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April 25th Chemical Agent Attacks

Daraya, Damascus

The following is a summary of the information that Syrian Support Group has collected to date regarding the use of chemical agents against the Daraya suburb last Thursday morning:

        At 1:00AM Damascus time, rockets struck an area in southern Daraya, in an area overlooking the neighboring town of Sahnaya. Our sources claim that the rockets were launched by the Fourth Armored Division (so far this is unconfirmed), which is commanded by Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher al-Assad and is one of the elite units guarding the capital city. Witnesses report that two of the explosions were “colorful” and did not resemble the explosions of ordinary ordinance. No odors accompanied the explosion.

        Almost immediately, individuals close to the explosion began experiencing symptoms including muscle spasms, bronchospasm, itching, miosis, vomiting, shortness of breath, and dizziness. Victims were taken to an unnamed field hospital in Daraya, where they were treated with Atropine (intravenously), oxygen, pain-killers, and medicine that is being referred to as “Dixone” and “Arvine” (phonetic transliterations). Between 1:30am and 7:00am, 75 victims were treated in the hospital.

        A second attack occurred at 7:00am, with the same effects. An additional 50-55 victims were treated at the field hospital. Though the conditions of eight of the victims were serious and life-threatening, no fatalities have been reported out of all ~130 affected individuals. Videos (here and here) and pictures of the extent of the victims’ miosis (here) were captured by field hospital staff.

        Large numbers of livestock were also affected by the agent (videos here and here).

        Samples have been taken from the impact area, and include soil, hair, urine, clothes, dead animals, and tree leaves. Exportation and testing is being organized and facilitated by relevant third parties. The identity of the chemical substance has not yet been confirmed. However, the physical symptoms caused by the attack closely resemble those of the March 19th attacks in Khan al-Asal, Aleppo, and Oteiba, Damascus.

        Doctors are requesting that oxygen-generating equipment, Atropine, and Toxogonin be provided en masse to counter the effects of future attacks. Gas masks have also been requested; rebels are currently attempting to produce their own do-it-yourself gas masks. Most importantly, chemical weapons securement and treatment training must also be provided.

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     The Syrian Regime Tests its Boundaries

How Assad has Adapted to the “Red Line”

________   ________   ________

As a UN team awaits the Assad government’s go-ahead to conduct a probe into last month’s chemical simulant attacks in Aleppo and Damascus, we are reminded of the Obama Administration’s “red line” and the influences it has had thus far on the Syrian conflict. Though recent Congressional attention (there are three separate Senate committee meetings on Syria this week alone) towards Syria reflects a potential policy shift in the coming months, lawmakers are moving at a pace far slower than the adaptive cruelty of the Syrian regime. The “red line,” many argue, has acted as more of a “green light” to Assad’s military advisors. The March 19th, 2013 attacks on Aleppo and Damascus provide examples.

Syrian Support Group was the first to receive information from the ground regarding the specifics of the March 19th chemical attacks in Damascus and Aleppo. As our sources reported it, two surface-to-surface missiles were fired from Damascus (one from the Qatifa neighborhood and the second from an unidentified location) towards Aleppo and eastern Damascus, respectively. An area 1km north of the infantry training academy in the Aleppine suburb of Khal al-Asal—a mostly regime-controlled and Assad-supporting area—was the site of impact of the first projectile, while the al-Oteiba neighborhood of eastern Damascus was hit by the second. This information was later revised to state that the projectile that struck Aleppo was delivered by a regime aircraft, and hit a pro-Assad and regime-controlled area due to pilot error. The Free Syrian Army does not have the technology, training, or capability to mix, load, or deploy such weapons.

Initially, 54 victims of the Khan al-Asal attack were delivered to the regime-controlled Aleppo University Hospital, with 16 more arriving within the next few hours. Of these, 22 died during treatment. The remaining 48 were released after responding well to counteractive drugs such as Atropine. Two medical employees at the hospital reportedly also lost consciousness due to chemical inhalation, but recovered at the scene. There were an estimated 20 victims of the Damascus attack, however we do not yet have updated information about the total number of dead and wounded, nor about the exact type of delivery system.

Samples taken from bodies Khan al-Asal victims confirmed that the substance used in the attacks was Echothiophate, and organophosphate commonly found in certain pesticides. The effects of Echothiophate on those who inhale the compound are similar to the effects of nerve gasses such as Sarin: muscle spasms and failure, respiratory malfunctions, and, if not treated with proper counteragents in a timely manner, death.

Though this toxic chemical was intentionally deployed with the goal of killing opposition fighters and supportive Syrian citizens, it does not appear that its use will signal a crossing of the White House’s red line. Echothiophate is not a restricted substance under international chemical weapons treaties. Rather, it is considered a “simulant,” meaning that while its effects on victims are comparable to the effects of officially recognized chemical weapons substances, its use would not legally constitute a chemical weapons attack. A UN investigation, if conducted before the impact sites can be tainted or cleaned, would confirm to the international community the exact compound used in the attacks. If indeed the use of Echothiophate is confirmed, the White House’s red line may not officially have been crossed.

On Tuesday, however, the Syrian regime refused to grant permission to the UN team waiting in Cyprus for deployment, arguing that such an investigation would be a violation of Syrian sovereignty. It now seems unlikely that an international body will be able to study the impact zones to independently verify the attacks.

It is not unreasonable to assume that Assad and his military planners calculated the consequences of their choice to use a chemical simulant such as Echothiophate. By avoiding the specifically sanctioned substances outlined by specific international treaties such as the Chemical Weapons Convention, the regime was aware of the unlikelihood of forceful international response. By using its rights of sovereignty to deny access to a UN investigation team, Assad knew that he would remain untouchable. That the news of the March 19th attacks spread so quickly throughout the world was somewhat surprising to the regime, especially in the wake of similar, yet smaller, chemical agent attacks in late 2012. It was confirmed in December by another Syrian-American organization in the United States that Quinuclidinyl Benzilate, or “BZ,” was used in a similar strike last fall. In that attack, victims reportedly experienced nausea, paralysis, labored breathing, and dizziness. We must expect that such attacks may periodically continue to occur as the regime discovers, with each new and unpunished attack, just how much of a green light the red line really is.

The international community remains, for the time being, unwilling to commit military resources to secure these weapons stockpiles or prevent their unmonitored proliferation to non-state actors, whose intentions may be even more malicious and unrestrained than those of the Assad regime. However, there are known and available products and practices that can be implemented on a wide scale to both reduce the effects of such attacks, and to equip Opposition forces and civilian populations with the necessary tools to save lives. Major General Salim Idris, in a February 4th letter addressed to the United States Government, specifically requested chemical weapons securement training and equipment to allow FSA forces to seek out and contain known chemical weapons stores. Included in this such a package, which the Syrian Support Group possess the resources and connections to implement, is MOPP-4 chemical agent aversion training that can be passed to individual FSA brigades and, more importantly, civilian populations, with ease. It is not too late to provide such training and equipment transfers, and indeed policy motives on The Hill are now moving in a direction that may soon lead to the implementation of these necessary initiatives. The right time to move, however, is now–not after yet another chemical attack that may be looming on the horizon.

 

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Outsourcing a Revolution

Foreign Fighters in the Syrian Conflict

______  ______  ______

In previous posts we have covered more completely the armed groups fighting on either side of the Syrian conflict. From moderate FSA units to Jabhat al-Nusra and their ever-expanding affiliates, and from the morph of the community Lijan Militias into the more formal and Iranian/Hezbollah-trained Jaysh al-Sha’abi, the civil war has no shortage of constantly factioning combatant groups. But even before the formation of the now well-known radical elements, the initial concerns and reservations of the international community lay in the influx of foreign fighters traveling to Syria to wage jihad alongside the regime or its opponents. These fears have since been underplayed after successes of radical groups, suspected chemical weapons attacks, and conflict regionalization drew more attention. However, recent reports have served to remind us that the lawlessness of Syria’s border regions makes it relatively simple for any determined soul to enter the country and play an active role in the revolution.

From as far east as China, to southern Asia, North Africa, and even the Americas, foreign nationals fight effectively in many brigades of the armed opposition. It has been estimated that over 300 foreign nationals enter Syria daily through the country’s now very porous borders to join the revolution. Though most of these fighters come from Arab countries, each has his own motivation to join the struggle. Religious and ideological ties breed in many a sense of responsibility to liberate Syrians from their regime. Additionally, due to colonial powers’ relative lack of consideration when drawing the borders of their Middle Eastern mandates, familial ties transcend official frontiers; able-bodied young men in Irbid, Jordan often have ties to residents of Deraa or al-Suwayda, just as communities in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley have with the citizens of western Homs. Still others are veterans of the Arab World’s other revolutions, including Yemen and Libya, who, after the fall of governments in their own countries, sought participation in Syria’s conflict for a sense of continued revolutionary purpose or a new realm of chaos from which to loot unprotected wealth.

Saudi Arabia has played a separate and rather unique role in the supply of foreign fighters to Syria’s front lines. The Kingdom’s Wahhabist history, along with more modern factors such as its fear of Iranian influence and the Gulf region’s significant populations of underrepresented Shias, has led it to be wary of the expansion and influence of Shiism. Accordingly, the Saudi government, along with the weapons and cash it is unofficially sending to more radical Sunni elements, has begun giving some Saudi citizens the quiet and semi-official blessing to go and wage jihad in Syria. Reese Erlich’s recent article for NPR outlined specific cases of Saudi judges granting convicts a sort of amnesty: avoid serving a sentence in a Saudi prison by joining (mainly radical Islamist) revolutionaries in Syria and filling the even greater role of marginalizing Shia influence in the Levant. The number of Saudi convicts fighting in Syria is now estimated to be in the hundreds. Most of them are fighting with radicals.

Recent reports also identify Western fighters entering the opposition’s ranks. At least one hundred British citizens have armed themselves and entered Syria, also to fight mainly with extremist groups. Eric Harroun, a former U.S. Army soldier, traveled to Syria to fight alongside (supposedly) Jabhat al-Nusra in an anti-armor squad. Even a Chinese citizen by the name of Bo Wang, who claims to have converted to Islam and travelled to Libya to study Arabic and participate in the revolution, is now fighting with the opposition. Chechens, Russians, Pakistanis, Jordanians, Tunisians, Lebanese, Libyans, and citizens of an estimated 20 other countries have been seen fighting in the ranks of some FSA, Islamist, and pro-regime forces.

Of course, influx of foreign nationals into civil guerilla conflicts is nothing new. In history’s most recent wars, and particularly in predominantly Muslim states, foreign fighters have deployed individually or en masse to support members of their religious or ancestral communities. In Iraq, hundreds of Jordanians, Syrians, Lebanese, Iranians, and North Africans participated in the fight against invading American forces. Some, including the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, led entire militant organizations like al-Qaeda, which itself is now headed by an Egyptian citizen. In Afghanistan, Uzbeks, Pakistanis, Turks, and Tajiks traveled to fight alongside the Taliban during Operation Enduring Freedom. Even in Bosnia, Chechen fighters traveled from the Northern Caucasus to gain combat experience to use against Russian forces in their separatist conflicts. (Available here is an FPRI research compilation outlining the issue of foreign fighters in conflicts in the Islamic world in recent history.)

What is disconcerting, then, is not that foreign fighters have entered Syria in large numbers; Syria’s sparsely populated, unsecured, and mostly desert borders with Iraq, Turkey, and Jordan make it rather simple for determined foreign nationals to enter the country and arm themselves. Unsettling instead is that most of these fighters are joining radical groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and the lesser-known Syrian Islamic Front. There are immediate threats associated with this trend. Firstly, an increase in international visibility and reputation of these groups to likeminded actors in the Levant, Gulf, Northern Caucasus, Horn of Africa, and Islamic Maghreb creates networks of coordinated funding, equipment, training, and personnel transfers that serve to strengthen enemies of democracy in Syria and abroad. Transfers of Libyan weapons stores to Islamist groups in northern Mali exhibited that these networks already exist and operate effectively. Secondly, foreign nationals may slip undetected to their home countries after the conclusion of the conflict and take their weapons and explosives training, their resources, and their connections into militant groups along with them. This may be especially true of foreign nationals fighting for groups in Syria’s opposition, whose resourceful “DIY” capabilities create frighteningly effective ad hoc weapons systems out of civilian consumer goods.

By contrast, most moderate FSA brigades, especially those under the command of the Supreme Military Council, abide by strict regulations disallowing foreign fighters. As the opposition’s military command structure becomes more formalized, effective, and disciplined, unit commanders who realize the potential long-term threats of foreign fighter influence have played active roles in ensuring the exclusion of non-Syrian elements.

Syria’s revolution is indeed being somewhat outsourced. In a conflict in which the combat capabilities of the opposition are far outweighed by the might, discipline, and supplies of the regime, every able body is an asset. With prior experience in previous guerilla conflicts, the flow of foreign nationals provides their host groups with added battlefield effectiveness. This effectiveness is a luxury that moderate units must instead source from the capable regime defectors willing to fight alongside them. And though the flow of these defectors has increased as Syrian Army morale steadily fails, the advantages they provide remain outweighed by Assad’s loyal forces.

By providing the Supreme Military Council with internationally-led training, as has been specifically requested by its commanders in the form of special operations, IHL, and chemical weapons securement training, the international community can curb the influence of such malicious elements. If and when the post-Assad reconstruction era dissolves further into a battle between armed groups competing for territory and influence, this training can provide units appreciative of democratic and multi-sectarian transition with the capability to defeat radical groups and their foreign cohorts.

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A Culture Under Fire

The Erosion of Syria’s Culture, History, and Identity

______   ______   ______

Since March 2011, Syria has been in the grasp of a devastating civil war.  Casualties are nearing 100,000, with the vast majority of those casualties estimated to be civilians.  Millions more remain internally displaced with neither shelter nor food.  The conflict has caused over one million more Syrians to flee to neighboring nations.  And yet, Syria’s social landscape is not the only casualty of war; shells, bombs, and hatred are also tearing away at the country’s cultural fabric. 

The area of Syria is considered one of the birthplaces of civilization.  It has a rich history and culture that has been shaped by numerous ethnicities and religions, and its past is marked by trade and intercultural exchange.  Damascus itself was built in the Third Millennium, making it one of the world’s oldest cities and the original home of affluent craft industries that produced many of the world’s swords and lace.  Aleppo, a bustling metropolis and Syria’s largest city, is one of the most continuously occupied cities on earth.  Geography placed Syria at the heart of human history, as it sits astride the great channel of trade, the Silk Road, linking East to West.  All of the commodities of the Old World, from spices and fabrics to gold and ivory, passed through Syria’s ancient cities before continuing on to Asia and the West. 

Conquerors naturally followed merchants through the routes and locations that carried and produced such valuable goods. The Persians, Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Islamic Caliphs, the Mongols, the Ottomans, the French, and the British have all sought to dominate this important region for its historical, cultural, and ethnic significance as well as its strategic geographic location.  Syria is home to once dominant Roman cities, the mighty castles of the Crusaders, and the most opulent Islamic palaces and markets.  Syria is home to many of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites (WHS), which are listed as having special cultural or physical significance to the world, and which include such landmarks as the pyramids of Egypt and Independence Hall in Pennsylvania.  Syria is home to six of these sites. Neither cultural significance nor historical value, however, has stopped the annihilation of these sites, as each and every one of them has been, in some way or another, damaged by the conflict that is now threatening to consume the region.Since the war began, these historic sites and artifacts have been subject to ongoing degradation.  These icons have not been spared by three primary causes of artifact destruction in warfare: use as a military stronghold (and subsequent targeting), looting, and negligence. 

Crac des Chevaliers in Homs, one of the world’s most famous castles, has been shelled by artillery as the Syrian army attempts to dislodge rebel snipers.  Regarded as the finest example of medieval castle architecture anywhere in the world, Crac des Chevaliers was the site of peaceful antigovernment protests in March when it originally came under fire.  The shelling lead initially to damaging of the outer walls, as well as the elegant Crusader chapel inside.  As the war is continually fought on the streets around the structure, accurate damage assessment cannot be performed. Other churches and old markets in Homs now lay in ruin.  The Cathedral of Um al-Zennar, which dates to the dawn of Christianity, 59AD, has been subject to heavy shelling and now is nearly completely destroyed. The Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque, named after one of the greatest generals in history, has been badly damaged. 

Image

An FSA fighter is seen standing outside the partially destroyed walls of Crac des Chevaliers
Photo credit: Sulome Anderson, Foreign Policy

A short distance away, the Hama museum, which has been short-staffed due to the conflict, was completely unattended last summer due to a regime blockade.  A golden Aramaic statue that dates back to the 8th century BC was stolen and is yet to be recovered.  This precious item was on Interpol’s most wanted list in December of 2011. 

In Palmyra, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, ruins lay scattered across a desert oasis 150 miles northeast of Damascus.  Palmyra is an ancient city once ruled by the Romans, who dedicated much time and effort to make the city a symbol of the kingdom’s power and affluence.  Its strategic placement rendered it a prime center for trade, linking Persia, India, China, and the Roman Empire.  Looting has been reported throughout the archaeological site, including in the Temple of Bel complex, the Camp of Diocletian, and the Valley of the Tombs. The Syrian government has also reported illegal excavations in the tombs of Palyrma.  The security and monetary resources allocated to the protection of these sites and artifacts before the conflict has now been wholly reassigned to the war effort. The sites, then, are now defenseless against looters and destruction. 

Some of the most extensive destruction has occurred at the ancient Roman city of Apamea, less than 50 miles northwest of Hama. Plunderers have taken advantage of the chaos as they arrive in Apamea with digging equipment and escape with priceless Roman mosaics and column capitals. There is speculation that these looters are part of a wider network of criminals operating in the Middle East, who pillage archaeological sites for later resale on the black market. In an effort to protect Syria’s heritage, government officials have put in place harsh penalties for those caught and convicted.  But the 15-year jail sentence assigned to looters does little to dissuade any attempts on procuring precious artifacts that are well worth the risk. 

Image

A child plays on a destroyed regime tank by the rubble of a mosque in Aleppo
Photo Credit: Sulome Anderson, Foreign Policy

And although bombardment and looting are the primary reasons for the sites’ destruction, regime forces and criminals are not the only responsible parties.  Refugees have been known to seek shelter and dig latrines in these sites, as well as dig for profitable archeological artifacts to later sell over Syria’s borders as they seek to restore their livelihood. The Syrian government has lost control of hundreds of miles of its border with Iraq and Turkey, and treasures are being smuggled out in this way on a daily basis. One report claims that $2 billion worth of artifacts have already left the country.

Of course, the destruction of materials and artifacts does not compare to the torture and slaughter of tens of thousands of people. But these sites and shrines not only contain and preserve the development and history of a culture, but also a sense of identity and heritage. They are a point of pride for local communities and religions. Perhaps more tangibly, these sites draw millions of tourists and finances to Syria each year. With a once booming industrial and agricultural economy that also pulled much of its resources from its tourism industry, Syria in its reconstruction stage will need the international appeal of these historic sites to fill the gaps in a recovering industrial economy. What remains of these sites will prove to be a point of reference for Syrians seeking to redevelop both their cultural identity and their lifestyle.

In order to stop the devastation of some of the worlds most prized possessions, people must be informed of the situation.  People must know that there is a conflict occurring in a sacred part of the world that is killing many hundreds of thousands and destroying their heritage.  It falls to the media, international organizations, governments, and NGOs to publicize the damage and destruction of points of culture, history, and identity. The international community can strengthen legislation against the illegal antiquities trade, which drives looting in war zones.  It is time to exert pressure on both the Regime and the Opposition to ensure the safety of Syria’s treasures, as well as to create plans to assess and safeguard sites once the regime falls.  Syria’s cultural primacy will play a crucial role in stimulating the nation’s economy and society in a post-war and post-Assad Syria. 

 

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Washington’s Newfound Interest in Syria

How the Syrian Conflict Evolved from a Second Thought into a Major Issue

________  ________  ________

Before February 2013, focus on Syria seemed rather intermittent on nearly all political and media fronts. Apart from the dedicated usual suspects such as Senators McCain and Graham, and the conflict’s most vocal advocates in the media, attention towards Syria began to dim last fall, and have since undulated with particular events on the ground. Massacres, high-profile bombings and deaths, fears of the war’s regionalization, and Mr. Brahimi’s good-intentioned but ill-fated plans for political transition received interest while key battles, gains, and politico-military developments went largely unnoticed by the wider public.

But at the beginning of February, a number of key events occurred nearly simultaneously that catapulted the “Syria Issue” into wide-scale political, public, and international recognition. This combination of information leaks, political events, strategic victories, and secrecy-shrouded power plays created a perfect storm that made February 2013 perhaps the most important month for the Syrian conflict.

January 30th: The Israeli Air Force strikes a convoy in Rif Damascus province, 5km from the Lebanese border, carrying SA-17 Grizzly missiles bound for Hezbollah, and is suspected of hitting a military research center. Fears of conflict regionalization, threats to Israeli security, and the increasing military capabilities of Hezbollah skyrocket.

February 2nd: Information surfaces that the White House blocked summer 2012 policy recommendations from a team of senior diplomats and advisors–including then Secretary of State Clinton, former CIA Director David Petraeus, and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta–to arm moderate FSA units. The story receives brief yet intense media coverage, and focuses criticism on the Obama administration’s relative lack of official policy regarding the conflict.

February 5th: Reports suggest that Jabhat al-Nusra has become active in Homs province. The extremist group is now present in all of Syria’s theaters of battle.

February 11th/12th: Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and their Islamist affiliates play a central role in overrunning Tabqa Dam and al-Jarrah airbase, both major installations for the regime in the northern territories. The credibility and tactical capabilities of these groups increase, drawing international attention.

February 12th: The UN Rights Chief announces that the death toll in Syria has likely reached 70,000.

February 12th: Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps General Hassan Shateri is killed in Zabadani, Syria, near the Lebanese border. In charge of “reconstruction assistance” in Lebanon, it is suspected that Shateri was providing support to Syrian Army forces or Hezbollah units fighting in Syria’s west. This is the first instance in over a year revealing publicly the presence of Iranian military personnel on the ground in Syria.

February 18th: Secretary of State John Kerry announces that he will travel to Europe and the Middle East, and that the Syrian conflict, as well as talks with Opposition leaders, will be planned in Rome. SOC President Khatib announces that he will remain absent from the talks in response to the U.S. inaction in Syria and its silence towards regime Scud strikes in Aleppo, signaling a rift in relations between the U.S. and Syria’s future transitional government.

February 24th: Representative Eliot Engel, author of the 2003 Syria Accountability Act and long-time opponent of the Assad regime, announces that he will introduce legislation that would authorize the Obama administration to provide lethal assistance to FSA forces.

February 25th: SOC President Khatib agrees to meet Secretary of State Kerry in Rome, reportedly after Vice President Joe Biden makes a personal call to Khatib to emphasize the meeting’s importance.

February 25th: The New York Times releases an in-depth article describing the path of technologically advanced Croatian arms into Syria via Saudi-financed channels. Though these new weapons, which include recoilless anti-tank rifles and anti-armor rockets, began to enter Syria through Turkey and Jordan, they began to quickly proliferate across Syria. Strategy shifts to put more pressure on Damascus, along with the newfound capabilities these weapons provide, combine to influence significant Opposition progress in the capital city and elsewhere. The idea that a final surge is in motion spreads throughout the international community.

February 25th: The Syrian Army withdraws in its entirety from the Golan region to allocated more troops to Damascus, leaving the Syrian side of the Golan territory in rebel hands.

February 26th: Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s second-in-command, is wounded (some report that he was killed) in an attack similar to the one that killed IRGC commander Shateri. Though the fact that Hezbollah has been active in Syria is known, more attention is focused on their specific activities in the country. It is found that Hezbollah units, alongside their trained Syrian militiamen in Jaysh al-Sha’abi, are involved in some of the heaviest fighting in and around populous Shia areas in al-Qusayr, Homs. SSG’s sources in the FSA report that these groups are the most difficult to combat, and are mainly active on al-Qusayr’s western front.

February 28th: During his visit to Rome to meet the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Secretary of State John Kerry pledges $60 million in additional aid to be directed towards the Supreme Military Council. The aid is described to be non-lethal in nature. The Supreme Military Council is appreciative of the policy shift, but note that non-lethal supplies alone do not win wars.

The timing of the political moves made by Washington’s policymakers suggest that they were, at least in part, influenced by this high concentration of media attention towards Syria policy and events, as well as battlefield occurrences themselves. The initiatives mentioned by Kerry and Engel may be part of larger U.S. policy shifts regarding the armed Opposition, or they may be attempts to quell the criticisms following the leak of the vetoed summer initiative pushed by Clinton et al. Whatever the reason, Syria’s success at drawing attention from Washington has continued healthily into March, with SMC Commander Idris’s first U.S. television interview, the capture of Al-Raqqah City led by Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, and the capture of Aleppo’s Umayyad Mosque and Police Academy by more moderate FSA units. With rebel gains outpacing losses, a major city in the hands of the Opposition, and noose closing tighter around Damascus’s east and south, continuing U.S. support towards the Opposition may indeed allow future administrations to command some amount of influence in Syria’s restructuring.

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The Scramble

As Syria’s center begins to crumble, regime allies are realizing it’s Every Man for Himself.

________  ________  ________

Since late January, the tide of Syria’s revolution has turned significantly in favor of Opposition forces. Tabqa Dam is in rebel hands; al-Jarrah airbase was stormed and numerous aircraft were recovered, spawning the creation of a new FSA Air Force brigade; the Nayrab military airport, Aleppo International airport, Kwaires airbase, Minnegh airbase, Deyr Ezzour airport, and Damascus International are all under siege; Damascene suburbs are falling weekly to Opposition forces pushing inwards from the south and east, including the major industrial center of Adraa; with the exception of a few Shia strongholds like Nubl and Zahra, most of Aleppo’s rural western and northern regions have been liberated; a steady flow of Balkan and Eastern European weapons, likely shipped from large Libyan stores, is being directed toward moderate FSA units via Turkish and Jordanian supply routes. As the pace of Opposition victories and gains is now rapidly increasing, allies of the regime are beginning to shift to contingency mentalities in order to preserve their own various interests when the regime falls.

Hezbollah, in particular, has made the news in recent days in the wake of an FSA ultimatum aimed at forcing the Shia militant group out of western Syria. It is no secret that Hezbollah has trained pro-regime forces within Syria, has set up training camps in the country’s west, and has even sent its own fighters and commanders to bolster Syrian Army efforts on the ground. Hezbollah, of course, relies on the Syrian regime and Syrian territory as conduits for much of its materiel support, and as a crescent of political alliance linking Iran to Lebanon. This important lifeline to the Islamic Republic is not one that Hezbollah is willing to give up, which explains, in part, its activity. However, As a recent Al-Monitor article noted, there are deeper interests–not inclusive of the Assad regime–that motivate Hezbollah’s activity inside Syria.

Hermel, the area from which much of Hezbollah’s recent cross-border shelling has originated, is a Shia district in the Beqaa Valley. Hermel and most of the Beqaa Governorate itself are home territories for Hezbollah due to the large amount of Shias concentrated there. As a rule that applies for much of the Middle East, territorial boundaries created by the European Mandate system are not reflective of geographic divisions between ethnic and religious groups. The Beqaa Valley’s Shias extend into areas of western Syria along the Lebanese border, particularly in the western portion of Homs in the al-Qusayr and Lake Qattinah areas. It is here, as one internal Syrian Support Group intel source has said, that skirmishes between Hezbollah and rebel groups have occurred frequently in the recent past:

“The most dangerous front [of al-Qusayr] is the western front, where Hezbollah has begun to encroach on the city’s western outskirts after they shell the road with artillery and rockets that are launched from the Lebanese mountains of Hermel.”

Due to this boundary-transcending sectarian continuity, Hezbollah has long-established familial and religious relationships with Syrian Shias in this region, which means that personal connections and strategic incentives (the Hermel/al-Qusayr cross-border region also serves as a critical arms and supply transport route) are motivating Hezbollah to extend their physical presence over the border to protect Shia villages in Homs. By doing so, they not only extend their reach into what may possibly become a de facto Hezbollah-governed territory when Syria dissolves, they also build and maintain strategic relationships in Syria’s Shia/Alawite Fortress Region along the Mediterranean coast. These gains will not come without blowback, however; a Stratfor article has mentioned that the tensions between Hezbollah and Syria’s Sunni opposition are already reaching into other Hezbollah bastions in Lebanon’s south. Sunni Salafist leaders in Sidon have threatened to raid Hezbollah apartments in retaliation. As has been feared, Lebanon’s fragile religious landscape is being tested by these incursions.

When it comes to manipulating regional instability in favor of national interests, Iran is a well-known champion. From the more overt tactics of deploying Quds Forces abroad to the covert infiltrations of the supposedly politically neutral Iranian Red Crescent, Iran has sent human and material resources to shape conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and the Balkans. Iran has remained Assad’s most important regional ally, and the recent surge of Opposition victories has served to unmask some of the Islamic Republic’s efforts to support the regime: an ex IRGC commander was killed on the Damascus-Beirut highway; an Iranian civilian aircraft thought to be carrying arms was shot down near Damascus International Airport; several unconfirmed reports emerged noting the presence of an “Iranian-made unmanned aircraft” at Tabqa Military Airbase just after the fall of Tabqa Dam. But recently the strategy of Iran, too, seems to have shifted in preparation for Assad’s fall. The new Jaysh al-Sha’bi (also known as the National Defense Army or the Popular Army) is thought to be at least a force of 50,000 that is funded and trained by Hezbollah and Iran’s Quds Forces. These units are reportedly being modeling on the Iranian Basij militias famous for the havoc wreaked during the botched 2009 Green Revolution in Tehran. A senior U.S. official stated in one recent Guardian article that the Popular Army was indeed created to provide Iran and Hezbollah with willing and capable Syrian clients to preserve their interests when the regime capitulates. As mentioned in a previous blog, Popular Army units are already active and effective in battle, including in al-Qusayr, where our source reports that they are pushing against FSA forces on the city’s northern front.

Russia, the Assad regime’s largest international benefactor, has altered its rhetoric to suggest that its interests are in Syria itself, not in Assad. This comes as Russian aircraft consistently land in Beirut and, when able, in Syria to evacuate Russian citizens. Launches and other vessels are also waiting off the coast to receive potentially larger waves of the ~30,000 Russian citizens residing in Syria. Rather than strategize or implement its own unilateral plan for maintaining influence in Syria, Russia seems to be bowing out of the conflict, relying on Iran, Hezbollah, or thus far unforeseen proxies to carry out its interests.

What seems most likely, as the conflict reaches its climax, is that Hezbollah and Iran will continue to support the regime while building and maintaining social and territorial gains in western Syria. By doing so, vital transport routes through even more vital Shia areas will be maintained, and Syria’s only access to the Mediterranean coast will be under their control. Behind the Jabal Nusayriya (Alawite Mountains) range, the Fortress Region, whether it becomes Assad’s last stronghold or not, will be a formidable and valuable gain for Iran and Hezbollah after the fall of the regime.

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The Plight of the Refugee

Examining the Challenges of the Syrian Conflict’s Displaced Persons

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As the Free Syrian Army battles the Assad regime across Syria, Syrians continue to flee their war-torn towns and homes for the relative safety of neighboring countries. However, the circumstances faced by Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt are grim. An overview of the five main host countries to Syrian refugees illustrates the urgent need for increased international assistance for their plight.

 

Turkey

Turkey has been one of the most receptive states to Syrian refugees since the beginning of the conflict. There are now over 150,000 Syrians in Turkey, spread out among fifteen refugee camps in the southeast. These camps provide the best conditions for displaced Syrians, and provide a range of medical and humanitarian services. The Turkish government has reportedly ensured that children residing in these camps have access to education, from elementary to university levels. Organized and carefully logged medical visits are frequent, and the UNHCR has properly winterized these locations. The camps are, however, currently at capacity; thousands of Syrians are still queued and exposed on the Syrian-Turkish border. Because the Turkish government denies foreign journalists access to these camps, details about the condition of the camp’s inhabitants and conditions are provided by independent Turkish observers. Though conditions are comparably livable, there have been reports of rioting and protests.

Despite the favorable condition of the camps, reports indicate that Turkish support for Syrian refugees living outside of them is dismal. Registration as a refugee and access to the aid given by Turkish authorities is only provided to those interned in an officially-recognized camp; therefore, Syrians living and working in Turkish cities are ineligible to receive any kind of government assistance.

The influx of mostly Sunni refugees has stirred social tensions amongst the predominantly Alawite residents of Hatay province, where a large number of camps are concentrated. Religious communalism along with a strained history (discussed in a previous blog) between Hatay residents and Syrians has complicated the already difficult process of adapting to a sudden surge of foreign nationals. However, the Turkish government has taken steps to mitigate this issue.

 

Lebanon

In many ways, the circumstances faced by Syrian refugees in Lebanon are the direst. The number of refugees in the small country has already reached over 260,000, but the government has set up no formal transit centers or camps. Refugees receive some aid from UN-administered centers, but are largely forced to rely on the generosity of the Lebanese people or to join others in renting small apartments and attempting to secure employment. Given the tense political situation in Lebanon and the country’s lack of resources, the high number of refugees – without adequate support by international agencies – could cripple Lebanon’s already fragile financial and social fabric.

According to the UNHCR, an average of 1,500 Syrians flow into Lebanon daily. About a third of Syrian refugees currently in Lebanon have fled from Homs; another third is from Damascus, Deraa, and Idlib, with the remaining portion coming from Aleppo, Hama, and other parts of Syria. UNHCR-administered sites in Beirut, the Bekaa Valley, and Tripoli allow these Syrians to officially register as refugees and to receive UN-administered aid; for reasons detailed below, however, as many as 50,000 Syrians currently in Lebanon have not registered as refugees. 

Because most Syrian refugees living in Lebanon have had to seek their own housing, food, and medical aid, one of their most urgent needs is money. Even Syrians who were able to come into Lebanon with some resources have largely spent their savings and are unable to pay for rent or meals. A UNHCR monetary assistance pilot program, recently launched in Tripoli, has helped alleviate some of the needs of the refugees and will be implemented in other Lebanese cities with large Syrian refugee populations. Syrian refugees’ access to health care, especially if they have chosen not to register with UNHCR, has been impaired by high costs of aid and transportation to medical facilities.

A number of other factors have rendered the case of Syrian refugees in Lebanon particularly complex and worrisome. As mentioned above, the severe lack of funding for UNHCR activities has greatly limited the capability of the UN to provide for these refugees. The UNHCR has made increasingly urgent calls to the international community to boost its financial support for Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Beyond funding challenges, administrative issues and the politicization of the refugee influx have served as obstacles to aid provision.  According to a recent report by Doctors Without Borders, many Syrians entering Lebanon are unaware of how to access registration centers, while others do not have the time nor the fare that transportation to these centers requires. Still others lack the proper documentation to adequately register, and some are fearful that registration will allow the Lebanese government to deport them back into Syria. This particular concern is partially a product of the politicization of the Syrian conflict within Lebanon. Since the beginning of the revolution, Lebanon’s own political arena has been strongly divided about its neighbor’s developing conflict. The current Lebanese government, headed in part by many individuals who are friendly to the Syrian regime, has taken no official position on the Syrian conflict and has been unable or unwilling to effectively handle the flow of refugees. These visible political tensions may send a message to Syrian refugees that a government unfavorable to their plight may actually send them back into Syria if they officially register themselves. 

 

Jordan

Jordan, too, has seen a heavy influx of Syrian refugees since the early days of the revolution. The Syrian province of Deraa, where the revolution first started, lies a mere six kilometers from the Jordanian border. Over 300,000 Syrians have fled into Jordan, with some living in camps set up by the Jordanian government, but most residing in host communities, relying on the generosity of individuals or families who have taken them in. The Jordanian government has been accommodating to a degree. Despite some earlier threats, Jordan’s border with Syria has remained open, and refugees are continuing to pour in to the Hashemite Kingdom. Some refugees reside in the Zaatari Camp, which was opened by the government in July of 2012. This camp, built for 60,000 (but currently housing 76,000) refugees, has seen a number of demonstrations by inhabitants seeking sufficient food provisions and overall better accommodation. Frequently, when Syrian refugees are accepted into the Zaatari Camp, they are not permitted to leave. An additional point of concern is the fact that refugees who register with the Jordanian government are often required to give up their documents, and are merely handed a receipt acknowledging the submission of their paperwork. Without being able to leave Zaatari, and without the proper documentation on-hand, Syrian refugees have been unable to find supportive employment in Jordan. In order to relieve this camp’s overpopulation, the Jordanian government announced in October of 2012 that it would establish a second refugee camp in Zarqa. Details of this camp’s development are still unknown.

Like Lebanon, Jordan’s fragile economy and social fabric have been put under extreme strain by the influx of refugees. Syrians both inside and outside the camps have found it nearly impossible to locate jobs. Those living in private homes in Jordanian towns and cities, where they hope to avoid the conditions and restrictions of the camps, are struggling to pay high rental costs. Healthcare and education services have been particularly difficult to access, and modest monetary assistance programs have not been able to significantly reduce these needs. Despite initial Jordanian hospitality to Syrian refugees, the population undoubtedly feels strained and the specter of tension has risen.

 

Iraq and Egypt

As the capabilities of Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon to host additional refugees have waned, many Syrians have fled to Egypt and Iraq. Over 150,000 Syrians are now estimated to be in Egypt, but less than 10% have registered as refugees. The influx has been prompted by lower living costs in the North African nation, the “saturation” of Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, and the open borders that the Egyptian government has provided for Syrians fleeing violence. Syrians in Egypt were largely living off of their savings but are now, like their fellow Syrians in other nations, requiring monetary assistance. No camps have been established in Egypt, and Syrians are struggling to secure steady employment. A recently announced UN World Food Program voucher plan will provide voucher cards for registered refugees on a monthly basis, allowing them to shop in local participating markets. In addition to its open-border policy, the Egyptian government is allowing registered Syrian refugees to access public Egyptian schools. As in other countries, though, most refugees are either unaware of how to fill out the necessary registration paperwork or are unwilling to do so for fear of being deported. Urgent concerns, however, are rising about how the wave of refugees into Egypt will affect the already tense domestic situation.

Syrian refugees in Iraq number over 80,000, with most located in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Iraqi government, much like the government in Lebanon, has taken an officially neutral position but has remained unable or unwilling to provide adequate aid to refugees fleeing the neighboring violence. In fact, until July 2012, Iraqi borders were closed to Syrian refugees. Those currently in Iraq are facing harsh conditions in ill-equipped camps, devastating health conditions, and restrictions on their movements within Iraq.

With nearly one million Syrian refugees spread across these nations, it is absolutely imperative that the international community, and the United States in particular, provide additional aid. Although some governments have handled the influx of Syrian refugees well, others have failed to provide adequate assistance to those fleeing violence. In order to prevent the crippling of fragile states like Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq, Syrian refugee communities in these areas must receive more assistance. Increasing the capabilities of UNHCR- or government-administered camps and programs is critical; additional support must be given not only to provide more aid per individual or family, but to ensure that a larger number of Syrians have access to this aid. 

 

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“The Battle for Syria”

In Washington, DC, a Carnegie Endowment Meeting of the Minds discusses the Role of International Actors in Syria

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On Friday, February 8, 2013 the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a discussion amongst a panel of Syria experts regarding the current and potential future roles of the international community in Syria. The panel included Paul Salem, Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Frederic Hof, Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East – Atlantic Council, Henri Barkey, Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University, and Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain. The following is a summary of the the conference.

Turkey – Henri Barkey
Turkey, which encouraged the Assad regime to enact political reforms at the beginning of the revolution, quickly shifted its support to the armed Opposition once violence began. Turkey is now supporting–whether financially or militarily–nearly every armed Opposition movement, with the exception of the Kurds. With chances for a political solution now almost nonexistent, it is Ankara’s intention to support Syria’s armed actors, including jihadis, in the hope that it will maintain influential Syrian clients after the fall of the regime.

The Gulf – Emile Hokayem
There seems to be no single objective that GCC states are pursuing. Rather, each state is directing its support along the lines of its own respective geopolitical interests. Saudi Arabia sees its role in Syria’s future as a champion of Sunni Islam; by setting up a virtual proxy state in Syria, the Saudis can extend their reach deeper into the Levant while also using religious ties with Syria’s Sunni majority to stop Iranian-sponsored Shiism from creeping into the region–the list-topping item on Saudi Arabia’s regional strategy agenda. Qatar also intends to gain influence in the Levant, but through different actors. Qatar is primarily responsible for funding some of Syria’s Islamist factions, and it is developing its ties with the long-marginalized Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. (Qatar has been an advocate of the Arab Spring uprisings mainly, it is thought, to gain itself more recognition from the West and other GCC states as a arbiter of social progress. Its intentions also likely lie in establishing Sunni-Sunni relations as an axis of influence to counter Iran’s spreading influence into Syria via Iraq.) Kuwait remains a surprisingly active hub of humanitarian aid for Syria, contributing directly to support for rebel-held and contested areas without using the UN as an intermediary. It, too, however, has more lucrative goals in mind. Wealthy Kuwaiti Salafis are known supporters of Salafi militias in Syria, such as Ahrar al-Sham.

Overall, the panel noted, the Gulf has taken less of a leading role in the conflict than expected. This may be because Gulf states do not want to be accused of manipulating the conflict’s outcome for neocolonial benefit.

Lebanon – Paul Salem
Lebanese politics are split on the Syria issue. Two of the parliament’s most influential groups, the March 8th Alliance and the March 14th Alliance, were originally established on the basis of support for or opposition to Syrian interventionism and influence in Lebanese affairs. Not wishing to reignite the tensions of the Cedar Revolution or disrupt the fragile sectarian cohesion of Lebanese society, the Lebanese government has for the most part remained quiet, allowing factions such as Hezbollah to act on their own instead of testing the inevitable failure that would result in trying to form an official and cohesive pro- or anti-Assad platform.

The End of the Syrian Conflict – Paul Salem
Syria is not transitioning; it is dissolving. The war is bringing to an end almost a century of integration that followed the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and the cohesive nationalism that was fostered in the Levant by European mandates. The rebels will not be able to defeat the regime in the near future, nor the regime the rebels, meaning that the conflict will be prolonged and hatred and suspicion will grow deeper. We will in the future be dealing with a failed state of scrambling power plays and violence in an area once known as the Syrian state.

On Arming the Opposition
Frederic Hof: The possibility of success for Brahimi’s plan or any type of political transition is almost nonexistent. The outcome of the conflict “will be determined by men with guns.” The U.S. should not seek to micromanage the Opposition in an attempt to bring about a desired conclusion to the war–it is far too late for that–but rather recognize the militarized fate of the conflict and influence its outcome by determining the best logistical systems for arming and supporting the FSA. This is now what the White House is wrestling with.

Emile Hokayem: There is a demand for U.S. leadership in the region. The Syrian conflict has exposed Gulf states’ weaknesses in that they seem unable to develop proxies on the ground in the way that Iran can. If the U.S. does not act now, it will be forced into a role of using drone strikes to target the most malevolent Islamist militias when the conflict inevitably dissolves into duels between competing religious factions. This is not ideal. The U.S. should decide who to support, or at least seek out the proper conduits for support to moderate groups.

Henri Barkey: The Opposition should not be armed; arms will proliferate to extremists. The Opposition is too fractured, and the U.S. will not make any friends on the ground at this point. Regional actors should become more heavily involved, but the U.S. should maintain a minimal role of humanitarian support and, perhaps, provision of intelligence.

Paul Salem: Major influence for the end of the war will not come from inside of Syria, nor will it come from the Gulf. The U.S. and Russia have lined up on either side of the conflict, and neither will act decisively until more pressure–domestic and international–is forced upon them. Russia and the U.S. must be forced to recognize the inevitabilities of the conflict and their own shared interests: that Assad will fall, that Islamic jihadis should not prevail, and that both countries wish to maintain regional influence. The pressure to force these powers into action must come from the international community.

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Jabhat al-Nusra’s 2013 is Hezbollah’s 1982

--from NOW Lebanon, January 31, 2013--

 

Islamists train in northern Syria.

Western powers remain hesitant of the idea of supporting, in an official manner, the uprising in Syria. But with the rise of new and effective Islamist militant groups in the war, world leaders should take time to reflect on the lessons they learned in another of the Middle East’s major civil conflicts.

In 1982, Lebanon was burning. From Beirut to the border with Israel following the Operation Peace for Galilee invasion, the predominantly Shiite population of South Lebanon was forced to bear the brunt of the fighting between the Israeli Defense Forces and armed Palestinian groups, enduring not only Israeli ground operations and bombing campaigns but PLO intimidation, murder and kidnappings as well. The Maronite-dominated Lebanese government, which had ignored and politically marginalized the Shiites since the signing of the National Pact in 1943, had lost control of the country to disparate sectarian militias. As a result, social services, local infrastructure and basic living conditions in these communities were in complete disarray. 

Enter the Islamic resistance.

Stepping in to take advantage of the security vacuum in Lebanon’s southern region, a conglomeration of Islamist factions that would in 1985 become Hezbollah developed an effective, well-supplied and well-trained military wing to push Israeli forces out of the South. What distinguished the proto Hezbollah from its counterpart groups, however, was its appreciation for the strategic importance of popular support. Its leaders realized that by sustaining the otherwise helpless population they could use a base of civil allegiance to advance their ideological and political interests. Accordingly, the group quickly devoted significant attention and funding to developing its Social Services Section. From collecting garbage, running grocery stores and managing veterans affairs to maintaining schools, hospitals and agricultural development projects, the Islamist group began to operate a growing number of social service branches that far outpaced the capabilities of the Lebanese government. What began as a loosely organized Islamic militant group in 1982 eventually grew to become what is now the most effective social, political and military organization in Lebanon, and arguably the strongest and most multifaceted guerilla force in the hemisphere.

In Syria, the radical Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra has also recognized the strategic advantage to be gained from a supportive social landscape. Though it has been operating in Syria for little more than a year, it has already successfully distinguished itself from bands of disorganized Free Syrian Army fighters accused of looting, intimidation and warlordism in the country’s northwest. Jabhat’s own social services wing, Qism al-Ighatha (Department of Relief), distributes blankets, propane gas and food to civilian communities free of charge. Unlike many FSA groups, whose desperation has forced them to target only those regime installations that offer a large bounty of food or ammunition, Jabhat possesses the means—thanks to wealthy and ideologically aligned international benefactors—to attack militarily significant targets.

Because of its battlefield successes and attention to public service, Jabhat’s recruitment is high and its presence is spreading. Its flags and marked vehicles are appearing in greater numbers throughout the central and northwestern provinces. Its popular support is steadily increasing in the wake of its designation as a terrorist organization by the United States Treasury. And although such international isolation may indeed serve to prevent Jabhat’s political ascendance after the fall of the Assad regime, for the present time the group is reaping the benefits of its well-rounded strategic and social policy.

In this regard, Syria’s 2013 is beginning to very closely resemble Lebanon’s 1982. Then as now, a singular and respected military organization has emerged from amid a great number of less effective armed groups to help a population fatigued by violence and an incompetent government of religious “others.” As Western governments continue to temporize when it comes to addressing the growing instability in Syria, we must remember that history—recent history—has provided us with a strong lesson about socially conscious Islamist militant groups.

We are still dealing with the consequences of Hezbollah’s formation and influence, and we should be wary of Jabhat al-Nusra’s growing popularity. By supporting, even if only financially, certain moderate units of the Free Syrian Army, the US can help stem the expansion of Jabhat’s armed wing and diminish the organization’s influence in favor of a force more likely to foster a democratic and religiously diverse future Syria. Spending money and materiel in this way to undermine Jabhat al-Nusra now may save the West from spending human lives to combat it in the future. At the very least, it will curb the growing power of yet another Islamist militant group in the Levant. 

Dan Layman works at the Syrian Support Group based in Washington, DC

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–Syrian Support Group in the Wall Street Journal–

How the U.S. Can Help Avert A Failed State In Syria

Time to stop ‘leading from behind’ and get involved before Syria disintegrates.

 

By NASER DANAN and LOUAY SAKKA

 

President Obama on Tuesday pledged an additional $155 million in humanitarian aid to the Syrian opposition and refugees fleeing the murderous regime of Bashar Assad, bringing the total over two years to $365 million. The president also pledged, as he has before, that “The Assad regime will come to an end. The Syrian people will have their chance to forge their own future. And they will continue to find a partner in the United States of America.”

While the aid is welcome and the message hopeful, what is missing is any promise of military assistance for the Free Syrian Army. Although Washington has not provided money or weapons to the FSA, it has given a green light to such transfers from other countries (mainly in the Persian Gulf) and it has authorized our U.S.-based nonprofit, the Syrian Support Group, to collect money for vetted Free Syrian Army commanders. The Obama administration has also reportedly allowed some intelligence sharing with the FSA, via Turkish and Jordanian intelligence.

This tactic of “leading from behind” should end. What is now clear to Washington and to other players in the region is that a Syrian endgame is upon us. Bashar Assad has lost control over much of the country, including a number of key military bases and the main highways that provide the lifeline of support to his remaining, demoralized troops. All that Assad firmly controls is Damascus, and his air superiority has been limited by the FSA’s growing antiaircraft defenses, acquired mainly from seized Syrian army depots.

In desperation, the Syrian dictator has resorted to firing Scud missiles toward liberated areas in the north. He may also be transporting chemical weapons with a view to their possible use. Syrians and outside observers alike understand that a regime losing control of its highways, airports and military bases no longer controls the country and that its downfall is within sight.

What is most important now is to avert a failed state, akin to Somalia, that would provide militant extremists with a haven and possible access to chemical weapons in a key strategic location. This could also result in a wider sectarian conflict throughout the region. To assure this doesn’t happen, the Obama administration should take these proactive steps:

 

• Greater support for the Syrian Opposition Coalition. Mr. Obama has already recognized the SOC as the sole representative of the Syrian people. Now is the time to extend significant financial, diplomatic and technical support so that it can continue to gain legitimacy and be ready to help negotiate a peaceful transition. Such support would include backing the creation of a representative interim government and permitting the interim government access to any frozen Syrian government funds.

• Greater support for the Free Syrian Army. Financial, diplomatic and technical support are needed if the FSA’s new unified command, the Military Supreme Council, is to fill the security vacuum and secure chemical weapons stockpiles when the Assad regime falls, and serve to provide order and security to areas most vulnerable to potential revenge killings in a post-Assad era. This can be further facilitated by helping develop a core group of well-trained elite FSA forces. Such support would also help deter increasing extremism among some groups within the broader armed opposition and help further tip the military balance of power.

• Support a transitional justice plan. With the backing of Washington and the international community, a transitional justice plan would govern a truth-and-reconciliation process for the post-Assad period. But the establishment of such a plan now could also fast-track Assad’s fall by providing incentives—including offers of amnesty—for the remaining members of Assad’s inner circle to defect. The plan could also publicly target a fairly narrow list of gross perpetrators of war crimes, thus letting government officials who are not on the list know that they would not be arrested if they sought a way out of their predicament.

 

The United Nations recently estimated the death toll of Syria’s civil war at more than 60,000. What began in March 2011 as a peaceful uprising against the Assad dictatorship has morphed into a bloody struggle for freedom, with the potential descent into a wider, sectarian war. Ultimately, the Syrian people will triumph. The U.S. can do more to help them.

Dr. Danan and Mr. Sakka are on the board of directors of the Syrian Support Group, a U.S. nonprofit organization dedicated to the establishment of a free, independent and democratic Syria.

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