Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, August 1st, 2012
Aleppo continues to be the focus of rebel strategy. Watch this AP video
SNC is refusing to participate in Haytham al-Maleh’s conference in Cairo. Al-Maleh said, “I have been tasked with leading a transitional government,” Maleh said, adding that he will begin consultations “with the opposition inside and outside” the country. Maleh, a conservative Muslim, said he was named by a Syrian coalition of “independents with no political affiliation”.
Abdelbasset Seida, the leader of the Syrian National Council, said: “If each group came out alone announcing the formation of a new government without talks, this would end up in having a series of weak governments that don’t represent anyone.” Asaad, the putative commander of the Free Syrian Army called the new coalition “opportunists” seeking to benefit from the rebels’ gains.
More division and fighting over power. Armed rebels had a good day in Aleppo and around it while civilians paid the price. Alarabiya by accident showed an armed rebel using artillery, there are also reports about the use of tanks by the rebels near Saadllah Aljabiri square. This will be far uglier than the fight in Damascus,the damage to Syria’s economy will be enormous. Enjoy the ruins.
Syrian rebels acquire surface-to-air missiles: report
WASHINGTON | Tue Jul 31, 2012
(Reuters) – Rebels fighting to depose Syrian president Bashar al Assad have for the first time acquired a small supply of surface-to-air missiles, according to a news report that a Western official did not dispute. NBC News reported Tuesday night that the rebel Free Syrian Army had obtained nearly two dozen of the weapons, which were delivered to them via neighboring Turkey,…
Following the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, some intelligence experts estimated that as many as 10,000-15,000 MANPADs sets were looted from Libyan government stockpiles. The whereabouts of most of these are unknown….. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the CIA, with Saudi backing, provided sophisticated shoulder-fired Stinger missiles to Islamic militants seeking to oust Soviet troops….
Lebanese columnist Rajeh Khoury predicted: “Syria could plunge into a long protracted civil war that could last years. The civil war in Lebanon, with its much smaller population of five million, lasted 15 years due to foreign interference so Syria would be much more complicated.
Samia Nakhoul for Reuters, “No happy outcome in Syria as conflict turns into proxy war,” – an excellent article
Some fear a Lebanon-style free-for-all, in which armed groups from different sectarian and ideological backgrounds fight for supremacy over territory, turning Syria into a patchwork that condemns its state to failure….
“We most definitely have a proxy war in Syria,” says Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy. “At this point of the conflict it is difficult not to say that the international dimension of the Syrian conflict precedes the domestic one.”
“Syria is an open field now. The day after Assad falls you (will) have all of these different groups with different agendas, with different allegiances, with different states supporting them yet unable to form a coherent leadership.”
Patrick Seale, “The Kurds Stir the Regional Pot”, is the best summation so far. He lays out a brief overview of the main factions among the Kurds and then writes:
…Needless to say, these events have fired the ambitions of some Kurdish militants who imagine that a Kurdish Regional Government might now come to birth in northern Syria, on the model of the one in northern Iraq. The English-language edition of Rudaw (an Iraqi Kurdish periodical), carried a piece on 23 July by a Kurdish journalist, Hiwa Osman, in which he wrote: “The Kurdish Region of Syria? Yes, it is possible. Now is the time to declare it!” A Turkish journalist, Mehmet Ali Birand, went further still when he wrote that “a mega-Kurdish state is being founded,” potentially linking Kurdish enclaves in Turkey, Iraq and Syria.
Turkey is understandably alarmed by this resurgence of expansionist Kurdish goals. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Syria of giving the PKK ‘custody’ of northern Syria and has warned that Turkey would “not stand idle” in the face of this hostile development. “Turkey is capable of exercising its right to pursue Kurdish rebels inside Syria, if necessary,” he declared. He clearly finds intolerable the prospect of the PKK establishing a safe haven in northern Syria, from which to infiltrate fighters into Turkey. He has sent Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to Erbil to ask Massoud Barzani — no doubt in forceful terms — what game he thinks he is playing.
There is fevered speculation in the Turkish press that Erdogan is planning a military attack on northern Syria to create a buffer zone, with the twin objectives of defeating and dispersing Syrian Kurdish forces and of creating a foothold, or safe-zone, for Syrian rebels fighting Bashar al-Asad.
What of Syria’s calculations? There are three possible reasons why President Bashar withdrew his troops from the Kurdish border region: He needs the troops for the defence of Damascus and Aleppo; he wants to punish Erdogan for his support of the Syrian opposition; and, he is anxious to conciliate the Kurds, so as to dissuade them from joining the rebels. In fact, he started wooing them some months ago by issuing a presidential decree granting Syrian citizenship to tens of thousands of Kurds — something they had been seeking for more than half a century.
What does Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki think of these developments? He is clearly watching the Syrian crisis with anxious attention. If Asad were to fall and be replaced by an Islamist regime, this could revive the hopes of Iraq’s minority Sunni community — and its Al-Qaida allies — that Maliki and his Shia alliance could also be toppled. Another of Maliki’s worries must be the possible influx into Iraq from Syria of thousands of militant Kurds who would serve to strengthen Kurdish claims to Kirkuk and its oil.
What are the Kurds own objectives? In spite of the concessions Asad has made to them, they have no love for him. But nor do they like the opposition. The PYD is hostile to the Turkish-based Syrian National Council, which it considers a Turkish puppet. More generally, the Kurdish national movement, which is essentially secular, has long been at odds with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and dreads its coming to power in Damascus.
The PYD leader Salih Muslim Muhammad is more philosophical. He was quoted as saying: “The ruling powers in Damascus come and go. For us Kurds, this isn’t so important. What is important is that we Kurds assert our existence.” The Syrian Kurds do not expect to win their independence from the Syrian state. They know that it is not a realistic goal: Kurdish enclaves in Syria are too scattered. They do seek, however, a large measure of autonomy, in which they no longer face discrimination, and in which their rights, both political and cultural, are guaranteed.
Erdogan is no doubt watching how the PYD and the KNC run the Kurdish towns they now control on the Syrian border. If they behave, he will not intervene. But if they start infiltrating fighters into Turkey, he is bound to react forcefully. For its part, the PKK has warned that, if the Turks intervene, it will turn “all of Kurdistan into a war zone.”
Free Syrian Army issues military-led transition plan ( thanks War in Context)
30 Jul 2012
AFP reports: Syria’s rebels distributed on Monday a “national salvation draft” proposal for a political transition in the country, bringing together military and civilian figures for a post-Bashar Al-Assad phase. The draft by the joint command of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) proposes the establishment of a higher defence council charged with creating a presidential [...]
Al-Jazeera, 6 June, “Behind the News”, presented by Fayruz Zayyani, guests: Mustafa Sabbagh, head of the Syrian Business Forum, in the studio; and Syrian economic expert Samir Sayfan, via satellite from Dubai. – SN BBC Monitoring Middle East
Zayyani begins by saying: “Syrian President Bashar al-Asad appointed a new prime minister, and the new government will be tackling the economic file that is filled with problems generated during 18 months of protests.” She asks the following questions: “What is the enormity of the problems facing the Syrian economy? Can the regime tolerate them? Will the economic pressures prompt Al-Asad to make political concessions?”
The programme then carries a two-minute video report by Al-Jazeera correspondent Ibrahim Sabir on the Syrian economic crisis. He says: “Official IMF estimates note that the losses of the Syrian oil sector have reached about $4 billion and the Syrian pound has devalued by 45 per cent in the parallel market and 25 per cent in the official market. The value of stocks dropped by 40 per cent, an indication of the impact of the crisis on the business sector.”
Asked to talk about the Syrian economy, Sabbagh says: “The Syrian economy was totally exhausted prior to the revolution, and the events clearly exposed it more. We are witnessing a total collapse of the Syrian economy,” attributing the problem to the ruling party. He adds: “I believe that the current economic indicators are frightening with regard to the competitive economy and the basic economic status in general.”
Asked to explain how the Syrian revolution affected the economy and the main sectors that have been greatly harmed, Su’ayfan says: “One of the main problems is the regime’s weak management of the state and the economy, and one of the characteristics of the Syrian administration is that it has been accustomed to bringing in officials whom we call ‘unknown people’; that is, persons lacking history, efficiencies, experience, opinions, or stands.” He adds that these officials listen to what they are told and obey orders only. Concerning the impact of events on the economy, he says: “The impact is enormous due to the current security operations and the economic sanctions, which together created a difficult situation.” He explains that tourism, for instance, which yielded 11 or 12 per cent of the gross national product has completely collapsed, and the transport sector has greatly retreated due to the suspension of many industries and the increasing number of security checkpoints throughout the country. He adds that the oil sector retreated by 40 per cent due to the departure of foreign companies and Syria’s inability to export this commodity, reiterating that all these factors caused prices to hike and increased unemployment, which reached 30 per cent.
Asked what actions the new government will take to confront this situation, Sabbagh says that the new government is totally rejected, because it was the product of illegitimate elections. He adds: “The latest Syrian Central Bank report was published last year one month after the beginning of the revolution, at which time the bank’s assets of foreign currency reserves were estimated at $17.6 billion, but the bank has suspended publishing its monthly reports ever since.” He expresses belief that these reserves decreased by $5 billion, saying: “Accordingly, we are on the verge of witnessing a major crisis.” He reiterates that the unemployment rate exceeds 40 per cent at present, which means that the situation is very scary and tragic.
Asked what makes the Syrian regime capable of maintaining economic balance, even apparently, and whether its Russian and Iranian allies are the main factors enabling it to achieve this, Su’ayfan says: “The Syrian regime’s remaining in power in such a manner depends on two factor s: The stock that Syria previously had in possession and its ability to produce food commodities without external help. However, what really keeps the regime strong are the security forces and the army.”
Zayyani notes that the Syrian Business Forum has allocated $300 million to support the Syrian revolution, and she asks Sabbagh to explain how this fund can affect the life of citizens who are greatly suffering from the current crisis. Sabbagh says that announcing the allocation of this amount of money is to convey a very clear message to the regime that “the Syrian business community does not support this regime, as it has alleged,” reiterating that this community comprises very well-known businessmen and that Syrian businessmen have been doing well abroad following the regime’s crackdown on them inside Syria. He adds: “The establishment of this fund took place openly and the money spent from this fund so far has exceeded $100 million or even close to $150 million.” He notes that the humanitarian situation in Syria is critical, particularly as some 1.5 million Syrians have been forced to migrate within Syria only, and that had it not been for the assistance they receive, including the forum’s assistance, the situation would have been much worse. He emphasizes that the $300 million is not the maximum ceiling of this fund and that the expected contributions will greatly exceed this figure.
Concerning the role of Syria’s allies, Su’ayfan says that “the real financial support for the Syrian regime comes mainly from Iran, then comes Iraq, which has opened its markets for Syrian exports.” He adds that Lebanon helped execute some financial transactions, circumventing the economic sanctions imposed on Syria, reiterating that Russia provided political support, enabling the regime to remain in power. He explains that Russia hinted recently at the possibility of changing its stance on Al-Asad and supporting the political transition when he steps down from power. Asked for how long the regime can continue to show strength, he says: “If Russia, in particular, alters its stand, the time for the regime to remain in power will be limited to a few months only; let us say two or three months, at which time the regime will be obliged to accept a political solution.”
Asked until when the economic pressures and undeclared political deals will impact the Syrian regime’s current stand, Sabbagh says that the Syrian people have proved that they are determined to proceed along the path of the revolution, and it appears that they have succeeded in forcing Russia to reconsider its stand; thus, necessitating the regime to find an outlet. Concerning the economic pressures, he says: “The Iranian economic situation is not good also due to sanctions imposed on the country and the crisis it is witnessing.” He calls on Russian businessmen to make some recalculations and pressure their government, saying: “Frankly speaking, Syria will witness enormous reconstruction projects, and those who supported the revolution will have a big share of these projects.”
Asked how the economic factor can impact the situation in Syria, Su’ayfan says that this factor will affect the capability of the regime to grant benefits to others, particularly Syrian businessmen, reiterating: “When the regime becomes unable to provide stability, security, food, medication, clothes, housing, and good standards of living, and when it becomes the cause of instability, difficult conditions, and inability to provide benefits, it will certainly lose its legitimacy. The turning of businessmen against the regime recently and the participation of Damascus and Aleppo in the revolution’s mobility through the strike that they staged are another form of expressing such a stance.” Source: Al-Jazeera TV, Doha, in Arabic 1830 gmt 6 Jun 12
Al-Qaida turns tide for rebels in battle for eastern Syria – Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
In his latest exclusive dispatch from Deir el-Zour province, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad meets fighters who have left the Free Syrian Army for the discipline and ideology of global jihad
A member of a jihadist group sprays the slogan ‘No Islam without Jihad’ in Arabic on the wall at a border crossing with Turkey. Photograph: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images
As they stood outside the commandeered government building in the town of Mohassen, it was hard to distinguish Abu Khuder’s men from any other brigade in the Syrian civil war, in their combat fatigues, T-shirts and beards.
But these were not average members of the Free Syrian Army. Abu Khuder and his men fight for al-Qaida. They call themselves the ghuraba’a, or “strangers”, after a famous jihadi poem celebrating Osama bin Laden’s time with his followers in the Afghan mountains, and they are one of a number of jihadi organisations establishing a foothold in the east of the country now that the conflict in Syria has stretched well into its second bloody year.
They try to hide their presence. “Some people are worried about carrying the [black] flags,” said Abu Khuder. “They fear America will come and fight us. So we fight in secret. Why give Bashar and the west a pretext?” But their existence is common knowledge in Mohassen. Even passers-by joke with the men about car bombs and IEDs.
According to Abu Khuder, his men are working closely with the military council that commands the Free Syrian Army brigades in the region. “We meet almost every day,” he said. “We have clear instructions from our [al-Qaida] leadership that if the FSA need our help we should give it. We help them with IEDs and car bombs. Our main talent is in the bombing operations.” Abu Khuder’s men had a lot of experience in bomb-making from Iraq and elsewhere, he added.
Abu Khuder spoke later at length. He reclined on a pile of cushions in a house in Mohassen, resting his left arm which had been hit by a sniper’s bullet and was wrapped in plaster and bandages. Four teenage boys kneeled in a tight crescent in front of him, craning their necks and listening with awe. Other villagers in the room looked uneasy.
Abu Khuder had been an officer in a mechanised Syrian border force called the Camel Corps when he took up arms against the regime. He fought the security forces with a pistol and a light hunting rifle, gaining a reputation as one of the bravest and most ruthless men in Deir el-Zour province and helped to form one of the first FSA battalions.
He soon became disillusioned with what he saw as the rebel army’s disorganisation and inability to strike at the regime, however. He illustrated this by describing an attempt to attack the government garrison in Mohassen. Fortified in a former textile factory behind concrete walls, sand bags, machine-gun turrets and armoured vehicles, the garrison was immune to the rebels’ puny attempt at assault.
“When we attacked the base with the FSA we tried everything and failed,” said Abu Khuder. “Even with around 200 men attacking from multiple fronts they couldn’t injure a single government soldier and instead wasted 1.5m Syrian pounds [£14,500] on firing ammunition at the walls.”
Then a group of devout and disciplined Islamist fighters in the nearby village offered to help. They summoned an expert from Damascus and after two days of work handed Abu Khuder their token of friendship: a truck rigged with two tonnes of explosives.
Two men drove the truck close to the gate of the base and detonated it remotely. The explosion was so large, Abu Khuder said, that windows and metal shutters were blown hundreds of metres, trees were ripped up by their roots and a huge crater was left in the middle of the road.
The next day the army left and the town of Mohassen was free.
“The car bomb cost us 100,000 Syrian pounds and fewer than 10 people were involved [in the operation],” he said. “Within two days of the bomb expert arriving we had it ready. We didn’t waste a single bullet.
“Al-Qaida has experience in these military activities and it knows how to deal with it.”
After the bombing, Abu Khuder split with the FSA and pledged allegiance to al-Qaida’s organisation in Syria, the Jabhat al Nusra or Solidarity Front. He let his beard grow and adopted the religious rhetoric of a jihadi, becoming a commander of one their battalions.
“The Free Syrian Army has no rules and no military or religious order. Everything happens chaotically,” he said. “Al-Qaida has a law that no one, not even the emir, can break.
“The FSA lacks the ability to plan and lacks military experience. That is what [al-Qaida] can bring. They have an organisation that all countries have acknowledged.
“In the beginning there were very few. Now, mashallah, there are immigrants joining us and bringing their experience,” he told the gathered people. “Men from Yemen, Saudi, Iraq and Jordan. Yemenis are the best in their religion and discipline and the Iraqis are the worst in everything – even in religion.”
At this, one man in the room – an activist in his mid-30s who did not want to be named – said: “So what are you trying to do, Abu Khuder? Are you going to start cutting off hands and make us like Saudi? Is this why we are fighting a revolution?”
“[Al-Qaida's] goal is establishing an Islamic state and not a Syrian state,” he replied. “Those who fear the organisation fear the implementation of Allah’s jurisdiction. If you don’t commit sins there is nothing to fear.”
Religious and sectarian rhetoric has taken a leading role in the Syrian revolution from the early days. This is partly because of the need for outside funding and weapons, which are coming through well-established Muslim networks, and partly because religion provides a useful rallying cry for fighters, with promises of martyrdom and redemption.
Almost every rebel brigade has adopted a Sunni religious name with rhetoric exalting jihad and martyrdom, even when the brigades are run by secular commanders and manned by fighters who barely pray.
“Religion is a major rallying force in this revolution – look at Ara’our [a rabid sectarian preacher], he is hysterical and we don’t like him but he offers unquestionable support to the fighters and they need it,” the activist said later.
Another FSA commander in Deir el-Zour city explained the role of religion in the uprising: “Religion is the best way to impose discipline. Even if the fighter is not religious he can’t disobey a religious order in battle.”…
“On Sunday, Panetta predicted that the crackdown in Aleppo will prove “a nail in Assad’s coffin” by turning even more people against the government.”
Washington’s seamless transition in Syria is an illusion — and bad policy
Geoffrey Aronson, Foreign Policy
…The limitations of Syria’s political leaders across the spectrum have been exacerbated by the decisions of the international community. The first error was to see Syria through the lens of an idealized Arab Spring — inaccurately branded as a twitter-fueled democratic revolution against autocracy. The second was to frame the rules of the game as a zero-sum military contest between Assad and his opponents. The third error was to sabotage through faint support the option of international support for a political transition. By doing so, both the regime and its opponents were encouraged to embrace what each does best. By acting in this manner, what began as a limited revolt against the center now threatens the very viability of state itself.
The regime and its opponents are locked into a race to the bottom. The international community, driven by its own competing interests, is feasting off of this grisly spectacle….
Despite recent rebel gains, Syrian civil war far from over
From Ivan Watson, CNN
July 31, 2012 –
….The rebels also have been able to establish growing enclaves in northern Syria and attempted to seize a number of key border crossings last week. They already control much of the main western highway from Aleppo to the Turkish border.
But on Tuesday, Syrian forces clashed with “armed terrorist groups” on the outskirts of Aleppo and destroyed nine armored vehicles “with all terrorists inside,” state-run TV reported.
In several neighborhoods, those who remained were left without phone, Internet or electricity service as tanks shelled the city, according to Deama, an activist in the city. CNN isn’t using her full name because disclosing it could put her in danger.
“We’re afraid they are going to do something worse. Usually, they will cut off connections and isolate these neighborhoods more when they are about to make something worse,” Deama said Monday.
And in Tunisia, his first stop on a visit to the Middle East, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told CNN that al-Assad “knows he’s in trouble, and it’s just matter of time before he has to go.”
Asked what he’d say to the embattled Syrian leader, Panetta said, “I would say if you want to be able to protect yourself and your family, you better get the hell out now.”
The United States is providing nonlethal aid to the rebels, including communications gear. Other countries are providing more direct military aid, Panetta said, “so there is no question that one way or another, they are getting the support they need in order to continue this fight.”
Aleppo residents have mixed reactions to Syria rebels
Reuters’ Erika Solomon has been speaking to residents of Aleppo who have differing views of the rebels:
“I would say 99.9 percent of the people aren’t fasting. How can you fast when you hear mortars and artillery hitting the areas nearby and wondering if you will be next?,” said Jumaa, a 45-year old construction worker with deep wrinkles etched into his leathery skin. “We have hardly any power or water, our wives and kids have left us here to watch the house and have gone somewhere safer. It’s a sad Ramadan.” Despite that, Jumaa is excited to see rebels on the streets of Syria’s second city. “My spirits are high. Seeing them from my doorstep makes me feel the regime is finally falling.”
Crouched on the next stoop, his neighbour sees it differently. “All we have now is have chaos,” Amr grumbles. Some of the men object angrily. “But they are fighting to free us from oppression,” one says. Amr shakes his head. “I’m still oppressed, stuck between two sides making me to choose. I just want to live my life.” …
Whenever rebels idle their trucks on the street, residents come up asking for help to get gasoline for their cars. Many beg the fighters to open more bakeries so the breadlines move faster, and spare people an exhausting hours-long wait in the hot sun. But some in line nod approvingly. “They don’t let anyone cut in, no one is better than anyone else now. The bakers aren’t allowed to hike prices on us,” says Umm Khaled, her face wrapped in a conservative black veil. “For the first time in this city, I feel like all of us are equal.”
Down the street, a crowd of men gather to watch rebels inspecting a burned out police station they stormed last week. Papers, stray shoes and police caps litter the charred building. One man shakes his head as he watches the scene. “We don’t even know these fighters, they don’t talk to us much. But people here just accept whoever has power,” one man whispered. “I’m not with anyone, I am with the side of truth. Right now, that is only God.”….
The Independent’s Kim Sengupta has been in Salaheddin, in the midst of the government offensive to clear the main opposition stronghold in Aleppo and writes that the state’s claim to be in complete control of the area is “obviously false”.
Standing on the road where most of the fighting was taking place, Sheikh Taufik Shiabuddin, the district’s rebel commander, said he welcomed a chance to refute “Assad’s lies”. He counted off the triumphs so far on the fingers of his hand. “We have destroyed two tanks, seven armoured carriers and killed 200 of their soldiers. They had attacked us with a force of 3,000 and they cannot get in. We shall be going forward to them soon, the enemy is suffering,” he said to chants of “Takhbir” (call to God) from his followers, who gathered around him.
The regime’s forces may be suffering, but they still appeared to have a lot left in reserve, judging by the regularity with which mortar and light-artillery rounds came whizzing over. A helicopter gunship made several passes overhead, but it would have been difficult for the pilot to pick out targets in such confined quarters and it flew off to attack elsewhere.
Looking from the fourth-floor balcony of an abandoned flat, curtained like almost every other balcony in the area, one could see a row of eight green Syrian army tanks, possibly Russian made T-55s, with their barrels pointed towards the streets of Salaheddine. “They have been firing from the tanks, but all they are hitting are empty buildings” said the Sheikh’s brother, Ahmed. “We have lost some people for sure, 15 martyrs and 40 wounded. They have tried to bring their tanks in here and we’ve hit them hard. Assad’s people know we are waiting.”….
Syria is different through Russian eyes
By Andrei Nekrasov
It is normal that news headlines differ from country to country, but the western world might be interested to know that Syria has not been among the main news items in Russia. If there is a report on an event that is all but impossible to ignore, such as the massacre in Tremseh on July 12 , it is like this one from news2.ru: “Syrian insurgents have been instructed to kill as many people as possible.”The Russian word boyeviki, used to describe the rebel fighters, is less neutral than “insurgents” and is just one step away from bandits or terrorists. It passed from slang into the mass media during the war in Chechnya in the 1990s as a way of branding the Chechen separatist fighters. It is also worth noting in the report cited above the use of the words “instructed to kill”. They are intended to hint clearly that the opposition are acting on the orders of some invisible masters.The report, which was on prime time TV, featured Anastassia Popova, a young and charismatic reporter. She provided “evidence” of the rebels killing innocent people in Tremseh, while claiming that the majority of those killed by the army were armed fighters and deserters. The reporter also claimed that the UN authorities were hampering her crew because of its country of origin.Russia’s government is stubbornly supporting Bashar al-Assad and, true to Soviet-era traditions, it is unashamedly using the media it controls to justify its policy. Vladimir Putin’s control of information is not absolute. The internet has so far been almost completely free. However, the truth is Mr Putin does not need to exert control over public opinion on Syria.Most people in Russia see the fighting there as a proxy war between their country and the west. While the humanitarian crisis receives little attention, the diplomacy is the focus of regular and detailed reports. The “struggle for peace” of foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Russia’s UN mission, against “aggressive western powers bent on force”, are what we mostly hear about in reports on Syria.The government encourages this proxy war narrative, as it has a vested interest in portraying itself as the defender of a nation’s geopolitical position against the west’s perceived global expansion. While many of Mr Putin’s other policies are increasingly under attack, most Russians share the divisive world view that he projects. Even the independent internet-based media’s “objective” reporting tends to present Mr Assad’s version first and as fully legitimate. That is not a result of any direct pressure from the government….
A sudden political shift among Syria’s three million Kurds, who now control much of the country’s border with Turkey, provides an opportunity for the United States to better coordinate its policy with regional allies and to encourage the Syrian opposition to respect minority rights.******************************While world attention focuses on bombings and clashes in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s Kurds buried their internal differences in mid-July, with Iraqi Kurdish help and Turkey’s blessing, and then promptly kicked Syrian regime forces out of their territory. This is a major blow to the regime, potentially clearing the northern approaches to Aleppo for opposition forces. But Kurdish relations with the rest of the Syrian opposition remain a deeply divisive issue.
Syria’s Kurds have lately been sharply split between two major movements: the Party of Unity and Democracy (PYD), founded in 2003, which collaborated both with the Bashar al-Assad regime and with the violently anti-Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK); and the Kurdish National Council of Syria (KNC), an amalgam formed in October 2011 of fifteen local parties opposed to both Assad and the PKK. Over the past year, as the wider Syrian revolution intensified, these two movements often came to blows in Syria’s Kurdish regions. Previous attempts to reconcile them, notably in January and again in May 2012, came to naught; their differences were simply too deep, and their supporters too evenly matched, to make a lasting agreement possible.Against this inauspicious background, in early July the president of the neighboring Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, Masoud Barzani, summoned Syrian Kurdish leaders from both main rival factions to his headquarters in Salahaddin, Iraq, just outside Erbil, in yet another attempt to hammer out an accord. This time the attempt succeeded, despite reported opposition from die-hard PKK supporters both inside the PYD and among the Syrian Kurdish PKK fighters in the Qandil mountains near the Iraq-Turkey-Syria borders. Underlying this surprising success is the increasingly prevalent perception, even among his erstwhile allies, that Syria’s President Assad is losing his grip on power.The PYD-KNC agreement signed July 11 has not been officially published, but its main points were read out to the author in Istanbul two days later by one of the senior participants in the negotiations. First, the PYD and the KNC will stop fighting each other, and instead join together in a new Supreme Kurdish Council for their region of Syria. Second, the PYD will henceforth focus exclusively on the Kurdish issue inside Syria, not across the border in Turkey — clearly implying that the party now promises to cease any practical support to the PKK. Third, the newly unified Syrian Kurds will expel Syrian government officials and security forces from their area — where, until just two weeks ago, many regime institutions had been operating almost normally, despite the turmoil elsewhere in the country.So far, against all previous expectations, this intra-Kurdish accord is largely holding. Syria’s Kurds have stopped fighting against each other. The PYD’s break with the PKK is not definitive, but events and interested onlookers are pushing in that direction. And within the past two weeks, Syrian regime forces withdrew or were expelled from one Kurdish town after another, although some skirmishes are still being reported in Qamishli and other eastern border areas. Some local Kurds are helping Aleppo resist the Syrian regime siege, though on the whole Syria’s Kurds are now concentrating on securing their own areas.THE SYRIAN OPPOSITION BALKS AT KURDISH DEMANDSThe Syrian opposition and the Kurdish parties, however, remain sharply at odds over Kurdish demands for recognition as a distinct people inside Syria, with their own cultural and linguistic rights under some form of “political decentralization.” According to senior Syrian opposition figures, tribal sheikhs, and Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders in Antakya and Istanbul, if the Kurds get autonomy, then what about Syria’s multitude of other minorities? Moreover, these figures say, Turkey will strive to block any such Arab-Kurdish agreement in Syria.So far, the Syrian National Council (SNC), still the main organized opposition group, shows no sign of budging from this position. On July 22, its president, Abdul Basset Sieda, himself of Kurdish origin, met with Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu and then issued a contemptuous and misleading declaration: “The Syrian regime has handed over the region to the PKK or the PYD. The areas where these Kurdish factions have raised their flags are those Bashar al-Assad gave them. The Kurdish people are not on the side of these two groups, but on the side of the revolution. But some sides have their own agenda which does not serve the Syrian national issue.”To some extent, according to private accounts of Syrian opposition deliberations, this attitude reflects deference to perceived Turkish wishes. But that is precisely why there is now some hope for greater SNC flexibility on this issue: Turkish policy toward the Syrian Kurdish question is quietly shifting, away from automatically associating Kurdish political activism in that country with the PKK terrorist threat to Turkey.ANKARA’S NEW “WAIT AND SEE” POLICY TOWARD THE SYRIAN KURDSAny Kurdish issue is a very sensitive one in Turkey, and the new developments right across the Syrian border are no exception. The Turkish media are, as usual, sharply divided on this matter. Reporters and columnists who support the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) stress the potential benefits for Turkey of a rapprochement with Syria’s Kurds, while the opposition press is raising the specter of another hostile, pro-PKK front. Official Turkish statements promise to respond firmly to any Syrian-based PKK provocations, and the local press has reported additional military movements southward from Sanliurfa, toward the Kurdish areas across the Syrian border.But Turkish official statements also subtly suggest that Ankara will tolerate advances by Syria’s own Kurdish groups – if it sees clear signs that the PYD has abandoned the PKK. On July 22, a Turkish government source was quoted as saying that “we will closely monitor whether the PYD acts with other Kurdish groups or not.” Similarly, on July 25, for instance, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that “We will not allow the terrorist organization to pose a threat to Turkey in Syria; it is impossible for us to tolerate the PKK’s cooperation with the PYD.” This relatively cautious and discriminating response can be partly credited to Turkey’s excellent working relationship with Masoud Barzani, who brokered the latest Syrian Kurdish agreement and continues to play a key role in its implementation. Accordingly, this week Davutoglu is scheduled to meet with Barzani in Erbil to discuss coordinating the next steps in this very delicate policy adjustment.IMPLICATIONS FOR U.S. POLICYIt is good news that Syria’s Kurds are moving to patch up with each other and with two neighboring U.S. friends — with the KRG, and even with Turkey — while turning against Assad’s regime. Ironically, however, this important positive shift is also raising tensions with the majority Arab groups inside the Syrian opposition, and between the KRG and the Arab-dominated central government in Baghdad, which has sent forces to the border area to confront local KRG units.U.S. policy should do more than just urge Arabs and Kurds to reconcile their differences in each country. Ideally, Washington should advise Syrian opposition figures that, since they need to attract the country’s minorities, their best course is to engage more creatively with those groups — not try to impose on them some particular “vision” of a future Syria, however “pluralistic.” Conversely, the United States should encourage Syrian and Iraqi Kurds to support the Syrian opposition in every possible way. The price, well worth paying, is for Washington to adjust its policy by prodding the Syrian opposition toward greater recognition of Kurdish rights — and offering increased U.S. support to the Syrian opposition as a crucial incentive.Looking further ahead, U.S. help in planning for a post-Assad transition should pay urgent attention to deconflicting Arab and Kurdish political claims and aspirations inside Syria. This is every bit as acute an issue as the much more widely recognized Alawite one; the Kurds are about the same percentage of Syria’s total population, and many millions more Kurds in Iraq and Turkey make the involvement of Syria’s neighbors much more likely. At a minimum, working with Turkey, the KRG, and others, the United States should strive to avert violent Turkish-Kurdish or Arab-Kurdish conflict in Syria or on its borders. At the same time, despite its more limited leverage, the United States should urge Baghdad more forcefully to defy Iran, reconcile with the KRG, and abandon support for the Assad regime.
Defector and Syrian Gen. Manaf Tlas is being groomed to lead after Bashar al-Assad falls. But will anyone follow?By Deborah Amos|Posted Tuesday, July 31, 2012,
Photograph by Adem Altan/GettyImages.
“Bashar is president or we burn down the country!” That is the menacing message being scrawled on burnt houses and bullet-pocked stone walls by pro-Assad forces as they make their way across Syria. The graffiti often appears following an assault by the Shabiha, an Alawite militia drawn from the same sectarian community as the country’s elite. Days into the regime’s siege of Aleppo, President Bashar al-Assad is now sending the same message to Syria’s financial capital and largest city. Convoys of regime forces have encircled Aleppo, and Air Force jets and helicopters are now pounding rebel-controlled neighborhoods. “Aleppo will be the last battle waged by the Syrian army to crush the terrorists,” boasted Al Watan, a pro-regime newspaper, “and after that Syria will emerge from the crisis.”
The rebels are confident, too. They have stock piled ammunition, medical supplies, and called in reinforcements from insurgent battalions across northern Syria, as well as sympathizers from abroad. “Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans,” said one activist, who says he saw fighters from these countries in a mountain camp outside the city. The battle for Aleppo is shaping up to be a decisive moment in Syria’s civil war, as the Syrian army carries out a full military assault on a city of 2 million people.
Some of the most critical blows to Assad’s regime have come far from the battlefield. In recent months, Assad’s top political, diplomatic, and military circles have suffered a number of prominent defections. None may be more significant than Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas, the most prominent military defector thus far. The Sunni Muslim general has ties to both the Alawite establishment and the military elite. A figure as senior as Tlas may seem late to have quit the regime—he defected on June 6, 2012—but his timing may be perfect. Arab and Western governments are rushing to put together a transitional strategy for post-Assad Syria. Tlas appears to be backed by Saudi Arabia and, according to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. officials are in discussions with Middle East governments to place Tlas at the “center of a political transition.” “If he’s pushed by desperate big powers, its wishful thinking,” says Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. “They are scrambling. They’ve chosen the wrong man with a very dubious background and history.”….