The drums of war are beating, as various news reports state that President Barack Obama and his European allies are close to launching some sort of military attack against Syria. But one question is how big the bang will be. The White House has signaled that whatever comes will be strictly a punitive strike in retaliation for the Assad regime’s presumed use of chemical weapons against civilians. It will not be an action aimed at toppling Bashar al-Assad or changing the overall strategic dynamic of the ongoing civil war in Syria. The supposed goal is to deter Assad from resorting to chemical weapons again. Foreign policy experts disagree—of course—on whether any assault of this nature would achieve that end, and such an action could have unintended consequences (say, a host of dead civilians) that might render it not a clear-cut success. But the band of neocons that led the United States into the Iraq War have quickly moved to seize on the administration’s inclination to mount a punitive strike in order to draw the nation further into the conflict in Syria.
On Wednesday, the Foreign Policy Initiative—which was started by Bill Kristol, Dan Senor, Robert Kagan, and other hawkish-minded policy wonks—sent a letter to Obama, urging him to slam Assad in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria: “At a minimum, the United States, along with willing allies and partners, should use standoff weapons and airpower to target the Syrian dictatorship’s military units that were involved in the recent large-scale use of chemical weapons.”
But the letter—which was signed by Elliott Abrams, Fouad Ajami, Max Boot, Ellen Bork, Eliot Cohen, Douglas Feith, Joseph Lieberman, Clifford May, Joshua Muravchik, Danielle Pletka, Karl Rove, Randy Scheunemann, Kristol, Kagan, Senor, and dozens of others—demands that Obama go further. It calls on the president to provide “vetted moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition” with the military support necessary to strike regime units armed with chemical weapons. That is, the neocons and their allies have CW-ized their pre-existing demand for the United States to arm the rebels.
Yesterday, shortly after I posted a column on Secretary of State John Kerry’s push to have the White House approve U.S. strikes on Syrian airfields — and how Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey pushed back strongly against the idea — I heard from a number of people who support Kerry’s stance and think that the Pentagon is being unnecessarily timid. 2. For negotiations to work, the regime of Bashar al-Assad must feel that its existence is threatened. This might be the most important point, or at least the most immediately relevant one. Kerry wants upcoming peace talks in Geneva to work. In order for that to happen, he believes that the playing field in Syria must be leveled; in recent days, regime forces, which now include the Iranian proxy Hezbollah, have been swatting back the rebels with comparative ease. Airstrikes, and other U.S. measures, would provide the regime with the incentive to sit down and talk. There is no reason to talk compromise with the opposition when you are winning. This is true even for people who aren’t psychopathic mass murderers. 3. Whether we like it or not, we are in a conflict with Iran, and our credibility is on the line. Obama seems eager to exit the Middle East. Most foreign policy experts, up to and including the secretary of state, believe that there is no hiding from its problems. The U.S. must play a leadership role in the Mideast or the vacuum left by its departure will be filled by radicals, of both the Shiite and Sunni varieties. It is true, as Dempsey has argued, that there is no exit strategy for Syria (in part because there’s not much of an entrance strategy, either), but the U.S. will soon face even bigger problems in the region if it doesn’t intervene now. Kerry understands the price of intervention. This is the lesson of Iraq. But he has also argued that there is a price to be paid for nonintervention. 5. The Israelis did it, and so can we. Kerry himself, to the best of my knowledge, hasn’t made this argument to the generals — knowing, I assume, that it would, if nothing else, irritate them like nothing else. But others in the interventionist camp have raised the issue. Israel, has struck at Syrian targets three times recently, using standoff weapons fired from over the border. Israel thinks that it made its point: There will be consequences if Syria transfers weapons and delivery systems to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Dempsey, in the White House situation room last week, argued that in order to launch an effective attack on regime targets, the U.S. would have to first suppress Syria’s air-defense system, which would require at least 700 sorties. Interventionists tend to believe that the Pentagon — and the White House — are using this an excuse for inaction.
Via the NYT:
As my colleagues Rick Gladstone and Alan Cowell report, 30 armed rebel fighters kidnapped a group of 20 United Nations peacekeepers in the Golan Heights on Wednesday and gave a 24-hour deadline before they would treat the peacekeepers “as prisoners of war.”
The abduction was announced in two video messages posted online by a group calling itself the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigade that showed two young-looking rebels, one carrying a rifle, standing in front of captured United Nations vehicles. The videos did not clearly show any of the abducted United Nations personnel, although two figures seated in the cab of one of the captured vehicles may have been peacekeepers.
One of the videos posted on YouTube does appear to show the abducted peacekeepers, although they are not the focus of the message. Several people in the signature light blue helmets and vests of the United Nations can be seen inside the captured vehicles while their kidnappers energetically talk about the treachery of both the United Nations and the Syrian government.
Speaking about the United Nations, one rebel shouts, “They are agents of Israel, and the Syrian regime and the United Nations and all the European countries, and the Assad regime, they are all agents of Israel!”
He also calls Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, “an agent of Zionism and America” before the sound of gunfire is heard. “One of the tyrant’s snipers is shooting at us,” he said, before the video ended.
In a second video clip, a young spokesman for the rebels listed their demands.
The spokesman said:
We are holding the forces of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force until the withdrawal of Bashar al-Assad’s forces from the village of al-Jamla and its outskirts to their positions. We ask America, the United Nations and the Security Council that Assad’s forces withdraw to obtain their release. We won’t release them until after the withdrawal of the forces of the regime of Bashar al-Assad from the outskirts of the village of al-Jamla, which is on the border with Israel. We ask them for the complete withdrawal of the forces back to their positions. If the withdrawal does not take place within 24 hours, we will treat them as prisoners of war, and praise be to God almighty.
In the last days of November, Israel’s top military commanders called the Pentagon to discuss troubling intelligence that was showing up on satellite imagery: Syrian troops appeared to be mixing chemicals at two storage sites, probably the deadly nerve gas sarin, and filling dozens of 500-pounds bombs that could be loaded on airplanes.
Within hours President Obama was notified, and the alarm grew over the weekend, as the munitions were loaded onto vehicles near Syrian air bases. In briefings, administration officials were told that if Syria’s increasingly desperate president, Bashar al-Assad, ordered the weapons to be used, they could be airborne in less than two hours — too fast for the United States to act, in all likelihood.
What followed next, officials said, was a remarkable show of international cooperation over a civil war in which the United States, Arab states, Russia and China have almost never agreed on a common course of action.
The combination of a public warning by Mr. Obama and more sharply worded private messages sent to the Syrian leader and his military commanders through Russia and others, including Iraq, Turkey and possibly Jordan, stopped the chemical mixing and the bomb preparation. A week later Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said the worst fears were over — for the time being.
Bashar al-Assad to deliver a rare speech on ‘latest developments in Syria and the region’ on Sunday.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will deliver a rare speech on Sunday about the uprising against his rule, state media has said.
With fighters fighting their way closer to the seat of his power, state media said in a statement on Saturday that al-Assad would speak on Sunday morning about the “latest developments in Syria and the region”, without giving details.
Analysts in Russia, one of Syria’s staunchest allies, say that as rebels try to encircle Damascus and cut off escape routes through Hama province to the coast, the mood in the palace is one of panic, evinced by erratic use of weapons: Scud missiles better used against an army than an insurgency, naval mines dropped from the air instead of laid at sea.
But even if Mr. Assad wanted to flee, it is unclear if the top generals would let him out alive, Russian analysts say, since they believe that if they lay down arms they — and their disproportionately Alawite families — will die in vengeance killings, and need him to rally troops.
“If he can fly out of Damascus,” Semyon A. Bagdasarov, a Middle East expert in Moscow, said — at this, he laughed dryly — “there is also the understanding of responsibility before the people. A person who has betrayed several million of those closest to him.”
Many Syrians still share Mr. Assad’s belief that he is protecting the Syrian state, which helps explain how he has held on this long. At a lavish lunch hosted by a Lebanese politician outside Beirut in September, prominent Syrian backers of Mr. Assad — Alawites, Sunnis and Christians — spoke of the president, over copious glasses of Johnnie Walker scotch, as the bulwark of a multicultural, modern Syria.
But one friend of Mr. Assad, stepping out of earshot of the others to speak frankly, said the president’s advisers are “hotheads” who tell him, “ ‘You are weak, you must be strong,’ ” adding, “They are advising him to strike more, with the planes, any way that you can think of.”
“They speak of the rebels like dogs, terrorists, Islamists, Wahhabis,” the friend said, using a term for adherents to a puritanical form of Islam. “This is why he will keep going to the end.”
The friend added that even though Mr. Assad sometimes speaks of dialogue, he mainly wants to be a hero fending off a foreign attack. “He is thinking of victory — only victory.”
With more than 40,000 people killed in Syria’s devastating war, and about three million people driven from their homes, Western and Arab leaders are grappling with one question: How and when does all this end? The answer, say some, might lie not in the horrific bloodshed but in a simpler factor: money. Economists say President Bashar Assad’s regime has effectively gone broke, and is running out of ways to raise revenues and keep most of its soldiers properly fed and paid. “The economy is the basis of everything,” says Samir Seifan, a prominent Syrian economist who fled last year. He spoke by phone from Dubai. “Without services, boots, money, you cannot do anything. If the government cannot finance the army, they [soldiers] will simply go away.”
That tipping point, in which the government faces all-out financial collapse, seems to be drawing near—between three to six months from now, according to the calculations of Seifan and others who have examined Syria’s finances. Already, Assad has abandoned about 40% of the country’s territory to rebel forces, withdrawing his troops from the ground while his jets continue aerial bombing, apparently because the army is too thinly stretched to defend both rural areas and the government-held pockets of Damascus and Syria’s most populous city, Aleppo. And while Assad appears still to have considerable resources in Damascus, the economic indicators suggest his country is in free-fall, and that he has little way to generate fresh cash—at least not without appeals to allies.
A lot. Syria’s Free Syria Army (FSA), the main military wing in the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is threatening to execute blogger and critic Anhar Kochneva unless they’re paid a staggering $50 million.
The group said they would kill her last week if they didn’t get the money. No one knows if she’s dead or alive, but the case reveals a strange and suspect side of Syria’s shadow power.
Russia Today’s Maria Finoshina, who met Kochneva several times in Syria, told me by e-mail that Kochneva was known as a vocal critic of the FSA on Russian television as well as social media platforms at the time of her kidnapping in Homs in October.
Kochneva was “what we call very ‘pro’-regime,” Finoshina said. “And never made secret of it.”
The half-Ukrainian, half-Palestinian blogger and commentator was not always “elegant” in her criticism of the FSA, Finoshina said, while the director of Lebanon’s Samir Kasser Foundation said Tuesday even the Ukrainian foreign ministry had stopped calling her a “journalist” in their most recent statements, instead “referring to her as a member of a press/news team.”
As revolutions rocked authoritarian regimes from Tunis to Manama, pundits were quick to identify Syria’s leadership as the next to fall. Like other countries in the region, Syria is deeply impoverished. And on the face of it, the similarities between Damascus’ authoritarian system and those of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are striking. Just as in Tunisia and Egypt, a single-party regime has ruled Syria with an iron fist for years. For the past five decades, it has kept the country under permanent emergency law, which, like in its North African counterparts, has been used to suppress calls for greater political participation. Yet despite various parallels, a closer look at Syria reveals that the Assad regime — led for the past decade by Bashar al-Assad — is unlikely to fall. Paradoxically, Syria’s grave economic situation and its Alawi minority rule, which has been safeguarded by repressive mechanisms, will prevent oppositional forces from gaining critical mass in the near future.
Syria has recently experienced annual economic growth rates of around four percent, but the country is still plagued by staggering unemployment, increasing costs of living, stagnating wages, and widespread poverty. Although official data from Damascus (which is notorious for its overly optimistic calculations) lists unemployment in the first quarter of 2010 at eight percent, independent estimates hover around 20 percent, with even higher rates among the younger generation. Because underemployed and disillusioned youth comprised one of the driving forces of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, observers have enthusiastically noted Syria’s youth unemployment rate as a signal of potential revolt.
Syrian youth certainly share the economic grievances of young people in Tunisia and Egypt, but widespread poverty and unemployment are unlikely to catalyze sudden regime change now. Despite the policy of cautious economic liberalization that Assad initiated after taking office in 2000, Syrian society continues to be defined by its high degree of egalitarianism. True, Western luxury goods are increasingly available to elites, and some members of Assad’s extended family have been accused of nepotism and profiteering. However, the accumulation of excessive wealth in the hands of an oligarchic political elite has been more an exception than a rule. Political isolation and domestic authoritarianism have severely restricted the development of a politically conscious and economically empowered middle class. As such, the situation in Damascus differs significantly from pre-revolutionary Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. In all three countries, public fury was fueled by a highly visible and ever-increasing status gap between a large elite class and a marginalized majority. Unlike Syrians, protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya perceived their poverty to be relative rather than absolute — and thus as an injustice caused by the regime.
One of Syria’s key allies admitted for the first time on Thursday that the Assad regime was losing the ground war, as rebels told the Guardian they were occupying more and more territory and besieging government troops in many parts of the country.
The deputy foreign minister of Russia - which has given Bashar al-Assad unstinting diplomatic and military support - said the regime faced possible defeat to the rebels, saying with unusual candour: “One must look facts in the face.”
Mikhail Bogdanov said: “The tendency is that the regime and government of Syria is losing more and more control, and more and more territory. Unfortunately, the victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be ruled out.”
His comments came as rebels said they believed the 21-month conflict had reached a decisive tipping point, with Assad’s military machine no longer capable of rolling them back. “The situation is excellent. We are winning. Not just in Aleppo but the whole of Syria,” Abu Saaed, a fighter in the northern rebel-held town of El Bab said.
Other key international players appear to have come to the same conclusion as Moscow. Speaking in Brussels , Nato’s secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said: “I think the regime is approaching collapse.” He said it was only a question of time before the Assad government imploded. Others in the region, however, cautioned that the final unravelling could be prolonged and bloody.