Obama’s State of the Union – Reactions; Battle for Damascus Promises to be Long

The Avoider
Barack Obama’s State of the Union address makes one thing clear: The world is no longer America’s problem.

….Not the Destroyer and Rebuilder of Worlds

Surprise, surprise: There was scant mention of Syria in the president’s speech — just one throwaway line about supporting Syria’s opposition. Obama did not disengage from Iraq and Afghanistan only to plunge America into new black holes in the Middle East.

Obama isn’t worried about boots on the ground in Syria. That was never on the table. Instead the question is this: Given the uncertainty about the end state in Syria and the risks of providing serious weapons to the rebels (and a no-fly zone) that might alter the arc of the fight against the regime, the president saw and continues to see no purpose in America providing arms of marginal utility. That course would either expose him to be truly weak and ineffectual or lead to calls to do more. So he’s going to provide non-lethal support and is apparently prepared to take the hits from critics who see the president’s policy as passive, cruel, and unforgiving, particularly now that we know that members of his own cabinet clearly wanted to do more…..

It’s the Middle Class, Not the Middle East

Spoiler alert: Barack Obama might still be a consequential foreign-policy president if he’s lucky, willful, and skillful. But it’s his domestic legacy that will make or break his presidency. Health care — his signature legacy issue — will look much better if the economy improves, driven by a revived housing market and rising employment, and of course if some broader deal can be struck on entitlements and taxes. Immigration reform and gun-control legislation driven by a functional bipartisanship would cement that legacy. He’d be an historic rather than a great president…

The Middle East is violent and volatile and may yet suck him in, but if he can avoid it, he’ll try. This was a State of the Union address that stressed fixing America’s broken house, not chasing around the world trying to fix everyone else’s. The future of America isn’t Cairo or Damascus; it’s Chicago and Detroit.

Fred HoffThe President’s Decision-Making on Syria  – former Special Advisor for Transition in Syria at the US Department of State.

….The Clinton-Petraeus-Panetta-Dempsey story is probably mortifying for all concerned, including the president. Ideally this tempest-in-a-teapot would somehow facilitate reconsideration of the current approach to Syrian policy rather than entomb it in concrete. Historians will, in time, examine why President Obama, knowing that the prospects for a peaceful, managed Syrian political transition were receding to the vanishing point, chose not to enter the arena where the struggle for Syria was actually being waged. In the fullness of time scribes may conclude that by the time the United States tried to influence the course of the armed struggle (if indeed a policy adjustment was ever made) it was too late. They may well write about the bloody minded determination of Moscow, Tehran and Hezbollah to win in Syria. But no one can really know what scholars will be writing years from now. Without a crystal ball the United States must do its best, with the imperfect tools at its disposal, to mitigate the damage done by a ruling family willing to burn a country and imperil its neighbors, including important American allies and friends. Standing clear of Syria and its associated wreckage will not be possible and should not be seen as a policy option. That which was reportedly decided months ago should be urgently reconsidered. Our supposed lack of influence will surely be confirmed if we opt to believe we have none.

Kerry Seeks to Change Assad’s Thinking on Syria
2013-02-13 18: By MATTHEW LEE, Washington (AP)

Secretary of State John Kerry says he has some ideas on how to change Syrian President Bashar Assad’s calculations on remaining in power and will raise them with European and Mideast leaders on his first official overseas trip.

In Speech, Obama Tempers Expectations of Syria’s Future
By SCOTT SHANE, February 13, 2013, NYTimes

WASHINGTON – Having overruled top advisers who had argued for arming the opposition in Syria, President Obama appeared to moderate his expectations for change in that war-torn country in Tuesday’s State of the Union speech.

“We will keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian,” Mr. Obama said. He made no predictions about where that support might lead.

A year earlier, in his 2012 address, Mr. Obama had expressed confidence that the end of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad was near. Noting that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator, had been ousted by a popular revolt, the president said then: “And in Syria, I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change can’t be reversed, and that human dignity can’t be denied.”

State of the Union: 4 Takes on Afghanistan, Syria, President’s Style
By: Larisa Epatko – PBS

….Joshua Landis

Anyone who was hoping that President Obama would follow a more muscular policy on Syria during his second term was disappointed. Obama believes that previous presidents have over-committed the United States in the Middle East. He is trying to draw down troops in Afghanistan, stay out of Iraq, finesse demands that he solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and do everything possible not to get sucked into Syria. The potential for mission-creep in Syria is enormous as the country slips into civil war and the opposition splinters into emulous factionalism and becomes dominated by Islamists.

From earlier interviews on 60 minutes and with the New Republic, President Obama made it clear that he does not believe that saving Syria is America’s responsibility, or even within the capability of the U.S. His non-committal and anodyne statement in the State of the Union address that the U.S. would “stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights and support stable transitions to democracy,” could not be read as a battle cry or promise of greater U.S. involvement.

A Message from Ambassador Ford – Published on Facebook
by U.S. Embassy Damascus on Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 12:40pm ·

I saw an article about Deputy Foreign Minister Miqdad’s speculation that the United States might change its policy with our new secretary of state.  And I notice that Tishreen newspaper, while admitting that Americans are practical people, also will change its “tactics” with Syria.

I would like to tell Syrians that Tishreen is right:  Americans are practical people.  Our interests are for a region with stability, freedom, human rights, and economic opportunity for its people.  The Syrian regime has long threatened those three interests, never more so than now.  Therefore, we will continue to work to support these Syrians whose efforts are creating a new, transitional governing body in Damascus with full executive authorities composed of persons agreed to by the opposition and government negotiators.  And everyone in Washington understands that the opposition won’t accept Assad and his regime surrogates being in that transition body.  As practical people, Americans understand that Asad and those symbols must, therefore, step aside.  President Obama again made that clear in his January 29 video, posted below.

We are practical but we also have deep concerns for the suffering of the Syrian people.  For this reason, we have increased by another $ 155 million American humanitarian assistance to help victims inside Syria now as well as refugees in the neighboring countries.  We are using every possible way to get food and medical supplies into Syria, including to places like Aleppo, Atmeh and Damascus. …

Abbie Fielding-Smith  – Financial Times

“Both the FSA and the Syrian army have destroyed us” – our story from Damascus

Most of Ahrar al-Sham’s fighters are Syrian nationals

Ahrar al-Sham jihadists emerge from shadows in Syria
Victories of Ahrar al-Sham jihadists, trumpeted on Internet, have been accomplished thanks to financial backing from Gulf Arab countries.
Middle East Online, By Herve Bar – ATME (Syria)

Jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham is emerging from the shadows of the larger rebel outfit Al-Nusra Front as key player in northern Syria, playing up its nationalist roots and more moderate form of Islam.

Fighters from the group, whose name means in Arabic the “Free Men of Syria”, are mainly to be found on the battlefields in the northern provinces of Idlib, Aleppo and central Hama alongside some 30 other jihadist organisations.

For a long time it was eclipsed by the hardline Al-Nusra Front which has claimed responsibility for the majority of deadly suicide bombings in Syria’s nearly two-year conflict and is blacklisted by Washington as a terror outfit.

But in recent months Ahrar al-Sham has begun unleashing its fighters across the battlefronts, especially in Idlib where they played a leading role in advances around the city of Jisr al-Shughur, a reporter said.

Its fighters are also on the frontlines of the battles around the city of Idlib and further south in Maarat al-Numan.

Their victories have been trumpeted on the Internet and, rebel sources say, have been accomplished thanks to financial backing from Gulf Arab countries.

At the end of December, Ahrar al-Sham announced the creation of an Islamic front grouping a dozen of other organisations including Ansar al-Sham, Liwa al-Haq and Jamaat al-Taliaa.

On January 31 several other groups announced on a statement posted on the Internet that they had joined forces with Ahrar al-Sham to form a broader coalition dubbed “Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya” (The Islamic Movement of Ahrar al-Sham).

Although some Arab jihadists fight amongst their ranks, most of Ahrar al-Sham’s fighters are Syrian nationals while the group’s founders, according to a source close to it, were former political prisoners released in an amnesty.

“The founders of the movement are all former political prisoners who were detained in the infamous Sednaya prison near Damascus,” the source said.

“For years they lived and suffered together in jail (but) were set free as part of an amnesty ordered by the regime in May 2011.”

The group appears to be well-structured although the names of their commanders are not in the public domain. However, a fighter known as Abu Anas is the leader for battlegrounds in northern Syria.

One of Ahrar al-Sham’s strengths is that it has deep roots in northern rebel-held territory, where unlike the shadowy Al-Nusra Front, its men enjoy grassroots support because some are from the villages and cities of the region.

The group’s approach to Islam is less rigid that the position of Al-Nusra Front — which Washington says has links to Al-Qaeda in Iraq — with group leaders insisting they oppose “fanaticism.”

Ahrar al-Sham supports the creation of an Islamic state in Syria but one that is based on sharia, Islamic law that would guarantee the rights of minorities including Christians.

“Their rhetoric is loaded with Islamic references but… deep down their goal is to restore the sovereignty of the Syrian people and do away with dictatorship,” said Jean-Pierre Filiu, an expert on jihadist movements.

On the ground Ahrar al-Sham fight sometimes alongside the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army and Al-Nusra, joining in attacks on regime military targets — but apparently refrain from taking part in suicide bombings.

Like other jihadists their fighters wear black turbans and their beards long, and fly a white flag with an eagle soaring over the name of the group on their checkpoints.

Jihad in Syria ~ Reaching an international level ? [Translation of video made by Chechen Jihadis]
by pietervanostaeyen

Jihad in Syria seems to have reached a new level. As already known for a longer while international Jihadism in Syria is growing stronger. There have been multiple reports of foreigners from all over the Arab world fighting (and dying) in Syria. Even Western (European, American and Canadian) Jihadi’s have been reported fighting Bashar al-Assad’s army.

This one appears to be new however. This video, made by Chechen Jihadi’s, points out that more and more foreign brigades are being active in Syria. Their agenda ? To spread international Jihadism and topple the regime. Their means ? To call out for international financial support…..

Saudi Arabia: Eastern Promises
February 12, 2013 Frederic Wehrey – Sada

…The reverberations of Syria on Saudi society have not helped reform coordination. As the officially sanctioned clergy frame the civil war in sectarian terms—demonizing the Alawis—the Shia of the Eastern Province have likewise come under increased pressure. Many are believed to sympathize with the Assad regime, despite the fact that Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, perhaps the most outspoken of the Shia clerics, has called for the downfall of Bashar. The statements of Syrian (and Iranian) officials have not helped matters; these governments typically speak about the affairs of the Eastern Province to advance their own self-serving regional agendas. For example, in March of last year, the Syrian delegate to the United Nations proposed sending Syrian troops to protect the population of Qatif after the Saudi delegate suggested Saudi troops should be sent to Syria to stop the massacres against the Syrian people….

UN Security Council Needs Solid Position on Syrian Crisis — Saudi FM
By Asharq Al-Awsat | Asharq Alawsat

Syrian Rebels Loot Artifacts to Raise Money for Fight Against Assad
By Taylor Luck | The Washington Post

Insight: Divided Damascus confronted by all-out war
By Samia Nakhoul
DAMASCUS | Wed Feb 13, 2013

…Just as loyalist forces seem unable to regain control of the country, there looks to be little chance the rebels can storm the center of Damascus and attack the seat of Assad’s power.

For most of last week the army rained shells on the eastern and southern neighborhoods of Douma, Jobar, Zamalka and Hajar al-Aswad, using units of the elite Republican Guard based on the imposing Qasioun mountain that looms over the city.

The rebels, trying to break through the government’s defense perimeter, were periodically able to overrun roadblocks and some army positions, but at heavy cost.

Jobar and Zamalka are situated near military compounds housing Assad’s forces, while Hajar al-Aswad in the south is one of the gateways into the city, close to Assad’s home and the headquarters of his republican guard and army….

Ordinary Syrians are convinced their ordeal is nowhere near over. While they believe Assad will not be able to reverse the gains of the rebels, they cannot see his enemies prevailing over his superior firepower, and Russian and Iranian support.

“The regime won’t be able to crush the revolution and the rebels won’t be able to bring down the regime,” said leading opposition figure Hassan Abdel-Azim. “The continuation of violence won’t lead to the downfall of the regime, it will lead to the seizure of the country by armed gangs, which will pose a grave danger not only to Syria but to our neighbors”.

“Right now no one is capable of winning,” said a Damascus-based senior Arab envoy. “The crisis will continue if there is no political process. It is deadlock.”

Other diplomats in Damascus say the United States and its allies are getting cold feet about arming the rebels, fearing the growing influence of Islamist radicals such the al-Nusra Front linked to al-Qaeda, banned last year by Washington.

Some remarks recur again and again in Damascus conversations: “Maybe he will stay in power, after all”, and, above all, “Who is the alternative to Assad?”

“At first I thought it was a matter of months. That’s why I came here and stayed to bear witness to the final moments,” said Rana Mardam Beik, a Syrian-American writer. “But it looks like it will be a while so I am thinking of going back to the U.S.”

Loyalty to Assad is partly fed by fear of the alternative. Facing a Sunni-dominated revolt, Syria’s minorities, including Christians and Assad’s own Alawites – an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam – fear they will slaughtered or sidelined if the revolution succeeds and Sunni fundamentalists come to power…..COSTLY WAR

Alongside sectarian hatreds, class and tribal acrimony is also surfacing. Wealthy Sunnis in the capital are already in a panic about poor Sunni Islamists from rural areas descending on their neighborhoods.

“When they come they will eat us alive”, one rich Sunni resident of Damascus said, repeating what a cab driver dropping him in the posh Abou Roummaneh district told him: “Looting these houses will be allowed.”

Yet many activists feel protective of the revolution, despite the brutal behavior of some Islamist rebels.

“People talk about chaos and anarchy after Assad, but so what if we have two years of a messy transition? That is better than to endure another 30 years of this rule,” said Rana Darwaza, 40, a Sunni academic in Damascus.

Prominent human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni said the suffering is a price that had to be paid. “Those on the ground will continue to fight even with their bare hands”, he said.

He said there are thousands of prisoners in horrific conditions in Assad’s jails. Some suffocate in overcrowded cells while others die under torture or from untreated wounds. “They don’t give them medical treatment or pain killers or antibiotics. They leave them to die,” he said.

Close watchers of Syria predict that if there is no settlement in a few months the conflict could go on for years. Yet the economy is collapsing, leaving the government to rely on dwindling foreign reserves, private assets and Iranian funds.

There is no tourism, no oil revenue, and 70 percent of businesses have left Syria, said analyst Nabil Samman. “We are heading for destruction, the future is dark”, he added….

Comments (457)

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451. omen said:

forgot to include in my scenario an obvious one. one i have consistently raised as being my suspicion. u.s. failure to provide more support for the opposition is because it prefers assad remain in power. the regime would count as the most reactionary force in the region.

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February 16th, 2013, 5:26 pm


452. omen said:

I am laughing at the term “Arab Spring” – a term signifying a failed Western project.

dolly, he misses the irony that often it was the west who first put these dictators in power.

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February 16th, 2013, 5:30 pm


453. revenire said:

Dolly what about one of the main patrons of the Syrian “revolution” Saudi Arabia?

The HOUSE OF SAUD is a family right?

I don’t see your rats objecting to that family. Not even once have I heard an objection. They are so arrogant they named the entire country after themselves.

So skip the history lesson for me because you’re full of it up to your eyeballs.

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February 16th, 2013, 5:42 pm


454. omen said:

syrialover: Your imemdiate suspicions and rejection of the idea that the US is funding aid happens to illustrate their reasons for keeping it low-key and unidentified.

no, you misinterpret me. this is not what i’m saying. i don’t doubt the u.s. is sending humanitarian aide. what i’m questioning is the idea of refugees rejecting provisions simply because it has american branding.

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February 16th, 2013, 5:43 pm


455. Akbar Palace said:

I am open to evalauate any idea here if there is evidence. Right now, there is more evidence that Iran is involved in Syria than any other outside actor.9

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February 16th, 2013, 6:06 pm


456. Akbar Palace said:

I am open to evalauate any idea here if there is evidence. Right now, there is more evidence that Iran is involved in Syria than any other outside actor.9

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February 16th, 2013, 6:06 pm


457. Syrialover said:

New thread started

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February 16th, 2013, 6:27 pm


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