Posted by Joshua on Friday, August 10th, 2012
Creating a Syrian Swamp: Assad’s ‘Plan B’
By Joshua Landis
August 10, 2012
Is the regime’s “end game” coming soon? I fear not. Assad is likely to treat Syria as he did Iraq and Lebanon: he will work to break them apart. In 2005, a friend who was close to the regime told me that Assad and those around him were convinced that they could defeat President Bush’s attempts to change the regime in Syria. They said:
Bush thinks he can use Iraq against us. But Iraq is not a nation. We will help turn its factions against the US. It will turn into a swamp and suck the US in. This is what we did to Israel and the US in Lebanon in the 1980s.
Today, Assad will treat Syria as he did Lebanon and Iraq earlier. He will gamble that it is not a nation and will work to tear it apart. Already he has withdrawn from the Kurdish parts of Syria. Friends in Aleppo tell me that Assad is arming the Kurds there. He will arm the Arab tribes in the hope that they will resist central control. I am told that a number of the tribes of Aleppo gathered to condemn the Free Syrian Army following the killing of a leader of the al-Berri tribe, Ali Zeineddin al-Berri, also known as Zeno, who was accused of leading a pro-regime shabiha militia group. Assad will arm those that fear the Free Syrian Army, such as the Aleppo tribes, which he has used to police Aleppo. As Damascus and Aleppo slip out of his control, he may well try to destroy them sooner than allow them to fall intact to the Free Syrian Army. Anyone who has ruled Syria knows that Damascus is its linchpin. By reducing it to ruins, Syria may become ungovernable. He will build up the rural groups that have chafed under Damascus’ control.
In order to survive, Assad and his Alawite generals will struggle to turn Syria into Lebanon – a fractured nation, where no one community can rule. He may lose Syria, but could still remain a player, and his Alawite minority will not be destroyed. Today, Junblatt, Geagea, Gemayyal, Franjia and other warlords are respected members of parliament and society. All might have been taken to the international court and charged with crimes against humanity two decades ago. After all, somewhere between 100,000 to 150,000 Lebanese were killed out of a population of three million during the civil war. When the Lebanese came to terms with the fact that no one camp could impose its rule over the others, they had no choice but to bury the hatchet and move forward.
If Assad surrenders, hundreds of regime leaders will be executed or tried for crimes against their fellow countrymen. The broader Alawite community fears the possibility of aimless retribution. To avoid this, Assad is likely to pursue the Lebanon option: turn Syria into a swamp and create chaos out of Syria’s sects and factions. It is a strategy of playing upon divisions to sow chaos. Already the Syrian Army has largely been transformed into an Alawite militia. If Assad must withdraw from Damascus, he will have nowhere to fall back on but Latakia and the coastal mountains. I have argued that the Alawite region cannot be turned into an independent state, but it does provide Assad and the remnants of the Syrian Army a social base. Just as Lebanon’s Maronites did not create an independent state in the Lebanon Mountains, they did use it to deny Muslim forces undivided supremacy over Lebanon. The Syrian opposition will have difficulty defeating Assad’s army. This is certainly true if opposition forces remain as fragmented as they are today. Assad is gambling on his enemies being unable to unite. He is working assiduously to turn Syria into a swamp in order to save what he can of his power and the lives of those around him.
If Assad is successful in this ambition, there will be no clear endgame to the fighting in Syria. Syria’s Baathist regime cannot survive. It is already collapsing. Most state institutions are no longer functioning. Order has broken down in many parts of the country. New authorities are springing up as the old disappear. But Assad’s army in its transformed state is likely to remain a powerful force. It is difficult to see how a clear winner will emerge in Syria. A new national pact will have to be hammered out between the forces on the ground. But those forces are only just beginning to take shape in their new forms today.
Syria Comment News (No moderation of comments)
I will try abandoning moderation of the comment section for several weeks as an experiment. I have been receiving numerous complaints. I have had great trouble keeping good moderators because people are angry. Every moderator is attacked for being partisan and unfair. Their job becomes unsatisfying if not impossible. Consequently, I will try not to moderate the comment section for several weeks and pray that all commentators remain civil and resist attacks on other commentators. Attacking ideas is fine. Attacking people is not. I want to keep the comment section useful and friendly to all. Ideally comments will add valuable information for our readers. This blog is a group effort. Best to you all. Joshua
News Round Up
Will Syria’s Kurds benefit from the crisis?
By Jonathan Marcus BBC Diplomatic Correspondent
…. Noted Syria expert Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma says that while Syria’s Kurds are a compact minority they are not a majority even in the north eastern border area with Turkey – where they constitute some 30-40% of the population.
They have sometimes tense relations with local Sunni Arab tribes who see this as an integral part of Syrian territory, reinforced by the fact that this is an area rich in oil resources vital to the Syrian economy.
Prof Landis argues that what is going on in the Kurdish north-east offers a useful pointer to President Assad’s “Plan B” should his control over key cities like Damascus and Aleppo crumble
He says that the “embattled president withdrew government forces from the north-east because he couldn’t control it and wanted to focus on the most important battles in Aleppo and Damascus”.
“But in the back of the president’s mind, there may be the thought that empowering the Kurds is a way of weakening the Sunni Arab majority and underlining the risks of fragmentation should his government fall. It’s a strategy of playing upon divisions to sow chaos,” he said.
This way, says Prof Landis, “the Syrian Army – which is rapidly becoming an Alawite militia, whilst still the strongest military force – may lose control over large swathes of the country, but will remain a vital factor in determining the political outcome in Syria”.
It is a bleak prospect.
Prof Landis asserts that President Assad “may lose Syria, but could still remain a player, and his Alawite minority will not be destroyed”.
“That’s the future of Syria,” he says, with little enthusiasm. “It’s what Lebanon was and what Iraq became.”
Insight: Syria rebels see future fight with foreign radicals
By Erika Solomon, ALEPPO, Syria | Tue Aug 7, 2012
A Free Syrian Army fighter screams in pain after he was injured in a leg by shrapnel from a shell fired from a Syrian Army tank in the Salaheddine neighbourhood of central Aleppo August 7, 2012.
(Reuters) – Abu Bakr, a Syrian rebel commander on the outskirts of Aleppo, is a devoted Islamist determined to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. But the radical allies that have joined the rebels in recent months alarm even him.
“Let me be clear. I am an Islamist, my fighters are Islamists. But there is more than one type of Islamist,” he told Reuters. “These men coming fought in insurgencies like Iraq. They are too extreme, they want to blow up any symbol of the state, even schools.”
Seventeen months into the uprising against Assad, Syria’s rebels are grateful for the support of Islamist fighters from around the region. They bring weapons, money, expertise and determination to the fight.
But some worry that when the battle against Assad is over they may discover their allies – including fighters from the Gulf, Libya, Eastern Europe or as far as the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area – have different aims than most Syrians.
“Our goal is to make a new future, not destroy everything,” Abu Bakr said, sighing as he rattled his prayer beads. “As bloody as it is now, this stage is simple. We all have the same cause: topple the regime. When Bashar falls, we may find a new battlefront against our former allies.”
Abu Bakr and his comrades say they envision Syria as a conservative version of Turkey’s moderate Islamist rule, not an autocratic theocracy. They are unnerved by a recent kidnapping of foreign journalists and attacks on state infrastructure….
One of the most effective and elusive groups in Aleppo now sending reinforcements into Damascus is called Ahrar al-Sham, “The Free Men of Syria.” Its fighters accept the bulk of jihadist foreign fighters in Idlib and Aleppo, rebels say.
“They’re extremely effective and secretive. They coordinate with us to attack the regime but they don’t take orders from anyone. They get weapons and explosives smuggled from abroad that are much better,” said a rebel in Aleppo called Anwar.
Other groups are amateurs working alone, and it shows…
But most rebels don’t have clear answers for what they mean when they say they are Islamist or want an Islamic state.
“We want to build a state where our citizens are equal, Muslims and minorities,” said the young rebel Anwar, as he watched an Islamic TV station from a safe house in Aleppo.
“We want to be able to choose our own future, not have it be determined by poverty or our religion.”
The fighters from Syria are mostly poor, uneducated young men from rural areas. Decades of repressed anger have helped shape their ideas. Most say that as members of the country’s Sunni Muslim majority, their families were harassed and discriminated against by security forces.….Commander Abu Bakr says that while he objects to the severe radical approach, he too hopes for an Islamic state.
“Let’s first get rid of the regime, re-establish stability, have national dialogue, and then gradually try to create the Islamic state and give people time to get used to it,” he said.
“I don’t want to immediately impose Sharia law and start cutting off people’s hands for stealing. I believe in Sharia. But if we force it on people, we will create fear. We have to assure minorities we will treat them well.”
Rebel fighters are exhausted and can’t afford to take on new opponents, said fighters from northern Idlib, in a convoy heading to the battle in neighboring Aleppo. Amr, a 20-year-old rebel, said his comrades had their hands full trying to topple the government and maintain order in areas they control.
“We already are fighting the regime and now we’re fighting crime. We just don’t have time to deal with these extremists,” he sighed. “But don’t worry, their day will come.”
On Damascus Streets, Front Lines Multiply
Neighborhood Patrols in Syrian Capital Take Up Arms for the Regime; In Some Areas, Rebels Are Manning the Checkpoints.
By NOUR MALAS
Syrian army fighters in Damascus in July. Regime backers have asserted control over much of the capital.
DAMASCUS—Syria’s capital, once a haven from the violence tearing through much of the country, now has multiple front lines and bears battle scars of its own.
A maze of checkpoints and neighborhood patrols run by the most hardened supporters of President Bashar al-Assad has allowed the government to reassert control in most areas—after rebel fighters stunned soldiers and residents last month.
Local councils of regime supporters, called Popular Committees, were months ago given the task by municipalities to guard their respective neighborhoods. Now, their members—mostly men in their 20s and 30s—have been armed with rifles and handguns, issued ID cards and given monthly salaries.
New license plates that read “protection of order” are displayed on a growing number of cars around the capital. The word for “order” in Arabic, locals point out, can also mean “regime,” a pun not lost on Syrians on both sides of the conflict.
But the weeklong government bombardment of crowded neighborhoods last month also gained rebel fighters some sympathy in other corners of the capital, making regime opponents out of displaced civilians and turning rebellious southern districts into nearly lawless enclaves. Still, many regime opponents say it was premature or reckless of rebels to bring the fight to the capital…..
Assad appears on TV with Iranian security chief
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a rare appearance with the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council on Tuesday in video footage broadcast on state television. Assad has made one appearance since the assassination of four top security officials on July 18. In video footage broadcast the following day, he was shown swearing in a new defense minister.
Saeed Jalili, a top security official in Iran and the country’s lead nuclear negotiator, visited Damascus on Tuesday to discuss the fate of 48 Iranians captured by rebels just outside the capital on Saturday, as well as the ongoing crisis in Syria.
“Kidnapping innocent people is not acceptable anywhere in the world,” Jalili said, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency. He said Iran would do what it could to “secure release of the 48 innocent pilgrims kidnapped in Syria.”
He also said the only way to resolve the unrest in the country would be to find a “Syrian solution.”
LBC: Samaha confesses involvement in bombing plans
August 9, 2012
LBC television reported Thursday that detained ex-Information Minister Michel Samaha confessed under interrogation that he had transferred “explosives from Syria to Lebanon in order to carry out bombings in North Lebanon, particularly in the area of Akkar, with Syria’s knowledge.”
The future of democracy in Syria is the subject of many concerns: people are worried about the treatment of minorities and women, possible acts of revenge, and the likelihood of transitional justice. Some ask about universal human rights. Others …
State Department and Pentagon Plan for Post-Assad Syria By STEVEN LEE MYERS and THOM SHANKER, August 4, 2012
WASHINGTON — Even with fighting raging in Syria and President Bashar al-Assad digging in, the State Department and Pentagon are quietly sharpening plans to cope with a flood of refugees, help maintain basic health and municipal services, restart a shattered economy and avoid a security vacuum in the wake of Mr. Assad’s fall, administration officials…
State Department Spokesman Patrick Ventrell said at a daily press briefing Monday:
“What we’re focused on and our concern is that as the opposition comes together with the remaining elements of the regime that don’t have blood on their hands, that they create an inclusive Syria where the rights of all Syrians are respected. And so that’s our focus and that’s what we’re directly communicating to the opposition, and that’s certainly where our feelings are.”..
The White House won’t keep its own secrets, never mind those of the SEALs, Pentagon, or Israel — especially if leaking secrets helps President Obama look like a tough guy in his uphill re-election campaign. The latest leak is a gusher, and …
At the start of the uprising in March 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood was not well placed to claim the leadership of post-Assad Syria: it had no organised presence inside the country and was beset by long-standing rivalries. However, the uprising has enabled it to bolster its credibility and re-establish a foothold among the domestic opposition. It is now on course to play a prominent role in the conflict — and the political system that follows the Assad family’s 40-year rule.Impact•The fall of the Assad regime will remove obstacles to increased Turkish, Qatari, and possibly Egyptian support.•Both Iran and Saudi Arabia will resent the Brotherhood’s rise, with Riyadh trying to curtail its influence by supporting rival forces.•The movement’s moderate positions are likely to make it appear as a ‘reasonable’ alternative to more radical Islamic forces.What nextAs soon as security conditions allow, the Muslim Brotherhood will return to Syria to claim a place within the new political order. This will not be an easy task. Although it will benefit from its connections with armed groups and foreign governments, it will face strong opposition from both Islamist and secular rivals. The movement will also need to address internal divisions, and rebuild its Damascus branch.AnalysisFor decades, the Brotherhood has dominated the exiled opposition. This is a result of the mass exodus of its members that occurred between the 1963 Ba’athist coup that brought the Assads to power, and the regime’s final eradication of the movement’s presence inside Syria following the 1979-1982 Islamic uprising.The Brotherhood played a leading role in the conferences held by exiled opponents in Turkey in the first half of 2011. It rapidly became the leading force within the main exiled opposition body, the Syrian National Council (SNC) that was created in Istanbul last August. It took about one-quarter of the seats and established alliances with many other members, including secular figures such as the SNC’s first president, Burhan Ghalioun. In addition to its size and experience, the Brotherhood has been able to influence the SNC’s decisions thanks to its close relations with the latter’s two main supporters, Turkey and Qatar (see QATAR: Foreign policy activism meets constraints – February 3, 2012).Factionalism issuesHowever, the movement remains handicapped by factionalism based on long-running regional divisions. In the early 1970s, the Damascus branch seceded from the organisation and gradually ceased to play any significant role, even in exile. During the following decades, endemic rivalry persisted between the Aleppo and Hama branches. In 2010, the Brotherhood’s secretary-general, Aleppo branch member Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanuni, was replaced with a new leadership entirely composed of members of the Hama branch. This followed a number of leadership failures by Bayanuni, including his unfruitful alliance in 2006 with former Vice-President Abd al-Halim Khaddam, who by then was in exile.The new leadership is headed by Riyad Shaqfa and his deputy Faruq Tayfur, the most senior Brotherhood representative within the SNC. Although the two branches have recently reconciled, the Aleppo branch has continued to act autonomously, to the extent that it runs its own coalition within the SNC, the National Action Group led by Ahmad Ramadan.Rebuilding grass-root networksThe creation of a ‘liberated zone’ in the north could facilitate the Brotherhood’s return this yearAfter establishing its hegemony over the exiled opposition, the Brotherhood’s top priority has been to rebuild bridges with Syrian society. It has attempted to do this by channeling funds into the country, first for humanitarian purposes, then from late 2011 onwards, in support of armed groups. The reconstruction of the movement’s base inside Syria has thus been carried out on a clientelist basis rather than through the recruitment of genuine followers.Its attempt to re-enter the Syrian political scene has relied on the movement’s own structures such as the Committee for the Protection of Civilians. The latter is an umbrella organisation that was created in December 2011 and subsequently secured the allegiance of several insurgent groups, the most powerful of which is the Khalid Bin al-Walid Brigade in Homs province.Islamist competitionThe Brotherhood’s rise may exacerbate Syria’s regional and ideological divisionsHowever, the Brotherhood has also been accused of using the SNC’s resources for its own purposes, in particular through its control of the Relief and Development Office. This issue has been a source of tensions not only with secular opponents, but also with other Islamist groups such as the Syrian National Movement. The latter constitutes a serious potential rival for the Brotherhood given that its leaders left Syria only after March 2011 and thus command a much fresher network of supporters on the ground.Inside Syria, pro-Brotherhood brigades also compete with Saudi-backed military coalitions such as the Front of the Revolutionaries of Syria, and at least some branches of the Free Syrian Army that have reportedly distanced themselves from the Brotherhood-SNC-Qatar nexus (see SYRIA: Opposition splits cloud transition prospects – May 14, 2012).Despite past tactical alliances with the Muslim Brothers, the Saudi monarchy is worried about the fact that their recent electoral victories in the region might encourage its own citizens to demand political reforms. In Syria, therefore, Riyadh has tended to support the Brotherhood’s rivals, particularly politically conservative forces such as Bedouin tribes and defected officers.Policy agendaPragmatism would likely determine the movement’s actions once in powerIn ideological terms, the Syrian Brotherhood espouses moderate positions in line with the regional movement. It has always advocated a form of ‘Islamic democracy’ that combines the institutions of a liberal democratic state (free multi-party elections, a powerful parliament, separation of power) with the ‘gradual Islamisation of law’. Over the last decade the organisation has clarified its position on religious minorities by rejecting any form of discrimination against them.The Brotherhood’s economic policies advocate a radical break with the incumbent regime state-centred approach in favour of a liberal system characterised by minimal state intervention and maximum private initiative (see NORTH AFRICA: Islamists to be pragmatic on economy – April 10, 2012).In the realm of foreign policy, the Brotherhood will have to walk a fine line between the advocacy of a nationalist agenda, which will be key to the movement’s legitimacy, and the need to follow a realistic course of action in order to preserve its relations with pro-Western states in the region
….As I see it, there are three main reasons for action in Syria.First, the longer the fighting goes on, the more it destabilizes the region. Syria is now in a civil war linked to the Sunni-Shiite divide in the region. The more deaths, the more refugees, the more revenge killing, the tougher it will be to put Humpty Dumpty together. The longer the war persists, the more risk of spillover into Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.Second, Assad is believed to have many tons of sarin and VX nerve agents. Those chemical weapons could end up in the hands of jihadis or on the global black market, and we should work with Syrian rebels to help secure them if necessary.Third, there’s a humanitarian imperative. It appears that several times more people have been killed in Syria than in Libya when that intervention began, and the toll is rising steeply.
By Roula Khalaf and Abigail Fielding-Smith, Published: August 9
….Abu Berri says he became a committed member of the Salafists, the ultraconservative Sunni sect, after spending nine years in Saudi Arabia.
Many of his peers, he says, are also becoming Salafists, even those who have little understanding of this brand of puritanical Islam. Abdelr Razzaq Tlass, the charismatic leader of a brigade in the city of Homs, traded his mustache for a beard, he notes. “They grow beards to defy the regime,” he says. “In fact, we’re even willing to say we’re al-Qaeda to annoy the regime.”
Syrian activists often play down the religious aspect of the country’s revolution, insisting that in a conservative society it is only natural that people who are suffering should seek refuge in religion. But as the regime’s brutality has intensified, the rebel movement has become more radicalized. In this overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim struggle against a minority Alawite regime, Salafists and other Islamists say they are fighting a jihad against the Assads.
Crime Wave Engulfs Syria as Its Cities Reel From War
By an employee of THE NEW YORK TIMES and DAMIEN CAVE
Published: August 9, 2012
….Kidnapping, rare before, is now rampant, as a man named Hur discovered here last month. He simply wanted to drive home. The man shoving a pistol into his back had other plans. “Keep walking,” the gunman told Hur, 40, a successful businessman, as they approached his car. “Get in.”
Hur said he initially thought he was being arrested by government agents. But then, after blindfolding him, his three captors made a phone call that revealed baser motives.
“They asked my family to ransom me with 15 million Syrian pounds,” Hur said of the abductors’ demand for about $200,000. “They were criminals, not a political group. They told me they knew me and they knew my family could pay.”….
It was Iraq, circa 2003, in miniature: in areas where decades of suppressive government have suddenly been lifted, looting, violence and sectarianism have begun to thrive.
But the lawlessness may be more systemic. For years, the Assad government relied for control on private militias called shabiha that were paid by the government or by its wealthy supporters. With the government stretched financially and many businessmen fleeing or switching sides, those payments appear to have stopped, Ms. Hanano and others said, leading many militia members to pay themselves however they can, often with violence as a byproduct….
“In the Shadow of Assad’s Bombs”
by Samar Yazbek, a novelist and journalist, who is als the authorof “A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution.” Powerful personal account from an embattled village, written by an Alawi woman who has renounced the regime.
New York Times op-ed
….I was the only woman among them, and the young F.S.A. men treated me like part of the group. During that meeting it became clear that it’s a mistake to consider the F.S.A. as a single bloc. It is a hodgepodge of battalions, including secularists, moderate Islamists and all-too-ordinary people who joined up to defend their lives and their families.
At the end of our journey back to Saraqib, the commander told me, “We are one people, we and the Alawites are brothers. We had never thought about the sort of things that the regime is trying to stir up.”
I was silent for a moment, until I realized what he was telling me, the daughter of a well-known Alawite family that supports President Bashar al-Assad unconditionally. Some of my relatives have publicly disowned me for turning my back on the regime as many others have, announcing on Facebook that I am no longer considered one of them.
I squeezed the commander’s hand. ….
“There was an apple seller who came to Saraqib today. He was killed by that sniper up on the radio building. An army patrol passed by, took the apple cart and they all started eating the apples even as the merchant’s corpse was sprawled out on the ground,” she recounted. “The apple seller’s son was shouting and crying for someone to help him move his father so that he could give him a decent burial. One of them motioned at the son to go and ask the neighbors for help.”
Before the sound of a fighter jet flying overhead boomed, the woman said, “Poor guy. He was just a stranger who wanted to sell his apples.”