Chemical Weapons and Responses; The Developing Story of Tripoli’s Bombing; Theories on Outcomes for Syria
Posted by Matthew Barber on Sunday, September 1st, 2013
Political Intrigue Surrounding Bombing in Tripoli, Lebanon
The aftermath of the Aug. 23 bombings in Tripoli, Lebanon continues to develop, with tensions escalating to a new high. One week ago, two bombings occurred in separate Tripoli neighborhoods. Initially, people assumed that the bombings were in retaliation for the earlier explosion that had targeted the southern Dahieh suburb of Beirut, a Shi’i enclave, on Aug. 15. (After that attack, videos circulated online of Sunnis celebrating in Tripoli, passing out candies on the street.) This remains a general assumption. Later, the theory began to emerge that the targets of the Tripoli bombings were two men: Ashraf Rifi (a pro-Syrian opposition Lebanese general and former head of Lebanese Internal Security Forces) and Salim al-Rifa’i (a leading Salafi who had called for jihad against the Syrian army at the beginning of the battle in Qusayr). Each bomb targeted a mosque during Friday prayers, one of which was located near Ashraf Rifi’s house. The mosques targeted were frequented by Tripolitans with a March 14th / pro-Syrian opposition alignment.
Lebanon is currently holding and charging 3 Lebanese men over the incident. A 4th has been charged (A Syrian who works for the Syrian government), but he is in Syria and Syria won’t hand him over. NNA – Judge Sakr presses charges against Tripoli explosion suspects:
Government commissioner to the Military Tribunal, Judge Sakr Sakr, charged on Friday Sheikh Hashem Minkara and detainees Sheikh Mustafa Ahmad Gharib and Mustafa Houry, of forming an armed group to attack civil and military institutions.
Suspects were also charged of creating a terrorist cell and bombing the two mosques in Tripoli.
Sakr also pressed charges against Syrian captain Mohammad Ali for installing car bombs and killing people.
He charged prisoner, Sheikh Hashem Minkara, of hiding information regarding Tripoli’s explosions
The story of how these particular men were picked up by the Lebanese authorities is interesting. Sheikh Gharib and Sheikh Minqara are Sunni Islamist religious leaders in Tripoli with a pro-Syrian regime political alignment. They belong to the Tawhid political movement (or Islamic Unification Movement), one of the original Islamist movements in Lebanon, started by Sa’id Shaaban and very powerful in Tripoli during the civil war. Minqara is infamous in Tripoli for allegedly burying communists and leftists alive during the civil war. After a long period of fighting, the Tawhid movement reached an agreement with the Syrian regime and eventually moved in a pro-regime direction, in the 1980s. They have since splintered after many became disillusioned with becoming so intimate with the Syrian regime. Sheikh Gharib and Sheikh Minqara represent the small surviving group that remains pro-regime and opposes the March 14th Coalition in Tripoli.
According to an article from al-Akhbar (portions of which we will translate directly or paraphrase in the following), which relies on leaks from Lebanese media sources, Sheikh Gharib was approached 6 months ago by a Syrian intelligence officer named Mohammed Ali who asked him to start following the movements of 4 men: Ashraf Rifi, Salim al-Rifa’i, Khalid Addahir, and Mustafa Alloush (the last two are MPs of the Future movement [Hariri block], both very supportive of the Syrian opposition and always advocating their cause). After being approached by Ali, Gharib went to Sheikh Minqara and told him what the Syrian officer had requested of him. Minqara told him not to comply and to cut off all contact with that officer. Minqara refused to help because he didn’t want to become involved.
After this conversation, Gharib spoke to another man, Mustafa Houry, relaying what had transpired with Mohammed Ali. Houry relayed this information to Lebanese security, which has formed the basis for suspicion toward Gharib following the bombings, which seem to have targeted at least some of the individuals that Syrian intelligence wanted to track, even though there may not be clear evidence as to who exactly conducted the bombing. Even though Gharib and Minqara may have avoided participation with the Syrians (if they were indeed those behind the bombings), the position of the Lebanese authorities is that they had prior knowledge about the plot with which they did not come forward.
After the bombings in Tripoli, a youtube video circulated showing a bearded man on a cellphone. Media speculation identified this man as Sheikh Gharib, and an official narrative was promoted alleging his presence at the site of the bombing. This occurred in conjunction with his arrest. The official narrative was forced to change after another video was circulated by al-Jadid TV in which another man identifies himself as the man on the cellphone in the original video. He and his friend both speak on this video, claiming that they were praying in the mosque when the bomb went off. The original post-bombing footage and the interview with these two witnesses is combined in this video:
The bombed mosque from the street:
Video footage from inside the mosque at the moment of the bombing can be seen here.
Though some are calling this a revenge attack for the Dahieh bombing, the event in Dahieh occurred earlier this month, whereas it would seem that planning for the Aug. 23 Tripoli bombings started 6 months ago—if this narrative about Syrian security approaching the Tripolitan sheikhs is correct. Aspects of this case parallel that of Michel Smaha, who was arrested a year ago this month. Some will interpret the Tripoli bombings as a continuation of the Syrian regime’s efforts to use terrorism for political influence in Lebanon—after failing with Smaha, then pursuing the same objectives through other assets a few months later, culminating in this month’s attacks. Smaha is still in jail after a year, and the trial has been postponed until December. For articles on the Smaha story, see: 1, 2, 3, 4.
Ultimately, these events will serve to place an uncomfortable level of pressure on those people of Tripoli who have a pro-Syrian regime political affiliation. After this bombing, it will be easier for their opponents to frame them as a dangerous element that is up to no good, and increase the threat level that they face within the highly-charged and tense environment of northern Lebanon.
Conspiracy Theories: The One Thing Everyone in Lebanon Has in Common – Atlantic – good article
“Americans see us as Bin Laden, as terrorists,” he says with a sneer. “But when the world talks about Hezbollah, they call them a militia. We have brains. We know the Americans are behind everything that’s going on. They’re sitting watching the blood of Muslims being spilled, and they turn a blind eye.”
Chemical Weapons and Responses
Russia to send ships to Mediterranean as US mulls Syria strike – Al Jazeera America
Russia will send two ships to the east Mediterranean to strengthen its naval presence because of the “well-known situation” there, Interfax news agency said on Thursday referring to the Syria crisis.
The agency quoted a source in the armed forces’ general staff as saying an anti-submarine vessel and a missile cruiser would be sent in the coming days because the situation “required us to make some adjustments” in the naval force.
… Although it was not possible to say for certain if they are bringing weapons, the number of ships travelling to Syria from a Ukrainian port used by Russia’s arms export monopoly has increased sharply since April. …
Weapons Assad Uses Shouldn’t Affect U.S. Policy – Stephen Walt
Even if proven, the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government does not tip the balance in favor of U.S. military intervention. To think otherwise places undue weight on the weapons Assad’s forces may have used and ignores the many reasons that U.S. intervention is still unwise.
Of course it is not good that Assad’s forces may have used chemical weapons, but it is not obvious why the choice of weaponry changes the calculus of U.S. interests in this case. The brutal nature of the Assad regime has been apparent for decades, and its forces have already killed thousands with conventional means. Does it really matter whether Assad is killing his opponents using 500-pound bombs, mortar shells, cluster munitions, machine guns, icepicks or sarin gas? Dead is dead, no matter how it is done.
Proponents of action argue that the U.S. must intervene to defend the norm against chemical weapons. Using nerve agents like sarin is illegal under international law, but they are not true “weapons of mass destruction.” Because they are hard to use in most battlefield situations, chemical weapons are usually less lethal than non-taboo weapons like high explosive. Ironically we would therefore be defending a norm against weapons that are less deadly than the bombs we would use if we intervene. This justification would also be more convincing if the U.S. government had not ignored international law whenever it got in the way of something Washington wanted to do.
And intervention is still a bad idea. Airstrikes cannot eliminate Assad’s chemical arsenal and are unlikely to tip the balance in favor of the rebels. And even if they did, this situation would give Assad a bigger incentive to use these weapons more widely. Assad’s fall would create a failed state and unleash a bitter struggle among the various rebel factions. …
… Obama may be tempted to strike because he foolishly drew a “red line” over this issue and feels his credibility is now at stake. But following one foolish step with another will not restore that lost standing. …
A gruesome test of realpolitik in Syria – FP – Daniel Drezner
The powerful brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is suspected of authorizing the chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of Syrian civilians, according to a United Nations official who monitors armed conflicts in the region.
Maher al-Assad, the younger brother of the president, commands the regime’s Republican Guard and controls the Syrian Army’s 4th Armored Division, an elite unit that the opposition says launched the Aug. 21 attack on the eastern Ghouta suburbs of the capital, Damascus.
The use of chemical weapons may have been a brash action by Maher al-Assad rather than a strategic decision by the president, according to the UN official, who asked not to be named.
Identifying the chain of command behind the chemical attack would go into calculations about who, what and how to strike in any retaliatory action, the UN official said. If Maher al-Assad is the culprit, for example, a Republican Guard stronghold may be targeted rather than a presidential facility, the official said.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, doubts that such an important action — openly defying U.S. President Barack Obama’s “red line” against the use of chemical weapons — would be done without Bashar al-Assad’s approval.
“It’s inconceivable to me,” Landis said in a phone interview. “There has been nothing to indicate that Bashar is just a figurehead.”
For now, Maher’s role is largely a matter of conjecture. He’s a shadowy figure with a reputation for loyalty to his brother and brutality toward their opponents. Early in the uprising, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly denounced his “savagery.”
“I don’t doubt that he is ruthless, but I also don’t doubt that Bashar is ruthless,” said Landis. “Is he more ruthless than Bashar? I think that is a useless line of inquiry because they are both killing people with abandon.”
… “Maher is the knee-capper in this operation,” said Landis. “He is in charge of doing the heavy lifting of punishing people and preserving the regime through military means.”
“Why Would Assad Cross the Red Line right when the UN inspection team was visiting?” asks Free Halab. The answer: because the team was never free of the Syrian regime’s control.
The UN team was only a couple of miles away, but they may have just as well been on the other side of the planet. Assad decides where, when and how they can or cannot go whether they were let into Syria or not. By the time Assad did allow them entry [yesterday only to Moadamiye in Western Ghouta and today…] it might have been too little, and already too late.
Brown Moses’ Collected Chemical Weapon Posts
Briefing Parliament, Foreign Minister Emma Bonino called the chemical attack a “war crime” but said her government wouldn’t support military action without U.N. Security Council authorization. She said: “Italy would not actively take in any military action … beyond the context of the Security Council, which for us is and remains the only point of legal reference that cannot be ignored.”
Nusra threatens to rocket Alawite villages over alleged chemical attack – Hurriyet Dailey
“For every chemical rocket that had fallen on our people in Damascus, one of their villages will, by the will of God, pay for it,” Abu Mohammad al-Golani said in the recording posted on YouTube.
“On top of that we will prepare a thousand rockets that will be fired on their towns in revenge for the Damascus Ghouta massacre.”
Obama Promises Syria Strike Will Have No Objective – New Yorker – Andy Borowitz – Satire
Video: PBS Newshour – President Obama: ‘I Have Not Made a Decision’ on Syria
If Barack Obama decides to attack the Syrian regime, he has ensured – for the very first time in history – that the United States will be on the same side as al-Qa’ida. …
Obama’s Bluff – STRATFOR
Video: Former NATO commander: Syria strike a bad move – U.S. retired Col. Douglas Macgregor led Kosovo mission – CBC
Earlier in the month, WORLDBytes asks British citizens on the streets of London their opinions about intervention in Syria, video here
Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. Those conversations were overheard by U.S. intelligence services, The Cable has learned. And that is the major reason why American officials now say they’re certain that the attacks were the work of the Bashar al-Assad regime — and why the U.S. military is likely to attack that regime in a matter of days.
But the intercept raises questions about culpability for the chemical massacre, even as it answers others: Was the attack on Aug. 21 the work of a Syrian officer overstepping his bounds? Or was the strike explicitly directed by senior members of the Assad regime? “It’s unclear where control lies,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Cable. “Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?” …
Here you can download the US Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons
The Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons would not be the first war crime committed by the regime since the start of the uprising in March 2011. Summary executions, torture, and indiscriminate shelling of civilians have been recurrent elements of the government’s response to the uprising. Indeed, opposition armed groups have also been guilty of war crimes, including summary executions and torture. War crimes are nothing new in this conflict. But now, following this most recent allegation, politicians, analysts and journalists are all talking about one thing: possible military intervention.
I’m not here to question claims of fact. Let’s assume that chemical weapons were used by the Syrian regime in Ghouta, and that the attack killed over 1,400 people, as the US claims. This would constitute yet another war crime. So why act now, in particular?
There are two lines of argument, which seem to be often confused. One follows a logic of punishment. The other invokes principles of humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect. The UK government’s (defeated) motion on Thursday tried to link these two approaches. But they should be kept separate.
The Syrian government should be punished for the war crime of using chemical weapons, runs the first view. States have exhausted most of their non-military coercive tools — condemnations, economic sanctions, embargoes, referrals to the Security Council and to the ICC — and so military action is, so it is argued, the only option left for punishing the Syrian government. The logic behind the punishment is firstly one of reprisal, and secondly and more importantly, one of deterrence — both to deter the Syrian regime from using such weapons again and to deter others from using such weapons. It is this wider perspective, beyond the Syria conflict, which explains the buzz of debate and action since this latest allegation emerged.
The use of chemical weapons shocked the world’s conscience during the First World War. Subsequently the Geneva Protocol banning the use of chemical weapons was drawn up in 1925, mentioning that such weapons are “justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilised world.” Ever since, the use of chemical weapons has been a major international taboo, which has (surprisingly, perhaps) rarely been broken. This is why their use constituted a “red line” for Obama. For him and other leaders, the idea that a state can use such banned weapons with impunity (let alone against its own people), is an unbearable affront to the conscience of the civilised world, which it is a legal — and moral — obligation to punish. As John Kerry said last week, “What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality.” This goes some way to explaining why military intervention is being so actively considered at this particular moment.
So much for the theory of the punitive strike. Now for the practice. The idea is to carry out “surgical”, “limited” military strikes, so that the cost for the Syrian regime of using chemical weapons again is too great. This is the objective of deterrence. Of course, the objective of reprisal is fulfilled by any strike that harms the government.
But what worries me are these two words that are often used to describe the proposed military strikes — “limited” and “surgical”. Neither is ever defined. What is a limited bombing campaign? Is it limited in the means it uses (e.g. only air strikes)? Or in the time it lasts? Or in what it targets? Or in its objectives? Probably a combination of these, but it is not clear. It is left up to military planners; the targets chosen for their missiles will not be the subject of public consultation. And the difficulty is that if one is attacking through a logic of deterrence, then always more can be justified: after all, who can determine with certainty what level of destruction will be necessary to deter the Syrian regime from using chemical weapons again? Is it possible that as the conventional military capacity of the regime is steadily worn down by punitive strikes dealt by a “coalition of the willing”, so its propensity to resort to chemical weapons might increase? Might the only sure deterrent be, in the final analysis, to remove the regime? This is the slippery slope argument against a punitive, deterrent strike.
Then there is this other word “surgical”. It indicates precision: targets will be determined with precision, and then “neutralised” with equal precision. But precision does not always mean accuracy. Mistakes are bound to happen, just as they did during the Nato interventions in Libya and Kosovo. This is an inevitable consequence of any military intervention. This would contribute to the civilian death toll. In addition, it would give Assad new arguments and impetus to continue his stand (what this Foreign Policy article charmingly calls the “PR catastrophe” consequence).
So: limited, surgical strikes to punish and deter the Syrian regime are an attractive option. The government of Syria is alleged to have committed another war crime, but this time of a different nature. It must be punished so that it does not use chemical weapons again, and importantly so that others aren’t tempted to use them either, thinking they too will escape punishment. But two elements count against this approach, the slippery slope towards full-blown regime change, and unintended civilian casualties. Perhaps the first difficulty could be overcome by setting down very strict parameters and objectives in advance. But the second issue is harder to get over: some civilian casualties could be justified if there was a high probability that the strikes would decisively deter the regime from using chemical weapons, thus preventing future civilian casualties. But, first, that a strictly limited intervention would achieve this is far from clear. And second, with so many being killed and wounded by conventional weapons, it seems arbitrary to set an objective of reducing casualties due only to chemical weapons (a point made by John Holmes in this Guardian piece). The UK government motion that was defeated proposed exactly this arbitrary objective: “this Resolution relates solely to efforts to alleviate humanitarian suffering by deterring use of chemical weapons and does not sanction any action in Syria with wider objectives.”
We come then to the second argument for military intervention: the responsibility to protect. State sovereignty implies responsibility: states have a a responsibility to protect their people. When a state fails in this duty, the principle of non-intervention in a sovereign state’s internal affairs gives way to the principle of international responsibility to protect. Arguably, this point was passed long ago in Syria. It is not this chemical attack that has tipped the number of civilian casualties from “acceptable” to “unacceptable”. This first condition for the application of the responsibility to protect principle is met, then: the Syrian state no longer protects its people, and therefore has forfeited its sovereignty.
For a military intervention to be justified by the “responsibility to protect”, several further conditions need to be met. First, the primary purpose of the intervention must be to prevent further human suffering (“right intention”). Second, military means must be a last resort; all non-military means must have been exhausted. Third, the scale and intensity of the military campaign should be the minimum necessary to ensure the prevention of human suffering that is intended (“proportionality”). And fourth, and most importantly perhaps, there must be a reasonable chance of halting the human suffering which justified the intervention, with the consequences of the intervention not likely to be worse than those of inaction.
Let’s grant that the first and second conditions are met in the current Syria scenario. There’s always room for debate on whether the prime motivation in these cases is really humanitarian, but let’s just assume it is here. The same goes for the second condition: one can always argue that further negotiations and diplomatic moves should be tried; all one can say is that so far not much has come of the various non-military measures that have been adopted, and there is no immediate prospect of success through such measures.
That brings us to the third and fourth conditions, which are intrinsically linked: to ensure reasonable prospects of success, the campaign may have to be massive, even going as far as changing the regime. There are two problems with such a massive campaign. It may well create more suffering than that which it was intended to halt. And — not to be overlooked — in the current post Afghanistan and Iraq climate, there is no appetite for a long, messy, costly regime-change-cum-nation-building exercise, especially in somewhere as complicated as Syria.
None of the current models of military intervention being proposed for Syria makes the case for how the intervention would have “reasonable prospects” of halting the human suffering in Syria without adding to it. Most talk is of those “limited”, “surgical” strikes. And this is where there is a confusion. In advocating this kind of limited military intervention, politicians rely on the principle of “responsibility to protect” and cite humanitarian motivations. But they do not make the case for how such strikes carry reasonable prospects of reducing human suffering in Syria. The only case advanced is the weak and arbitrary objective of reducing human suffering caused by chemical weapons (already discussed).
So much for the two lines of argument supporting a military strike, viz. punishment and the responsibility to protect. The latter is a non-starter: there is no stomach for a long, involved campaign, and in any case no-one can be sure of the unintended outcomes of such a campaign, especially with the proliferation of less than desirable armed opposition groups.
Politicians should stop couching intervention in humanitarian terms, as the argument can’t be made. Instead, those who wish to advocate intervention, should do so in terms of punishment and deterrence, being mindful that a single civilian casualty from such a campaign cannot be tolerated. But this strategy should not be presented on its own. It should be linked to a political strategy and a purely humanitarian strategy. The idea of using such strikes to push the Syrian regime and its allies towards political negotiations should be explored, and could be adduced as a further argument for a punitive kind of strike. I don’t know what precedents there are for the success of this sort of approach.
And, most importantly, politicians, analysts and journalists should put more emphasis on the purely humanitarian aspect of the conflict, in order to galvanise more financial support for aid to the 1.7 million refugees and several million internally displaced. This huge population of poor, displaced, dispossessed Syrians — and those who will join them — are those whom any military intervention would notionally be aimed at protecting. International efforts should be more concentrated on those who already need assistance. Talking and writing about helping families who have fled their homes seems to command fewer headlines than speculation about what kind of Tomahawk missiles US warships could fire from the eastern Mediterranean. But the long-term consequences of the conflict might well depend much more on how millions of homeless Syrians are helped to get back to normal life, than on the kind of munitions dropped on the Syrian Air Force intelligence headquarters.
Eight things to consider before intervening in Syria (ECFR) – Anthony Dworkin, Daniel Levy and Julien Barnes-Dacey
Don’t repeat the Iraq mistake – Ottawa Citizen – Brian Davis, former Canadian Ambassador to Syria
… In 2003, Canada refused to join in the U.S.-led “coalition” and it proved to be a wise decision. It was based on a variety of arguments and on a firmly grounded policy with regard to international law, to Canada’s role in international action and to Canada’s understanding of history and the Middle East region. There was also little support among Canadians for joining the invasion.
The StephenHarper government lacks an informed and forward thinking policy on the Middle East. Aside from blindly supporting Israel at the expense of effective relations with Arab countries, its reactions to developments in that region are largely of the knee jerk variety. Virtually no long-term policy work has been done to prepare for these types of situations. Because of this, we could well acquiesce to requests from the U.S. and others to form a “coalition of the willing” in an attack against Syria, simply because we are asked, not because it has been thought through. It is noteworthy that when Canada refused to join the attack on Iraq in 2003, one of the people to criticize that decision was Stephen Harper.
It is deeply distressing to see the toll that the Syrian civil war has taken and continues to take on the Syrian people and the country. We all want to see that ended. But, the question one has to ask is whether attacking the Syrian regime will do that. …
The leaders of the Arab world on Tuesday blamed the Syrian government for a chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of people last week, but declined to back a retaliatory military strike, leaving President Obama without the broad regional support he had for his last military intervention in the Middle East, in Libya in 2011.
Syrian authorities have moved prisoners from their jail cells to installations the government believes could be targets of western military strikes, pro-democracy activists in Damascus and the opposition said yesterday.
Where’s this all going?
Sometime back we wrote about revolutionary Syrians who had become disillusioned with the opposition to the point of abandoning the rebels and re-joining Syria’s army. Similarly, we are also hearing voices of frustration coming from long-time supporters of the Syrian regime, even those who have stood by the Syrian regime for over two years of conflict. One recent example came in a message received from a friend:
My sister has been at a hotel in Lebanon for nearly a year. Nearly 90 percent of the people living in it are Christian Syrians. I visited last December. Almost all have been die-hard supporters of Bashar and the regime. They have been depressed for a long time watching the news.
I just got a call from her telling me how jovial and happy the mood was today. The people suddenly feel that the USA is preparing for war. “But this may mean that the regime will fall,” I countered. “The people don’t care anymore. They just want this over. They want to go back. They have run out of money. They are done. War by the USA will put an end to this and this is why they are happy today. Something they have not experienced for a while,” she said.
For months we’ve had a poll question on the site that asks: “Will Syria maintain territorial integrity post-conflict?“ Amazingly, the response percentages have hovered at exactly 50%-50% until just recently. Everyone’s trying to predict where this conflict is taking Syria and the regime, and what the eventual outcome will look like. Theories are abounding, and we hear many from readers, such as Yamin, who emailed us a list of what he considers possible:
(1) Syria to be ruled by the current Syrian Government as before March of 2011 – Impossible
(2) Syria to be ruled by a reformed government headed by the current Syrian Government – Possible and Likely
(3) Syria to be ruled by the Opposition headed by the Syrian Coalition – Possible but Unlikely
(4) Syria to be ruled by Islamists headed by the Syrian Coalition – Possible but Unlikely
(5) Syria to be ruled by extreme Islamists – Impossible
(6) Syria remains one state as we know it – Possible and Likely
(7) Syria splits into two – Possible but Unlikely
(8) Alawite State in the coast – Impossible
(9) Alawite State between the desert and the coast – Possible but Unlikely
(10) The coast merging and creating Greater Lebanon – Possible and Likely
Seth Kaplan provides his own detailed list of possible outcomes in the following article:
Seven Scenarios for the Future of Syria – Global Dashboard
… There are at least seven scenarios for the future of the country:
1) Assad victory. Although this is more likely than before due to continued support from Iran and Russia, the entry of Hezbollah fighters into the fray, and continued fragmentation among the rebels, it is not very likely because the regime lacks the manpower and resources to reconquer all the territory lost. It does, however, have a stronger position than a few months ago, and has been consolidating its hold on the territory it controls.
2) Good rebel victory. At the moment, this likely needs significant outside assistance to happen. Iranian and Hezbollah aid has to be curtailed. A significant number of Alawites have to be convinced that they will be safe after they lay down their arms. And outside aid has to be delivered in a way that strengthens and consolidates moderate forces such that they take over the country. Moderates would rule inclusively and without retribution against losers. But this scenario looks very unlikely as of now because moderate forces are heavily fragmented and extremist groups have gained power in many opposition areas.
3) Bad rebel victory. In this case, extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which has announced its allegiance to al-Qaida, take advantage of the curtailing of Iranian aid and foreign assistance to claim victory. This would lead to massive retribution and a rigid orthodoxy. It would also produce an even greater refugee crisis, as millions of Alawites and Christians flee into Lebanon and Turkey. The “good” rebels, such as the Free Syrian Army, the main rebel umbrella organization, should ideally exclude the extremist groups from any military or political coalition, but they are too powerful for this. Exclusion could also lead to greater conflict, or even a second civil war. In any case, what the good rebels think may be irrelevant: the extremists are better positioned to win the war. They have done relatively well in the fighting when compared to other rebel groups and have greater cohesion.
4) Stalemate. At this point, a stalemate is very likely. The two sides are not strong enough to control all or even most of the country. If either side makes significant gains, the other is likely to be reinforced from abroad. This would not necessarily be a bad thing, as a stalemate that went on for an extended period of time and showed both sides that they cannot win is the only way to encourage them to take negotiations seriously. And negotiations are the only conceivably way to end the war if no major power intervenes.
5) Country breakup. The longer the war goes on, the more likely this will happen. In some ways, it already has. The existing regime, backed by Alawites, many Christians, and some of the old Sunni elite, would retain control over a strip of land that included Damascus and much of the coast. It would be supported by Russia and Iran. Sunnis would control an equivalent amount of land, stretching from the northwest to the Iraqi border, including possibly Aleppo (see map). It would be backed by Sunni states, though divisions between these would have to be overcome (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have backed different factions). The Druze would control the southeast, probably in alliance with the Sunnis. A Kurdish northeast might seek independence or some sort of alliance with Iraqi Kurdistan. This scenario might lead to peace faster except that neighbors would both oppose any division of the country and want to keep backing their particular client mini-state.
6) Regional conflict. The likelihood of this also increases the longer the war goes on. Lebanon and Iraq have already suffered from spillover: bombs have gone off in South Beirut and Tripoli in the past week and Sunni extremists have been strengthened in Iraq in recent months. It is not out of the realm of possibility that these trends will continue and a broad Sunni-Shiite conflict will engulf the whole Levant. This is the worst result, and would have even greater consequences for the region. Over 50 million people would be directly affected.
7) Chaos.This is the Somalia scenario. An extended period of statelessness and persistent conflict would institutionalize a war economy, and give emerging warlords, militia leaders, and criminal networks a vested interest in continuing the conflict. Those outside the country would be encouraged to reestablish their lives elsewhere, reducing the chance that they will ever return. Those within the country would increasingly be left without schooling or economic opportunity beyond the war effort. More would flee.
These seven scenarios are not completely separate from each other. Stalemate could, for instance, lead to greater spillover. The country’s breakup could be accompanied by chaos.
Although no outside power will intervene with enough force and staying power to end the conflict at this point, there are still a number of important low risk actions outsiders can take:
1) Red lines over the use of chemical weapons or other WMDs must be enforced. The United States should follow through on its threats or the use of these will increase, and many more civilians will suffer the consequences.
2) Regional contagion must be prevented. The international community should do more to bring together the leaders of the various factions in Lebanon and Iraq to work out their differences or at least agree to work together to minimize spillover before it is too late.
3) More must be done to unite and empower the moderate rebel groups. This is the only force whose victory could lead to reconciliation.
4) More thought ought to be undertaken to determine what structure of government might work in such a deeply divided country. Calls for elections are stale when trust is so low and the end of the war so far away.
5) A stalemate that leads to a ceasefire should be encouraged, as it is probably the best end result that is possible at this point. Peace negotiations will lead nowhere, but anything that reduces or ends the bloodshed should be considered.
Eventually the only answer for the country—and possibly the whole Levant region—is a heavily decentralized system of government that allows each local group or area to manage their own affairs in some form of weak confederacy until trust and trade can gradually recover enough so that people clamor for a more centralized system. Unfortunately, the modern state system, which empowers central governments and insists on rigid ways of organizing states and the divisions between them, will make it hard to take this route.
Syria Comment Exclusive: Kelly Flanagan has written a scholarly analysis on the Syria Conflict, attempting to predict future outcomes for the insurgency. Below is an introduction to the paper; to download Kelly’s entire analysis, click here: Ending Insurgency, Analyzing the Syrian Conflict
With the Syrian civil war continuing for nearly thirty months and diplomatic efforts stalling, what can the history of civil wars tell us to expect? Drawing from the study “How Insurgencies End,” by Ben Connable and Martin C. Libicki at the RAND Corporation, this paper discusses several possible components of uprisings-turned-insurgencies and correlates them with the likelihood of insurgent success. The paper analyzes each component in conjunction with the Syrian conflict. Factors discussed are: duration of the conflict, urbanization, available sanctuary for the insurgents, third party intervention for the government, third party intervention for the insurgents, networked or hierarchical military of the insurgency, and use of terrorism.
The duration of the conflict and the use of terrorism appear, thus far, to be inconclusive in determining the outcome of the war. Bashar al-Assad’s support from third party backers actually favors the success of the insurgents, as does the third party sanctuary the insurgents receive from Turkey. Favoring the regime, on the other hand, is the networked makeup of the insurgent army and the country’s high degree of urbanization.
The tipping-point factor that needs to be considered by policymakers is third party support on behalf of the insurgents. The correlation between third party intervention for the insurgents and their success is much higher than the success rate without external support. Whether third party military support remains status quo or is strategically augmented by the supporting parties is likely to be the main component in deciding whether or not a peace agreement or an insurgent victory is achieved.
Runnin’ with the Rebels
Read this frightening and amazing story of an American photojournalist kidnapped by rebels who eventually managed to escape after a harrowing period of imprisonment: American Tells of Odyssey as Prisoner of Syrian Rebels – NYT – Read all four pages!
Robin Yassin-Kassab visits rebel territory, has a much different experience. Personal account here: Journey to Kafranbel
Bay’ah to Baghdadi: Foreign Support for Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham – Aymenn al-Tamimi – This is an important article for those following rebel factions within Syria, interesting photos showing support for ISIS from Somalia and Saudi Arabia
Fighting between ISIS and the Ahfad al-Rasoul brigade for control of Raqqa – which fell out of the control of president Bashar Assad in March – has intensified over the last week. The battle culminated with the jihadist group detonating a car bomb early Wednesday at the city’s main train station, killing Rasoul commanders Abu Mazen and Fahd Hussein al-Kajwan.
Free Syrian Army leaders have acknowledged that the fighting between their brigades and Islamist rivals has reached a critical stage.
The FSA says the Islamists’ main concern is not to overthrow Assad, but to establish an Islamic state in Syrian territories.
Elizabeth O’Bagy and Thomas Pierret have both recently been making the argument that moderate forces are winning out over extremists in the Syrian opposition. Here are some examples:
External support and the Syrian insurgency – Thomas Pierret – FP
Would arming moderate Syrian rebels reduce the influence of their radical counterparts? This question, which has been extensively debated by proponents and opponents of indirect military involvement in Syria, has perhaps become obsolete: backing the most pragmatic insurgent groups is what Saudi Arabia has been doing for months now, and it seems to work. …
… recent military developments show that Syrian insurgents have become increasingly dependent on state supporters for their logistics. Gone are the days when rebels could storm lightly defended regime positions with assault rifles and a few RPGs. The retreat of loyalist forces on heavily fortified bases last winter has required a major quantitative and qualitative increase in the opposition’s armament. This is something only foreign governments, not jihadi utopians, can offer. Given Saudi Arabia’s apparent determination to lead the way in that respect, this situation will probably continue to favor mainstream insurgents over their radical brothers in arms in the foreseeable future.
On the Front Lines of Syria’s Civil War – Elizabeth O’Bagy – ISW
… The conventional wisdom holds that the extremist elements are completely mixed in with the more moderate rebel groups. This isn’t the case. Moderates and extremists wield control over distinct territory. Although these areas are often close to one another, checkpoints demarcate control. On my last trip into Syria earlier this month, we traveled freely through parts of Aleppo controlled by the Free Syrian Army, following roads that kept us at safe distance from the checkpoints marked by the flag of the Islamic State of Iraq. …
… Contrary to many media accounts, the war in Syria is not being waged entirely, or even predominantly, by dangerous Islamists and al Qaeda die-hards. The jihadists pouring into Syria from countries like Iraq and Lebanon are not flocking to the front lines. Instead they are concentrating their efforts on consolidating control in the northern, rebel-held areas of the country. …
Charles Lister disagrees: Syria’s moderate rebels wane as extremist forces dominate – National
The most notable trend in Syria in 2013 has been the increasing strategic supremacy of Islamist groups, particularly in the northern half of the country. Every major opposition military victory since September 2012 has been Islamist-led.
Another by Lister: New fears for Syria’s jihadists – FP
“Bounded Rationality” محدودية العقلانية – an interesting theoretical analysis by Camille Otrakji in Arabic – watch here
The CTC Sentinel has a new issue entirely centered on Syria, including the following titles:
From the Aron Lund article:
… This article identifies and profiles some of the most important non-state actors in Syria. It finds that the opposition remains severely fragmented. Although foreign-backed efforts to realize the long-standing goal of a central “Free Syrian Army” leadership for the mainstream insurgency have achieved some progress recently, the resulting Supreme Military Command has little internal cohesion and is held together almost entirely by outside funding. The Syrian regime has also begun to experience a fragmentation of its security apparatus, caused by its increased reliance on local and foreign militia forces, although these problems are still in their early stages. …
The Witnesses – FP – David Kenner
At approximately 3pm PST, the Syrian Electronic Army seemingly hacked into Twitter, Huffington Post and NY Times’ registry accounts altering contact details, and more significantly, DNS records. Modifying DNS records of a domain will allow SEA to redirect visitors to any site of their choosing.
First reported by Matthew Keys, this is the latest of many attacks by the pro-Syrian government computer hackers who align themselves with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
The flurry of DNS hacks began when the group initially posted a tweet with a screenshot of the whois records for Twitter.com and a link for others to verify its authenticity…
From Max Fisher: The one map that shows why Syria is so complicated
Syria’s Western-backed political opposition plans to create the nucleus of a national army to bring order to the disparate rebel forces battling President Bashar al-Assad and counter the strength of al Qaeda-linked rebel brigades.
The latest attempt to unite the rebels coincides with fierce debates in Washington and other Western capitals over whether and how to boost support for Assad’s opponents after an alleged chemical weapons attack by government forces on Wednesday.
Some earlier material we noted but didn’t post in a timely fashion:
International Jihad and the Syrian Conflict – Nick Heras interviews Aaron Zelin – Fair Observer
Support for rebels will help push Syrians away from extremists – National – Hussein Ibish
Extremists are increasingly dominating the Syrian rebellion, especially since the beginning of this year. This has significantly strengthened the position of the dictator, Bashar Al Assad, by validating his narrative about “Islamic terrorism” – that began as a fiction during the period of peaceful, unarmed protests but is now a reality that he is instrumental in shaping and driving.
… Those who argue against arming any of the rebels because of the strength of radical movements are citing the self-fulfilling prophecy, and grim logical consequences, of their own consistent “hands-off” policy recommendations: reluctance to support the FSA for fear of the emergence of extreme Islamists has inexorably and inevitably led to precisely that development.
An amazing moment of hope: a Syrian soldier drops his weapon and walks over to speak to the rebels, reminds everyone that they are all the same people. As with the other articles in this section, I was unable to post when it was timely, due to traveling. This story made the rounds quickly a month ago, but should be remembered, as it revealed an amazing moment of humanity. al-Arabiya: Syrian officer drops own arm, talks to rebels
Another beautiful, human story: Love in the Syrian Revolution – Wendy Pearlman
At least 29,000 Syrians have flooded into northern Iraq since Thursday, the United Nations refugee agency said Monday, calling it one of the largest cross-border migrations since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. Officials said 20,000 crossed over on Thursday alone. More than 1.9 million Syrians have already sought refuge in neighboring countries; more than 180,000 are now in Iraq. (Aug. 19)
Among the journalists I know covering Syria, almost everyone is swearing off crossing the border and going inside the country. It’s not the threat of violence that’s stopping people, but the risk of kidnapping…
While the Egyptian Brotherhood makes global headlines and Tunisia’s Ennahda Party struggles to remain in power, very little is publicly known about the state of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood. In recent weeks, much has been made of the decrease in the group’s influence over the Syrian National Coalition (SNC). In contrast, not a lot has been said on the Brotherhood’s actual influence inside Syria and its strategy for the revolution. How exactly does the movement plan on dealing with recent trends in the conflict, such as the rise of Islamic extremism in opposition ranks?
A series of interviews conducted with prominent Syrian Brotherhood members and other members of the opposition in Istanbul and Beirut reveal that the group is adapting to an increasingly fragmented Syria made up of competing centers of power. But even if it seems to be gaining some traction on the ground through humanitarian assistance, political activism and armed opposition, the Syrian Brotherhood is still facing enormous external and internal challenges. …
The Muslim Brotherhood’s War on Coptic Christians – Daily Beast
The group that “renounced violence” in an effort to gain political power is engaged in a full-scale campaign of terror against Egypt’s Christian minority. Brotherhood leaders have incited their followers to attack Christian homes, shops, schools and churches throughout the country. Samuel Tadros, an Egyptian scholar with the Hudson Institute, told me these attacks are the worst violence against the Coptic Church since the 14th century.
The news coming out of Egypt is staggering. USA Today reports that “forty churches have been looted and torched, while 23 others have been attacked and heavily damaged” in one week. According to the Coptic Orthodox and Catholic churches in Egypt, 160 Christian-owned buildings have also been attacked.
In one town, Islamists paraded three nuns on the streets like prisoners of war after burning their Franciscan school. The attackers tore a cross off the gate of the school and replaced it with an Islamist flag. The New York Times described hundreds of Islamists in one attack, “lashing out so ferociously that marble altars were left in broken heaps on the floor.”
Two security guards working on a tour boat owned by Christians were burned alive. An orphanage was burned down. The Catholic Bishop of Luxor told the Vatican news agency Tuesday that he has been trapped in his home for 20 days by Islamist mobs chanting “Death to the Christians!” “People who reside in the villages of the area that have nothing because food supplies are running out and people are afraid to leave the house,” he said.
For the first time in 1600 years, prayers were not held in the Virgin Mary and Priest Ibram Monastery, which includes three churches, one of which is an archaeological site. According to the local priest, they were destroyed by supporters of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. On one village street, Islamists painted a red X on Muslim stores and a black X on Christian stores, so attackers knew where to focus their rage. On Tuesday, there were reports that the Brotherhood declared Friday prayers to be held in an evangelical church in the town of Minya that has been converted to a mosque.
… A Brotherhood spokesman dismissed the wave of attacks as being perpetrated by “foolish boys” and alleged a conspiracy against his organization. But the Facebook page of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is rife with false accusations meant to foment hatred against Copts, including the absurd claim that the Church has declared “war against Islam and Muslims” and justified the attacks by saying: “After all this, people ask why they burn the churches.” Then came a threat: “For every action there is a reaction.”
The Muslim Brotherhood has been inciting violence against the Copts in an effort to scapegoat the religious minority for the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi. The FJP Facebook page is filled with the rhetoric the Brotherhood leaders have been using in their speeches at the sit-ins: “The pope of the Church is involved in the removal of the first elected Islamist president. The pope of the Church alleges Islamic Sharia is backwards, stubborn, and reactionary.” …
The life and work of anarchist Omar Aziz, and his impact on self-organization in the Syrian revolution – Leila Shrooms for Tahrir-ICN
Omar Aziz (fondly known by friends as Abu Kamal) was born in Damascus. He returned to Syria from exile in Saudi Arabia and the United States in the early days of the Syrian revolution. An intellectual, economist, anarchist, husband and father, at the age of 63, he committed himself to the revolutionary struggle. He worked together with local activists to collect humanitarian aid and distribute it to suburbs of Damascus that were under attack by the regime. Through his writing and activity he promoted local self-governance, horizontal organization, cooperation, solidarity and mutual aid as the means by which people could emancipate themselves from the tyranny of the state. Together with comrades, Aziz founded the first local committee in Barzeh, Damascus.The example spread across Syria and with it some of the most promising and lasting examples of non-hierarchical self organization to have emerged from the countries of the Arab Spring.
In her tribute to Omar Aziz, Budour Hassan says, he “did not wear a Vendetta mask, nor did he form black blocs. He was not obsessed with giving interviews to the press …[Yet] at a time when most anti-imperialists were wailing over the collapse of the Syrian state and the “hijacking” of a revolution they never supported in the first place, Aziz and his comrades were tirelessly striving for unconditional freedom from all forms of despotism and state hegemony.” …
Panorama of Destruction: The Story Behind the Aerial View of Homs – Emily Dische-Becker and Hisham Ashkar – This should be read, an amazing analysis of aerial photos of destruction in Syria, the drones that captured them, and a discussion of wartime art…
Damascus: What’s Left – Sarah Birke – good article
… The same day, I went out for dinner with a well-connected businessman—he went to school with Bashar al-Assad and Bashar’s elder brother Bassel and has flourished under the regime, even more so since the crisis started. The restaurant served a take on continental food and any type of alcohol you might fancy. A coiffed young woman with a photo of Bashar as her iPhone cover sang songs as her smiling companions knocked back drinks at a price that would pay the rent of a displaced family for a month. At one point, the businessman got up to use the bathroom and something clattered to the floor. It was a pistol. “Oh, that,” he said. “I am so afraid of being kidnapped. I would rather kill myself than have that happen to me.”
During my stay, visits to a half-dozen different central neighborhoods made clear to me that the regime is far from on its last legs—at least here. The economy trundles along, largely propped up by funds from the Iranian government—which has injected at least $4 billion into Syria since the conflict began. …
… Yet the most noticeable change to the city since I lived here before the war is in the urban population itself. Damascus, which had an estimated five to six million inhabitants before the conflict began, never rivaled Cairo for intellectual life, or Beirut for sophistication. Yet it had enough of its own aspiring filmmakers and graying dissidents, worldly youth and wrinkled shop owners, and many highly-educated lawyers, doctors, and scholars. Now many professionals, the young, and even workers with sufficient savings to do so have left for Lebanon, Egypt, the Gulf, or further afield. …
… To these loyalists, the recent course of the war—including the growing reports of more radical groups gaining an upper hand in some opposition regions—has given proof to their argument that the government is the last secular bastion in the region, attacked by a range of extremists funded by Gulf countries. The opposition fighters have done themselves no favors as the fight becomes dirtier. “I wanted a revolution but the regime played a clever game and won,” one young man told me, referring to the how the government stoked fears of sectarian violence, including, according to multiple reports in 2011, by releasing criminals, especially Islamists, from Seydnaya prison so they could join the opposition.
Others in the capital—like most of their compatriots living in rebel-held territory—vehemently disagree. They say they would rather die than live under the regime; and that it must be brought down regardless of the cost. A handful of prominent Damascenes such as Yassin Hajj-Saleh, a well-known writer, and Razan Zeitouneh, a lawyer who has been in hiding since the start of the uprising, have even moved to the rebel-held suburbs. (In mid-July, Hajj-Saleh, who is now in East Ghouta with no power or phone, and very little food, told The Guardian, “In Damascus, we faced the constant possibility of arrest and insufferable torture. Here we are safe from that, but not from a missile that could land on our heads at any minute.”) Nadia, a Syrian friend who works for an international aid agency, told me she likes to cross these lines and go to places such as Homs because the people and the revolution seem far more alive than in Damascus. …
Viva La Zaatar Croissant – Syrian Foodie in London
Over the last week, the most reported story from Syria wasn’t the hundreds of people killed by Assad gangs nor was it fighter jets bombing civilian homes in Aleppo. It was an alleged ban on eating croissant by a religious committee in rebel controlled Aleppo.Sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? It must be a joke.
Not according to the Time, CNN, Washington Post, Huffington Post and every other news paper in the four corners of the Earth who decided to jump on the bandwagon. …
On August 14th 2013, a video was uploaded to Jihad461′s YouTube account. The video, viewable here (extreme NSFL) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-xYg5qTC7M, showed a rebel of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (hereafter ISIS) group reading a statement in front of two young men on their knees.
The title of the video uploaded reads, ‘the urgent execution of two Shiite youths by ‘Victory Front’.
In the video, the speaker reads a statement, that roughly, translates as follows. …
Simplistic but entertaining nonetheless, “Shortest Guide to the Middle East Ever”:
— Ahmed Shihab-Eldin (@ASE) August 24, 2013