February 26, 2012

The Syria Conundrum

Almost a year ago in this space, I wrote regarding the unfolding situation in Syria:

It is impossible to predict with certainty, but I cannot see a turning back now or restoration of calm. The genie of increasingly insistent protests seems out of the bottle, and one now wonders whether Bashar is ultimately willing to kill, not scores, but thousands, in a desperate gambit to cow his populace, a terrible eventuality that will only lead to the regime's ultimate demise regardless…given promises of reform…are proving instead horrifying rivulets of blood on the streets of myriad cities, towns and villages through Syria, it seems highly likely protests will gain in size, breadth and insistency, shortly spreading to the downtowns of Aleppo and Damascus.

Fast forward a year and we see the apple does not fall far from the tree, when it comes to the Assad family. While subduing the insurrection to date has not been conducted with quite the same singular, brutish decisiveness his father (or, more particularly, his uncle Rifaat al-Assad) had manifested in the full-bore, scorched earth campaign that was 1982 Hama, the incremental escalation and toll is ratcheting up mercilessly to equal these historical horrors on an aggregated basis. In particular, the increasingly incessant shelling of districts like Babr Amr in Homs (not to mention the deprivations visited on forlorn towns like Idlib and Dara’a)—with zero regard for the many scores of civilians felled weekly—showcases tactics in equal measure cowardly and repulsive in the extreme.

The stench of death rising daily from Homs is an indelible black mark on Bashar, and were there even a smidgen of legitimacy left the regime could pretend to enjoy, this increasingly crude campaign has extinguished any semblance of same. One must add to this gory list documented use of torture (including against children), use of fragmentation mortar devices without warning, mass executions, among other horrific fare documented in a recent U.N. report. Indeed, it is manifestly clear that despite rosy optics around his ophthalmologist background, his attractive British-born JP Morgan alumnus wife, and such Knightsbridge style trappings—the man has now been nakedly revealed to be nothing more than a mass-murdering thug--happy to visit such horrors on his own people, no less--in a manner which already warrants war crime charges. Given these grim realities, we are facing an onslaught of elite opinion that ‘something must be done’ to remedy the increasingly intolerable situation. This past Friday, we had three opinion pieces splashed prominently across each of the New York Times (Anne-Marie Slaughter), Wall Street Journal (Fouad Ajami) and the Financial Times (Emile Nakhleh). Unsurprisingly, the best of the lot is Nakhleh’s (the FT consistently has a far higher caliber of opinion writing than either of its two other main competitors), but I want to touch on each in turn.

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s effort, I’m afraid, was the sloppiest, almost offering up something of a parody respecting the over-reaching ‘liberal hawk’ wing’s more excited exertions. Perhaps emboldened by the relative ‘ease’ of the Libyan campaign (see her indecently hasty post-Libya ‘victory lap’ in the FT last August, indecent given post-Gaddafi Libya’s many ongoing travails, some of them sketched out here), Slaughter offers up a chaotically concocted brew of ‘kitchen sink’ policy recommendations. These generally military policy prescriptions (worth noting, Slaughter is not a military expert) most prominently include the creation of “no-kill zones” (near the Turkish, Lebanese and Jordanian borders, no mention of the Iraqi or Israeli ones, unsurprisingly), said zones to be managed by ‘already active civilian committees’, but requiring countries “like Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan” to arm opposition soldiers with “anti-tank, counter-sniper and portable antiaircraft weapons”. Slaughter then adds special forces to the mix, to be inserted from Qatar, Turkey and “possibly Britain and France” (Slaughter, I suspect speculating about Turkey, writes: “some may be there already”, regardless, the countries listed will doubtless be gratified by her volunteering their services). We are advised these special forces will allow opposition troops “to cordon off population centers and rid them of snipers."

Said Special Forces now hard at work in the alleyways of Aleppo and the Damascene suburbs, Homs and Hama, or the 'no kill zone' committees now perched on the Jordanian, Lebanese and Turkish frontiers (never mind King Abdullah, regardless of whether he inherited any of the ‘pluck’ of father, would likely not agree to this action—given how lucky he has been to date to avoid an uprising in his own back-yard--he may well have other priorities just now; as for Lebanon, you can imagine how a ‘no-kill zone’ there could instead rapidly transform into another “kill zone” instead, alas), the “no-kill zones” would then expand, almost as if by osmosis-like magic (recall for Slaughter these zones are meant to have as “absolute priority” simply “public safety and humanitarian aid”, not serve as spear-head for offensive moves). All this would simply require “intelligence focused on tank and aircraft movements, the placement of artillery batteries and communications lines among Syrian forces”. In turn this will, per her telling, allow for the weakening of pro-government forces so they agree truces on a regional, and then national basis.

In case anything should get out of hand (say revanchist killings by Sunnis of Alawi, to take an obvious example) Slaughter casually avers: “revenge attacks will not be tolerated” (by whom, the Gulf States that would ostensibly be bank-rolling the effort? Cameron and Sarkozy? The Turks? Others? And how would this punitive, behavioral ‘claw-back’ type mechanism get enforced?). With all due respect, might she have a better peek at Libya since her triumphant FT piece of last summer where the ‘hard-hearted’ realists were remonstrated, not only for their callousness, but also their piddling policy chops and lack of requisite intestinal fortitude? And if all the above weren’t enough, Slaughter treats us too to rather racy talk of “remotely piloted helicopters” (for delivery of “either” cargo or weapons, and for good measure, “to attack Syrian air defenses”). Little discussed is the sophistication of Syrian air defenses, which the Russians (and Soviets before them) have assisted Damascus with for decades now. There is also talk of the ‘leasing’ of drones (something akin to Hertz meets Northrop?), just in case the one’s Ankara already has on tap aren’t quite enough for the task at hand (Ms. Slaughter should be reminded Turkey's current drone capabilities are middling at best).

I provide all this color not to gratuitously take pot-shots at Ms. Slaughter, who is doubtless a competent, well regarded policy practitioner. But she simply cannot have it both ways. She introduces her op-ed saying “simply arming the opposition, in many ways the easiest option, would bring about exactly the scenario the world would fear most: a proxy war that would spill into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan and fracture Syria along sectarian lines… [and] could allow Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to gain a foothold in Syria and perhaps gain access to chemical and biological weapons.” Does Ms. Slaughter genuinely believe that her veritable cornucopia of military recommendations, ‘no kill zones’ on at least three borders of the Syrian Arab Republic, Special Forces inserted, drone strikes, helicopter sorties, and all the rest of it, somehow provides a more coherent road-map to a peaceful post-Assad Syria characterized by multi-sectarian harmony and stability than, say, a more conventional ‘train and equip’ effort? Or is it all a rather elaborate attempt to package up something that superficially sounds credible and doesn't involve dreadful sounding things like 'boots on the ground' (at least ours)? After all, were one to strip out all the noise, and besides the laudable humanitarian goals behind the no-kill zones (though good luck to an inhabitant of say, Babr Amr, getting there, more immediately let’s be focused on ensuring the ICRC can access the most beleaguered areas, no?), these zones per Slaughter’s plan are really meant in the main to allow for the very thing she warns could allow for unpleasant policy outcomes, that is, they are focused on allowing for the arming of the opposition to help expand the territorial remit of the ‘no kill’ zones. So let us at least be clear that essentially we would be embarking on an armed conflict with Syria, with the buck needing to stop somewhere beyond Doha if matters started heading south.

Mr. Ajami’s WSJ op-ed, meantime, reads like the typically lyrical musings he regularly dishes out to the (I suspect far too credulous) readership of the Wall Street Journal. And in case this tidy Journal venue isn’t enough, Ajami has a regular seat around Anderson Cooper’s table, where in sagacious tones he plays wizened dispenser of prophetic apercus (too often dutifully lapped up by the anchor), which have a common theme: Obama is a weak declinist, presiding over America’s Great Abdication, the Arab Street more than anything else is befuddled by Obama’s manifold weakness (“[in] a battered Syria, a desperate people await America’s help and puzzle of its leader’s passivity”), instead we should man up and charge the ramparts (though not sending the Marines via frigates into the Alawite heartlands of Latakia, Ajami reassures), rather than “frighten ourselves with phantoms of our own making.” Along the way Ajami treats us to misleading bromides about how it is Assad who has created the possible Islamist radicals in his mix (dispatching them to Iraq to fight the American Crusaders with a “promise of pardon”, we are told, with little to no evidence to speak of), essentially suggesting were radicalized Sunnis to get a tad rowdy amidst an escalating Syrian civil war, Assad would simply be getting his just desserts via such merited blow-back. After all this titillating foreplay, and with the anti-Barack aspersions having gotten the Journal’s editors in animated tizzy, when it comes to concrete policy recommendations, Ajami volunteers relatively thin gruel: take advantage of a demoralized Syrian Army via training, weapons, and “safe havens”, while recognizing the Syrian National Council as Syria’s rightful leaders (little discussed are the schisms within the SNC and how they do not necessarily represent all minority groups within Syria, not to mention other factors to include suspicions by various domestic players of nefarious intent by outsiders attempting to wield influence with the SNC, depending, Turkish, Saudi, and/or Western influences, among others). While portions of these recommendations, as I will touch on below, are not all wholly objectionable, they are certainly no panacea, or even close.

It is Emile Nakhleh’s op-ed however which is the most persuasive, not only because he dispenses with Ajami’s Obama as Appeaser claptrap, or Slaughter’s Qatari forces parachuting into Homs, but also more because he makes a very fundamental point which I have agreed with since at least last April. The pillar of his argument is that this regime is doomed, already resigned to the dust-bin of history. The longer the denouement, the bloodier it will prove. So why not act now? To be frank, I agree, but with many reservations. These include:

1) Unlike with Libya, the opposition do not yet control territorially contiguous areas of operations, making any effort to assist them far more complicated;

2) Syria’s strategic location in the Levant involves far more complex regional dynamics (again, as contrasted with Libya), implicating at minimum its immediate neighbors of Lebanon, Turkey (particularly with respect to Kurdish areas of Syria emboldened amidst the chaos to pursue irredentist claims), Iraq, Israel and, lest we forget, Jordan (heretofore a reasonably stable, reliable ally amidst the Arab Spring despite widespread dissatisfaction among its Palestinian majority with the Hashemite throne);

3) The relationship between Syrian opposition outside the country and inside is still tenuous and patchy, at best, so that attempts to recognize the Syrian National Council do not guarantee a positive, ‘bankable’ spill-over impact in-country given this still evident lack of cohesion;

4) Related to “3”, even the external opposition itself is far more divided than Libya’s was (at least at the conception of the Libyan uprising), largely a function of Syria’s more complex ethnic and sectarian make-up, and the same issues with lack of cohesiveness applies to the so-called Free Syrian Army within Syria (they are more simply a series of localized militias, if the local opposition itself generally has a more unified agenda, namely, for Bashar to be ejected from power, but then what, regarding preservation of consistent goals?);

5) Assad’s Army is larger than Gaddafi’s, and he will unfortunately also likely retain more loyalist units until the bitter end;

6) Assad enjoys large stock-piles of perilous chemical weaponry, we can suspect if his own skin is on the line in an existential end-game he may well employ same (once a war criminal it is a slippery slope of cascading horrors, and he has already well proved his despicableness), and/or there are risk presented by whom may gain control of these stock-piles were the regime to chaotically implode;

7) The prospects of revanchist violence and horrors are at least equal to Libya, but given the crazy quilt-work of villages, town and cities where such internecine horrors would unfold, could prove far bloodier;

8) The possibility that Lebanon were pulled into the mire of a full-bore Syrian civil war is very high, and the prospects of border instability will also greatly concern Amman and Tel Aviv (there are also Iraqi issues that would concern, not only Iran, but also elements of the Shi’a leadership in Baghdad);

9) The Russians have proven so dismal in their naked-self interest (historic client state relationship, arms contracts, the naval base in Tartous, etc) that one would have to be concerned about possible retaliatory machinations in the broader neighborhood if they over-step to defend their client; and

10) Turkey’s role cannot be seen as simply that of a Good Samaritan, while they are arguably the key player in the entire equation (of which more below) they will have critical interests regarding Kurdish minorities among other priorities that may not wholly gel with those of Washington, or those of the (rather juvenilely named conclave) ‘Friends of Syria’.

There could easily be another ten reasons besides (notably the unclear mandate emerging from the recent, inaugural Friends of Syria meeting and various divisions thereto, as well as more details around the Free Syrian Army’s highly inchoate bearing touched on above) but this list provides at least some of the main cautionary factors to keep in mind as we attempt to address this extremely complicated and combustible situation.

Ultimately, however, I believe the Assad regime has crossed various red-lines and the international community must become more proactive in its approach. To me, in the main, this largely rests with the Turks. I say this as I don’t believe ‘safe havens’ can credibly be erected on either the Lebanese or Jordanian borders (putting aside Iraq’s), for reasons alluded to above, at least not as of today. This leaves Turkey, and Nakhleh is right to point to the example of northern Iraq in 1991. The Arab League must work closely with Ankara to assure that Turkey would be willing to maintain and supply the zone (funded by the Arab League, particularly the Gulf States), and as Nakhleh says, if Syrian forces cross a further red-line and “violate the sanctuary” (assuming it were credible to create one after discussion with Turks), select members-states of the Friends of Syria could then move to arm the opposition (depending on Assad’s posture and actions as these pressures mount, timing and scope of the arming of opposition forces could be re-appraised on an ongoing basis). The Turks may be resigned to needing such a buffer zone regardless given internally displaced and refugee flows increasing in the coming weeks and months. The internationalization of the conflict in this more limited fashion could actually prove more realistic while at the same time ramping up the pressure on Assad. Importantly, there would also need to be reasonably concrete, pre-agreed protocols in place to restore full-fledged sovereignty over the entirety of Syria's territory at a later point, perhaps guaranteed by a concert of powers in collaborative manner with Ankara.

Meantime, and putting aside China and Iran (the former I believe will conclude they may have over-stepped with the UNSC veto so downplay next moves, the latter are more constrained given no direct border with Syria and major issues at home given the ever brewing nuclear imbroglio), Obama must better work with Putin to persuade him that his client in Damascus is doomed, and that the Arab League (and/or Friends of Syria) and Ankara’s move to establish a ‘safe haven’ in the north is but another death knell in his coffin. Russia should be given assurances around its naval base in a post-Assad Syria, and other inducements, with the aim of Moscow goading Assad to relinquish his seat of power on a more expedited basis (perhaps in return for safe passage out of Syria, though the growing war crimes dossier should optimally not allow for same). This Russia reach-out is not meant to necessarily constitute an attempt to resuscitate a UNSC mandate, though we should not necessarily give up on same, but the above actions would likely instead need to be taken under the aegis of the Arab League, Friends of Syria, or under duress (and sub-optimally) a smaller grouping of Gulf States, alongside Turkey too, and with some ‘blessing’ from interested Western powers. Meantime, we can fully expect Assad--esyping both the risk of greater international pressure, but also deep divisions on the specifics around precise approaches--attempting to stave off the specter of more concerted international efforts via largely meaningless gestures like intermittent ICRC access, reducing the intensity/pace of shelling, or the latest sham ‘referendum’ on constitutional reforms underway as I write this, and other such fare. Yet the regime has already crossed the rubicon, its true character revealed, and there is no going back, as we can be quite sure atrocities will continue moving forward.

Speaking of such atrocities, the name Ibrahim Qashoush may not be familiar to many readers, but this amateur poet found his voice during the uprising as this embedded YouTube attests.

Reportedly, in revenge, the regime not only killed him, but with sadistic savagery tore out his vocal chords and dumped his mutilated corpse in the Orontes River which flows through Hama’s ancient, and beautiful, water-wheels. This malice painfully showcases the character of this increasingly odious regime. The Arab Awakening is about many things, from disgust with endemic corruption, limited prospects characterized by chronic unemployment, and much more, but it is certainly also about revulsion at the grotesquely brazen totalitarian thuggery of episodes like these.

The U.S. has tried to navigate on a country-by-country basis its reaction to these inspiring, wide-spread uprisings, attempting to calibrate its approach to no one’s true satisfaction (including I suspect, the Administration’s, if they are being honest with themselves). But these are immensely complicated problems, none more than Syria. For instance, listen carefully to the YouTube embedded above, including the passing comments made about America in this spirited, revolutionary anthem. Recall too, after the hundreds of thousands of fatalities in Iraq (civilian and military), after the trillions spent there by the United States, all this blood and treasure expended, the Government in Baghdad is not even quite sure of its wherewithal security-wise to host an Arab League summit in late March. Let us show some humility and dispense with the farcical notion that Libya changed everything (particularly here given no NATO airpower is being contemplated), and recall the disaster that was Iraq, while keeping too a wary eye on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.

Having better acknowledged this will not be easy, and that it is not that we fear only phantoms, like fretful cowards per Ajami’s caricature, but rather have very legitimate concerns. We cannot know the precise consequences that lie ahead in Syria, but if some combination of the Arab League, Friends of Syria and notably Turkey are willing to create and subsidize a territorial enclave in Syria’s north (optimally with UNSC support at a later date, even with some abstentions), this should be the beginning of better internationalizing the Syrian situation, elevating the status of the SNC and opposition forces, ratcheting up the pressure on the regime, and hopefully allowing for more defections amidst the majority Sunni conscript army on the heels of this greater international involvement. But let us cast a calibrated die with modest expectations, and with utmost sobriety. The situation in the Levant is littered with unknowns, unknowns that have not remotely been convincingly answered by the intonations that ‘something be done’. And yet, something must. This is the conundrum that Syria today presents the international community.

Posted by Gregory at 11:13 AM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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