Posted by Joshua on Monday, February 11th, 2013
Noah Bonsey to Aron Lund, [See the last two posts for their contributions and dialogue about the relative strength of Syria's two principle rebel-militia alliances.]
Excellent point on the Liwa al-Islam/Tajammu’ Ansar al-Islam split in your last post. I have not been following the Damascus militant scene as closely recently and completely missed that.
It seems that we agree on the central point: The Supreme Military Command [the formation of which was announced in December as a counterpart to the Opposition Coalition put together in Doha] holds little direct influence, Free Syrian Army figureheads even less, and the Liberation Front currently represents the closest thing to a mainstream national militant alliance.
You make an interesting point regarding the Liberation Front having lots of fighters but no real leadership. Certainly it is true that they have no single leading figure or faction, and–unlike the Islamic Front–they lack a defined ideological or political platform.
I think both of these apparent weaknesses, however, result largely from the individual strength of the alliance’s leading components. Liwa al-Towhid, al-Farouq, Saqour al-Sham and Liwa al-Islam have all proven to be among the most powerful groups within their respective areas of operation over the last six months (and in some cases longer). The Liberation Front’s situation thus differs from that of the Islamic Front, in which Ahrar al-Sham is clearly the dominant faction (and was so even before it absorbed Harakat al-Fajr, et al) and is thus well positioned to steer the coalition toward adopting concrete political and ideological stances in line with its own agenda.
Also, while the Liberation Front lacks a single body capable of leading the alliance as a whole, it is richer than the Islamic Front in terms of charismatic, publicly recognized individual leaders. This may prove important down the road, as neither Ahrar al-Sham nor any of its junior partners has anyone who can compete on the national stage with Abdul Qader Saleh.
In any case, again much enjoyed your post and look forward to your full report.
Syrian Rebels Capture Country’s Largest Dam
By BARBARA SURK, Associated Press
BEIRUT — Syrian rebels captured the country’s largest dam on Monday after days of intense clashes, giving them control over water and electricity supplies for much of the country in a major blow to President Bashar Assad’s regime.
The rebels had already seized two other dams on the Euphrates River. But the latest conquest, the al-Furat dam in northeastern Raqqa province, was a major coup for the opposition. It handed them control over water and electricity supplies for both government-held areas and large swathes of land the opposition has captured over the past 22 months of fighting….
Rami Abdul-Rahman, a Britain-based anti-regime activist, said rebels took control of al-Furat dam around midday after successfully pushing out a group of Assad loyalist from the control room. Most of the regime troops in the area had stopped fighting on Sunday following the fall of the nearby town of al-Thawra, Abdul-Rahman said. Hesaid, “This is the biggest economic loss for the regime since the start of the revolution.”
The rebel assault on the dam was led by al-Qaida-linked militant group Jabhat al-Nusra, which has been fighting alongside the rebels trying to oust Assad. Al-Nusra Front is considered the most effective fighting force on the anti-regime side….
The government did not confirm it has lost control of the dam….
The Tabqa Dam, the country’s largest hydro-electric dam, fell in the hands of the Syrian opposition earlier today, a development that is highly symbolic but that has limited economic importance.
According to various news reports rebels took control of the dam, also called in Syria the Euphrates Dam, and of the nearby town of Al-Thawra between yesterday and today. All the operations at the dam are apparently continuing to function normally.
Inaugurated in 1978 by late President Hafez Al-Assad, the Euphrates dam was at the time of its completion hailed as a major achievement not only for the Baath Party but for Syrians as whole.
The town of Tabqa, where the dam is located, was renamed Al-Thawra, or the revolution. Across Syrian society, the project was seen as a sign of the prowess of Syrian engineers and of the economic and social development potential of the country.
The dam was expected to contribute significantly to the country’s food independence through the irrigation of more than 640,000 hectares of land and to the generation of some 800MW of electricity.
In practice, however, it never fulfilled its expectations and both land irrigated and power generated are at around a fifth of their capacity. Problems associated with the project included low water flows from Turkey, lack of maintenance and poor soil quality in reclaimed areas.
The main importance of the dam is the fact that Lake Assad, which was created behind the dam and is the largest water reservoir in the country, is a major source of drinking water for the city of Aleppo.
The Tabqa dam together with two other dams on the Euphrates, Tishreen and Al-Baath, are managed by the General Organization of the Euphrates Dam, which is affiliated to the Ministry of Water Resources.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition’s leader Moaz al-Khatib made a statement on his Facebook page in which he wrote that the Assad regime had “lost a chance to engage in a dialogue” to end the nearing two year conflict. Khatib had made an offer for talks with the government, but the government did not issue an official response. On Friday, Syria’s Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi said the government was open to holding talks, but without preconditions. Khatib had called for the release of 160,000 political prisoners, beginning with women whom he pushed to be released by Sunday.
The Alawis – An excellent program produced by Damian Quinn
BBC, 30 minutes, February 2013
The government of President Assad of Syria is under threat. So too is the secretive Shia sect known as the Alawis – or Alawites – to which he and many of the governing party and security officials belong.
Hostility towards the minority Alawi population is such that one leading commentator predicts they are likely to be the victims of the world’s next genocide.Presenter Owen Bennett Jones investigates the Alawis’ origins,….
Presenter Owen Bennett Jones investigates the Alawis’ origins, history and culture and asks how these once marginalised people came to power in a Sunni majority state. He discovers that for many their fortunes changed fifty years ago when the Baath party seized power in a coup d’etat. Alawis were dominant among the army officers who took control. They set about modernising the country and rolling out a secular agenda.
Now, as Syria’s revolution has morphed into a civil war, many Alawis believe their only choice is to kill or be killed. Are the majority of Alawis right to be convinced that the Assad regime is all that stands between them and a return to second-class status, or worse? If the opposition wins in Syria, are warnings about pogroms against the Alawis alarmist, or inevitable?
NATO head: No Syrian intervention coming
2013-02-11, BRUSSELS, Feb. 11 (UPI) –
NATO’s secretary general said the military alliance will not become involved in Syria’s civil war unless member-state Turkey is attacked.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Belgium told EUobserver it wasn’t the purpose of the trans-Atlantic defense alliance to solve every military crisis in the world. “NATO cannot act as the world’s policeman. We cannot travel from country to country to solve every conflict. It’s simply not possible,” he said. “The essence of being a defense alliance is that we are here to ensure the territorial defense of our member states.”
Homs’ displaced residents begin to return
after year of sustained bombing Syrian city is guarded about relative calm as governor calls for unity against al-Qaida and intense fighting continues elsewhere
Jonathan Steele in Homs, guardian.co.uk, Sunday 10 February 2013
A Homs taxi is stopped at a checkpoint by the Syrian national defence. Five hundred women are being trained for duty at checkpoints. Photograph: Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images
A year after this city captured the world’s attention as the victim of the worst shelling that Syria’s civil war had yet seen, Homs has become a – relatively – safe haven. Hundreds of families who fled to other Syrian cities in fear last February have loaded their belongings and returned. Civilians from Aleppo and Deir el-Zour – where fighting is still intense – are moving to Homs because they have heard it is more livable.
“It’s the only case I know of in Syria where people are returning after a long period of displacement. Homs may be quieter than Damascus”, Khaled Erksoussi, the head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent’s emergency response team told me in the capital before I set off on the 100-mile drive north. He was right. The boom of heavy shelling, promptly followed by the screeching of birds in panic, repeatedly fills the Damascene sky. It was in full and murderous throat again when I returned. Yet for 24 hours in Homs I heard only a few explosions, apparently directed towards targets beyond the ring road. In the city centre the street markets are thronged with shoppers. Groups of students wander in and out of the university, or stand around chatting. Checkpoints at several cross-roads create minor traffic jams but the soldiers seem relaxed and perfunctory as they check ID cards and car-boots, no doubt happy to be assigned to minor tasks rather than be sent to risky, remote areas. Homs even boasts a number of armed women in uniform who have volunteered for a newly created home guard.
Homs is Syria’s third largest city and local officials estimate about 150,000 of its 2,300,000 people are thought to have left and not returned. In human terms the figure is huge but it is a smaller exodus in proportional terms than Damascus or Aleppo have suffered….While the rest of his testimony could only be taken on trust, his point that Homs was enjoying a virtual ceasefire was confirmed by many other people I spoke to in the city. Whether this city, which was once a byword for wanton destruction, could one day be a model for the rest of Syria remains to be seen.
Build on a hill’s slope, the village of Kurt used to be half Alawite, half Sunni – a religious diversity unusual in the rest of the country where small communities tend to be predominantly Sunni, Alawite, Druze or Christian.
Mohamed Abul Abed, a 30-year-old Sunni, grew up with Alawite friends. Like any other neighbors, he says they would routinely visit each other, share tea and play ball.
But Mohamed says his friends grew apart as the revolution unfolded. “They told me they were afraid they’d be persecuted if the regime falls,” Mohamed says. “I told them no. We are against the regime, not against Alawites. But whatever I said, they were convinced their fate was tied to that of the regime. Because that’s what the Assads have put in their mind.”
The Road to Latakia City: Copyight: DW/M. Olivesi The Road to Latakia City: The coastal town is a stronghold of the Assad regime
When the Free Syrian Army took control of Kurt last spring, Alawites stayed put at first and life went on. Then weeks later, a resident spotted a group of young Alawites from the village manning a government checkpoint far from Kurt. Neighbors accused them of working as “Shabihas,” the name for the regime’s militiamen.
Mohamed says he can’t imagine his childhood friends doing any harm. “I think they didn’t kill anyone…” He pauses. “I hope they didn’t.”
Even so, Mohamed blames them for enabling the regime to turn the revolution into a civil war. And he says he’ll probably never forgive them.
Did the CIA Betray Syria’s Rebels?
Feb 12, 2013 12:00 AM EST
Americans didn’t keep promises to opposition leaders. Now they’ve turned against the U.S. By Mike Giglio.
In mid-August, a well-connected Syrian activist drove to the border city of Gaziantep in southern Turkey to meet two officers from the CIA. The officers had set up shop in a conference room at a luxury hotel, where representatives from a handful of opposition groups lounged in the lobby, waiting for their turn at an audience.
The activist, who had been a journalist before the conflict, came with three colleagues from Aleppo, the Syrian commercial capital that had recently turned into the main theater of the war. Inside the room, two casually dressed Americans were rolling up maps from the previous meeting. The Americans introduced themselves as CIA officers and said they were there to help with the overthrow of Syria’s authoritarian president, Bashar al-Assad.
The activist declined to be named for this article, because he didn’t want to be connected publicly to U.S. intelligence. He is respected in Aleppo, and I first met him, in another southern Turkey hotel, at a State Department–funded training seminar for activists, where he was a keynote speaker. According to the activist, the officers questioned the group about creeping Islamism in the rebel ranks. Were Aleppo rebels supportive of democracy? Hostile to the West? What about al Qaeda? Then the officers asked how they could help. The activists wanted armed support for the rebels in Aleppo—in particular, surface-to-air missiles—but the officers explained that America worried such weapons could fall into the hands of extremists. “Let’s leave military matters aside,” one of the officers said. The group made a list of things like satellite phones and medical supplies, and the officers promised to be back in touch soon. “We are here to help you bring down Assad,” one of the officers repeated.
However, in the months since, that activist, as well as many senior figures in the rebellion, have begun to suspect that the United States has no intention of living up to its promises. In a turn of events resonant of Iraq, many who had once been eager to work with the Americans feel betrayed, and some see meetings like those in Gaziantep as little more than a hostile intelligence-gathering exercise.
At the time of the meeting, the war against Assad had been intensifying, and the big question was whether the international community would step in to help the rebels with weapons or even a no-fly zone. In the absence of an intervention, official U.S. policy was to provide only nonlethal support—and that policy remains. But in Gaziantep, sources said, the CIA officers blurred that line.
I spoke with three of the men present when the rebel battalion Liwa al-Fatah met with the CIA in August, just before the Aleppo activists were in the room; two of them—Haytham Darwish, a defected Syrian colonel who led the battalion at the time, and a civilian liaison named Ali Badran—agreed to let me use their names. The men said the officers proposed a two-step plan. First, they would supply Liwa al-Fatah with telecommunications equipment. If the rebels proved reliable, weapons would then be sent their way. The officers didn’t say who would provide the weapons, but Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two U.S. allies, were known to be channeling support to rebel groups. “They said, ‘We can’t promise you now, but in the future, the weapons will be there,’” one of the meeting participants told me. “Which is a promise, actually.” The officers, these rebels added, said the communications equipment would arrive in a matter of weeks.
The Gaziantep meetings had been arranged by Firas Tlass, a Syrian businessman who once had deep ties to Assad. Tlass’s father, Mustafa, had been the country’s feared minister of defense for three decades, while his older brother, Manaf, was a close friend and top aide to Assad before a highly publicized defection in July. Firas Tlass had done well under Assad, but he too had switched sides, vowing to spend his own money to help fund the revolution.
In a phone interview in January, Tlass told me he had been present at the meetings with the Aleppo activists and the Liwa al-Fatah rebels, and he confirmed their accounts. He said that he had arranged a number of similar meetings with the CIA, and that promises like the ones the officers made in Gaziantep were commonplace—including the indirect promise of arms. “They promised to provide telecommunications devices, and afterward, if the rebels proved effective and honest, then they would [help] provide military support,” he said. Tlass told me that the Americans had kept none of those promises, that not even the communications equipment or hospital supplies had materialized. He then accused America of pushing a dark agenda in Syria—working to keep the war going instead of helping with the overthrow of Assad. “America,” Tlass said, “is trying to prolong the Syrian revolution.”…
Obama’s Post-Election Pivot on Syria
U.S. President Barack Obama calls on Congress to pass a small package of spending cuts and tax reforms that would delay the larger, automatic “sequester” cuts from going into effect during an announcement in the White House briefing room in Washington Feb. 5, 2013. (photo by REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)
By: Geoffrey Aronson for Al-Monitor. Posted on February 6.
Soon after re-election Obama explained that Washington will not support an expansion of existing military efforts to topple the regime: “In a situation like Syria, I have to ask: Can we make a difference? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime? And how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”
The Congo standard for U.S. intervention closes the door on the strategy announced by the president in August 2011. In its place a far more sober and nuanced effort is unfolding, one that retains the prospect of harnessing Washington’s considerable power in support of a diplomatic outcome. This is not leading from behind, nor is it a a policy of simply arming the opposition, or winking at those who do.
Obama has evidently tired of waiting for others to do the self-evident “right thing.” Washington remains as committed as ever to a democratic transition that results in Assad’s departure, but it has now opened the door in support of negotiations with all parties to achieve it. In the past, the suggestion that Assad was prepared to lose an election in 2014 could not be made in polite company. No longer. This change does not insure success, but at the very least it helps to establish a formidable and broad-based diplomatic counterweight to the killing.
Washington’s pragmatic reassessment is not occurring in a vacuum. Leading members of the Syrian opposition and the government itself have made conciliatory statements in support of a diplomatic engagement. Moscow and Tehran have also added their voices to the chorus.
Obama’s Congo standard however carries a more ominous message. Millions have died in the heart of Africa. There has been no pivot, where interests are defined and protected as part of a new order. The Congo has been abandoned to its fate. Woe to Syria if Obama treats it as he does the Congo.
Aid doesn’t reach camp for displaced Syrians just outside Turkey
At Azaz camp for displaced Syrians, more than 12,000 are housed in the 1000 tents, but there’s a waiting list for 1400 more tents, and in the meantime families must live in nearby villages, which are subject to government bombing raids. | Andree Kaiser/MCT
By Roy Gutman | McClatchy Newspapers
ATMA, Syria — From a distance, the tents look like an unfurled streamer, a wave of white filling the olive grove and crawling up the barren hillside on the Syrian-Turkish border, almost a work of environmental art.
This is Syria’s biggest camp for the internally displaced, and the flimsy tents shelter more than 20,000 people who have nowhere else to go.
In its poverty and dire shortages, its poor hygiene and lack of utilities, Atma’s white wave has become a symbol of the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who’ve fled the fighting in their country.
The United States has deferred to the United Nations in distributing food and other aid to Syria’s displaced, but the U.N. won’t enter any part of Syria without the government’s permission. That’s even more ironic here because Atma is directly across the border from Turkey, with no checkpoints or roadblocks. Yet U.N. agencies haven’t come even for an inspection.
“We know about Atma,” said Amanda Pitt, a spokeswoman for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, a little-known U.N. agency. “In order to get to these parts of northern Syria you have to cross the border,” she told McClatchy on Wednesday. “We have to work with the government of Syria in order to cross the border.”
Three hundred or more civilians, often with only the clothes on their back, drive up the winding, rutted road every day, traveling in the cargo bays of open trucks, which they hire for the trip. Then comes the letdown: There are no more tents, and the only place to sleep is in the small mosque.
Syria is not Iraq
07 Feb 2013
Shadi Hamid writes: More than a year ago, a real debate began over whether to intervene militarily in Syria. Here in The Atlantic, Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations was one of the first to propose taking military action – or at least thinking seriously about it. When Cook wrote his article (which, [...]