Friday, September 22, 2017

Russia Crosses the Euphrates: Implications

Also available in العربية
September 18, 2017
By helping Assad's forces bridge the river, Moscow is increasing the risk of direct confrontation while obstructing U.S. efforts to defeat IS, stabilize eastern Syria, and limit Iranian arms transfers.
The Russian Ministry of Defense announced today that "Syrian government troops" crossed to the east bank of the Euphrates River using a Russian pontoon bridge and amphibious vehicles. Although the situation remains fluid, the crossing by what appeared to be elements of Syria's Iranian-trained and Russian-supported "5th Corps" has deep implications for U.S. policy on the Islamic State (IS), the Syria war, and Iran.
First, the move significantly discredits the argument that the Euphrates can serve as a viable deconfliction line while IS implodes, much like the Elbe River separated Russian and American forces in Europe at the conclusion of World War II. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are arriving at Deir al-Zour from the northeast while Russian-supported Syrian forces and Shia militias (including Hezbollah) are arriving from the west. According to Russian media, the contingent crossing the Euphrates is a collection of local and national regime forces called the 5th Corps, many of whose members have been trained and organized by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Russia. The crossing increases the likelihood of confrontation between proxies or even between U.S. and Russian forces, as highlighted on September 16 when Russian aviation reportedly bombed SDF targets located within a couple miles of U.S. Special Operations Forces. This raises the question of how the United States intends to protect the SDF and other proxies fighting IS.
The move also complicates any potential SDF push down the east bank of the Euphrates toward local oil and gas fields, which could be used to fund reconstruction in former IS-controlled areas. Syrian regime spokeswoman Bouthaina Shaaban told Iran's Press TV that Bashar al-Assad's "strategic intent" was to halt the SDF's advance, describing the joint Kurdish-Arab brigade as an illegitimate aggressor and equating it with IS. If Russian and pro-Assad forces hold the bridgehead on the east bank, they will likely block the primary north-south road on that side of the river, forcing the SDF to continue pushing down the IS-controlled Khabur River Valley in order to reach the oil fields further south.
Assuming they are unable to capture the major energy and agricultural zones south of Deir al-Zour, the SDF -- and Washington -- would lose much of their leverage over the Assad regime, Iran, and Russia in any political settlement to the Syria crisis. That scenario might also further Assad's plan to retake "every inch" of the country by military means. In light of the regime's depleted manpower, that approach would likely entail wider involvement by the IRGC and Shia militias from Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond. Given the large Sunni Arab majority population in the Euphrates Valley, such an outcome would exacerbate sectarian and extremist violence in the area, resulting in a "New Syria" that refugees are unlikely to return to.
In addition, the crossing brings Iran one step closer to its stated goal of creating a land bridge between Iraq and Syria, giving the Islamic Republic another avenue through which to place troops and weapons on the borders of U.S. allies. Tehran has steadily worked toward that goal even as Israel reached a de-escalation agreement in southwestern Syria designed to keep Hezbollah and other Iranian-supported militias a few kilometers away from the Golan Heights frontier. Such developments have incensed Israel's security establishment, increasing the likelihood that they will expand their military operations in and around Syria to loosen Iran's deepening grip on the country.
To head off this growing list of problems, the United States is engaging in serious diplomacy and communication with Moscow to avoid further military complications. Yet Washington also needs to reemphasize its support for the SDF at a time when the lines of control between them and pro-Assad forces are narrowing. This means establishing clear policy on what the United States will and will not do to defend its proxies in eastern Syria and elsewhere. In June, U.S. forces struck Shia militias threatening al-Tanf base in southern Syria, then downed an Assad regime aircraft attacking the SDF; these incidents serve as models for how to support proxies while avoiding escalation.
Washington's primary objective is to defeat IS, but the administration has also stated its intent to contain Iran's "malign activity" in the region. Russian diplomats claim there is no military solution to the conflict, but today's Euphrates crossing shows that defense officials in Moscow and Tehran have something different in mind, raising the risk of direct U.S. confrontation with Assad, Iran, and Russia. If one purpose of U.S. support for local actors such as the SDF is "shaping the environment" to contain Iran and its allies, then Washington needs to recognize that Tehran and Assad are directly challenging this goal with the help of Russian airpower. U.S. officials therefore need to decide what diplomatic and military moves are necessary, including frank conversations with the Russians.
Andrew J. Tabler is the Martin J. Gross Fellow in The Washington Institute's Program on Arab Politics.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Scramble for Eastern Syria

Monday, April 10, 2017

Altering Assad's Course


Also available in العربية
April 6, 2017
As the Trump administration decides whether to pursue a limited military response, it should use existing international legal mechanisms to pressure Damascus and Moscow right away.
On April 4, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against civilians in Syria's Idlib province, creating an early and potent test for the Trump administration's foreign policy. While Washington has prioritized defeating the Islamic State in eastern Syria, the regime's ceasefire violations and use of CW in the western part of the country show that President Bashar al-Assad is continuing his effort to reclaim every inch of Syrian territory, despite lacking the forces to do so. As long as this dynamic persists, the use of CW and other strategic weapons will likely continue, impeding efforts to reach a negotiated settlement that keeps the country intact. This in turn will worsen the humanitarian crisis and allow U.S.-designated terrorist groups to expand their safe havens.
The administration has already begun formulating its public response to the attack, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicating a potential policy shift during an April 6 press conference: "Assad's role in the future is uncertain clearly, and with the acts that he has taken it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people." If the president decides to back this rhetoric up with robust action, he can draw on several existing international mechanisms.
As the Fact Finding Mission established by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) gathers evidence on the substance used in this week's attack and those responsible, Washington and its partners should demand that the Assad regime comply with the mission's mandate, particularly the so-called Joint Investigative Mechanism. To date, this mechanism has helped the OPCW determine that the Assad regime used chlorine gas on at least three separate occasions. These are clear violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which Syria joined as part of the much-touted 2013 CW deal brokered by Russia and the United States. If the suspected use of sarin gas on April 4 is likewise verified, it will prove what the OPCW has long suspected -- that Syria has not disclosed all of its CW stockpile as required under the 2013 deal, an equally serious matter with deep consequences for international nonproliferation efforts.
More broadly, these developments show that Assad is escalating his ruthless bid to stay in power. By indiscriminately gassing opposition-held areas and obstructing a political resolution, he is ensuring that the country remains in a permanent state of partition, hemorrhaging people and filling up with terrorist organizations on all sides. And by not following through on his commitments under the CWC, he threatens to supercharge the conflict -- the longer he uses such weapons, the more likely they are to fall into terrorist hands, not to mention the fact that such outrages boost radicalization and recruitment efforts. In short, the situation continues to pose a clear threat to regional and international security.
The United States should therefore turn the tables on Assad, using his CWC violations as leverage to gain compliance on three other issues:
·         A sustainable ceasefire that would allow genuine political talks to take place
·         A political transition as outlined in the 2012 Geneva Communique and UN Security Council Resolution 2254
·         The creation of safe zones in Syria to protect civilians.
Compliance with the OPCW and the Geneva Communique are both enshrined in the same Security Council document: Resolution 2118, which is enforceable by measures such as sanctions and use of force following the passage of a subsequent Chapter VII resolution. Resolution 2235, which created the Joint Investigative Mechanism, is a Chapter VII resolution. Among other benefits, pushing for enforcement of these resolutions would compel Russia to reveal whether it is unable or simply unwilling to goad the Assad regime into stopping its CW use and negotiating a political transition. This approach would also prepare Americans for a possible military showdown with Assad over his CWC violations. Moreover, the resolutions could serve as a means of gaining Russian acquiescence on the necessity of safe zones in Syria.
Focusing on the effort to rid Syria of CW would help Washington determine exactly where it stands with both Damascus and Moscow. The best way to prevent Assad from escalating the crisis and dominating the transition is to pressure him into complying with the CWC, particularly the provisions regarding use and disclosure. This would also take away a strategic weapon that the regime has repeatedly used and keep it from falling into terrorist hands. The sequencing of this strategy could unfold as follows:
Create diplomatic pressure around Resolutions 2118 and 2235. This effort should focus on two issues: destroying CW and facilitating the transitional governing body outlined by the Geneva Communique. The CW problem is the only Syrian issue on which there is clear Security Council agreement regarding the steps Assad must take. Similarly, the transition process outlined in the Geneva Communique has broad international acceptance. Emphasizing these two issues by focusing on compliance with Resolution 2118 would keep the regime on agenda and steer it away from justifying its onslaught against civilians as a war on "terrorism." At the same time, the U.S. government should continue pushing for adoption of UN draft resolutions that would hold regime figures accountable for any involvement in CW attacks. Such resolutions should have clear consequences in the event of noncompliance.
Build public pressure on Damascus and Moscow based on Assad's CWC noncompliance. By highlighting the regime's use of CW and repeated ceasefire violations, Washington can determine once and for all whether Russia will convince Assad to meet his commitments on CW and political transition. Such an approach would also prod Moscow on the humanitarian and political front, giving it an excuse to truly pressure Assad.
Increase political support for a viable Syrian settlement and efforts to combat terrorism. Diplomatic and public pressure could help restore opposition support for the United States following its nadir under the Obama administration. Washington could in turn use this goodwill to obtain rebel guarantees concerning a ceasefire and political talks. This could also serve as a good first step toward creating political support for safe zones in order to protect civilians and push out terrorist groups.
Warn Russia to stay clear of Syrian bases. In order to manage the risk of escalation and Russian retaliation for collateral damage from possible U.S. military strikes, Washington should warn Moscow to keep its forces away from all Syrian bases involved in the planning of CW attacks or the mixing/deployment of CW agents.
Assad's record since 2013 shows that he does not change course substantially unless he is confronted with the credible threat of U.S. military force. His response to Israeli military strikes is instructive in this regard. In the past, the regime did little when Israeli jets entered Syrian airspace and bombed convoys attempting to transfer strategic weapons to Hezbollah. More recently, however, it has used antiaircraft systems to fire on Israeli planes as they conduct such missions, seemingly self-assured by its growing military support from Russia and Iran. It is imperative to get Assad off that dangerous course. This is not just a matter of American credibility: by prolonging and escalating the war, the regime is perpetuating direct threats to the United States and its allies in Europe and the Middle East.
The domestic political timing increases the urgency: President Trump will face growing scrutiny over his handling of the crisis, constraining his ability to take assertive steps on other pressing international issues (e.g., the North Korea situation). As the administration decides whether to pursue the relatively low-cost option of a limited military response (e.g., cruise missile strikes), it can take effective international action against the Assad regime's behavior right away, mainly by pressing for implementation of Resolutions 2118 and 2235 and demanding the creation of safe zones.
Andrew Tabler is the Martin J. Gross Fellow in The Washington Institute's Program on Arab Politics.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Vienna Declaration: Precision Is Key to Avoiding a Slippery Slope


Also available in العربية
November 5, 2015
For all the sound principles laid out in Vienna, future talks cannot evade the timeline and mechanism of a transition in Syria, and Russia needs to prove its goodwill on the ground.
An October 30 multilateral meeting in Vienna has produced a nine-point statement of "mutual understanding" on how to end the violence in Syria "as soon as possible." The Vienna Declaration, which complements and refers to the 2012 Geneva Communique, seeks to provide a more inclusive mechanism to "narrow remaining areas of disagreement and build on areas of agreement," and thus could be a starting point for involving supporters of the opposition and the regime (including, for the first time, Iran).
Yet while inclusiveness in Syria necessarily implies a certain degree of ambiguity -- as reflected in the declaration's wording -- finding a workable way out of the crisis will require much more precision on the issue of transition, particularly in terms of establishing a timeline to test Russia and the Assad regime. For example, the current declaration omits the word "transition" in favor of "governance," and it fails to acknowledge that a sustainable settlement is a prerequisite for defeating ISIS and other terrorist groups. Such imprecision could allow Russia and Iran to argue that the Vienna Declaration gives them a diplomatic imprimatur to pursue a military solution, one based solely on keeping President Bashar al-Assad in power. This scenario would only perpetuate the war, fuel terrorism, create more refugees, and likely lead to Syria's long-term partition.


In some ways, the Vienna Declaration seems like diplomatic progress. Seventeen countries (including Iran) joined the UN and European Union in signing onto nine points of understanding:
  1. Preserving Syria's territorial integrity and secular character (the first time the latter point has received such recognition).
  2. Maintaining state institutions.
  3. Protecting civil (read: minority) rights.
  4. Accelerating diplomacy to end the war.
  5. Ensuring humanitarian access.
  6. Defeating ISIS and "other terrorist groups."
  7. Establishing "governance" via UN-supervised elections pursuant to the Geneva Communique and Security Council Resolution 2118. The ever-growing Syrian diaspora has the right to participate in these elections, which will determine the country's new leadership (a point that has elicited worries in Damascus).
  8. Ensuring a Syrian-led political process.
  9. Implementing nationwide ceasefires.
But the declaration is far more ambiguous on transition than the Geneva Communique. For example, point seven speaks vaguely of a process leading to "credible, inclusive, non-sectarian governance" without mentioning the word "transition" or related mechanisms. In contrast, the Geneva Communique centered on the creation of a "Transitional Governing Body" with "full executive powers" formed by "members of the present government and the opposition and other groups." And while it allowed regime members to be included in the transition, Geneva precluded the possibility of the sort of Assad-led "reform" process that his backers are now pushing toward.
In addition, the Vienna Declaration does not reiterate Geneva's call for a national dialogue process and the release of political prisoners, freedom of movement for journalists, and the right to demonstrate -- all preconditions for a genuine transition. Also missing is a transition timeline. The talks are due to resume in a fortnight, and other meetings are likely to follow, so setting a timeline is vital to determining whether Russia -- now Assad's most important patron at the negotiating table -- is able and willing to deliver a bona fide transition. Otherwise the default deadline will be 2021, when Assad's current term in office comes to an end following his "reelection" last year. The modalities of transition are unmentioned as well -- while the declaration notes that Syria's state institutions should remain intact, devolving executive powers to a transitional governing body will be crucial, especially regarding the security apparatus.
The international community also needs to sober up about what kind of election is really possible in Syria, and under what kind of supervision. The current regime is one of the world's biggest electoral manipulators, with Assad winning a laughable 94.6 percent of the vote in 2000, 97.6 percent in 2007, and 88.7 percent last year. Parliamentary votes in favor of his Baath Party supporters are a certainty as well. This means that any plan based on the argument "Assad stays until new elections" is really a formula for his continued rule. Only a new government that creates a safe environment for public debate and mobilization can lay the groundwork for new elections at the local, provincial, and national level. As in Bosnia and Kosovo years ago, the UN should seek a more serious and sustained formula than the awkward wording in point seven of the Vienna Declaration: "These elections must be administered under UN supervision to the satisfaction of the governance and to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability."


Explicitly outlining a transition process (as described in the Geneva Communique) and setting a firm timeline will help avoid the mistakes made last year, when battlefield developments overtook diplomacy. In early 2014, when Washington anticipated regime "victory" and advocated "de-escalation" and "local ceasefires," UN Special Representative Staffan de Mistura put forward his "Freeze Plan" for Aleppo, in which the regime would halt its attempt to encircle that city in exchange for a ceasefire and negotiations with the opposition. The plan failed, largely because the regime lacked the manpower to retake and hold Aleppo and the various Sunni-dominated areas where opposition forces were strongest. While Russia's intervention has now propped up Assad for the time being, lack of manpower remains a hard reality, and moving the diplomatic goalposts from "transition" to "governance" will not alleviate that shortage, leaving no viable alternative to a negotiated solution.
Agreeing on these issues will likely require more than one round of negotiation. Although it is unclear whether Assad's allies can actually bring him into such a settlement, their willingness to try should be put to the test. Regarding Iran, questions remain about the Foreign Ministry's mandate to negotiate a true transition given that the Supreme Leader's Office and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have primacy on Syria policy and have invested a great deal of blood and treasure in preserving the Assad regime. Meanwhile, Assad has repeatedly thumbed his nose at the opposition during attempts to negotiate a settlement in Moscow, most recently in April.
Other tests should come on the battlefield: Russia claims that its intervention is aimed at fighting terrorists, so its forces should abstain from striking groups that are not recognized as such by the UN Security Council. Moscow's military role also puts it in a unique position to pressure Assad on renouncing assaults against civilian-populated areas (including through the use of barrel bombs) and allowing humanitarian access throughout Syria. Both efforts could serve as short-term confidence-building measures to facilitate diplomacy toward agreement on a stable end state. Without such agreement and a plan to achieve it, the war will not only perpetuate human suffering and displace more people, it also risks becoming a mechanism for Syria's permanent partition into regime-controlled areas and durable terrorist safe havens.
Last but not least is the importance of the declaration's penultimate point: "This political process will be Syrian led and Syrian owned, and the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria." The next rounds of talks should consult with the widest possible circle of Syrians other than those internationally condemned as terrorists. Gone are the days when ending the war required a two-sided negotiation between the regime and a single opposition body. Future declarations should stipulate that any solution to the crisis must be broadly accepted as legitimate and appropriate by this wide circle of Syrians, or else the "solution" will be an empty piece of paper.
Andrew Tabler is the Martin J. Gross Fellow in The Washington Institute's Program on Arab Politics. Olivier Decottignies is a French diplomat-in-residence at the Institute.

The Not-So-Great Game in Syria - Foreign Affairs