Category Archives: Middle East Geopolitics

Syria Contextualized: The Numbers Game

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (1 votes, average: 4.00 out of 5)
Loading ... Loading ...

Author: Musa al-Gharbi – Middle East Policy
Volume 20, Issue 1, pages 56–67, Spring 2013

The popular discourse on the Syrian conflict has largely taken for granted that Bashar al-Assad and his regime are unpopular in Syria, the revolution is widely supported domestically, the rebels are “winning” the war, and the fall of the regime is inevitable and imminent. To justify their interpretation of the conflict, opposition activists, Western policy makers and media outlets make frequent reference to a number of “facts,” often statistical in nature. However, should we contextualize this data more rigorously, it becomes apparent that a radically different dynamic may be at work “on the ground” in Syria. This becomes important, as a more nuanced understanding of what is happening will have implications for what strategy the United States should pursue, particularly given our experience in Iraq.
60,000 Syrians Killed

One of the primary reasons offered for supporting regime change in Syria is the Assad regime’s supposed “indiscriminate butchering” of its “own people.” On January 2, 2012, the United Nations released its first comprehensive study,1 estimating that more than 60,000 lives have been lost in the Syrian conflict since March 2011.2 The obvious problem with this statistic is that, independently (as it is usually presented), it provides no differentiation of who has been killed in the conflict (How many are civilians, how many combatants, from which sect/ethnicity?) nor who killed them (Did they die at the hands of the regime, the rebels, or is it unclear?) nor how they died (Were their deaths accidental? Were they combatants? Were they victims of a massacre or other war crime?).

Read More

Author Information

Musa al-Gharbi: Outreach scholar with the University of Arizona’s  Center for Mideast Studies, and a research fellow with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Mideast Conflict (SISMEC). He is a former FLAS Fellow and graduate teaching assistant in the Philosophy Department at the University of Arizona.

The Free Syrian Army doesn’t exist

Aron Lund for
March 16th, 2013-

Is the FSA losing influence in Syria? How many people are in the FSA? Is the FSA receiving enough guns from the West, or too many? Will the FSA participate in elections after the fall of Bahar el-Assad? What is the ideology of the FSA? What’s the FSA’s view of Israel? Is Jabhat el-Nosra now bigger than the FSA? What does the FSA think about the Kurds? Who is the leader of the FSA? How much control does the central command of the FSA really have over their fighters?

All these and similar questions keep popping up in news articles and op-ed chinstrokers in the Western media, and in much of the Arabic media too.

They all deal with important issues, but they disregard an important fact: the FSA doesn’t really exist.
<i>Read More… <i>

Syria’s expensive fight for freedom

The common man is paying the price for a brutal regime, pathetic opposition and an international society that cares only about its own national interests

  • By Marwan Kabalan | Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 20:00 March 7, 2013

As the Syrian revolution is about to enter its third year, a political solution to the crisis remains as remote as ever. The regime has so far locked itself in a state of denial as it continues to claim that it is fighting a global conspiracy aiming at destroying ‘the axis of resistance’. This conspiracy is executed by transnational terrorist organisations, most notably Al Qaida. Whether this argument makes sense or not, it lets the Syrian regime justify the use of deadly force, including medium range Scud missiles, against its own people.

The opposition, on the other hand, remains as politically naive as it ever; believing that its regional and international allies have a real interest in the success of the Syrian revolution. The opposition is yet to accept the fact that the West is interested only in protecting its most basic interests rather than establishing democracy or stopping the shedding of Syrian blood. It will also have to cease calling upon President Bashar Al Assad to step down and look for other ways to force him to do so.

In fact, the positions of the regime, the opposition, and the regional and international actors with interest in Syria have not changed much since the early days of the revolution. The reason for that might simply lie in the fact that nobody was really prepared to deal with a problem of such magnitude and fraught with complications because nobody had expected the Syrian people to ever revolt against Al Assad’s regime in the first place. The failure to spot signs of a brewing storm led to disastrous consequences.

The regime in Damascus thought that it was immune to revolution. Merely six weeks before the uprising, Al Assad told the Wall Street Journal that his country is very unlikely to go through the turmoil that hit Tunisia and Egypt because the foreign policy of his country had tremendous support among Syrians.


“If you want to talk about Tunisia and Egypt, we are outside of this … We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries, but inspite of that Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance. So people do not only live on interests; they also live on beliefs, especially in very ideological areas,” Al Assad said.

Indeed, this line of argument helped explain the protest movement in terms of foreign conspiracy, but that proved to be another fatal mistake. Instead of bowing to popular pressure for reform, Al Assad decided to punish those who dared revolt against his political and economic policies.

By using deadly force to suppress the uprising from the very beginning, Al Assad was wittingly turning peaceful demonstrators into armed militias, fighting not only to bring his regime down but also to protect their lives, honour and properties. Furthermore, by getting his own sect — the Alawites — to commit heinous crimes against their Sunni brethren, he prepared the ground for a full-fledged civil war and drew in jihadists from all over the world to take part in a conflict that is increasingly turning sectarian.

Grand sectarian war

Given the inhomogeneous societies of the Levant, Al Assad’s intention might be to get the region involved in a grand sectarian war. To survive, he may even decide to play his final card — starting a regional war. On several occasions, he threatened to set the whole region on fire should his regime collapse. His arsenal of Scud missiles with approximately 700 warheads can hit deep inside Turkey. His arsenal of chemical weapons is also frightening and, should he approach the end of his political life, he might choose to use it. This is what many dub as the Samson Option — the choice in the absence of choices.

This was Al Assad’s strategy and intention as he faced the much unexpected revolution. So what was the opposition’s? The opposition’s response to the revolution was pathetic, to say the least. Having been absolutely illiterate about the regional and international context, it called for foreign military intervention that would never come.

The opposition also estimated that the regime would collapse in a matter of weeks or months under pressure from peaceful demonstrators. It underestimated the regime’s determination to fight and misjudged the US and the Russian positions. The inability of the opposition to provide reliable leadership for the revolution is also prolonging the life of the regime and presenting those who are looking for excuses for not supporting the revolution with what they need.

All in all, Syria is paying today the price for a brutal regime, pathetic opposition and an international society that cares only about its own national interests.

Dr Marwan Kabalan is the Dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon, Damascus.

Piling mistake upon mistake

The only way to achieve a peaceful transition to democracy in Syria is through the regime. Destroying the state will lead to a power vacuum and chaos

For two years, the United States and the European Union have done everything short of sending their own troops and aircraft into battle to evict Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria. Only recently have they begun to realise that they have made a historic mistake: in the euphoria created by the Arab Spring, they are in imminent danger of handing over the entire Arab world to Islamists for whom democracy is anathema.

In a front page editorial titled ‘The Death of a Country,’ The Economist has warned that if the West now simply draws back and lets the civil war run its course, Syria will become “a new Somalia rotting in the heart of the Levant.”

“Almost everything America wants to achieve in the Middle East will become harder. Containing terrorism, ensuring the supply of energy and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction … Syria’s disintegration threatens them all.”


Where The Economist goes dangerously wrong is in heaping all the blame for this on Mr. Assad. Had he not “embraced a policy of violence from the start” and “attacked the Arab Spring with tanks and gunships” and turned his Alawite praetorian guard upon Sunnis, he would not have “turned peaceful demonstrators into armed militants” and drawn the jihadi hosts into Syria.

To prevent Syria from turning into another Mali, therefore, it asks the U.S. and the EU to administer the same medicine it fed to Qadhafi in Libya — impose a no-fly zone, destroy Syria’s air force and missiles, and arm ‘non-Jihadi rebel groups’ with surface-to-air missiles. These prescriptions reveal a profound ignorance of the situation in both Libya and Syria.

What is more immediately relevant is that its view in not shared by any leader of the democracy movement in Syria. On the contrary, in an article in The Guardian on June 22 last year, Haytham Manna, the chairman of the 16-party National Coalition for Transition to Democracy, and Mr. Assad’s most trenchant critic in the early days of the insurgency, placed the blame for the sidelining of the democracy movement squarely upon the West’s complicity in allowing the Istanbul based Free Syrian Army to recruit Islamist foreign fighters for the assault on Syria.

Six months later, on December 18, he wrote that the Syrian people had come to regard the foreigners not as liberators but as oppressors. “When the Syrian army attacks al-Nusra it is not as the suppressor of the popular movement, but the guarantor of the unity of Syria’s diverse society … It is the alliance between foreign jihadists and some Syrians that risks tearing the country apart, leading to religious extremism, long-term sectarian war, and the persecution of minorities and various civilian groups.”

The Economist correctly perceives that as Syria disintegrates, the jihadis could use “lawless territory as a base for international terror (and) menace Israel across the Goal Heights.” But what it does not perceive is that the collapse of the Assad regime will hasten this process and end by putting Israel in mortal peril. One has only to trace the likely aftermath of its collapse to understand why.

First, the end of Mr. Assad will not necessarily mean the return of peace. As happened in Afghanistan, it will make 5,000 to 6,000 foreign jihadis redundant and turn them into loose cannons in the country. Repatriating them will be far from easy because the ‘Arab Spring’ has shattered their home economies and left millions without work. This is why Libyans make up the largest contingent among the foreign fighters in both Syria and Mali.


But they cannot stay on indefinitely in Syria either for, with no common purpose left to unite them, the rivalry between the jihadis and more moderate opponents of Mr. Assad will almost certainly erupt into a struggle for power. Unlike the proxy war that it was able to wage upon Mr. Assad, this is a war the West will not be able to stay out of.

The moderates within the newly created Syrian National Coalition of Opposition and Revolutionary forces (SNCORF) already fear this. That is why within three months of being elected, its President Moaz al Khatib, a former Imam of the Omayyad mosque in Damascus, declared himself willing to attend a conference with Bashar al-Assad to chalk out a peaceful transition in Syria. But his weakness was exposed when the diehards in the SNCORF forced him to retract his offer within days. The only remaining option is also the easiest. This is to channel their fervour into a new jihad. The inevitable next target will be Jordan because it lies on the direct route to Al Quds (Jerusalem) and the Al Aqsa mosque, the second holiest shrine in Islam.


Jordan will either cave in or give them free access to the West Bank. That will leave Israel surrounded, and isolated. Any pre-emptive action it takes to make its borders more secure such as re-occupying the Sinai to block access to Gaza will alienate the Arabs, increase the sway of the jihadis, and blight the prospect for a return to democracy and religious moderation in the foreseeable future. It could also put a question mark over the long-term survival of Israel.

If Barack Obama wishes to arrest the development of another, infinitely more dangerous, quagmire in Syria and Jordan, he must do the opposite of what The Economist is proposing and heed, however belatedly, the pleas of the original Syrian National Council, and other leading democracy activists like Manna, to stop the inflow of arms and foreign fighters. This will, admittedly meet stiff opposition from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Libya. But Mr. Obama does not have the choice of shirking hard decisions, because he or his successors will face worse ones in the future.

Second, Mr. Obama needs to recognise that the only way to achieve a peaceful transition to democracy is through the regime, as is happening in Myanmar, and not after its destruction. Creating a power vacuum by destroying the state does not make way for democracy but chaos. The resulting vacuum is always filled by the most organised, ruthless and therefore undemocratic groups in a society.

In his January 7 speech to his country, Mr. Assad invited all remaining Syrian opposition groups to a second conference on democracy and threw the doors open to a fresh election and the formation of a new government. He should be strongly urged to hold it as soon, and with as few preconditions, as possible. Haytham Manna and his colleagues should be encouraged to attend the conference. Moaz al Khatib also wants to attend it: Mr. Obama should make it possible for him to do so.

Note: This article has been withdrawn from the website without any explanation

(The writer is a senior journalist)

Turkey, the Unhelpful Ally


AMERICA’S stated goal is to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria. The United States also insists that any solution to the Syrian crisis should guarantee religious and ethnic pluralism. However, this rosy vision of a moderate and secular Syria after Mr. Assad’s downfall will not be achieved if the United States continues to depend on regional allies that have little interest in such an outcome.

President Obama has relied heavily on Turkey in seeking to oust Mr. Assad and Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to visit the Turkish capital, Ankara, later this week. But Turkey is part of the problem. It is exacerbating Syria’s sectarian strife, rather than contributing to a peaceful and pluralistic solution.

While the Obama administration has encouraged a broad Syrian opposition coalition, in which the influence of Islamists would be circumscribed, Turkey has not been of any assistance whatsoever. Instead, the Turkish government has continued to throw its weight behind the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood dominated the Syrian National Council, which is headquartered in Istanbul, and has succeeded in eclipsing other groups within the new opposition coalition, effectively thwarting the American effort to empower non-Islamists.

Moreover, while sponsoring the Sunni cause in Syria, the Turkish government has made no attempt to show sympathy for the fears of the country’s Alawite, Christian and Kurdish minorities. The Alawites and the Christians have backed the government in large numbers and fear retribution if Mr. Assad is toppled.

Turkey has provided a crucial sanctuary for the Sunni rebels fighting Mr. Assad and has helped to arm and train them. Even more ominously, Turkey is turning a blind eye to the presence of jihadists on its territory, and has even used them to suppress the aspirations of Kurds in Syria. Last November, Islamist rebels from Jabhet al-Nusra, which has reputed links to Al Qaeda in Iraq, entered the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain from Turkey and attacked fighters from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, known as the P.Y.D., which had wrested control of parts of northeastern Syria. The Nusra fighters were initially repelled, but have continued to cross into Syria from their safe haven in Turkey.

Mr. Obama has invested considerable political capital in Turkey, cultivating a close relationship with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. American and Turkish officials have held regular operational planning meetings since last summer, aimed at hastening the downfall of Mr. Assad. In a recent interview with the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, Mr. Obama thanked “the Turkish government for the leadership they have provided in the efforts to end the violence in Syria and start the political transition process.”

But this praise is undeserved. America can’t expect the Sunni Arab autocracies that have financed the Syrian uprising, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to help empower secular and moderate leaders in Syria. However, Turkey, a NATO ally, should be expected to promote a pluralistic, post-Assad Syria. It has not.

The Obama administration must therefore reassess the assumption that Turkey is playing a constructive role in ending the violence in Syria; it must also take a hard look at its own role in contributing to religious strife.

America’s policy of punitive sanctions and not-so-veiled military threats toward Iran has encouraged Turkey to assert itself as a Sunni power. The perception that Turkey enjoys American “cover” for a foreign policy that directly confronts Iranian interests emboldened the Turkish government to throw its weight behind the armed Sunni rebellion against Mr. Assad, Iran’s main regional ally.

Turkey quickly abandoned its stated ambition to have “zero problems with neighbors” and decided to join the United States in confronting Iran. It agreed to the deployment of parts of NATO’s antimissile shield, which is meant to neutralize a supposed Iranian missile threat.

Turkey’s shift flowed from the belief that it would gain power and stature and reap the benefits if America succeeded in rolling back Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

All of this suited the United States. Washington no longer had to fear that Turkey might be “drifting eastward,” as it did during the short-lived Turkish-Iranian rapprochement a few years ago, when Turkey broke ranks with its Western partners over the Iranian nuclear issue. Turkey also appeared to be an American asset insofar as it could potentially offset the influence of more conservative Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia.

But the Syrian crisis has had a radicalizing effect on all parties, including Turkey’s more moderate Islamist government. Under more peaceful circumstances, Mr. Erdogan might be able to live up to American expectations and promote a pluralistic vision for the Middle East. That won’t happen if the region is increasingly torn apart by violent religious conflict and its leaders believe that playing the sectarian card will enhance their power.

Removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq in 2003 had the undesirable consequence of empowering Iran. A decade later, America’s effort to remove Mr. Assad is partly an attempt to remedy this geopolitical setback. But, as in Iraq, it has had unwelcome consequences. Moreover, American policy toward Iran is encouraging opportunistic Sunni assertiveness that threatens to trigger Shiite retaliation.

The United States must beware of doing the bidding of Sunni powers — especially Turkey — that are advancing sectarian agendas that run counter to America’s interest of promoting pluralism and tolerance. Left unchecked, rising sectarianism could lead to a dangerous regional war.

Halil M. Karaveli is a senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road Studies Program, which are affiliated with the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, in Washington, and with the Institute for Security and Development Policy, in Stockholm.

Post-revolt Arab Transitions: Driven by Distrust and Inexperience

Post-revolt Middle Eastern and North African countries are struggling to manage the transition from autocratic to more transparent, accountable societies. Increasingly prejudice, distrust and inexperience are proving to be greater obstacles, argues James M. Dorsey.

Post-revolt Arab nations are experiencing tumultuous times. The assassination of a prominent Tunisian opposition leader has sparked mass protests against Islamists held responsible for his death. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali has called for the replacement of the Islamist-dominated Cabinet by a government of technocrats that would lead the country to elections, to the chagrin of his Ennahada party that fears loss of power.

Egypt has been wracked by violent street protests that have left more than 60 people dead in three Suez Canal and Red Sea cities, forcing President Mohamed Morsi to declare emergency rule and bring the military back into the streets and soccer stadiums to maintain law and order.

Underlying Fault Lines

Underlying the volatility in Egypt and Tunisia as well as difficult transitions in Libya and Yemen is the increasing lack of confidence between Islamists and non-Islamist forces. That fault line is fuelled by an ever deeper secularist suspicion that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists who by and large have emerged from the revolts as the largest, most organised political force, are bent on creating Islamist states and enforcing Islamic law. This mistrust drives the weakening of the civilian and armed opposition to President Bashar Al Assad in the continuing civil war in Syria.

For their part, Islamists, including moderates, are not certain where the allegiances of non-Islamists lie and whether significant segments of the secularists would opt for a less free society in cooperation with institutions like the judiciary, the police and security forces in a bid to halt what they see as an Islamist power grab.

To be sure, the militancy and violence of more radical Islamists in Tunisia in recent months as well as Morsi’s imperious style of government, his failed attempt to acquire absolute power, his unilaterally pushing through of a controversial constitution, his failed attempt to fire a state prosecutor and increased reliance on the despised police and security forces, have done little to assuage anti-Islamist fears.

Similarly, Syrian opposition forces with Islamists in the lead have failed to convince the country’s key minorities who could have made a difference in reducing the regime’s power base, that there would be a place for them and that their rights would be secured in a post-Assad Syria.

Yet, lost in the mixture of misperception and prejudice is the recognition that Islamists came to power virtually unprepared for government, having a history of a pressured existence either underground, a legal nether land or exile. The Muslim Brotherhood, two years after the overthrow of Mubarak and seven months after Morsi’s election as president, remains nominally an illegal organisation in Egypt. As a result, this reinforces a sense that he and the Brotherhood fail to truly understand the concept of democracy and are more focused on fending off threats and settling old scores.

A Mental Transition

Morsi, like his counterparts in other post-revolt Arab nations, (apart from Libya that suffers the consequences of Muammar Gaddafi’s refusal to build institutions), have inherited states dominated by police and security forces and populated by institutions moulded by the former autocratic regimes with their own vested interests. It takes a degree of political savvy, mastering of electoral politics, backroom horse trading, give-and-take and an ability to manage public expectations rather than the bunker mentality in which Islamist leaders operated in the past. With few exceptions, they have yet to demonstrate that they can make that mental transition.

In retrospect, Morsi’s deft alliance late last year with the second echelon of Egypt’s military command that allowed him to sideline long-serving commanders who unsuccessfully sought to grab power in the period between his election and his assumption of office, seems more an exception than an indication of his ability to manoeuvre the minefield that constitutes Egyptian transition politics.

Jebali’s call for an interim technocratic government in a bid to avert a second popular revolt in Tunisia comes closest to Morsi’s rare display of political deftness in his handling of the military. It contrasts starkly with Morsi’s surprising reluctance to tackle reform of the police and security forces who for many years targeted the Muslim Brotherhood, his seeming willingness to maintain Mubarak-era structures and his increased reliance on them despite the existence of reformists within all of those institutions.

Relative calm has returned to the streets of Egyptian cities, giving Morsi at best a month to build bridges in advance of the country’s next flashpoint when a court in Cairo pronounces verdict in the case of the remaining 52 defendants accused of responsibility for the deaths of 74 soccer fans a year ago in a politically-loaded brawl in Port Said.

Flashpoint Offers Leverage

To do so, Morsi would have to convincingly reach out to his detractors in a bid to convince them that he has put the bunker mentality behind him, wants his government to be inclusive rather than exclusive and that he is serious about reform of key state institutions and is focusing on a turnaround of the country’s economy.

As much as the Port Said case constitutes a flash point – the court’s sentencing last month of the first batch of 21 defendants to death sparked the most violent protests – it also gives Morsi leverage. In the absence of a justification of the court’s ruling, a leaked summary of the prosecution’s case put the blame for the brawl as much on the police as it did on spectators in the stadium.

The prosecutor’s case, coupled with human rights reports that document that the police and security forces are a law unto themselves, provide Morsi with the ammunition to start the difficult process of reforming law enforcement. It is a move that would prove immensely popular and would help restore political calm needed to embark on a road of economic recovery.

A convincing move to amend the constitution in ways that removes fears of an Islamist takeover would further serve to bridge the widening gap in Egyptian politics. It is too early to write Morsi off as a failed leader. The ball is in his court, though time is running out.

James M. Dorsey is Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

A Peace Package for the Middle East

Three highly-dangerous Middle East problems — Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the bloody civil war in Syria, and the long-festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict — pose a grave challenge to President Barack Obama and his foreign policy team of John Kerry at State, Chuck Hagel at Defence and John Brennan at the CIA, notes Patrick Seale.

Three highly-dangerous Middle East problems — Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the bloody civil war in Syria, and the long-festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict — pose a grave challenge to President Barack Obama and his foreign policy team of John Kerry at State, Chuck Hagel at Defence and John Brennan at the CIA. America’s vital interests in the Middle East, its political reputation, its ability to project power and influence are intimately tied up with the way it deals — or fails to deal — with these problems. So what advice might one be bold enough to give to President Obama and his team?

Each of these three problems is profoundly destabilising for the region as a whole and risks triggering a war of unpredictable consequences. Taken separately, each of them has so far defied resolution. One suggestion is that tackling them as a package might prove more effective.

Consider, for a moment, how closely inter-connected they are. No one is more concerned than Israel about Iran’s nuclear programme, which it sees as a threat to its military supremacy and ultimately to its security. It fears that a nuclear capable Iran would restrict the freedom — which Israel has enjoyed for decades — to strike its neighbours at will, when they seem threatening.

Iran, however, does not stand alone. Its fate is closely linked to that of Syria, its principal regional ally. Syria has also been the most ardent champion of Palestinian rights and of Lebanon’s freedom from Israeli control. Indeed, the so-called ‘resistance axis’ of Iran, Syria and Lebanon’s Hizballah has sought to deter or contain Israeli attacks while challenging U.S.-Israeli hegemony in the Levant.

Needless to say, Syria’s calamitous civil war has gravely weakened the resistance axis. Israel’s dearest hope is to destroy what remains of it by urging the United States and its allies to bring down the Tehran and the Damascus regimes, thus freeing Israel from any constraint from these powers in its relentless drive for a ‘Greater Israel’.

It can thus be seen that Iran’s nuclear programme, Syria’s existential crisis and Israel’s land hunger are inextricably linked. Attempts to deal with these problems separately have so far failed. The obvious conclusion is that they may be better dealt with as a package. These are not marginal problems which can be left to fester. If the United States wishes to protect itself, its interests and its allies in a highly turbulent environment it must make a supreme effort to resolve them.

Moreover, this is a unique moment: President Obama has been re-elected for a second term. His political authority has been enhanced. The world is looking to him for leadership. Although many other foreign policy problems clamour for his attention — the rising colossus of China first among them — he knows that the Middle East, for all its maddening complexity, latent violence, and the current resurgence of Al-Qaeda, not least in Syria, cannot be ignored.

He should consider the possibility of a trade-off between Iran’s nuclear programme and a Palestinian state. The proposal is simple enough: If Iran were to agree — under strict international supervision — to give up, once and for all, its ambition to become a nuclear-capable state, Israel would, in exchange, agree to the establishment of an independent Palestine on the West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in East Jerusalem. The exact terms of the trade-off would evidently need negotiation and refinement, but the main lines and necessary mutual concessions of an Israeli-Palestinian deal have been extensively debated and are widely known.

Such a bargain between Iran’s nuclear ambitions and an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is not as far-fetched or as fictional as it may sound. Iran has boxed itself into a corner. It knows that the United States will not allow it to become a nuclear power. It wants a dignified exit from its present predicament and an end to crippling sanctions. Israel, in turn, faces international isolation — not to speak of the permanent threat of terrorism — if it insists on stealing what remains of the West Bank. It, too, needs a dignified exit from the insanity of its fanatical settlers and religious nationalists who, if unchecked, would condemn Israel to pariah status and permanent war. A trade-off would resolve two of the region’s most intractable problems to the great benefit of everyone concerned. Peace and normal relations with the entire Muslim world would be Israel’s very substantial reward.

What about Syria? It lies at the very heart of the regional power system. Its on-going civil war is threatening to destabilise its neighbours — Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. Israel itself will not be immune. Islamist fighters, some linked to Al-Qaeda, are flowing into Syria, while refugees are fleeing out to neighbouring states in very large numbers. The toll of dead and wounded is heavy, material destruction great and human misery incalculable.

It is by now abundantly clear that there is no military solution to the conflict: Neither the regime nor its opponents can hope to win an outright victory. No outside power wants to intervene militarily. Yet the regime and its enemies are incapable of negotiating an end to the conflict without outside help.

What should the international community do? First, the United States and Russia (with active support from other powers) should join together in imposing a ceasefire on both sides of the conflict. This could involve deploying an international force around Syria’s borders to prevent the inflow of fighters, weapons, and other military equipment to both government and rebels.

Secondly, major external powers — Arab, Western, Chinese, Russian and others — should solemnly pledge to contribute to a Syria Reconstruction Fund of some $10bn-$15bn. The money would be entrusted to the World Bank and disbursed only when a permanent ceasefire is in place and when some clear progress is made towards a negotiated settlement. The existence of the Fund will provide a real incentive.

Thirdly, the United Nations Secretary General, with unanimous backing from the Security Council, should summon a conference of national reconciliation in Damascus attended by regime representatives as well as by all Syrian factions, groups, parties and prominent individuals prepared to renounce war.

The task will not be easy. The wounds of the conflict are very deep. But for the sake of Syria and its neighbours — for the sake of peace in the region — a supreme effort must be made to prevent the collapse of the Syrian state and its possible fragmentation. The difficult task will be to reshape Syria’s political system on democratic lines. Political freedoms will have to be guaranteed, individual rights respected, police brutality ended, the rule of law observed, government services restored and minorities protected. An essential goal must be the preservation of the Syrian Arab army as the indispensable institution of the state. In Iraq, it was the disbanding of the army which led to the collapse of the state, triggering the catastrophic civil war from which the country has yet to recover.

If Barack Obama were to adopt the programme outlined above and throw his full weight behind it, his place in history as a great peacemaker would be assured.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).

Radical elements are true winners in Syria’s stalemate

  Jan 21, 2013

In an interview with Syrian state television on Saturday, Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Al Moallem, said most Syrians have come to understand that what they are facing are not revolutionaries challenging the Assad regime, but foreign-backed jihadists who are targeting the country’s national unity. He is only partly wrong.

This threat of radicalism is slightly exaggerated by western countries, but at the same time largely underestimated by the Syrian opposition, giving way to misunderstanding of an issue that is complicating the process of finding a way out of this crisis. I have discussed this issue with several officials from western and regional countries involved in the Syrian crisis, as the situation developed in the country over the past 22 months.

Syrians need to understand that western and some regional governments are genuinely concerned about the rise of jihadi activities in the country. These concerns are not a mere pretext to justify inaction, as the opposition tends to claim. Therefore, a common understanding is necessary to address the issue.

Jihadis represent a fraction of the anti-regime fighters. Yet since the US designated Jabhat Al Nusra, a Salafi jihadist group believed to have links to Al Qaeda, as a foreign terrorist group, the narrative has shifted, with almost every report from inside Syria focusing on this group’s ideology or operations. Western governments must understand that as the situation drags on, jihadists and Islamists in general become more powerful – a fact that an overwhelming number of experts have consistently and clearly reiterated since the beginning of the conflict.

Jihadists with extreme Islamist agendas – including fighters said to hail from as many as 29 countries – are steadily building inroads in Syrian society by providing desperately needed services to local communities and demonstrating discipline that is lacking within the Free Syrian Army ranks. Radical Islamists are also efficiently organising and forming alliances to shape the future of the country. On Saturday, for example, the Syrian Islamic Front, an alliance of Islamist groups, released its vision for an Islamic state in the future.

This vision may be at odds with the future most Syrians desire, but jihadists are nonetheless given a pass because they are the most effective type of foreign intervention force operating. Many of the rebels in the Free Syrian Army have lately taken a back seat in the fight against the regime; jihadists, on the other hand, remain on the front lines.

Meanwhile, major supporters of the Syrian opposition appear to obsess about how to preserve the regime’s structure and have thus been detached from the realities on the ground. It is important to recognise that the current state of the regime – and how it is projected to be as long as the situation persists – will not be more helpful in combating radicalism than if the regime collapses and the rebels win. On the contrary, the country is a dangerous incubator for radicals, not only among the rebels but also among pro-Assad fighters.

The opposition does not intend to radically change the regime’s structure. It is important to distinguish between the state’s institutions and the regime’s tools of repression. Earlier this month, the opposition’s National Coalition released a plan for a transitional period that includes ensuring governmental institutions continue functioning, and a weapons collection programme.

Indeed, the army and the feared mukhabarat security services do not need to be dismantled because Alawites who control these forces represent a minority; concerns about the structure of the regime can be addressed with a careful change in the army’s command and the reversal of the mukhabarat apparatus’s dominance over state institutions.

But the Syrian opposition’s promises about “ensuring the collection of weapons” or the “function of the state’s institutions” are far from enough. The opposition must understand that the type of jihadists who have entered Syria are arguably the worst type because they have a sectarian agenda, committed to sectarian cleansing and indiscriminate violence.

These “sectarian jihadists” are particularly worrying because of the sectarian diversity of Syrian society. Yet, this sectarianism has not been duly addressed by religious and political leaders. According to a Syrian researcher who has recently met with numerous religious leaders, these leaders shy away from speaking out against sectarianism to avoid criticism from the public. There is an increasing tendency among opposition figures and activists to say what is popular rather than what is right.

The role of moderate religious leaders is essential to counter this trend. These religious leaders, however, find it difficult to criticise popular forces. Supporters of the Syrian uprising need to show that there can be an alternative. Instead of reminiscing over the demise of dictatorial, pseudo-secular rulers, it is imperative to face this threat head on and look for a solution through democratic means, awareness and public appeal. After all, Islamists are part of the new political reality across the Middle East.

Once the regime falls, many will find little reason to fight, while moderate religious and local leaders will have to join hands to speak out or act against extremism. But as long as Mr Al Assad remains in power, these moderate voices will remain outliers.

The bottom line is this: the longer this crisis goes on, the more time radical forces from all sides will have to dig in.
Read more:

How Syria is Being Ripped Apart by Foreign Meddling and Sectarian War

One can no longer say that Syria is a moderate, pragmatic, stabilizing and secular regional centre keeping extremism at bay.
December 20, 2012  |

Everything about Syria is steeped in miasma: is this conflict politically and sociologically definable as a civil war? Has it become a sectarian war? How strong and widespread is the Salafist (and global Jihadi) presence? Was militarization wise or did the opposition have no choice in this regard? Are the armed groups able to defeat the regime’s forces or will there be a perpetual, bloody stalemate whose only certainty is Syria’s complete physical destruction and long-term division? Is a negotiated outcome, that is, a political solution the only possibility, or is it uninformed to speak of political solutions at this stage of the conflict?

Despite this fog, there are, in my mind, several certainties. One, Syria is not a clear-cut case of bad regime versus good society, for that society is not at one regarding the violent overthrow of the state. This is not a mass, democratic revolution but a Sunni rebellion. Any spontaneity to its genesis, including the goal of non-violent resistance, came to a speedy end, provided with a significant impetus by the flow of foreign arms, money, and intelligence, including from the US. A substantial ‘silent’ majority desperately wishes to avoid Syria’s disintegration because they simply love their country, not the regime or armed rebels, and prefer reform and a negotiated settlement.

Two, it is false to equate, as the regime portrays it, every Syrian’s opposition to the Ba’athi state with acting on behalf of Zionists and imperialists, and equally false to suggest that advocating a negotiated settlement equates to buying into the regime’s self-narrative of an indispensable anti-imperialist frontline.

Three, foreign powers, especially Washington, several of its NATO allies, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, the latter essentially monarchic police states, are violating international law in pursuing subversion and violent regime change, and share primary responsibility for the radicalization, destabilization, and horrific violence inflicted on the people of Syria. Washington is interested in regime change, not in ensuring that neither side prevails to force a settlement.

Four, the fundamental truth is the Syrian people’s case for dignity and freedom, rights brutally denied and violated for so long by fearsome regimes such as the Syrian Ba’ath. The revolt against the Ba’athist regime, despite its now tainted nature, is not a conspiracy.

Five, despite Syria’s social diversity and divided loyalties, the fact that the regime has many supporters, and that a majority desires peaceful change, calls for the Syrian socio-political system to become no less than a civil, human rights-respecting, citizenship-based state. Still, Syria’s internal complexity and regional role requires special care and objective realism. Take Aleppo as a microcosm of Syrian complexity, the largest Syrian city containing some 82% Sunnis. Listening to the western, Qatari, or Saudi media, one would think that the city erupted into spontaneous rebellion and from the beginning was fighting a heroic war against the regime’s military and security forces. By objective accounts, however, Aleppo’s denizens supported the Damascus government by a large majority, many of them paying the price of Free Syrian Army reprisals. Now, since the penetration of armed groups and the violent zealotry of Salafists and foreign Jihadis, with their suicide bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings, looting and rape, as well as heavy, indiscriminate government firepower leading to the slow obliteration of this great historic and commercial city – one wonders what has happened to its people and their loyalties.

We only know that government forces and loyalists still hold the city, minus a couple of districts, as they do most of the country. Countless people have fled, many of their empty homes looted and ransacked by their would-be liberators, fearful of returning to rebel reprisals. Aleppo’s Islamist leaning al-Tawhid Division, ostensibly part of the FSA, contains numerous-armed factions, including many Salafi Islamists, who, themselves, are varied, ranging from Brotherhood types to al-Qaida-like extremists. There is also quite noticeable and significant Salafi literalist influence among the armed rebels generally. The disparate factions that make up the FSA are largely Islamist-dominated. Its battalions contain thousands of fighters of the Salafi/Jihadi group, Jabhat al-Nusra, a mainstay of the al-Tawhid in Aleppo.

In a situation of decentralized and disparate commands, such people are there at the front lines. All these groups, including the FSA, have an uneasy, distrustful relationship with the newly minted National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, as they previously did with the now discarded Syrian National Council, and as they have with the western powers. Fortunately, Syria does not have a tradition of extremist political Islam. On the contrary, given its pluralist diversity, its geostrategic location, and secular nationalist history, Jihadi-type extremism does not fit in Syria.

The chaos and physical destruction, the ever-present danger of the regime-Sunni war transmuting into a sectarian civil war are deeply worrying, and the Salafists thrive on such an environment. No question, though, in its militarist, violent manifestations, this is essentially a rebellion of the Sunni Muslims, at core from the regions of Hama and Homs, and battle-tested foreigners, including Salafis, supported by the Sunni autocracies and wealthy donors of the peninsula. It is unlikely that a literalist Salafist regime will come to power, much less global Jihadis, but likely that a Sunni-Brotherhood dominated regime, sidelining the National Coalition, will.

The defunct National Council’s main obsession was arming without a clear political programme. The new National Coalition has got itself political recognition as a sort of provisional government—even as Syria remains a member state of the UN led by the al-Assad government—from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, France, Britain, and Turkey, followed by the US, which, however, consigned one rebel group, the Jabha, to its terrorist blacklist. (This prompted all the rest of the armed rebel groups to declare their support for the Jabha.)

Western support is predicated on the promise that the Coalition will unify the opposition, at least act as an umbrella, and be a better watchdog that presumes to undertake the impossible, even inane, task of vouching for and endorsing those groups deserving of armed support, which Washington reckons amounts to two-thirds of the fighting groups and their commanders. These parties essentially cajoled through the expansion of the new Coalition’s membership to three times the previous Council’s size and which includes most of the old Council’s members. The new body’s composition is a safeguard to dilute Islamist influence.

Washington in particular rejected the Brotherhood-dominated Council because it could not deliver unity, or control or exclude extremist Islamists, even though Council members did what the US wanted most of all: they talked about peace and good relations with Israel.

Whether the US is willing to advocate a negotiated solution is in my view not an open question. Its apparent caution in providing advanced, or heavy, weaponry, unlike the reckless monarchic allies it shakily controls, is due to its fear of uncontrolled, unmanaged violence leading to an incompliant, even hostile, Islamist regime. The Obama administration’s ambivalence stems from the tension between aggressive regional allies and its recognition of several realities: the proliferation of extremist groups, the possibility of a bloody stalemate that will destabilize the region, and the potential that an armed group will get its hands on chemical weapons.

Thus, Washington’s most urgent and immediate goal, when not obstructing UN peace and dialogue missions, is to pressure the Coalition to construct a centralized military command and political unity and ferret out the extremists, supposedly one-third of the armed rebels. Its version of a negotiated solution is not genuine internal talks between Damascus and the rebels, but Assad’s departure, which Washington defines as a ‘transition’, but which is actually a precondition.

This, the US imagines, would avoid the concomitant augmentation of Salafi extremist power caused by protracted violence and keep international law and Russia out of the equation, ensuring an obeisant Coalition’s rule. Washington’s conception of ending Syrian suffering is not via morally, legally, diplomatically urgent negotiations between rebels and government. Instead, it repeatedly stresses Assad’s inevitably violent downfall, as only he is responsible for his people’s calamity, thereby absolving it and its allies of complicity in Syria’s torment and prolongation of this horrific upheaval.

Yet the foreign arming of the rebels – that is, the militarization of this conflict – has been Syria’s worst affliction. For Syria does not need lethal arms and war, but a coherent, truly representative opposition built without interference, and ready to find a negotiated political solution to violent conflict. This requires internal Syrian national agreement on a transitional regime change through supervised elections. This at least is the ideal, though not the reality; for everyone, from assorted rebels, hell bent on acquiring advanced weaponry to Coalition members to Washington to local Gulf regimes, wants Assad’s head. The Alawite core of the regime not surprisingly sees this as an existential threat.

What prevails in Syria today is maddening ambiguity and galling hypocrisy on all sides: of the relationship between the Coalition and armed rebels, the craziness of inter-Arab politics, Gulf and Turkish hatred of the Shi’i Alawite Syrian regime—which I call the Sunni Syndrome—nation-destroying French and British actions characterized as advocacy of democracy, and single-minded US control of Syria couched as constructive, responsible diplomacy.

With multiple external players violently pursuing their own agendas supporting multiple factions with their own visions, such as these are, the chance of Syrians reaching a negotiated political solution, much less a compromise leading to such, is virtually nil. In reality, the Ba’ath, the Syrian regime, al-Assad, the socio-political system that prevailed in Syria for nearly a half century all have ended, or at least will not be restored. This in itself is extraordinary. Ultimately, the horrific violence and terrorism from both the state and its opponents is the responsibility of the regime, for it chose to let the country go to hell, and unwittingly invited outside intervention, rather than peacefully oversee a democratic transition in the early phase of the rebellion.

This is an enduring quality of Arab ruling regimes, mostly because they lack fundamental legitimacy and rule over divided societies. One can no longer say Syria is what it used to be, a moderate, pragmatic, stabilizing and secular regional centre keeping extremism at bay. This political role is a natural function of its geography and relatively diverse ethno-sectarian make-up, as well as the political sophistication of its people. Under radically changing circumstances, most importantly, a weakened and fractured Syria, it may not be able to play that role again for decades to come. The west and their autocratic Middle Eastern allies are destroying one ruling group in exchange for another dominated by Brotherhood Islamists. And those Salafists/Jihadists on the front lines will not only want a share of power, but some of them may continue post-Assad violence and insurgency, to the continuing danger of many Syrians.

Issa Khalaf, a Palestinian-American, has a D. Phil. in Politics and Middle East Studies from Oxford University

Has Syria Become Al-Qaeda’s New Base For Terror Strikes On Europe?

Exclusive investigation: The terror network in Syria includes dozens of European members, and wants to get its hands on Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapon

By Florian Flade and Clemens Wergin


A photograph from Syria shows a large man in fighting garb, carrying an assault rifle. His head is wrapped in black cloth, and the sign on his armband indicates beyond a doubt that he is an Islamist. But the man is not Syrian; he identifies himself as “holy warrior Abu Ahmad al-Almani” from Germany.

The picture of him was posted on Facebook. The information the man provides about himself says that he was born in Lebanon, and until recently lived in Germany. He left to join the fight against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

But now “Abu Ahmad” is an Islamic fighter, and he’s calling for German Muslims to join the cause. “Dear brethren, come join our ranks, fight with our brothers as if we were a wall. Faith is the weapon our enemies most fear.”

According to a Die Welt investigation, the fighter from Germany is only one of hundreds of foreigners who have associated with Syrian rebels in their fight against the Assad regime. Most of them are young men from North Africa, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. But more and more Europeans are joining the militia fighters.

Western intelligence agencies believe that there are some 100 Muslims with European passports involved in the war in Syria, Die Welt has learned. A great many of these are fighters, some are radical Islamists, and see it as their duty to join the “Holy War” against the Syrian strongman.

“There could be many reasons for somebody to travel to Syria,” one source told Die Welt. “Somebody might want to help their family. Somebody else might aspire to become a martyr. Some only become Islamists as a result of taking part in the fighting.”

German intelligence views the travel of radical Muslims to Syria with concern. The assumption is that most of them plan to take up fighting against government troops.

From the standpoint of intelligence agents, the situation of the Syrian opposition remains highly opaque. According to the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) – the German intelligence service – the biggest problem for foreign jihadists is the chaotic situation of countless warring parties, citizens’ militias, and rebel groups. Only very few Islamists coming in from Europe know anything about the group they join up with, or what that group’s ideology and goals actually are.

The most radical of the rebel groups is probably Jabat al-Nusra, which has a jihadist orientation and wants to create a theocracy in Syria. Jabat al-Nusra is considered to be a regional branch of al-Qaeda, but the group — which is said to have about 1,000 fighters — has deliberately avoided official affiliation with the terror network so far, for reasons of image and strategy. Intelligence operatives believe that Jabat al-Nusra doesn’t want to give Assad fodder to nourish his claims that the opposition consists of al-Qaeda fighters.

Egypt’s terrain is ripe

Western intelligence operatives say that al-Nusra runs several large training camps in Syria where Islamists with fighting experience – veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – train new recruits, including Islamists from Western countries. In a situation similar to the al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s, hundreds of Islamists are presently being trained in the use of fire arms, bomb-making and hand-to-hand combat in Syrian camps managed by Jabat al-Nusra.

Al-Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri is focusing his efforts on Syria and Egypt, trying to build new structures in these two key countries since many of the established al-Qaeda offshoots no longer listen to the network’s leadership after the death of Osama Bin Laden, according to information from Western intelligence sources.

Al-Zawahiri’s contact in Syria is Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the Jabat al-Nusra leader. In Egypt, Jamal al-Kashef and Sheik Adel Shahato look after al-Qaeda interests. Al-Qaeda’s aim is to fight the “heretical regimes” in both countries; to al-Zawahiri the new regime of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi also counts as one of these. In one of his recent speeches, al-Zawahiri called for attacks on the Egyptian military to help bring down Morsi’s government.

According to intelligence sources, several al-Qaeda leaders who were originally from Egypt have returned there after years of fighting in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Other leaders and active members have been released from prison by the Morsi government. The al-Qaeda cell in Egypt is thought to have been involved in the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

On October 24, Egyptian security forces however did raid a “safe house” in Cairo that was used by al-Qaeda members under al-Kashef’s orders. One al-Qaeda fighter was killed, and others were taken into custody. A large weapons depot and explosives were found at the site. In several other raids over the next few days, 20 more al-Qaeda operatives were arrested. Egyptian sources said the cell was directly under al-Zawahiri’s orders and was working to bring the Morsi government down.

Because of the political turmoil in Egypt, the country has become a stomping ground for global jihadists. A German al-Qaeda fighter, Denis Cuspert, who has threatened attacks in Germany, has gone to Cairo. Many German and European fighters pretend to be going to Egypt to study Islam or Arabic, but then head for al-Qaeda training camps in Egypt, the Sinai or Libya.

Chemical and biological stockpiles

But the most important field of operations for al-Qaeda at the moment is Syria. According to Die Welt’s information from Western intelligence sources, last year al-Zawahiri sent at least three organizers to Syria to create jihadist groups to carry out his instructions.

Particularly worrying for the West are al-Qaeda efforts to get their hands on chemical and biological weapons. Local al-Qaeda operatives have allegedly already been told to find out where these weapons are stockpiled. Intelligence sources also say that al-Qaeda is looking for experts in Syria to train their fighters in how to use the weapons.

Al-Qaeda’s efforts are said to be focused mainly around Deraa in the southwestern part of the country, and Aleppo, where its HQ is thought to be located.

Another major concern for Western intelligence services is al-Zawahiri’s intention to train extremists with European passports in Egypt and Syria so that they can build terror cells in Europe, and to see Syria turn into a kind of Waziristan – a remote part of Pakistan where members can move about pretty much unhindered.

For future attacks in Europe, extremists with European passports are particularly valuable – men like the Spaniard Rachid Wahbi who arrived in Syria via Turkey in June 2012 headed for a training camp for European fighters, or Mehdi al-Harati, a Libyan with an Irish passport. He was one of the founders of the Tripoli Brigade, the first rebel unit in Libya. He now leads the rebels in the north of Syria.

According to Western intelligence sources, al-Nusra commander Abu Mohammad al-Julani is already planning to expand his base of operations to Europe via Turkey. He’s preparing to make Syria – after the fall of the Assad regime – a center of jihadist activity with branches in other countries.

Some of al-Julani’s al-Qaeda cells are already up and running in other countries in the region, and Western intelligence operatives say he is in the process of building additional cells in Europe.

It has been noted that so far Jabat al-Nusra has avoided using European fighters in suicide missions. Apparently these fighters are too valuable to “burn” right now – their European passports will come in good stead when the fighting in Syria is over and the terror network enters a Europe-oriented expansion phase.