Iran backs Syria presidential election, halt to arms shipments as parts of peace bid
By Associated Press, Updated: Sunday, December 16, 1:51 PM
Hezbollah says al-Qaeda ‘tricked’ on Syria
- by: Karim Abou Merhi
- From: AAP
- December 17, 2012 5:04AM
HEZBOLLAH chief Hassan Nasrallah has warned al-Qaeda it has been tricked into fighting in Syria, and the rebellion will not be able to topple the regime of President Bashar al-Assad militarily.
“The Americans, Europeans and some governments in the Arab and Muslim world have set a trap for you in Syria,” the head of Lebanon’s most powerful military force said.
“They have opened the entire country for you to congregate there from all corners of the world and kill one another,” he said, in a speech broadcast during an annual university graduation ceremony in the southern suburbs of Beirut on Sunday.
“And you are complicit in this trick,” Nasrallah said.
His comments came amid increased debate over the rise of jihadist groups in Syria, notably the Al-Nusra Front, which was blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by Washington last week for its alleged links to al-Qaeda in Iraq.
“If we assume that these groups which are affiliated to al-Qaeda and its ideology are able to achieve a breakthrough on the ground one day, then they will be the first to pay the price in Syria as they have in other countries,” he said.
The Hezbollah leader, whose group is a long-standing Assad ally, said the situation in Syria “is becoming increasingly complex”.
“The opposition believes they will be able to resolve the battle militarily, which is very, very, very suspect”.
Nasrallah said the conflict pitched a regime “defending its existence out of conviction with the majority of the Syrian people behind it” against an “armed opposition working to topple the regime with a segment of the population in support”.
He said he feared the conflict would be a protracted one, “as long as the armed opposition and its regional and international backers refuse any dialogue with the regime”.
Damascus and its allies accuse Qatar and Saudi Arabia of funnelling arms to the rebels through neighbouring Turkey with Western connivance. The opposition rejects any dialogue until Assad quits.
The Americans want to prolong the Syrian crisis “because more death among the armed opposition, the Syrian army and security services, and the people will render Syria weak, impoverished, devastated and drained”, Nasrallah said.
“It will be crossed off the regional power balance … for the benefit of America and Israel.”
police say newtown gunman adam lanza shot each of his 27 victims multiple times before turning the gun on himself
- © 1996-2012 The Washington Post
Hezbollah chief says rebels will not win in Syria
BEIRUT | Sun Dec 16, 2012 11:21am EST
(Reuters) – Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Shi’ite militant movement Hezbollah, said on Sunday the rebels in Syria could not emerge victorious from the 21-month-long uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
Nasrallah, a staunch ally of Assad, said: “The situation in Syria is getting more complicated (but) anyone who thinks the armed opposition can settle the situation on the ground is very very very mistaken.”
Syrian rebels accuse the Shi’ite Muslim group of sending fighters to neighboring Syria to help Assad overcome the largely Sunni Muslim revolt. Hezbollah denies these accusations.
The uprising started as peaceful demonstrations calling for greater freedoms but turned into an armed insurgency largely in response to heavy crackdown and attacks by Assad forces.
The revolt pits majority Sunnis against Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. With Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian tensions smoldering in the region, Syria’s conflict has drawn Sunni radicals from elsewhere into rebel ranks.
But Nasrallah, whose Shi’ite movement is despised by Sunni hardliners, said the West and some allied Arab countries had lured al Qaeda-affiliated fighters into Syria to be killed.
“I warn al Qaeda: the Americans and the European countries and Arab and Islamic countries have set a trap for you in Syria, and opened for you a battlefield so you come from across the world … to be killed and to kill each other…”
Alarmed by the growing strength and influence of al Qaeda-inspired fighters in Syria, the United States has put the al-Nusra Front on its official blacklist of terrorist organizations, angering many Syrian rebel brigades.
(Reporting by Mariam Karouny; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)
Syrian VP says neither side can win war – newspaper
By Mariam Karouny | Reuters – 5 mins ago
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa has told a Lebanese newspaper that neither the forces of President Bashar al-Assad nor rebels can win the war in Syria.
Sharaa, a Sunni Muslim in a power structure dominated by Assad’s Alawite minority, has rarely appeared in public since the revolt erupted in March 2011.
The newspaper, al-Akhbar, released only limited excerpts on Sunday from the interview appearing in Monday’s edition, and it was far from clear that Sharaa’s comments represented the view of the government.
But he is still the most prominent figure to say in public that the crackdown will not win. The paper, which generally takes a pro-Assad line, said Sharaa had been speaking in Damascus.
In the first phase of the 21-month-old civil war, which has claimed at least 40,000 lives, Damascus was distant from the fighting.
Rebels have now brought the war to the capital, without succeeding in delivering a fatal blow to the government.
But nor has Assad found the military muscle to oust his opponents from the city.
In Paris, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius of France, one of the major powers most insistent that Assad has lost his legitimacy, told RFI radio: “I think the end is nearing for Bashar al-Assad.”
OFFENSIVE IN HAMA
On the ground, rebels said they were launching an operation to seize the central province of Hama to try to link northern rural areas of Syria under their control to the centre.
Qassem Saadeddine, a member of the newly established rebel military command, said fighters had been ordered to surround and attack checkpoints across the province. He said forces loyal to Assad had been given 48 hours to surrender or be killed.
“When we liberate the countryside of Hama province … then we will have the area between Aleppo and Hama liberated and open for us,” he told Reuters.
The city of Hama in the province of the same name has a special resonance for anti-Assad activists. In 1982 Hafez al-Assad, father of the current ruler, crushed an uprising in the city, killing up to 30,000 civilians.
In Damascus, activists said fighter jets had bombed the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, killing at least 25 people sheltering in a mosque.
The attack was part of a month-old campaign by Assad’s forces to eject rebels from positions they are establishing around the capital’s perimeter. Yarmouk, to the south, falls within an arc of territory running from the east of Damascus to the southwest from where rebels hope to storm the government’s main redoubt.
Opposition activists said the deaths in Yarmouk, to which refugees have fled from fighting in nearby suburbs, resulted from a rocket fired from a warplane hitting the mosque.
A video posted on YouTube showed bodies and body parts scattered on the stairs of what appeared to be the mosque.
The latest battlefield accounts could not be independently verified due to tight restrictions on media access to Syria.
Syria is home to more that 500,000 Palestinian refugees, most living in Yarmouk, and both Assad’s government and the rebels have enlisted and armed Palestinians as the uprising, which began as a peaceful street movement 21 months ago, has mushroomed into a civil war.
Heavy fighting broke out 12 days ago between Palestinians loyal to Assad and Syrian rebels, together with a brigade of Palestinian fighters known as Liwaa al-Asifah (Storm Brigade).
After Sunday’s air strike, clashes flared anew between Palestinians from the pro-Assad Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) and rebels including other Palestinian fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
Some PFLP-GC fighters were killed, the London-based Observatory said. Opposition activists and the Observatory said many were trying to escape the internal fighting in Yarmouk.
INFANTRY COLLEGE CAPTURED
In the latest of a string of military installations to fall to the rebels, the army’s infantry college north of Aleppo was captured on Saturday after five days of fighting, a rebel commander with the powerful Islamist Tawheed Brigade said.
Insurgents first reported seizing the infantry college on Saturday, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said later that day there was still fierce fighting going on.
The commander whose Tawheed brigade took part in the assault said the rebels had surrounded the college, located 16 km (10 miles) north of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, three weeks ago.
“At least 100 soldiers have been taken prisoner and 150 decided to join us. The soldiers were all hungry because of the siege,” the commander, who spoke on condition he was not further identified, told Reuters by telephone.
Desperate food shortages are growing in parts of Syria. Residents of Aleppo say fistfights and dashes across the front lines have become part of the daily struggle to secure a loaf of bread.
Violence continued across the country. Syrian forces killed 25 people in the town of Helfaya in Hama province when they shelled it with warplanes and artillery for the first time since February, opposition activists said.
Ten fighters were killed in shelling in Deraa, the cradle of the revolt against Assad.
Damascus has accused Western powers of backing what it says is a Sunni Islamist “terrorist” campaign to topple Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect affiliated with Shi’ite Islam. It says that U.S. and European concerns about Assad’s forces possibly resorting to chemical weapons could serve as a pretext for preparing military intervention.
In Lebanon, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Islamist Hezbollah militia group, said the rebels could not win in Syria.
“The situation in Syria is getting more complicated (but) anyone who thinks the armed opposition can settle the situation on the ground is very, very, very mistaken.”
Syrian rebels accuse Hezbollah, a Shi’ite Muslim group, of sending fighters to neighbouring Syria to help Assad overcome the largely Sunni Muslim revolt. Hezbollah denies these accusations.
Assad’s and Hezbollah’s main ally in region, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, cancelled a visit to Syria’s estranged neighbour Turkey a day after his military chief said the deployment of NATO missile defences along its border with Syria could lead to a “world war”, Turkey’s state-run Anatolian news agency said.
(Writing by Mark Heinrich and; Stephen Powell; Editing by Kevin Liffey)
Turmoil in Syria and the Regional Consequences
As protest movements sweep through the Middle East, few countries exemplify the opportunities and potential pitfalls of political change as well as Syria. Beginning on March 15, Syrians took to the streets in large numbers, demanding a more responsive and democratic government. After an initial promise of reform, the government of President Bashar al-Assad has cracked down on protestors with increasingly brutal force. The continued unrest in Syria has serious implications for Iran’s role in the region, the Israeli-Arab conflict, the stability of Lebanon, and organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Carnegie and the Brookings Institution co-hosted a panel of experts to discuss the prospects for democratic change in Syria and the implications for the region. Speakers included Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Tamara Wittes, National Defense University Professor Murhaf Jouejati, Syrian human rights activist Ammar Abdulhamid, former Israeli ambassador Itamar Rabinovich, and Paul Salem of the Carnegie Middle East Center. Carnegie’s Marwan Muasher moderated.
The Opposition Movement
Syrian protesters have faced down tanks and risked death and arrest to call for the downfall of the Assad regime, but they still face a long road ahead.
- Sources of discontent: Syria is experiencing a bulge in its youth population and the current regime is unable to meet the expectations of these young people in terms of employment and social mobility, Abdulhamid said. Assad had previously blamed Syria’s economic problems on the country’s international isolation, but as the international environment has improved, the regime has faced pressure to deliver on promises of reform, Abdulhamid added.
- Roots of activism: The opposition movement did not begin in 2011, said Abdulhamid, but rather is the culmination of many years of groundwork laid by Syrian activists to raise awareness of and build opposition to the regime.
- Social base: Protests have been strongest in rural areas and poor suburbs where economic deprivation is highest, said Salem, but if Damascus and Aleppo rise up against the regime, that would be a major tipping point in favor of the opposition. In general, the bureaucracy and the merchant class mostly support the regime, said Jouejati, but many of their children have joined protests.
- Organization: The revolt is happening in 30 different places at once and is controlled locally, Abdulhamid explained. This is an advantage, Jouejati noted, because it makes the opposition more resilient and weakens the army’s ability to respond. Yet more organization will be needed to create a credible alternative to Assad. The opposition should try to form a transitional council and call for Assad’s ouster, argued Abdulhamid.
- Ideology: There is no sign that the Syrian opposition is led by Islamists. On the contrary, people have started chanting anti-Iran and anti-Hezbollah statements, said Abdulhamid. People are hoping the West will take their side against Assad.
Possible Scenarios for Change
The panelists agreed that a return to the status quo in Syria is no longer possible. Yet the country could still take one of several different paths forward:
- Short-term regime survival: The Assad regime could still survive for many months through repression, said Salem. The Iranian regime cracked down hard two years ago and is still around. But eventually the economic situation will become unsustainable, Jouejati argued. Oil production, tourism, and business are all down and the Syrian government is spending money it doesn’t have to create jobs and increase subsidies, he added.
- Top-down reform: There is still a small window of opportunity for Assad to lead a democratic reform process, said Salem. President Obama called for this and Turkey is hoping for it, but such a solution is unlikely.
- Internal coup: For the moment, Assad appears to enjoy the support of both the military leadership and the Alawite community. Yet either of these two groups could decide that Assad has become too dangerous and try to push him aside to preserve the regime, said Salem and Rabinovich.
- Civil war: If the regime doesn’t back down, Syria could see a destructive civil war, explained Salem. The regime has used the threat of civil war to scare minorities into supporting the regime, Jouejati said, and is deliberately stoking sectarianism to increase fears. But if an actual civil war breaks out, the regime will lose because it represents a minority of Syrians, Salem predicted.
- Revolution: If more Syrians join the protests, the opposition could see a quick victory of the Sunni majority and the establishment of a new regime, said Salem. But there is still a wall of fear preventing many people from demonstrating, he added.
Implications for the Region
Syria occupies one of the most volatile parts of the Middle East, and any scenario will have far-reaching implications for its neighbors and allies.
- Israel: Israel has an ambivalent attitude toward the Assad regime, said Rabinovich. Syria opposes Israel and supports its enemies but Israel doesn’t see a clear alternative to Assad and is worried about chaos on its border. The Syrian regime is deliberately trying to stoke Israeli fears, he added, such as encouraging Palestinians to cross the border fence on May 15 in remembrance of the Palestinian displacement following the creation of Israel.
- Hezbollah: The fall of the Assad regime would remove an important source of support for Hezbollah, said Salem. If Hezbollah feels cornered, it could either become more aggressive or lie low, though it appears to be doing the former, he added. Syria may also try to use Hezbollah to provoke Israel and create a distraction from popular unrest at home, said Jouejati.
- Lebanon: Lebanon has lived in Syria’s shadow since the late 1960s, said Salem, and the uncertainty in Syria has suspended any progress on government formation because political parties do not know how this will affect them. The biggest fear in Lebanon is a sectarian civil war in Syria, which could create instability at home.
- Iran: If the Assad regime falls, it will likely mean Iran will lose access to Lebanon, Hezbollah, and the Israeli border, which would decrease its regional influence significantly, said Salem. Thus, Iran is very worried about Syria and is doing everything it can to support the regime.
The Role of International Actors
- The United States: President Obama’s speech on the Middle East was an important step forward, said Abdulhamid, but he should more explicitly call for Assad to leave. This would convince Syrian regime officials that Assad no longer has any international legitimacy, he argued. Wittes said that the United States has communicated clearly to the Syrian regime that it must stop violence, respect human rights, and lead a transition to democracy. The United States is working to expand international pressure against the regime, she added.
- Turkey: Turkey has built close relations with Syria over the past few years, said Salem, and it has pushed the Assad regime to reform. It is very worried about possible chaos, but if it is clear the Assad regime will not survive, then Turkey will take the side of the people, he added.
- Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia has provided strong support to the Syrian regime both because it opposes any spread of popular revolutions and because it is grateful for Assad’s support of its intervention in Bahrain, said Salem. Yet if it becomes clear that the Assad regime will not survive, Saudi Arabia will have to withdraw its support, he added.
Syria is a Zero-Sum Game for Iran
Karim Sadjadpour C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, August 19, 2012
Speaking on CSPAN’s Washington Journal, Carnegie’s Karim Sadjadpour explained that the alliance between Iran and Syria has been critical to the Assad regime’s efforts to maintain power during the on-going uprising in Syria. Although the alliance is not based on cultural, sectarian, or ethnic affinities, Iran and Syria have been stalwart strategic allies dating back to 1980. For Iran, “Syria has been its most consistent global ally and provides an important strategic geographic link to Hezbollah,” noted Sadjadpour. The Iranian regime also “has repression down to a science and is sharing their tactics in this regard with the Assad regime,” he added. For Iran, the perpetuation of the Assad regime is critical in maintaining its regional influence, and Iran has demonstrated it will do whatever it can to aid Assad and his repressive regime, Sadjadpour concluded.
Iran Will Be Central No Matter the Outcome
Karim Sadjadpour New York Times, August 9, 2012
No country stands to lose more from the collapse of the Assad regime in Syria than its lone regional ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran. For this reason, no country has offered more financial and strategic aid to try and keep afloat a drowning Bashar Assad than Tehran.
The Iran-Syria alliance is a not a natural bond between nations, but a tactical-cum-strategic alliance between two authoritarian regimes. Mutual contempt for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq brought them together in 1980, and mutual fear and loathing (in that order) of the United States and Israel has helped sustain them.
Iran’s interests are to ensure that Syria remains a geo-political ally and a thoroughfare to Hezbollah. Given their lack of confidence that a Sunni-ruled, post-Assad order in Damascus would guarantee these interests, they’ve doubled and tripled down on Assad, even as civilian casualties in Syria approach 20,000. In this context, international diplomatic efforts by Kofi Annan or others to compel Tehran to abandon Assad are all but futile.In the words of Iranian envoy Saeed Jalili, who met Bashar Assad Tuesday in Damascus, “Iran will absolutely not allow the axis of resistance, of which it considers Syria to be a main pillar, to be broken in any way.” In other words, if the ends are opposing the United States and Israel, almost any means can be justified.
Iran’s combination of agility and chutzpah, however, should not be underestimated. When the Assad regime finally loses Damascus, Tehran will likely try and take credit for his exit, and use their petro-dollars to cultivate and co-opt his successors, much like they did in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
What’s important to Tehran is not the sectarian identity of the men who run Damascus, but their ideological outlook. Can they be partners in resistance?
In contrast to Iraq, however, where their Shiite brethren were a demographic majority, Iran will be working with an increasingly sectarian Sunni population whom they’ve been indirectly complicit in massacring the last two years.
Consequently, until then, Tehran will continue to advocate and pursue two objectives—Assad staying and calm restored—that are irreconcilable and bloody.
The Iranian Role in Syria
Karim Sadjadpour BBC, August 7, 2012
Speaking on the BBC, Carnegie’s Karim Sadjadpour discussed Iran’s role in the increasingly sectarian civil war in Syria. For Iran, Syria is its last remaining consistent ally in the international community, Sadjadpour. Thus, for Iran “the results of the Syrian conflict are a zero sum game; they stand to lose in a major way if the Assad regime falls,” he explained. Iran carries significant influence in Syria because of its financial support, its provisions of subsidized oil and arms, and the tactics and strategy it provides. Clearly, Sadjadpour added, the Iranian regime has shared its philosophy of never compromising with a domestic uprising with the Assad regime. Ultimately, the Iranians will continue to “publically call for reform and reconciliation while privately arming the Assad regime,” concluded Sadjadpour. The loss of a firm ally would be too devastating for the Iranian regime for it to plausibly engage in an international effort aimed at a political transition that would remove the Assad regime.
Chaos In Syria And Regional Implications
Karim Sadjadpour NPR’s Diane Rehm Show, July 23, 2012
As the battle for Aleppo becomes increasingly violent, government troops in Damascus have gone door to door in an effort to clear out the rebels in the capital. Violence continues to spiral out of control with the international community hesitating to take action, due to the complexity of the Syrian case. In recent days, rebels have stepped up guerrilla style attacks in urban areas and the Syrian army has responded with gunships and tanks. Speaking on the Diane Rehm Show, Carnegie’s Karim Sadjadpour explained that over 3,000 people have been killed in July alone and the United States has begun working behind the scenes, along with Gulf States like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to support the rebels. Sadjadpour said “I think what the U.S. can do is to help the opposition help themselves, meaning helping them with ammunitions, with weapons, with information, with intelligence.” However, “there’s very little appetite to have U.S. boots on the ground,” concluded Sadjadpour.
Is the Syrian Regime’s Fall Imminent—Again?
Yezid Sayigh Al Hayat, July 26, 2012
Since the beginning of July, the Syrian regime has suffered a series of blows underlining its steady loss of territorial and institutional control. First came the defection of Brigadier-General Manaf Tlas, a Republican Guard brigade commander and close associate of President Bashar al-Assad. This was soon followed by Nawaf Fares, Syria’s ambassador to Iraq and the first senior diplomat to join the ranks of the opposition. Then came what appeared to be a coordinated country-wide offensive by opposition rebels in Damascus and Aleppo—Syria’s capital and second largest cities, respectively—and their capture of several border crossings with neighboring Turkey and Iraq. Last came the dramatic bombing that killed several members of the regime’s “crisis management cell,” key figures of its inner security circle.
This sequence of events has prompted a rush to revise predictions of when the regime will fall; while previous estimates claimed it was a matter of months, it is now apparently mere weeks away. This is premature. Certainly, the regime is suffering a rate of political, economic, and military attrition that it cannot sustain indefinitely. But the repeated demonstrations of its continued ability to ratchet up its military response to new challenges suggests that it has not yet exhausted its reserves, and that the potential for further escalation of the level of violence is high.
That there is a serious international realignment in favor of a compromise is strongly suggested by the conflicting reactions of the Syrian National Council, which until very recently rejected any deal with the regime. On July 24, George Sabra, a member of the council’s executive committee, said that it would “agree to the departure of Assad and the transfer of his powers to a regime figure, who would lead a transitional period like what happened in Yemen.” The council’s chairman, Abdul-Baset Sida, and foreign relations bureau head Bassma Kodmani quickly denied that the council would join a unity government, let alone one headed by a regime figure. But clearly this is an issue now facing the opposition—as a result, in large part, of the ground it has gained inside Syria during the past two months.
Of course, it is entirely possible that a deal will not be reached. The Assad family and their closest associates are reported to be completely unwilling to acknowledge just how far the balance has shifted against them, or to abandon the military solution in favor of a negotiated transition. After all, while the opposition claims to control 30 to 60 percent of the country, the regime has not yet relinquished any area permanently. With a few exceptions such as al-Rastan, the rebels remain unable to hold any location in which to train, rearm, or assemble for major combat operations without suffering encirclement and assault. Meanwhile, the regime’s hold on the core of the army has not been decisively broken, despite the daily defections and mounting casualties it continues to suffer.
Even if a deal is in fact reached, it is likely to collapse quickly. The regime and opposition will fight on, but a sudden and dramatic swing in the balance remains improbable. Since there is no prospect of external military intervention (despite continuing calls for the establishment of safe areas and no-fly zones), only the defection of an entire army brigade could trigger a chain reaction precipitating regime collapse sooner than expected. Otherwise, it is far more likely that we will see further attempts by domestic and external actors to capitalize on the mounting signs of regime weakness to cobble together new deals and engineer pauses in the armed conflict. Whether these attempts are successful or not, the whole messy sequence will take at least until the end of 2012 to unfold.
Is Direct Syrian Intervention In Lebanon Inevitable?
Yezid Sayigh Al Monitor, May 31, 2012
The clashes that left several people dead and others wounded in Lebanon over the past few weeks have, for the moment, been brought under control; but the risks of the Syrian crisis spilling across the Lebanese border are set to grow, not diminish. The emergence of a de facto sanctuary in northern Lebanon for the Free Syrian Army poses a particular challenge for the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati. Instructing the Lebanese army to seal off the border would be bitterly divisive domestically, but failure to act decisively could lead, sooner or later, to direct Syrian intervention.
The signs are there. The Lebanese authorities have already received several warnings from Syria demanding an end to the flow of rebels and weapons across their common border. Journalists with access to decision-makers in Damascus relay the message that the Mikati government’s policy of “warding off evil” — i.e. formal neutrality — is no longer tolerable, since it is not preventing northern Lebanon from being used as a support base for the Free Syrian Army.
Rifaat Ali Eid is the head of the pro-Syrian Arab Democratic Party and a leading political figure in the small Alawi community in Tripoli, which has come under attack from armed Sunni militants, reportedly backed by fugitive Syrian rebels. He has given the clearest signal yet of the Syrian government’s possible intentions: “If Lebanon enters the unknown,” he predicted in mid-May, “an Arab army will intervene … the UN will request the Syrian army to enter north Lebanon to resolve the situation there, because it is the most knowledgeable and capable Arab army in this regard.”Eid is a marginal figure in Lebanese politics, but Syria’s intervention in Lebanon in 1976 followed the same sequence: private warnings delivered by Syrian President Hafez al-Assad to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Lebanese Left; public hints of Syrian intentions issued by Palestinian and Lebanese parties and media affiliated to the Syrian regime; and the claim that Syria was responding to an appeal for protection from Christian leaders. When these warnings failed, a Syrian armored brigade entered Lebanon and stopped just across the border. It was the forerunner of a major Syrian force deployment, which entered Lebanon two months later.
There are several obstacles to a significant Syrian intervention in Lebanon in 2012. First, the Syrian army is already stretched at home, and cannot easily spare the troops – or the armor – for such an incursion. Certainly, establishing a “humanitarian corridor” to protect the Alawi community of Tripoli’s Jabal Muhsen neighborhood would require securing the rest of the city and the Akkar region, a task so fraught with danger as to be unthinkable. The risk of defections would also increase unless units completely loyal to the Assad regime are used, but these already appear to bear the brunt of confronting the rebellion in Syria.
However, the Syrian regime may regard a brief, more limited “mopping up” operation in the border zone as a dual deterrent. This kind of operation could serve both to underscore to the Lebanese the potential costs of granting sanctuary to Syrian rebels, as well as to demonstrate the regime’s determination and capacity to act, thus discouraging other neighboring countries from allowing similar sanctuaries on their soil. A limited cross-border operation in northern Lebanon would act as a “dress rehearsal” for the wider armed conflict that may develop if the Syrian crisis degenerates into full civil war, or the Friends of Syria gear up for their own military intervention.
There would be other advantages to a cross-border intervention from the Syrian regime’s perspective. The United States would no doubt condemn an incursion into Lebanon, but its stance would be complicated by its own concern – shared by other Western governments – about the possible emergence of al-Qaeda-style jihadism in Tripoli. Its inclination to assist the Lebanese army might similarly be tempered by a reluctance to get overly involved with a government in which Hezbollah is represented. Russia is likely to regard a limited Syrian operation as a legitimate act of self-defense, despite recent statements by its foreign minister holding the Assad regime primarily responsible for the bloodshed in Syria.
The reactions of Syria’s other neighbors would be no less complex. Turkey would certainly protest a Syrian incursion into Lebanon; but it has repeatedly sent its own military into northern Iraq in pursuit of guerrillas from the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), and may yet claim the right to act similarly against them in northern Syria, where their presence has increased. Iraq, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Arab League’s council of foreign ministers, has its own problems with Sunni militants and is reported to have exchanged information with Syrian intelligence over the infiltration of jihadists from its territory into Syria. Jordan, whose king was the first Arab leader to call on al-Assad to step down last year, has tightened controls over the smuggling of arms across its border, and has seen its trade with Syria actually increase since the economic embargo was declared last November.
The most significant impact will instead be on Lebanon’s fragile domestic politics. So far, the Lebanese political class appears committed to defusing sectarian tensions and pulling the country back from the brink of violence. The all-party dialogue called for by President Michel Sleiman on June 11 is timely, but it will have to do more than produce agreement on broad political principles. Somehow, against the odds, it must generate a national consensus on how to handle the Syrian crisis and the de facto rebel sanctuary in the north. Otherwise, a Syrian incursion will become more likely (even if not yet imminent), and Lebanon will edge closer to the tipping point of its own delicate internal balance.
The Syrian Opposition Needs a Political Strategy
Yezid Sayigh Commentary, May 11, 2012
The Arab League is calling on the badly divided Syrian opposition to unite, in order to “negotiate as one bloc with the Syrian government.” To that end, it has invited main opposition factions to meet under its auspices in Cairo in mid-May. A ten-person committee representing the Syrian National Council, the National Coordination Body, the Kurdish National Council, and the Syrian Democratic Platform have been meeting weekly since mid-April to formulate a common vision of a post-Assad Syria. But unless the opposition develops a clear transition plan and a credible political strategy for winning over key sectors in Syria, it will fail in bringing about change.
A challenge bedeviling the opposition since summer 2011 has been to agree on quotas for factional representation, the distribution of top posts and leadership committees, and operating procedures within a unified organizational framework. But even if the factions reach some formula for unity in Cairo, they will still not be ready for the complex challenges that lie ahead, whether or not serious talks with the regime actually take place.
More importantly, the Syrian opposition has not yet developed a strategy to chip away at the regime’s support base. To foment change, the opposition needs to encourage dissent and splits within the regime’s core ranks and support base. Minorities that have rallied behind the regime out of fear of the alternative need to be reassured of their post-Assad future. And the large urban middle class that dislikes the regime but is deterred by the high costs of openly opposing it and discouraged by the opposition’s disunity and militarization needs to be convinced that the opposition offers a credible alternative.
These sectors of Syrian society are key to tipping the struggle for power in Syria. Indeed, the actions of the Friends of Syria are premised on the assumption that the economic and financial sanctions they have imposed on Syria might eventually prompt core regime members to remove President Bashar al-Assad or prod the country’s minorities or urban middle classes into open opposition. Yet in the absence of a political strategy to channel the distress of these social sectors and convince them of a viable alternative, simply hoping that sanctions will somehow produce the desired results is no strategy at all. Indeed, the current approach is prompting an exodus of businessmen from the country, and of senior army officers who slip into Turkey rather than lead their units into rebellion. This is eroding some of the very sectors upon which opposition hopes are at least partly pinned.
The Friends of Syria can afford to live with the lack of a political strategy, but the opposition cannot. It has yet to negotiate and draft what veteran Syrian activist Michel Kilo calls “a practicable political pact . . . defining the features of the phase of the transfer of power, how long it will take, the tasks of this phase, and ways to liquidate tyranny, present a democratic alternative, and ensure the people’s rights and so on.” Announcing a convincing transition plan is equally important whether, against all odds, a substantive dialogue starts with the regime or if the regime persists in waging indiscriminate violence and eliminates the possibility of a negotiated transition or interim pact.
The opposition must go well beyond simply demanding the regime’s downfall or articulating highly idealistic visions for a future democratic Syria. Formal commitment to democracy and rule of law, political and cultural pluralism, civil and human rights, equality for all citizens, and freedom of opinion is highly commendable, but making clear how the country will get there is another matter. Nor is it enough to present general proposals for the procedures and mechanisms through which a new constitution may be drafted and approved or for a new electoral system. Democratic transition in Syria unavoidably means negotiating formulas for power sharing and guarantees for individuals, parties, and communities that have the most to lose. Otherwise they can raise the costs of transition very considerably.
The toughest question facing the opposition is how to convince Alawis—or at least a significant portion of them—that they have a stake in a post-Assad Syria. This is closely related to the issue of what the opposition proposes to do with the ruling Baath Party should it be toppled from power, and with the senior army officer corps and the internal security apparatus. The latter two must certainly be democratized, and the disproportionate representation of Alawis in top positions corrected. But this must be done without pauperizing wide cross sections of the Alawi community that depend on employment within the state sector and without alienating the community through collective punishment.
Indeed, planning to criminalize the Baath Party, as happened in Iraq, would be unwise. This is not so much because the Syrian Baath claims 3 million members—whereas its Iraqi counterpart adopted an elitist approach, deliberately keeping its number small to ensure loyalty and effectiveness; a great many members of the Syrian Baath will owe it no special allegiance if it loses power. Rather, the rationale for coexisting with the Baath Party in Syria is that it will provide an institutional means for Alawi participation in formal politics and a potential parliamentary vehicle that is far from being a mere front for Alawi interests.
The opposition is not, in any case, in a position to dissolve the Baath Party, or to dictate terms. It faces a hard enough time cohering and formulating common rules for political dialogue and engagement within its own ranks. And yet the opposition—and some of its key external backers—has yet to absorb the full implications of being up against a regime that is weakened but still far from being on the ropes. Those in the opposition who use their belief in the inevitability of the regime’s fall to absolve themselves of the obligation to develop a political strategy that can bring about a real transition risk becoming marginal and irrelevant.
Every transitional experience in the region over the past decade—not least that of Iraq since 2003—confirms that democratic transition goes through several stages, each posing multiple and possibly bloody obstacles. The process will be slow, but convincing those who are anxious about the identity and intentions of their future leaders requires engagement and a clear strategy.
This is where the significance of the Annan peace plan lies: in compelling the Syrian opposition to develop a comprehensive transition plan and a political strategy for engaging the regime—whether through negotiation or confrontation—and appealing to key constituents within the country. The opposition won’t persuade Assad to share or leave power simply by doing this, but it can hope to generate pressures within his support base and help build political and social constituencies whose engagement is essential in pushing toward transition and whose participation will be essential for post-conflict political reconciliation and economic reconstruction.
Indeed, whether talks take place in the near future or not, the outcome of the Syrian standoff depends on shifting Syria’s internal political balance within the next six-to-nine months. By this time the combined effects of attrition among regime ranks, currency devaluation, and fuel shortages affecting summer irrigation and winter heating may broaden receptiveness to the opposition’s political strategy. But first it has to have one.
The Syrian Opposition at the Crossroads
Yezid Sayigh Al-Hayat, May 3, 2012
The Syrian opposition is coming to a crossroads. The persistence of the United Nations and Arab League may eventually result in the “comprehensive political dialogue” called for in the peace plan put forward by their joint envoy, Kofi Annan. But the badly fragmented Syrian opposition may suffer further divisions during what will inevitably be complicated negotiations with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, fraught with contentious compromises and halfway solutions. Conversely, should Annan fail, the existing opposition coalitions would face the no-less-daunting challenge of effectively controlling dynamic forces and processes on the ground in Syria. And those forces seem just as capable of producing yet more fragmentation and new local contenders for political and military leadership.
Either way, it is abundantly clear by now that the external actors with the means to unseat Assad by force will go no further than they already have, certainly so long as the opposition remains badly divided.
But Russia remains firmly opposed to the Chapter 7 option—which the United Kingdom has also described as “premature.” And Turkey has not yet taken any of the practical steps that would signal that it imminently intends to undertake military action on its common border with Syria.
Instead, when Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Araby recently invited the divided Syrian opposition factions to meet in Cairo in mid-May, he called on them to unite in order to “negotiate as one bloc with the Syrian government.” This suggests that external actors have no immediate plans to move beyond tightening economic sanctions, even if the diplomatic process remains overshadowed by violence and offers little credible hope for a resolution of the crisis.
These realities apparently left their mark on the Arab League’s Council of Foreign Ministers, which on April 26 called for the UN Security Council to take action to end the killing of civilians in Syria under its Chapter 7 powers to “restore international peace and security.” But the council hastily withdrew that initial statement and issued a revised draft that made no mention of Chapter 7. It instead reaffirmed the Arab action plan of January 22 that called on Assad to hand over power to an interim president—a demand that is conspicuously absent from the Annan peace plan, which the Arab League still endorses. That suggests serious disagreement and uncertainty within the region and international community over how to proceed.
Under these circumstances, the Syrian regime has an opportunity to keep opposition and international ranks divided. There are no genuinely new faces or parties competing in the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 7, but Assad continues to dangle the possibility that the opposition may be allowed to join—or, according to some reports, even head—a new government.
The regime is also said to be floating the idea of reviving the “national dialogue committee” under government auspices. Predictably, this would include supposed “opposition” parties handpicked, if not created, by the regime, while excluding the principal movements that reject dialogue with Assad until the conditions stipulated by the Annan plan are implemented in full. Regime proposals are unlikely to gain traction with the opposition or its regional and international backers, but Russia and some Arab states—such as Iraq and Egypt—may present them as opportunities to keep negotiations going.
In the meantime, those seeking the unconditional departure of Assad have remained focused on identifying “tipping points”—which, when reached, would prompt key institutional actors or social constituencies inside Syria to move decisively against the regime—and searching for the means to reach them. A common expectation among external actors is that senior Alawi military commanders will remove Assad themselves, as the cost to their community in both lives and livelihoods increases and the realization deepens that, in the long run, the regime cannot win. Another is that ever-increasing economic and financial sanctions will push the country’s businessmen and large middle class into openly challenging the regime, delivering the critical mass needed to secure its downfall.
These expectations only serve to highlight the glaring lack of a political strategy capable of generating and expanding these hoped-for splits in regime ranks, or of convincing middle-class Syrians to move into open opposition. These citizens may dislike the regime, but they are deterred by the high personal costs of defiance and worried about the potential alternative to the Assad regime. Any political strategy looking to turn the tide in favor of the opposition will have to convince these Syrians that it is less than suicidal to publicly come out against the Syrian leadership.
Such a strategy must also address the opposition’s most difficult and potentially most divisive questions: Is power sharing an option? If so, under what conditions? And if not, how does it propose to deal with existing senior government officials and civil servants—or with the Baath Party itself—in the new Syria it seeks to establish? These questions demand responses, not because this will persuade the top ranks of the regime to compromise, but rather to reassure those constituencies and the swathe of society they represent and neutralize them, if not win them over.
This is a problem for the opposition as a whole, but it poses a particular problem for the principal opposition coalition in exile, the Syrian National Council. Inside sources reveal that its key Western and Arab backers, which recognized it on April 1 as “the umbrella organization under which Syrian opposition groups are gathering,” do not feel it is living up to expectations. Some privately await the emergence of new leaders and movements within Syria that demonstrate greater political and organizational coherence.
But this will take time. Until then, the existing opposition movements are faced with the prospect of entering into a formal dialogue with the regime for which they remain unprepared. Without substantive proposals that can enhance their credibility among the diverse audiences inside Syria, the chances of weakening the regime remain slim, leaving only a prospect of continuing violence. .
December 10, 2012
Russia’s defense of Syria’s Assad is overdetermined. (And don’t believe for a minute its claims that it is not protecting Assad: walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, flies like a duck-it’s a duck.)
There are military-diplomatic reasons. Syria is a long-term ally in the region-Russia’s last one. Syria provides Russia with its only port in the Med. Russia has legitimate fears of another jihadi outpost, this one at the heart of the Middle East.
There are domestic political reasons: in a reprise of its role in the Holy Alliance, Russia’s extreme fear of an popular overthrow of the government leads it support any regime facing popular opposition, no matter how odious that regime might be.
But a big reason can only be described as psychological, and rooted in Russia’s obsession with the Cold War, and in particular its loss in the Cold War to the US,. Recent Russian squealing about the US’s alleged lapsing into a Cold War mentality (e.g., the Magnitsky Act) is so much projection that reveals just who really thinks about the Cold War non-stop. More generally, Russia is obsessed with respect, and regaining its great power status.
Putin for one marinates in these obsessions.
One effect of this obsession is the pronounced tendency to oppose reflexively anything that the United States supports, or that Russia even suspects it might support. Hence, the fact that the US is attempting to orchestrate Assad’s ouster is sufficient for Putin and Lavrov and the rest of the gang to oppose it.
Ironically, in so doing they are jeopardizing Russia’s more objectively-based reasons for wanting to maintain a foothold in Syria. By creating obstacles to every attempt for the UN or NATO to get rid of Assad and transition to some other government, Russia (assisted by China) has ensured that the conflict has become a protracted war to the knife in which the most radical forces-jihadi forces, in particular-have decisive advantages. Given its longstanding relationship with all aspects of the Syrian military and security forces, and its connection with Assad, if anyone could have brokered an outcome that would have avoided the bloodshed and chaos that have occurred in the last two years, and which will almost get worse when the inevitable comes to pass, it was Russia. But it dug in its heels, permitting Assad to hang on, and to escalate, and to make a cataclysmic end almost certain.
When this end occurs, Russia’s influence in Syria will be nil, and its image in Syria and the Middle East generally will be deeply blackened. It can kiss Tartus good bye. There will be a major jihadi enclave that much closer to Chechnya.
If it had not responded so reflexively to western initiatives to find some way of getting Assad out, and indeed, if it had utilized its connections and influence, it could have preserved something. Instead it will lose everything. Even overlooking the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding, and the dangers that a post-civil war Syria will pose to its people and the region, and just looking from a purely self-interested Russian perspective, Putin and Lavrov played this badly. The opposite game will prove very expensive for Russia. Yes, the US would have gained from Assad’s departure, especially at the outset (not so clear now, given how things have gone, but his eventual departure is inevitable). In the Russian zero sum world view, given the salience of the US in the Russian mind, that was sufficient reason to fight for Assad to the bitter end. But it will prove to be a grievous wound, and an entirely self-inflicted one
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Syria Today | What Does “Activism” Mean in Today’s Syria?
|What Does “Activism” Mean in Today’s Syria?|
|November 2011 – Focus|
|Syrian citizens must transcend political differences to fulfil social needsBy Massa Mufti-Hamwi
Photo Fadi al-Hamwi”How would you like to celebrate Syria’s Independence Day?” I asked a group of dynamic 12- to 14-year-olds during a workshop introducing the idea of “active citizenship”. Their responses were mostly about performing and dedicating “nationalistic songs” to their homeland that invoke combat, and heroism fuelled by patriotism, anger and pride.This encounter, and many others throughout my four years with the Massar project of the Syria Trust for Development, whose mission is to equip young people with citizenship values and skills, taught me how primitive the notion of “citizenship” still is in our society. I saw how difficult it is for people who were brought up, if not indoctrinated, to believe that nationalism is the essential form of loyalty and service to one’s country to start thinking that this form of service is no longer enough.Today, our nation is paying the price for not having instituted “active citizenship” as its motto and doctrine for the past decades. Citizenship is essentially comprised of two parts: citizen’s rights and responsibilities. As a result, what we are witnessing today is a new awakening of activism calling for citizens’ rights, along with the state’s responsibility to enforce security.Yet “activism” in today’s context has also been categorically reduced to “political activism”, which entails taking one of two positions: “pro-regime” or “opposition”. In other words, it has fallen into the “You’re either with us or against us” type of discourse, which vividly recalls George Bush Junior’s wisest statement. But do we remember as vividly where this “black and white” thinking has led the world to?
Since revolutionary change in any country involves the entire population, what then is the position of the third, “silent” group of Syrians? What about those who have not disclosed their positions and yet have been incurring huge financial losses? Aren’t they also simplistically labelled as non-active “cautious opportunists”? Isn’t the very strength of this group manifested in its “intentional neutrality”, and its influence jeopardized if it chooses to fall into the zero-sum game?
In fact, the predicament of this business group is much more complex than it may appear. Yet the fundamental question remains: Is this group ready for “activism” outside a political framework?
For the real danger in reducing “activism” to “political activism” lies in the absence of a plan to stop the escalating brutality.
How will the country ever heal if the language of vengeance has already replaced the language of peace? How will the anticipated change bring a better future if people, whichever side they represent, are “too wounded” to be part of any common settlement for one unified country?
How, then, to locate a proactive, influential position that adopts professional dedication and commitment to protect and safeguard what can be saved, despite the growing uncertainties? Isn’t this kind of socially-based activism also imperative, though much less promoted, when so much wisdom and persistence are needed at this difficult time?
As Mother Theresa said: “Love cannot remain by itself… [Alone] it has no meaning. Love has to be put into action…and that action is service.” In other words, one doesn’t need to be a soldier or martyr to serve one’s country. By being human, or acting to remain human, one is also serving it.
And this is what “social activism” is. Guided by moral vision and genuine concern for our fellow humans’ needs, it is measured by our ability to surpass despair and find solutions. This can never be realized through political activism only. For this, we need the power of actions that nurture active citizenship and bridge differences, fulfil social needs, and replace the use of force with empowerment, advocacy and peace.
Massa Mufti-Hamwi is an education management consultant.
In the last few weeks, violence has spanned the country from the heart of the capital in Umawiyeen Square to beyond the Turkish border. As the cost in Syrian lives continues to grow, amounting to hundreds daily, clashes and unrest are also severely impacting those still living through or near them.
|Copyright© 2011 – SYRIA TODAY Magazine – All rights reserved|
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Associated Press, AP 1:51 PM ET
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Associated Press, AP 1:07 PM ET
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Associated Press, AP DEC 15
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Associated Press, AP DEC 15
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Associated Press, AP 11:00 AM ET
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Associated Press, AP DEC 14
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