Thursday, August 14, 2014
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
June 25, 2014
Uprooting the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) from the swath of territory it now holds between Aleppo and Baghdad will take a lot more than airstrikes or a change of government in Iraq. Although the 2003 war in Iraq might have led to the formation of the jihadi group, the chaos in Syria provided it the space to metastasize. To prevent ISIS -- and other such organizations -- from building a permanent safe haven in Iraq and Syria, then, Washington must help settle Syria by supporting Sunni tribes and other moderate opposition groups there.
Over the last week, the Obama administration has focused its attention on pushing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (or whoever might replace him) to be more inclusive of the country’s Sunni Arabs, who make up around 20 percent of the population. Washington is right to do so. ISIS and the other groups fighting alongside it rely on this disenchanted community for support. Without Sunni backing, ISIS would crumble and Iraq could stabilize. To help that process along, the United States could launch airstrikes against ISIS camps in the country.
Sunni Arabs are an even larger part of the equation in Syria, where they represent between 65 and 70 percent of the population and make up the backbone of the opposition to the Alawite Assad regime. Western mediators have urged Assad to negotiate with Alawites, Shia, and Sunnis. But he has refused, preferring instead to have himself “re-elected” to a third term as president and to make vague promises of dialogue with the opposition groups that succumb to the regime’s siege-and-starve tactics.
Assad might seem like he is in control, but his troops rarely tangle with ISIS, preferring instead to take on the more moderate factions. In fact, his regime has only been able to go on the offensive in western Syria with help from Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militias, and Iran’s Quds force. When their support disappears, so, too, will Assad’s luck. For example, when Iraqi Shia militiamen were recently recalled from the Lebanese-Syrian frontier to fight ISIS in Iraq, Syrian opposition forces quickly reappeared, retook part of the area, and continued to stage hit-and-run attacks. In other words, Assad and the rebels are at a stalemate and, unless the West and its Arab allies try something new, the conflict will persist.
The best way to permanently uproot ISIS is to follow the example of Jordan. In recent years, Jordan has relied on a two-part strategy to deal with the Syrian crisis: control the border with Syria and monitor and work with the Syrian opposition to keep radical rebel groups out of the country’s southern reaches, along the border with Jordan. The U.S. intelligence community, which has a close relationship with Jordan, has reportedly participated in this effort.
Moderate groups continue to hold their own in southern Syria, but, as in other areas of the country, they still rely on coordination with more radical groups to fight the Assad regime. To prevent those radical groups from spilling into Jordan, Amman closed one of its border crossings to refugees and reopened it further east, in uncontested territory. It also worked with Western intelligence agencies to increase covert support for moderate groups in southern Syria. As a result, ISIS has yet to take root there.
For Turkey to strengthen its own border with northern Syria, it would have to follow Jordan’s example. So far, though, Ankara has been reluctant to get as strict about people, money, and weapons crossing its frontier into and out of Syria. There is considerable risk that militants could retaliate against Turkey if it decided to clamp down, but surely the Syrians roaming its territory already present such a risk. To help Turkey make the right call, the United States could promise to use drones or airstrikes to help Turkey secure the border.
After closing the borders between Syria and Jordan and Syria and Turkey, it will be time to address the now-gaping border between Syria and Iraq. The best way to do that is by working with tribes in the area and with selective drone strikes. Sunni tribal confederations such as the Baggara, Dulaim, Jabbour, N’eim, Qugaidat, Shammar, and Tai'e extend into Syria and Iraq -- and some even reach into Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. These tribes could be made into a bulwark against ISIS and other jihadists in Syria and Iraq. According to some reports, ISIS has worked to win over their rank and file by offering basic services. For those that don’t accept such carrots, the group has used harsh sticks, such as beheadings and crucifixions. Its pull among the tribal population worries local tribal leaders, who see their influence slipping.
Arab intelligence agencies can play on these fears by supplying tribal leaders with lethal and nonlethal assistance. The United States is not in a good position to lead this effort, since it has no boots on the ground and lacks the qualitative intelligence. However, Washington should coordinate closely with Arab Gulf countries in supporting tribes against militant groups, using air power to aid their fight against ISIS.
Another natural bulwark against ISIS and other such groups is Syria’s Kurdish population in northeast Syria. To stave off the militant threat, the Kurds united two years ago under the banner of the Kurdish Supreme Committee. The group includes the radical Democratic Union Party of Syria, which is the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and the more moderate Kurdistan National Council, an alliance of 15 Kurdish political parties. Despite tensions among its members, the alliance has battled jihadists for the better part of two years. And like their Arab counterparts, the Kurds are also organized into broad tribal confederations that reach across the border into Iraq and Turkey.
Sealing off Syria’s external borders -- and its internal one with the Kurdish region -- would help contain jihadist groups and interdict ISIS suicide operators coming to Iraq while the United States works with the Iraqi government to win over moderate Sunnis and, possibly, launches drone strikes against ISIS positions. This could be bolstered through the creation of a U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force to coordinate cross-border operations. Meanwhile, allying with the Arab tribes on both sides of the border will undermine ISIS support in its key Sunni Arab demographic. This could result in a foreign policy twofer, helping address both the current situation in Iraq and Syria and the broader jihadist threat over the long term.
With ISIS hemmed in, the crisis in Iraq would be far easier to manage through airstrikes and diplomacy.
The world could then turn to the war in Syria. The top-down diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis are going nowhere. According to Samantha Power, U.S. representative to the United Nations, more Syrian civilians died from Assad’s barrel bombs during this year’s failed peace talks in Geneva than during any other period in the Syrian war. And that onslaught continues to this day. The best way to keep the regime from dropping barrel bombs, as well as chlorine gas and other indiscriminate weapons, would be to shoot down its aircraft.
Providing vetted armed groups with antiaircraft weapons would help the opposition secure its territory. It would also empower moderates by making them key to defending against Assad’s onslaught. Although antiaircraft guns would not take care of the regime’s weapon of choice -- artillery -- civilians would at least have less reason to flee to Turkey and Jordan, which are already overwhelmed with refugees and fear spillover violence. The United States could provide the opposition active intelligence to facilitate such operations.
Now the question is how to channel antiaircraft and other heavy weapons so that they don’t fall into radicals’ hands. Much has been made of the bickering and petty rivalries within the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and the thousand or so armed groups fighting against the Assad regime. The divisions are partly a reflection of Syria’s extremely diverse Sunni population -- from the urbane Sunnis representing the traditional elites, who long collaborated with the regime, to the tribal Sunnis of eastern Syria and Dera, who cooperated with the regime at arm’s length, to the conservative Sunnis of northwestern Syria, who have long fought Alawites and the Assad regime. ISIS and other militant groups, such as the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, are primarily entrenched within the tribal and conservative Sunni populations.
The Supreme Military Council (SMC), an umbrella organization that Arab and Western intelligence helped set up in late 2012 as the armed wing of the SNC, was meant to unify rebels’ supply chains, encourage moderates to unite, and empower the SNC on the ground. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked, which coalition leaders blame on a lack of outside support. The problem with the SMC is that, like the SNC, it is beset with petty rivalries and has at times been infiltrated by radical Salafis. For that reason, it would be unwise to use the SMC, at least as it exists now, to channel antiaircraft weapons to moderate rebels.
The other major conduit supporting the rebels has been individual groups vetted by Western and Arab intelligence agencies, including the Syrian Revolutionary Front and Harakat Hazm, which have been given American-made antitank missiles. Such vetted groups stand wholly apart from their more radical counterparts, but their lack of resources or political agenda has hobbled them. The SMC leadership, moreover, has criticized Western efforts to supply some groups with weapons as creating warlordism among the moderate Syrian opposition.
But given the threat that jihadist groups pose in Syria, selective arming seems like the least bad option. And antiaircraft weapons would come with strings attached. In the short term, the regional intelligence agencies that are advising moderate groups inside Syria would be best placed to carry out joint antiaircraft operations until the moderate Syrian opposition can stand on its own. Over the longer term, the SMC should be reconstituted as a clear anti-radical force with more tribal leaders and leaders from vetted groups. As was the clear during the SMC’s initial formation, Arab and Western intelligence agencies are best placed carry out the task. A new SMC could be the channel for other heavy weapons as well and the conduit for setting up governments in opposition areas coordinated with the SNC and other groups in exile.
Eventually, as the SMC’s capabilities increase, the group could fill vacuums in areas where ISIS and other jihadi groups give way. Eventually, the SMC would fully train its sights on the Assad regime. Assad, in turn, would come to appreciate that his military solution to the Syria conflict is doomed to fail and that he needs to return to the negotiating table.
For the second time in less than a year, U.S. President Barack Obama is considering military strikes in the Middle East. Targeted air, missile, and drone attacks could degrade ISIS’ capabilities and should be used carefully. But they will not fix the region’s problems -- especially the ongoing war between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
The United States must start to address those problems by increasing covert support for border security operations and for the Syrian opposition. To do so, it can tap the $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund that Obama recently outlined in a speech at West Point. This fund aims to expand the training and equipping of foreign militaries, bolster allied counterterrorism capabilities, and support efforts to counter violence extremism and terrorist ideology.
Yet Syrians cannot unite around groups armed in the shadows. A much more comprehensive and overt training and equipping program, as recently introduced in the National Defense Authorization Act, would help the United States build up moderate forces in Syria that could effectively combat Assad and deescalate the crisis. Although it is still unclear which moderate Sunni oppositionists will be part of any final negotiated settlement, it is clear is that ISIS and other radicals can’t be included.
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
APR 30 2014, 12:36 PM ET
The United States and the international community have spent the better part of the last year backing peace talks in Geneva to bring about a “political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people,” and ultimately end the war between the Alawite-dominated regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the Sunni and Kurdish-dominated opposition. But Assad has his own transition in mind: running for a third seven-year term as president. On April 28, the Syrian president nominated himself as a candidate in Syria’s June 3 presidential poll, “hoping the parliament would endorse it.”
This was hardly a surprise. Assad has hinted at his candidacy for months, and “spontaneous rallies” calling for him to run—many complete with images of Assad beside Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah—have sprung up across regime-controlled areas of the country, while shopkeepers have been encouraged to paint their storefronts with Syrian flags and slogans supporting the leader.
What’s Assad’s concession to his opponents after attempting to shoot his way out of the country’s largest uprising, with 150,000-plus killed, 680,000 injured, and up to half of the country’s 23 million people displaced? The Syrian president has made the next poll the first contested presidential election in the nation’s modern history. That pledge, however, is undermined by the state of war in the country and Assad’s previous referendums, including the last presidential election I observed personally in 2007, when he won by a Crimea-like 97.62 percent of the vote. In one polling station in Damascus’s wealthiest and most Westernized neighborhood, a young woman-turned-poll worker not only urged me to vote even though I did not have Syrian nationality, but also encouraged me to follow the lead of Assad’s main election poster and vote with a fingerprint in my own blood. Such tactics helped Assad improve upon his 97.24-percent showing in 2000, when his father Hafez died, and the Syrian parliament lowered the minimum age for seeking the Syrian presidency from 40 to 34 to allow Bashar to run.
Why, then, should anyone care about another rigged election in the Middle East? Because Assad’s reelection is actually part of his larger strategy to destroy the international community-backed plan for a negotiated solution to the increasingly sectarian Syrian crisis in favor of a forced solution on his terms. This solution includes sieges and starvation of opposition-controlled areas, the manipulation of aid supplies, and the dropping of “barrel bombs,” Scud missiles, and alleged chlorine gas canisters on his enemies. While this approach has helped him gain ground in western Syria with help from a legion of Hezbollah, Iraqi, and other Iranian-backed Shiite fighters, Assad lacks the troops to retake and hold all of Syria, unless his allies expand their involvement to a much more costly degree. Short of Syria’s occupation by what is often described as “Iran’s foreign legion,” the opposition and their regional backers will not agree to a Potemkin transition with Assad and his Iranian allies calling the shots.
The likely outcome of all this is a failed state partitioned into regime, Sunni-Arab, and Kurdish areas, all of which are now havens for U.S.-designated terrorist organizations in the heart of the Middle East. Combined with regional tensions between Iran and the Arabs, as well as the deep chill in relations between Russia and the United States, diplomatic solutions seem distant as well. This presents Barack Obama with a dilemma that has far-reaching implications. Allowing Assad’s forced solution to go forward will only contribute to the spread of a Syria-centered Middle Eastern proxy war between Iran and Arab countries, demonstrate to dictators that mass slaughter works, and show Moscow and other U.S. adversaries that Washington is unwilling to follow through on its foreign-policy principles and diplomatic agreements. But reversing Assad’s course will require the kind of military action from the West and its regional allies that Obama has been extremely reluctant to use due to its expense and uncertain result for the United States.
A campaign poster in Damascus for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reads in Arabic, "We want Assad." (Reuters/Khaled al-Hariri)
In early 2012, as the armed insurgency in Syria gathered steam, the Assad regime’s changes to the constitution to establish contested presidential elections attracted little attention in the West, which at the time was focused on Kofi Annan’s five-point plan to end the crisis. When that effort failed, the United States and Russia negotiated the “Geneva Communique of 2012.” At the time, the regime’s contraction, if not its demise, seemed certain, so Western negotiators watered down the text’s language over Assad’s fate to overcome a Russian veto at the United Nations. Instead of demanding Assad “step aside” as part of a transition, the United States agreed to a “Transitional Governing Body” with “full executive powers” to be formed by “mutual consent” that “could include members of the current government and the opposition and other groups.” American negotiators held up the “mutual consent” clause at the time as giving the opposition a veto over Assad’s participation in the TGB. But by not ruling Assad out of the scheme, as well as failing to define which opposition groups had to agree to the TGB, the agreement gave Russia a veto over the process and allowed Assad to play for time.
And he did just that. Last year, with the backing of Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia, Assad launched a counterinsurgency effort that—combined with the use of chemical weapons, Obama’s unwillingness to enforce his “red line” on their use in Syria, and the regime’s foot-dragging on its deal with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in Security Council Resolution 2118—decimated the opposition. As a seeming concession to the Russians for getting the Assad regime to give up its chemical weapons, the United States helped deliver selective representatives from the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), an opposition umbrella organization backed by the West, to negotiations in Geneva with the Assad regime in January and February. But the Syrian regime refused to negotiate a Transitional Governing Body, and went so far as to place opposition negotiators on a list of terrorists. At the same time, Assad increased bombardment of opposition areas with barrel bombs—crude explosive devices dropped from regime helicopters. According to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations “the most concentrated period of killing in the entire duration of the conflict” occurred during the talks in Geneva. Russia, which in Security Council Resolution 2118 had effectively pledged to involve the regime in discussions on the TGB, is now suddenly unwilling to do so.
Meanwhile, in interviews with the Western, Russian, and Arab press, Assad and regime spokespersons have announced that he will run in the upcoming presidential poll and that international election observers will not be allowed into the country. The rules stipulate that each candidate file an application with the Supreme Constitutional Court, an all-Assad-appointed body that will reach a verdict on each application within five days. It is unclear what the final arrangements will be and who will run—six other candidates have announced their candidacy. But what is certain is that Syria’s election law forbids candidates who have not resided in Syria for the last 10 years, which eliminates many of the exiled opposition active in the Syrian National Coalition.
Assad says he will only deal with parties that have a “national agenda” in upcoming local and parliamentary elections, which essentially rules out not only the SNC, but also other armed groups that control large swaths of opposition-held Syria. The opposition acceptable to Assad encompasses groups in regime-controlled areas that have been tolerated for years, including the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (NCC). The NCC is headed by the elderly pan-Arab socialist Hassan Abdel Azim, who has little to no influence on the opposition outside Assad-controlled areas.
A Free Syrian Army fighter in the old city of Aleppo. (Reuters/Muzaffar Salman)
It is here where Assad’s logic collides with the hard realities of Syrian demographics. Following the Assad regime’s last attempt to shoot its way out of an uprising by its Sunni majority, which culminated in the , in which up to 30,000 Syrians died, Assad’s father launched a massive, decade-long crackdown in Syria that decimated the economy and confined people to their homes. Predictably, birthrates skyrocketed. In the decade following the Hama Massacre, Syria was among the 20 fastest-growing populations on the planet, particularly in Sunni-dominated rural areas (this accounts for the lack of gray hair among today's opposition fighters). This time around, there are many more Sunnis than Alawites, who had fewer children. If Assad only offers a bankrupt plan for reforms based on his “reelection” as a transition, along with promises of economic largesse that he can ill afford, there is little chance his regime will be able to shoot the Sunni opposition into submission to a degree that would stabilize and reunite the country.
The bad news for the fragmented Syrian opposition is that the loose language negotiated by Russia in the Geneva Communique of 2012 concerning the formation of a “Transitional Governing Body” by “mutual consent” could in practice mean that opposition forces who succumb to Assad ultimately form the basis of the TGB. And given the Obama administration’s aversion to supporting the Syrian opposition with lethal assistance or direct military intervention, as well as its current outreach to the Assad regime’s chief supporters in Tehran, the White House might be tempted to take the bait and agree to such a political transition. As might European governments concerned about the growth of jihadists among the Sunni opposition.
That would be a big mistake. Handing Assad and Iran’s foreign legion even a partial victory in Syria right now would make it more difficult to contain Tehran’s regional machinations and secure further concessions over its nuclear program. But more importantly, it would likely stoke a regional, sectarian proxy war centered on Syria. Arab Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait, are deeply worried about Iran’s spreading influence and nuclear ambitions, and appear committed to fighting Iran’s legion to the last dead Syrian. These motivations have spurred some of their citizens to sponsor effective al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria with global aspirations.
The most effective and least costly way to contain Assad’s advance, as well as the influence of jihadists, is through greater lethal support for the moderate opposition—an option the White House has been debating for years and is reportedly debating now in light of the bravado that the Syrian and Russian presidents have been demonstrating recently. As the Assad regime has accelerated shipments of chemical weapons to the Syrian coast, American-made TOW anti-tank missiles have increasingly made their way to moderate Syrian opposition fighters vetted by Western intelligence. But the only way to stop the Assad regime’s aerial bombardment of opposition areas and bring the government to the negotiating table is by providing anti-aircraft weapons to the opposition or launching missile strikes on the regime’s airfields. In recent days, however, Obama has critics of his Syria policy who are now calling for a military response to Assad’s worsening behavior.
While Obama’s equation of “Syria is Iraq” has worked with the American public so far, Assad’s forced solution has global implications that run directly counter to American values and interests. Permitting the Syrian president to implement his strategy would demonstrate to ruthless dictators around the world that mass slaughter and blocked humanitarian access are effective tactics. And, at a time when Washington and its European allies are contending with a resurgent Russia, U.S. adversaries eager to challenge international law will conclude that the West is weak, does not uphold its principles, and can be effectively ignored. This won’t only prolong the war in Syria. It also makes one much more likely in Ukraine.
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Copyright © 2014 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All Rights Reserved.
Andrew J. Tabler is senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the book In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria.
Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Articles & Op-Eds
Also available in العربيةNOW Lebanon
April 1, 2014
The Party of God is not only hurting its domestic standing in Lebanon, but also inviting a wider regional conflict it cannot control.Reports of heavy Hezbollah casualties trickling out of Syria's Qalamoun area are but the latest sign that the Party of God's involvement in Syria will continue to cost it dearly. But the real price for Hezbollah is being paid in Lebanon, where Hezbollah's support for the Assad regime has led to increased suicide car bombings, Sunni-Shiite tension, and armed clashes, not to mention recent concessions to the March 14 alliance in forming a caretaker Lebanese government. While spillover into Lebanon may seem a local issue, my interviews with Lebanese and Syrians during a recent visit to Lebanon indicate that such incidents, combined with a possible security vacuum caused by government bickering over the selection of Lebanon's next president, could fan the flames into a wider regional conflict that Hezbollah and Iran cannot put out and cannot afford. What is more, retaliating against Western targets is not the easy distraction it used to be and will only make things worse, not better, for the Iranian alliance.
In intervening in Syria to save the Assad regime, Hezbollah has made Lebanon a battleground for Syrians and Gulf-supported Salafist-jihadist groups. Fourteen different explosions targeting Hezbollah, Iran, or their affiliates have rocked Lebanon over the past year, including a blast in the Shiite village of Nabi Othman on March 17 that killed local Hezbollah leader Abdul Rahman al-Qadhi. A look at the details of each attack is telling: most have been suicide car bombs, the exception being a sniper killing Hezbollah weapons expert Hassan Lakkis. All have been in either in Beirut's southern suburbs or routes going into those areas, or in Hermel, Hezbollah's stronghold in the north Beqaa. The frequency of attacks has increased in tandem with the degree of Hezbollah's involvement in Syria, with the current rate now approaching four per month. The recent effort to bomb-proof stores, hospitals, and mosques in Dahiyeh has not stopped residents from fleeing to safer areas. One source told me up to 150,000 apartments are now up for rent in south Beirut alone.
But it is not just Salafist bombings in Lebanon against Hezbollah targets that could inadvertently lead to wider war. Starting with the detention of pro-Syrian politician Michel Samaha, Lebanese investigators have uncovered a number of plots sponsored by the Syrian regime against Lebanese citizens, including Sunnis in sectarian tinderbox areas such as Tripoli and Akkar. Lebanese military authorities recently issued arrest warrants in absentia for Lebanese Alawite leader Ali Eid, a staunch supporter of Assad, for smuggling a man involved in an August 23 bombing against Sunnis in Tripoli out of the country to Syria. The Assad regime, recently overconfident, could intensify assassinations in Lebanon (Tripoli in particular) that would only fuel further and more devastating attacks against Hezbollah.
Keeping conflicts in Lebanon from spreading elsewhere used to be easier, mostly as a result of backroom or tacit deals between Riyadh and Tehran. Indeed, many sources in Lebanon speculated to me that the recent government formation was evidence of such efforts. But while Arab and Persian leaders may agree to tamp it down in Lebanon, the increasingly sectarian nature of the fight in Syria has drawn both Iran and the Arab Gulf countries into a bloody battle that the porous Lebanese-Syria border, never clearly demarcated, will not contain. Ironically, Hezbollah's recent efforts to secure the Qalamoun area for the Assad regime could well push the Sunni-based Syrian opposition's central front into Lebanon, making it another theatre in an increasingly regional sectarian war.
Hitting Western targets in Lebanon or Iraq as retribution for jihadist attacks would not make the situation any better, either. Public opinion in the West is gathering against Iran, and Hezbollah opening this second front would only deepen skepticism that the Islamic Republic will cut the kind of deal with Washington that would protect Western interests in the Middle East and check counter proliferation concerns among its regional allies.
To head off further escalation, Hezbollah should scale down its involvement in Syria and return its troops home to Lebanon while a graceful exit is still possible. While reports indicate that Saudi Arabia has launched a campaign to support the Sunni opposition, Hezbollah and Iran should read such support for what it is: an attempt to squeeze out extremists and peel members of Al-Qaeda affiliates over to more moderate groups under control of regional Arab countries, and an attempt to push Bashar al-Assad to the bargaining table.
Andrew Tabler is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute and author of In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria.