledeen countered: "One can only hope that we turn the region into a cauldron, and faster, please. If ever there were a region that richly deserved being cauldronized, it is the Middle East today. If we wage the war effectively, we will bring down the terror regimes in Iraq, Iran, and Syria, and either bring down the Saudi monarchy or force it to abandon its global assembly line to indoctrinate young terrorists."
Though the letter, organized by the hawkish Foreign Policy Initiative (all four members of its board of directors were staunch supporters of the Iraq war), describes itself as bipartisan, the vast majority of the signatories have been supporters of Republican foreign policy approaches in the past decade. An FPI spokesman, asked to name some of the signatories on the other side of the political fence, listed the following names: Paul Berman, Larry Cox, Marty Peretz, Leon Wieseltier, Allison Johnson, Irina Krasovskaya, Ausama Monajed, and Radwan Ziadeh.
Mr. Berman is a liberal interventionist who supported the idea of invading Iraq, but not its execution. Mr. Wieseltier and Mr. Peretz, like Berman, are tied to The New Republic, and likewise support liberal intervention abroad. Mr. Monajed is a member of the Syrian opposition-in-exile, as is Mr. Ziadeh. I know less about Mr. Cox, Ms. Johnson, and Ms. Krasovskaya, so will assume they're legitimately from the other side of the fence on this issue.
Nevertheless, with a US election looming, it's hard not to see the letter as having a second purpose beyond its clear suggestion for the use of air power: Making Obama look weak on defense if he doesn't take their advice. After all, Syria could get a lot uglier in the months ahead. "You were warned and you failed" will likely be the commentary from many of the signatories in that event.
Obama, of course, has been far more of a multilateral actor than his predecessor, George W. Bush. Many of the signatories to this letter – from Mr. Bush's political strategist Rove, to Mr. Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy in Bush's first term – argued robustly for the US to act unfettered by multilateral concerns. Feith pushed hard for war with Iraq, including the creation of a new intelligence analysis channel that sidestepped traditional vetting and produced the later disproven claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Their views of the world remain much the same today.
What does the group want? In their words, they want the US to:
"Work with regional partners to establish air-patrolled “safe zones” covering already liberated areas within Syria, using military power not only to protect these zones from further aggression by the Assad regime’s military and irregular forces, but also to neutralize the threat posed by the Syrian dictatorship’s chemical and biological weapons.
Such "safe zones" would serve as a destination for civilians fleeing violence. They would also provide the country’s opposition groups—which have actively stood up to the Assad regime’s relentless aggression, and bravely defended their cities, towns, and villages in the absence of decisive international action — a place to train, be equipped, and organize. Indeed, “safe zones” would make it easier for the United States and like-minded nations to reliably provide critical non-lethal aid, including secure communications technologies and field hospital equipment, as well as self-defense assistance, to carefully vetted recipients. “Safe zones” could also serve as a venue for U.S. and allied officials to work with Syria’s future leaders to plan and prepare for a post-Assad Syria and explore options, such as an international peacekeeping force, that could limit chaos and sectarian conflict and prevent the proliferation of Assad’s weapons of mass destruction."
In their formulation, the "safe zones" would not be demilitarized, not even in theory, but rather designed to help rebels train, organize, and equip themselves to attack President Bashar al-Assad's troops. For "self defense assistance" read "military training." For "peacekeeping force" read "eventual boots on the ground." And if safe zones cannot be maintained by air power alone, the logic of stepping up US involvement with the war will be almost inescapable. Promising to keep people safe and then failing would be disastrous for US credibility. It would almost lock Obama, or any other president, into escalation if the zones started to fall.
Two sentences in the letter in particular require some unpacking: "It is clear that the United States cannot outsource its strategic and moral responsibilities to cynical great powers, regional actors who do not fully share our values, or international mediators. Only resolved US leadership has the potential to halt the bloodshed and ensure the emergence of a Syria that advances America’s national security interests. We urge you to exercise such leadership immediately."
Ah, the "cynical" great powers, rather than the ones on the side of the angels. As it happens, most powers, great and small, act in their perceived self-interest – sometimes with positive effects for
others, sometimes not so much.
"Only resolved US leadership has the potential to halt the bloodshed." That is as clear an assertion of American exceptionalism – that the US is unparalleled in its goodness, and therefore must act unilaterally – as you'll ever read. The argument is that there is nothing else that can be done, no creative thinking possible beyond going to war now.
The assertion that that the US "cannot outsource its strategic and moral responsibilities" is a broadside against multilateralism that is straight out of Neocon 101. The argument has long been that the dithering of the United Nations, NATO allies, and others must never slow the US down. Of course, the counterargument is that the world is a complex place, and even its most powerful nation is both limited in what it can accomplish alone and likely to find its interests are best served in the long run by doing so.
Also worth noting is that Rove and some other signatories of the letter opposed Obama's cautious approach to the Libya intervention, working through NATO, and waiting for UN approval before sending in the bombers. In March of last year, shortly after the UN authorized the attacks, Rove asserted on Fox News that multilateralism "never works" and criticized Obama as seeing the US as this "nice little country on the international stage that’s going to be bound up by multilateral commitments and multilateral leadership. And that the United States makes a mistake when it tries to lead."
Well, Libya (a much easier problem with its homogeneity and the weakness of Qaddafi's military and state in general) was a raging success.
The signatories also seem to forget what happened in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq that most of them strongly argued for, on much the same grounds as the recent letter on Syria. They warn, in urging for US action, that "Syria's escalating conflict ... could provide an opening for terrorist groups like al Qaeda to exploit." Well, yes it could. In fact, it is.
But recent US interventions in the area don't set a happy precedent for keeping Al Qaeda out of a country. Al Qaeda's allies in Iraq prior to the US invasion in 2003, till that point a minor presence there and confined to autonomous and US-friendly Kurdistan, became a major player in the country, killing thousands there (among them many US soldiers) and staging attacks in neighboring Jordan. Al Qaeda's self-described affiliate the Islamic State in Iraq remains a danger to that country's stability today.
Jihadis radicalized by the US occupation in Iraq and toughened by fighting against US forces, particularly in Anbar Province, which neighbors Syria, are now fighting against Assad in Syria, bringing the IED manufacturing techniques they honed around cities like Fallujah to the streets of Syria.
Syria's war has raged for well over a year in a region of intense US interest. The country shares borders with Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and NATO ally Turkey. President Bashar al-Assad's regime has a chemical weapons stockpile. The country is a close ally of Iran. And the US has long urged Syrians, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, to upend their country's political order and build a new order while successively piling sanctions on the central government.
But according to a Washington Post article yesterday, which relies entirely on the anonymous sourcing so prevalent in coverage of Washington, the Central Intelligence Agency and other US intelligence agencies have no idea about the composition of the forces fighting Mr. Assad and their ultimate political goals. The Obama administration has been supporting rebels with communications equipment and other non-lethal support for months, and appears eager to do more. But the Post writes that, according to "officials," Team Obama has been stymied by a lack of information.
The Post article quotes a US "official who expressed concerns over persistent gaps" in the government's knowledge. “We’ve got to figure out who is over there first, and we don’t really know that,” the source told the Post. “It’s not like this is a new war. It’s been going on for 16 months.”
The story made a splash this morning on the Twitter feeds and blogs of people who follow the Middle East, with many sniggering about the incompetence implied: How could the US intelligence services and their allies know so little about who is fighting in Syria? After all, there's an overt intelligence budget of $70 billion and however many more billions for covert intelligence gathering, and Syria is right at the top of the government's foreign police concerns.
I think something else is at work here. It's axiomatic that the agendas of people who talk to reporters (advancing their interests) are not generally aligned with those of the reporters themselves (getting as close to the truth as possible). When sources are anonymous, the likelihood of manipulation tends to go up. I think that the US intelligence community and the politicians they advise know plenty about the insurgency in Syria, but are uncomfortable with the implications of what they're finding.
This is not to say that Syria's uprising is easy to understand, marked as it is by regional and sectarian interests, little to no central command and, yes, a paucity of clear information flows. It is undoubtedly the case that there's a great deal that the US would like to know about the rebellion that remains out of reach.
But that is a far different thing from driving blind. In the same Post article an unnamed "Middle Eastern intelligence official" implied that a great deal is understood, though he complained that vetting the rebel groups is "still in the very early stages." The Post writes: "The foreign official cited concern that the opposition is at risk of becoming dominated by Islamists pushing for a Muslim Brotherhood government after Assad. 'We think this is a majority view, at least among those who are fighting in the streets,' the official said."
That seems highly likely. Assad is an Alawite, a secretive minority sect that split from mainstream Shiism about 1,000 years ago. Assad's regime is dominated by Alawis, who are estimated to make up about 10 percent of the country while the country's majority faith is Sunni Islam, a community that has long felt like second-class citizens in their own land and his turned to Islamist movements in the past to fight the central government. Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, crushed an uprising against him led by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 when he sacked the city of Hama, killing at least 10,000 of its residents.
What I'll call, for lack of a better phrase, mainstream Sunni Islamism has long been a dominant strain of opposition politics and resistance in Syria and remains so today. Rebel commanders use religious language and banners in their propaganda videos, many of them grouped within the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a patchwork of rebel factions. There are, of course, many supporters of the uprising who favor a more secular form of government. But if the US is actually waiting for a day of clarity over what ideology or person will come to control the insurgency, that day will never come. It's a blend of forces and agendas at play on the rebel side.
There are also Islamist militants of a darker color, from a US perspective, at work in Syria. Jihadis more in the style of Al Qaeda are also operating inside the country. Veterans of the war against the US in Iraq have been involved in attacks on government forces, bringing with them the skills honed in building powerful improvised explosive devices (IEDs) around Iraqi cities like Fallujah to target Assad. There have also been persistent, though difficult to confirm, reports of rebels executing government forces that surrender to them, with Alawi soldiers far more likely to be killed than fellow Sunnis.
These fighters often stand apart from the FSA. Time's Rania Abouzeid reported from the town of Saraqeb, along the highway from Aleppo to Damascus, earlier this month that the Ahrar al-Shams Brigade was fighting alongside FSA members there. The Shams Brigade is composed of Salafis – members of the austere form of Islam embraced by Saudi Arabia and Al Qaeda who are particularly hostile to US interests. Suicide bombing has been at least an occasional tactic. Last week Assad's deputy defense minister and brother-in-law Assef Shawkat was among those killed in an attack on a strategy meeting at a Damascus military building that the government said was carried out by a suicide bomber. Also killed were Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and former defense minister Hassan Turkmani, with the interior minister surviving.
The FSA said the bomb was planted in the meeting room and suicide was not involved. But this was far from the first claim of suicide bombings. In April, alleged suicide bombings in Idlib killed eight people. And a group calling itself Jabhat al-Nusra took responsibility for at least three suicide attacks in Damascus earlier this year. FSA spokesmen have insisted that any suicide bombings against the government have been carried out by the regime itself in an effort to paint the opposition as dangerously radical.
Perhaps. But it's hard to imagine that hard-core jihadists like the ones who flooded into Iraq after the US invasion in 2003 aren't at work in Syria. Just as they poured across the Syrian (and other borders) into Iraq, foreign fighters have been entering Syria to fight Assad and the hated Alawites, joining up with like-minded Syrians. How many of them are there and how important are they to the fight against Assad? That's probably one of the data points US officials are struggling with.
But if the recent history of Iraq is anything to go by, they're likely to become more important the longer the war drags on. And as in Iraq, a true sectarian bloodbath – with Alawites and perhaps Syria's Christian minority in the cross-hairs of Al Qaeda-style militants – is a real possibility.
Marc Lynch wrote earlier this week at Foreign Policy that whatever hopes there ever were for Syria's war to end in a negotiated settlement look to be well and truly over and that he expects the conflict to grind on dangerously.
Nor should the US be joining the dangerous game of arming the insurgency, which seems to be getting plenty of weapons from other sources. All of the risks of the proliferation of weapons into a fragmented insurgency of uncertain identity and aspirations, so blithely dismissed by the Op-Ed hawks, remain as intense as ever. There are still vanishingly few, if any, historical examples of such a strategy actually leading to a rapid resolution of a civil conflict, and all too many examples of it making conflicts longer and bloodier. Nor is it likely that providing weapons will provide the US with great influence over the groups they are. I see no reason to believe that armed groups will stay bought, or stay loyal, just because they were given weapons, or that the U.S. would be able to credibly threaten to cut off the flow of weapons if groups deemed essential to the battle used them in undesirable ways. As a general rule of thumb if you really think that a group might join al-Qaeda if you don't give them guns, you'd best not give them guns.
That paragraph deftly captures both what is unknown but more importantly what is known: The chance is real that Sunni jihadis deeply hostile to US interests will get their hands on weapons the US supplies to the uprising. In fact, I'll go further and say it's likely, an irony that should be lost on no one who watched officials insist for years that the US had to stay in Iraq to defeat precisely those kinds of people (though they're not exactly defeated in Iraq now either).
To be blunt, I think the US intelligence community knows this. The Washington Post article touches on this, with an "administration official" saying the US is concerned about blowback (never mind that the Post gets it wrong when it writes the US armed "militias in Afghanistan that later morphed into Al Qaeda;" the US actually armed different militant groups in that country's war against the Soviet Union).
Help and consequences
Fear of blowback, and being held responsible for any horrors that might follow a collapse of the Syrian regime in Syria, are precisely the things that are staying the administration's hands, not simply a lack of knowledge. Obama faces a policy and political question that has no good answer. A direct US invasion is off the table, doing nothing will allow a war that is taking a ruinous toll on civilians to drag on, and arming the rebels is likely to have very unpleasant consequences. And he has an election coming up.
The Obama administration is still hoping that Assad will fall soon. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described his fall as "inevitable" today and said the US "has to work closely" with rebels to draw up plans to secure the country's chemical weapons and to protect against reprisal killings on the day after.
"We're working across many of these important pillars of a transition that is inevitable," she said. "It would be better if it happened sooner both because fewer people would die or be injured, but also because it would perhaps prevent sectarian retribution."
Note the use of her word "perhaps" in that sentence.
None of this is to try to turn reality on its head and suggest Assad is the "good guy" and the rebels the "bad ones." The depredations of the Baath regime –the torture centers, the mass executions, the pervasive abuse of citizens for daring to speak their minds – are legendary. That history has contributed mightily to the tragic situation Syria finds itself in today.
But we know enough now to understand how truly dangerous Syria has become.
I updated this post to correct an unintentional error. I originally wrote that Sunni jihadis are a "major" component of the rebellion in Syria, implying they are a majority. That is not the case.
After a series of attacks across Iraq yesterday left 115 people dead and scores more wounded, a simple reality must be acknowledged: Iraq's insurgency against the central government installed by a US-led coalition nine years ago never really ended. It has simply morphed into something smaller and more intermittent.
That's not to say Iraq is a living hell. It isn't, and has come a long way from the worst of its war between 2004 and 2008, which saw wholesale transfers of Iraq's Shiite and Sunni communities from previously mixed neighborhoods and towns into sectarian cantonments. Tens of thousands were murdered in their homes, on the road, and in their shops, with many of the victims tortured to death and many of the survivors permanently disfigured.
But the Iraq of 2012 is a country where a background level of violence has become a daily norm and appears to be ticking up again. That's been the trend for some time, but it could be set to gather more steam.
In neighboring Syria, which US officials blamed for the flow of Sunni jihadis into Iraq during the worst of the war, Sunni jihadis now make up an important component of the forces fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. That's an inspiration to their fellow travelers in Iraq, who are as eager for Mr. Assad's downfall as any hawk in Washington, though for rather different reasons. With recent rebel victories there, the most ideological among them feel the wind is at their backs.
The current leader of the Islamic State in Iraq, an Al Qaeda-style Sunni militant group, laid out the connection in his first-ever audio statement released Saturday.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – a nom de guerre if ever there was one – spoke for 30 minutes. He vowed that Sunni insurgents would retake the strongholds they lost inside Iraq in 2007 and 2008 (most in Anbar Province, which shares a long and poorly guarded desert border with Syria), urged stepped-up assassinations against Iraqi government officials and Shiites in general, and spoke at length about the jihad against Assad across the border.
"Our people there have fired the coup de gráce at the terror that grasped ... [Syria] for decades," he said. They have "taught the world lessons of courage and jihad and proved that injustice could only be removed by force" and warned Syrians "not to accept any rule or constitution but God's rule and Islamic law. Otherwise, you will lose your blessed revolution."
Iraq and Iran and Syria
Iraq's Shiite government, meanwhile, has avoided harsh condemnation of Assad in Syria. Iraq's government is now closer to Iran, an Assad backer, than it is to the United States. And Iraq's interest in Syria is for stability, not a blossoming war on its borders that can easily spill over.
Iraq has refused to bar Iran from using its airspace to deliver supplies to Assad, despite US urging and claims that the flights contain weapons. Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, insisted that Iranian flights over Iraqi airspace contain only humanitarian aid, not weapons, though how he could know this is unclear.
Was Assad a supporter of Sunni jihadis inside Iraq during the height of the fighting? It was never proved, though it made a certain sense. Though Sunni Islamists detest Assad and the Alawite sect he belongs to, the US had been publicly menacing Syria at the start of the Iraq war. The longer and costlier the US occupation of Iraq was for the US, the better, from Assad's perspective. But the smuggling routes for weapons and money for Sunni jihadis across Syria and into Anbar Province (and sometimes into Saudi Arabia, which supports the uprising against Assad) are now likely flowing in the opposite direction.
That's bad news for Assad's government, but it could also end up proving bad news for Iraq – if Mr. Baghdadi's bluster is backed up by more attacks like Monday's. The US was kicked out of Iraq at the end of last year, so it won't be able to help if the current sporadic nature of the violence grows into a more serious military challenge. Baghdadi's predecessor was killed in a US-led raid in 2010, one of the last major US actions against a Sunni militant leader inside the country.
Coordinated show of force
The targets of the latest rampage in Iraq were the familiar mélange: a strike on a coffee shop in a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad; assassinations of police officers at homes; and coordinated attacks on military checkpoints and a military base that displayed planning, commitment, and ability from the attackers. One attack north of Baghdad involved the successful storming of a military base that left 15 Iraqi soldiers dead. The coordinated show of force took place in at least five Iraqi provinces, from Mosul in the north to Diwaniya south of the capital. Among the dead in Baghdad was an Iraqi general, whose convoy was hit by an improvised explosive device yesterday evening.
In March, 46 Iraqis were murdered in attacks claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq, the Sunni militant group that has positioned itself as the country's Al Qaeda affiliate. In June, the group took responsibility for the murder of over 70 Iraqis with a series of car bombings. While there has been no formal claim for carrying out this week's attacks, one seems very likely to be forthcoming.
The US government reported in June that Iraq had 3,063 deaths at the hands of terror-style attacks in 2011, the second highest global total, after Afghanistan. And that number appears likely to be higher for all of 2012. Becca Wasser, a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington found a surge in deadly attacks in Iraq in the first quarter of this year. She writes that the country witnessed a 70 percent increase in bomb attacks between Dec. 19, 2011, and March 19, 2012, compared with the same period a year earlier, and argued that the numbers show Sunni militants are finding new ways to take the fight to the country's Shiite-dominated central government.
Much of the commentary on Iraq's rising violence and what to do about it has been firmly rooted to the same spot for years. Reconciliation, particularly between Sunnis and Shiites, is the prescription. Anthony Cordesman and Sam Khazai write in the first sentence of a long report on Iraq's Search for Stability earlier this month that "Iraq is in an ongoing struggle to establish a new national identity, and one that can bridge across the deep sectarian divisions between its Shiites and Sunnis and the ethnic divisions between its Arabs and its Kurds and other minorities."
No knock on the excellent report (which is more than 100 pages long), but dozens of reports stretching back almost a decade have started with more or less the same exact language. A quick search of my own stories from Baghdad from 2003 to 2008 turns up dozens of hits for articles with the words "Sunni," "Shiite," and "reconciliation" in them.
Here's a January 2004 piece about a reconciliation effort between Sunni and Shiite clerics "with the threat of sectarian strife hanging over Iraq's transition, punctuated by mosque takeovers in the southern city of Basra, an explosion at a small Sunni mosque in Baghdad, and the press rife with talk about rivalry across Iraq's great sectarian divide, the imams want to head off potential conflict." The meeting obviously failed in meeting its goal. One of the Sunni clerics who participated went on to become a major support of the Sunni side of the Iraqi civil war that erupted soon after, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
Almost every effort at true reconciliation since then has failed. Iraq's war was a zero-sum game for its participants.
The Shiites, a majority who had long been under the heel of the Sunni-dominated Baath regime of Saddam Hussein, won. The Sunni community lost. Since, Mr. Maliki has shown little interest in making concessions to his ideological opponents and has unsurprisingly been most interested in locking in a long period of dominance for his own confessional community. He hasn't exactly been subtle about it.
The good news for Maliki is that he's unlikely to lose the battle with Sunni insurgents. They remain a minority in Iraq, and Maliki's forces are better armed and far more numerous. The goal for Iraq's jihadis has all along been to drive the country into a vicious sectarian civil war, which they hope will create enough chaos to topple the government. But they actually succeeded in getting their wish in 2006, when the destruction of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra unleashed the most vicious wave of sectarian massacres of the whole war. The result? Tens of thousands more dead, but ultimately Iraq's new Shiite government was more entrenched than ever.
The bad news for Iraq is something else again. It remains among the most violent countries on earth and while rich in oil, its economy remains moribund. International investors are not exactly rushing to place their bets on a country that is as corrupt as it is dangerous.