Thursday, September 18, 2014

There Goes the Neighborhood - Foreign Policy

ARGUMENT

There Goes the Neighborhood

Al Qaeda’s control of Israel’s northern border has Jerusalem nostalgic for the days of Assad.


GOLAN HEIGHTS — While the world focuses on the Islamic State's advances in Iraq and Syria, the Syrian war is spilling over into the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. On Aug. 28, Syrian rebel groups, led by al Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, captured the old border city of Quneitra from the Syrian army and Iranian-backed National Defense Forces. Al-Nusra Front took 45 Fijian U.N. peacekeepers hostage and then assaulted two other U.N. outposts -- only to be repulsed after the Filipino commander ignored U.N. orders to surrender. The hostage situation was only resolved Thursday, Sept. 11, as all the peacekeepers were released safely after what appears to be Qatari mediation.


But though the latest crisis on the Golan frontier may be over, the larger threats facing Israel still remain. Across the border, more and more black jihadi flags are popping up, mere feet from Israel's Star of David. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces and the Hezbollah-inspired resistance groups that continue to operate under the regime's umbrella have also launched attacks against Israeli-controlled areas in the Golan. This chaotic situation is creating considerable unease in Jerusalem policy circles -- and upending decades of Israeli strategy for dealing with Syria.

Syrian rebels, including al-Nusra Front, have been on the Golan frontier for about a year. Their largest presence has been in the middle of the "zone of separation" between Israeli and Syrian forces -- which has been monitored by peacekeepers from the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) since 1974 -- near the frontier villages of Bir Ajam, ar-Ruwayhinah, and Buraykah. Over the past two weeks, however, al-Nusra Front and five other Syrian opposition groups have launched an offensive in the area, pushing back the regime and upsetting the status quo along the border that has persisted for four decades.

Israeli officials say the latest offensive has introduced two new and potentially game-changing aspects into Syria's southern front. First, al-Nusra Front has dramatically expanded its operations from the southern Syrian city of Deraa into the areas adjacent to the Golan frontier. Theories about the jihadi group's motivations vary: Israeli sources say the Islamic State chased the group out of eastern Syria, causing it to shift its men and firepower south to use against the Assad regime.

The offensive makes it harder for the regime to use its weapons of choice -- including artillery, Scud missiles, and rockets -- against opposition positions without risk of hitting Israeli-controlled areas and drawing an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) response. On Aug. 27, for example, two regime mortars seemingly intended for rebel forces in Quneitra landed in the vineyards of the border kibbutz of Ein Zivan, drawing an Israeli counterstrike hours later against a Syrian government command facility. The rebels' overall goal seems to be relieving a number of regime-encircled rebel positions southwest of Damascus, including Beit Jinn, Khan al-Sheikh, and areas west of al-Kiswah.

The second game-changer is UNDOF's crumbling presence on the Golan. Hostage-taking is nothing new in the Syrian war, but al-Nusra Front's attempt to ransom the 45 Fijian U.N. peacekeepers ups the ante both with Israel and the international community. Before it backed down Thursday, the group issued three demands that show how detached the jihadists are from diplomatic and military realities: It wanted al-Nusra Front's removal from the U.N. terrorist list, humanitarian aid deliveries to besieged areas of Damascus, and compensation for three al-Nusra Front fighters recently killed during action against UNDOF forces.

Qatar, which recently negotiated the release of an American hostage held by al-Nusra Front and which is believed to have some contacts with the group, reportedly played a role in the negotiations to resolve the crisis. A U.N. Security Council statement called upon "countries with influence to strongly convey to those responsible to immediately release the peacekeepers," an indirect reference to Doha.

The hostage situation easily could have been much worse, as al-Nusra Front attempted to capture two UNDOF posts manned by Filipino peacekeepers on Aug. 30 and 31. Disobeying a direct order from their Indian UNDOF commander, the Filipino forces fired back when an al-Nusra Front truck attempted to ram the front of their outpost. In the hours that followed, intervention by a nearby Irish UNDOF battalion, as well as help from Israeli forces and Assad regime mortars, allowed the peacekeepers to escape to safety. While the Indian commander has since scolded his Filipino colleague for jeopardizing the lives of the Fijian and other UNDOF forces, the action is being referred to in Manila as the "greatest escape."

Officials in Jerusalem say al-Nusra Front's advance and UNDOF's increasingly "tattered umbrella" of security are causing a tactical shift in Israeli thinking. Israel never relied on UNDOF to protect Israel from cross-border action -- but its forces are a symbol of international legitimacy of the Golan frontier. The U.N. peacekeepers' reduction to three or four bases is a reflection of the increasing instability along the border.

Another factor behind the shift has been the creation of a responsibility vacuum on the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan. In other words, there is no longer one party that Israel or the United Nations can call to resolve disputes and deter from carrying out future attacks. Thus far, the party exploiting this vacuum has been the Assad regime and its allies. Following Assad's announcement this year that "resistance" along the Golan frontier would continue despite the war, a number of Hezbollah-inspired groups planted improvised explosive devices along the fence marking the Syrian side of the frontier that targeted Israeli patrols on the other side of the border. Israel has defused many of these devices but cannot find them all; so far, at least two have exploded. With these devices added to the regular dangers of cross-border shellfire from the war, Israelis are increasingly concerned about how to protect IDF soldiers and Golan residents from a war that seems set to escalate.

The biggest issue weighing on Israeli thinking on Syria is how to deter al-Nusra Front and jihadists in general. Israel's experience with moderate forces in southern Syria -- as demonstrated recently, when al-Nusra Frontforced a captured Syrian rebel to divulge his Israeli contacts and meetings in a YouTube video -- indicate they are qualitatively weaker than the jihadists. While online sources provide a good amount of information on jihadi leaders and their aspirations, far less is known about their military calculations. The constellation of military and Iranian-trained paramilitary groups that make up the Assad regime seem more predictable -- they at least have the trappings of a state, however crippled, that Israel has dealt with indirectly for decades. Or as Israeli officials always lament: "At least there's an address." 

But Israeli officials recognize that dealing with Syria going forward will require having many more addresses than simply Assad's palace. While some Israelis still prefer to deal with Assad's forces in the areas adjacent to the Golan, Tehran's deep involvement in propping up the regime means his outright victory would hand a strategic victory to Israel's archfoe.

For now, Israeli officials will continue to deal with challenges from two Syrias -- Assad's rump state in the west and the varied forces, including al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State, in the chaotic "Sunnistan" in the center -- while carefully looking for opportunities with Kurdish-controlled areas in the northeast that declared their autonomy earlier this year. As one Israeli official put it: "We have to watch each area village by village and keep our expectations low."
Photo by JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images

Thursday, August 14, 2014

ISIL Could Become the Voice of Sunnis If We Don't Find a Way to Stop It Soon

August 12, 2014
The New Republic
By T
The Islamic State in Iraq and Levant’s deep-rooted sense of purpose and its political, financial, and military ability have helped it carve out a safe haven between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This week’s American airstrikes could help roll ISIL backbut if the American people really do not want to be sucked into another war in the Middle East, then Washington will need to cement these gains by working with Arab allies to bolster the moderate Sunnis Arabs who would fill the vacuum in Syria and Iraq following an ISIL defeat.
ISIL’s power comes from its effectiveness in rallying Sunni Muslims to fight against what they perceive to be Iranian-backed Shia regimes in Baghdad and Damascus. Bashar al Assad and Nuri Kamal al Maliki’s attempts to shoot and cajole their Sunni populations into submission have attracted jihadists from all over the world to Syria and Iraq. Unlike other terrorist groups, which rely on financial networks and wealthy benefactors, ISIL emphasizes self-sufficiency, using extortion, sale of oil products, and the charging of taxes and fees to generate revenue. These funds allow it to carry out operations that net even more resources, including millions of dollars from Mosul’s banks and American military equipment. It uses these ill-gotten gains to buy the allegiance and support of local groups and tribes.
In return, ISIL institutes order, doling out harsh punishments for violations of Islamic law, while protecting local populations from the Assad and Maliki regimes. It is restoring Sunni pride as well, carrying out successful raids against the Iraqi army and Syrian forces that have seized oil refineries and gas fields. All of this led ISIL leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi on June 30 not only to declare the “Islamic State”, but the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate, an institution formally dissolved 90 years ago.
The Iraqi army has thus far proven incapable of pushing ISIL back, due in no small part to ISIL's military ability and newly captured equipment. But the Iraqi army’s losses are largely due to the Maliki government’s unwillingness to include Sunnis, which is the result of the support it receives from Iran. Kurdish forces, which Washington decided to arm this week, are in a position to push back on ISIL near its northern enclave but will be unable, and most likely unwilling, to deploy in Sunni areas of Iraq.
The same military and political limits hold true in Syria. Despite Assad’s recent battlefield gains in the west, his willingness and ability to operate in Eastern and central Syria, where his forces have sustained heavy losses, remains limited. Assad’s hardline position during the Geneva Peace talks and surrounding his “reelection” last June make it unlikely that the regime will peeling off moderate Sunnis to its side.
Some have advocated inviting Iran to take care of the ISIL problem for the United States as some part of a “grand bargain” over its nuclear program. But those talks are not going so well, and even if they lead to agreement, both Iranian and American officials say the issue of Iran’s nuclear and regional aspirations will remain “stove-piped” for technical and political reasons. Furthermore, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vigorously rejects working with the United States, and he has not given President Rouhani any authority over the Iraq or Syria files, unlike his reluctant assent to nuclear negotiations in pursuit of sanctions relief. Iranian-backed forces also bring little positive to the table: Militant groups backed or trained by the IRGC-Quds Force (the body that orchestrates training of Iranian-backed proxy groups), such as Hezbollah or the National Defense Companies, have had no or very limited ability operating far away from their strategic depth in Iran and Lebanon. Worse, Iran encourages sectarian excesses which drive Sunnis to reluctantly work with ISIL, seeing it as better than Iranian-sponsored death squads. 
The much talked about “moderate Sunnis” come from the same demographic as ISIL and Al Qaeda. But Sunni Arab states lack a “Quds Force-like” organization to train moderate Sunnis. Meanwhile, Sunni Arab society has to some extent supported jihadists in terms of money and men, replicating the low cost tools of the Quds Force in backing extremist Shia factions sans the discipline. These state’s lack of unity of purpose have so far only exacerbated the divisions among the Syrian and Iraq Sunnis.
Syria’s neighbors are also not in a position to root out ISIL, preferring to containwith varying degrees of successthe crisis inside Syria. The most successful thus far has been Jordan, which has policed its border with Syria from the beginning of the conflict while working with the U.S. to covertly support the Syrian rebels. Nevertheless, Jordan has around one million Syrians in the country living outside refugee camps. The threat of terrorist attacks, run by the Assad regime or Sunni extremists, has caused Jordan to thus far shy away from the Obama Administration’s proposed program to more openly train and equip the Syrian opposition. 
Turkey, which has the longest and most open border with Syria, has only recently begun efforts to clamp down on jihadist groups operating from its territory into Syriaespecially following ISIL’s taking of hostages in Turkey’s Mosul consulate. Like Jordan, Ankara does not want to intervene in Syria due to fears of terrorist attacks on its territory and now ironically sees Kurds, its historic adversary, as its best asset against containing ISIL.
Both Lebanon and Iraq, due to internal divisions and incapacity, are unable to intervene in Syria other than through sub-state actors such as Hezbollah, which has simultaneously coordinated with the working Lebanese government to contain spillover from Syria. Israel, other than covert assistance to some groups in the south and treatment of wounded, has also preferred to stay out of Syria in favor of containment.
ISIL’s recent successes, if sustained, risks not only a redrawing of the Sykes-Picot boundaries, but making ISIL and jihadists in general the authentic and authoritative voice for Sunnis in the Middle East. The continued victories of jihadist forces threaten the Arab Gulf Monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia, which, as guardians of the holy places, have assumed the primary political role in Islam since the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924. A defeat of jihadist forces at the hands of the Assad and Maliki regimes also risks domestic blowback against Gulf monarchiesindeed some rulers have used the excuse of the power of Salafists and general sympathies for Syria’s Sunni opposition for not cracking down earlier on jihadist financial networks.
Given ISIL’s recent successes, it would be optimistic to think their aspirations are limited to a caliphate between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. ISIL has moved its forces toward the borders with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and ISIL elements successfully attacked Lebanese Army positions along the frontier with Syria this week, taking prisoners. Meanwhile, analysts and European and American officials say hundreds, if not thousands, of ISIL and Al Qaeda operatives in Syria and the Islamic State are likely planning attacks either back home or elsewhere. These include Muhsin al-Fadhili, former head of Al Qaeda’s Iranian facilitation network; Sanafi al-Nasr, head of Al Qaeda’s Syria “Victory Committee”; Wafa al-Saudi, Al Qaeda’s former head of security for counter intelligence; as well as Al Qaeda founding member Firas al-Suri. Members of Al Qaeda Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are also reportedly in Syria, indicating a growing opportunity for connectivity, coordination, planning, and synchronization with Jebhat al-Nusra and other jihadists. Taken together with national-based Jihadist units from China, the Caucasus, Libya, Egypt, Sweden, and beyond, the “Islamic State” is already the next Afghanistan or Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas in terms of a durable safe haven and training ground for global Islamic terrorism.1
Given the consolidation of the Islamic State’s gains, and the lack of interest and capacity of its neighbors to uproot the organization in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State is likely to endure absent a more assertive and concerted U.S. policy involving military and political operations. Working with Iran and its clients in the Maliki and Assad governments will not solve the problem, due to both states’ limited military capacities and encouragement of sectarian brutality against Sunnis in both countries. While Iran and its allies may be a natural front on ISIL expansion further afield, empowering Iran and its allies now would be like throwing gasoline on sectarian fire.
If Washington seeks to find the “formula that speaks to the aspirations” of Sunnis outlined in President Obama’s recent New York Times interview, or the “geopolitical equilibrium” between Iran and the Arabs he outlined last autumn, Washington will need to work with allies in Iraq and the Arab Gulf countries to calm tensions and lead Sunnis in Syria and Iraq in a more moderate direction. It will be an uphill struggle: The jihadist narrative that America is waging war on Sunnis post September 11 continues. Many see Obama employing a double-standard in his decision to arm the Kurds and act to prevent a Yezidi “genocide” while refusing for three years to arm Syria’s Sunni-dominated oppositionwho he continues to dismiss as mere “doctors, farmers, (and) pharmacists”and enforce his red line against the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons against civilians.
These could involve pressure on the Maliki government to be more “inclusive,” supporting a change in that government, and special military operations. The success of that program would be heavily dependent on the degree of cooperation and coordination with Sunni regional allies. The Saudi government, which has been wary of American involvement in Iraq, will have to be convinced that Washington will commit to supporting non-jihadi Sunnis in Iraq and Syria militarily (via training) and politically (vis à vis Iraq and Syria’s Iran-backed governments). Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis, who are worried in a very existential way about working against ISIL, will have to be convinced that such a program carries enough potential to work thus risking their and their families' lives. Fortunately Arab Gulf countries have long-term relations with tribes in the areas ISIL controls and very deep pockets. Instead of relying on them to create a Quds Force-equivalent to train and support Sunni moderates in Syria and Iraq, the U.S. should play that role, working in concert with Arab intelligence agencies to coordinate and streamline their efforts to foster a viable moderate Sunni alternative that will fill the vacuum following any ISIL defeat.  
For Washington, such efforts could help stabilize two weak and effectively disintegrated states. For Arab allies, it would provide an opportunity to help moderate forces check both Sunni extremism and Iranian-dominated governments in Baghdad and Damascus. And for the American people, it would make it much less likely its servicemen would have to invade another Middle Eastern country in the wake of another massive terrorist attack.
1
For an excellent account of the groups and individuals operating in Syria and their comparison to Afghanistan, see Aaron Zelin’s “Syria: The Epicenter of Future Jihad” Policy Watch 2278, Washington Institute for Near East Policy. This argument is supported by the author’s private conversations with European and US officials over the last year, as well as public testimony, outlining the growing Jihadist threat emanating out of Syria.
Andrew Tabler is Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, author of “Syria’s Collapse: And How Washington Can Stop It” (Foreign Affairs; July/August 2013) and the book In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria (Lawrence Hill Press: 2011)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Securing al-Sham: Syria and the Violence in Iraq

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. 
FRACTURED FRONT
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.
BORDERLANDS
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. 
SYRIAN SOLUTION
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.
PAYING UP 
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.

Jordan and the Syria Crisis: Mitigating the 'Known Unknowns'


POLICYWATCH 2261

Also available in العربية
May 30, 2014

As extremists continue to move into southern Syria, growing security and humanitarian problems may soon outstrip Jordan's ability to handle spillover from the war.
On May 27, Jordan expelled Bahjat Suleiman -- Syria's ambassador to Amman and the Assad regime's former general security director -- for "repeated insults and offenses" against the kingdom. The decision came after Suleiman crashed the Hashemite royal court's Independence Day celebrations, and in response to his track record of propagandistic social media posts. Meanwhile, a week before Suleiman's ouster, Jordanian armed forces clashed with a group of twelve Jordanian and foreign fighters from al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) who were attempting to cross into the kingdom from Syria's southern Deraa region. These measures against two polar opposites in the Syrian war highlight the difficult situation in which Jordan finds itself as the crisis escalates, with potentially dire consequences emerging no matter which course of action it takes.

TENSIONS IN SOUTHERN SYRIA

Both of the main extremist rebel groups in Syria, JN and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), were born in the northern and eastern parts of the country, where they received assistance across the Turkish and Iraqi borders and via financing channels from Persian Gulf states. In the south, however, moderate rebels had been able to hold sway until last fall, due in no small part to Jordan's efforts to control its border and restrain financing to extremists inside Syria.
But following the Obama administration's decision to pull back from enforcing its redline on regime chemical weapons use and its subsequent focus on getting the opposition leadership to the Geneva II peace talks last January to forge a negotiated settlement to the crisis, jihadist/Salafist factions began moving south. This was particularly true of JN, whose approach was less harsh and more locally focused than that of groups like ISIS, and therefore more palatable in tribal southern Syria. At the same time, Jordanian fighters -- who had been active since the war began and now number around two thousand personnel -- also moved into the area in larger numbers.
As the Assad regime refused to discuss a transition at Geneva, answering instead with a barrage of barrel bombs that sharply increased the civilian death toll this spring, Western countries and their regional allies began to worry about the sharp increase in JN activities in southern Syria. To curb the group's influence, Israel and Jordan sealed their borders and stepped up their assistance for moderate opposition groups in the area. According to a May 19 report in the Jordan Times, the kingdom's armed forces have also conducted border operations against extremists, including raids using aircraft against Islamist militants trying to cross into Jordan. Such operations have killed fourteen militants and wounded at least twenty-four others since late April.
For their part, moderate opposition groups in southern Syria began taking a stronger stance toward JN affiliates as well, at least rhetorically. In late April, Deraa military council leader Ahmed al-Naameh, who had reportedly just crossed into Syria from Jordan, released a video criticizing JN and praising moderate Free Syrian Army battalions in the south. On May 3, he was duly captured by JN, which accused him of handing the southern Syrian town of Kherbet Ghazalah to regime forces in a campaign last year. On May 6, a group of sixty moderate rebel groups issued a statement demanding his release, only to mysteriously rescind it shortly thereafter. Despite extensive negotiations, Naameh remains in JN's custody, even after a video "confession" in which he supposedly admitted that countries backing the rebels ordered him to allow Kherbet Ghazalah to fall. JN has also refused to release him to the local sharia council for arbitration.
Following Naameh's capture, Jordan closed the western part of its border with Syria, halting traffic and allowing only ambulances through for the wounded. This further tightened border constraints imposed late last summer, requiring Syrian refugees to cross around 200 kilometers to the east near Ruwaished. While the border closing was said to be intended for the refugees' safety, the additional distance they now have to travel could also allow for better vetting in terms of weeding out extremists.

JORDAN'S VULNERABILITIES

Even before the war next door worsened, Jordan faced domestic unrest and economic difficulties. To this has been added a series of problems stemming from the situation in southern Syria.
The "known unknowns" of Syrians in Jordan. Currently, up to 1.5 million Syrian refugees are believed to be in Jordan, but only 600,000 have registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and only 125,000 are living in the kingdom's two main refugee camps (Zaatari and the recently opened Azraq desert camp). While estimates vary, the status of over 750,000 Syrian emigres remains largely unknown; most are believed to be staying with extended family or friends in Jordan. This population represents Jordan's soft underbelly, from which Bashar al-Assad or ISIS could launch terrorist attacks against the kingdom. Even more worrisome is the fact Jordan is now receiving refugees from beyond the Deraa region, including eastern Syria, where JN and ISIS have a stronger grip.
Pressure from Mafraq governorate. While Homs in western Syria may be considered the center of the revolution, Deraa was where it all started, so residents have naturally been seeking shelter in northern Jordan's Mafraq governorate from the outset. The Zaatari camp, which now holds around 100,000 refugees, has been a tremendous burden on Mafraq's 80,000 natives, greatly taxing local resources and polluting the region's aquifer with sewage. But Syrians outside the camp have been an even larger burden on resources, including education, water, and trash collection. Aid programs have been started in the area to help local residents absorb the burden, but given the sheer number of refugees -- and the region's relatively powerful role in Jordan's East Bank-dominated political system -- tensions are on the rise.
Tensions with domestic Salafists. A number of Jordanian Salafists have made their way into southern Syria to fight, raising fears that they could eventually return home to stir trouble in the kingdom. Although some Salafist-related unrest has been reported in Maan, Zarqa, and Salt, Jordanian authorities have been able to contain the tension so far. Yet one Salafist leader in Maan pledged allegiance to ISIS this spring, potentially signaling a worrisome new trend. And if Assad's forces push into southern Syria in the coming months -- sending thousands more refugees across the border and forcing many Jordanian fighters who are now battling the extremists to go back home -- another wave of political and security threats to Jordan could soon arise.

IMPLICATIONS

Jordan's recent moves against the Syrian ambassador and against Islamist extremists along its border are a product of the no-win situation in which Amman now finds itself. If the kingdom allows Assad to continue his barrel bombing of the opposition and associated disinformation campaign (which Bahjat Suleiman has perpetuated via social media over the past three years) and retake Syrian territory down to the border, the resultant refugee influx will exacerbate an already tense situation in Jordan. Moreover, the Assad regime does not have enough troops to truly hold all of the territory it retakes, meaning Syria will remain unstable for years to come. If Jordan does nothing, extremists in southern Syria will expand their numbers and influence, and the palace will suffer criticism at home for doing nothing to help the Syrian opposition in its hour of need. Such sentiment could in turn inflame tribal and Salafist factions in Jordan and invite attacks from domestic extremists.
Alternatively, if Amman actively works against Assad, Damascus would likely use the "unknown" Syrians in Jordan to carry out terrorist attacks, making the plots look as if they were carried out by Jordanian Salafists, ISIS, or both. More broadly, absent a major shift in U.S. policy regarding direct intervention in Syria, the opposition is unlikely to defeat the regime anytime soon, perpetuating a state of war that will only generate more extremism.

POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS

According to the Congressional Research Service, Jordan already receives $360 million in economic aid and $300 million in military aid from the United States per year, plus $340 million in Title VIII funding (labeled for "Overseas Contingency Operations/Global War on Terror") and additional "Migration and Refugee Assistance Funding" to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis. While that is a substantial commitment, Amman still does not have sufficient resources to meet the vast needs created by the war next door.
The humanitarian situation for Syrians in Jordan is bad. Only 25 percent of the pledges made to cover the UNHCR's budget in the kingdom have been fulfilled, and the humanitarian needs will not end anytime soon. Even if the war ended tomorrow, there is little chance that refugees would go home in the near future given the Assad regime's scorched-earth policies, including destruction of much of the country's housing stock.
Jordan also needs to step up border security and antiterror activities, but its resources are too limited to do much more on its own. The $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund outlined by President Obama in his May 28 West Point speech is aimed at expanding the training and equipping of foreign militaries, bolstering allied counterterrorism capabilities, and supporting efforts to counter violent extremism and terrorist ideology. Jordan would seem a logical candidate for some of that funding. Still unknown is whether those funds could be used for cross-border activities into southern Syria, or if the money would instead have to come from the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act, which permits the Pentagon to "provide equipment, training, supplies, and defense services to assist vetted members of the Syrian opposition."
Whatever the case, security in Jordan will remain precarious so long as the Assad regime continues its vicious attacks on Syrian civilians, which in turn create refugee flows, attract foreign jihadists, and justify extremism as a tit-for-tat response. The best way to counter both the regime and extremists in southern Syria is through better training and equipping of local moderate opposition forces. That means giving the moderates more incentives to work together and shun the jihadists. The United States and Jordan should make the choice clear: moderate rebels in the south can either organize into coherent units and cease fighting alongside al-Qaeda affiliates in order to receive U.S. and Jordanian assistance, or they can continue as is and suffer defeat at the hands of the Assad regime.
Finally, Washington should expand its coordination with Israeli and Jordanian covert efforts in southern Syria. All three states have an interest in rooting out extremism there and pushing the Assad regime back to negotiating a real transition that will end the war, not simply local ceasefires that perpetuate the "dynamic stalemate" and risk generating extremism for years to come.
Andrew J. Tabler is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute and author of the book In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Assad's Reelection Campaign Matters. Really.


Photo courtesy of Andrew Butters (andrewbutters.com)



By Andrew Tabler
APR 30 2014, 12:36 PM ET
The Atlantic


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 Samantha Power “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 Hama Massacre of 1982, 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 sharply rebuked 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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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.