Monday, December 31, 2012

Erdogan and Thani's tantrum

One of the weirdest stories about the Syrian insurrection is that the first few month Turkey and Qatar tried to pressure Assad to reform. When he didn't deliver they started supporting the uprising. According to the NY Times: Turkish officials say that in frequent talks during the revolt’s first months, Mr. Assad listened calmly to their criticisms, took personal responsibility for the government’s actions and promised to seek resolution. “Either he is a professional liar or he can’t deliver on what he promises,” said a senior Turkish official, speaking on the condition of anonymity."

It makes me wonder what these people were smoking. Have they never heard of international that forbids interference in the internal affairs of other countries? Did they ever consider that there are god reasons for those reasons as without them ruling a country would become near impossible? Did they consider that what they were doing was a violation of international law?

There were many indications that the uprisings in Daraa and Idlib were not about democracy. In the latter case Damascus and Aleppo - the big cities with the intellectuals - would have taken a more prominent role. In addition both cities had been the most important suppliers of Syrian Al Qaeda fighters in Iraq. The uprising also turned violent very shortly after it began. Finally there were from the beginning rumors about foreign involvement.

Given these developments the accent for reforms should have been on creating a more open climate with less repression and not on elections. Unfortunately the insurrectionists refused even to talk with the Assad government.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Dealing with Al-Nusra

The designation of Jabhat Al-Nusra as a terrorist organization by the US doesn't convince me. The Obama administration had known for a long time what kind of guys these are and they had done nothing. Recent news reports in which Al-Nusra openly showed off its Al Qaeda ancestry left Obama no choice. Another reason may have been some agreement with Russia about solving Syria. But it is only an empty show. There will be no pressure on the Gulf States and Turkey to isolate Al-Nusra and it is not unlikely that in a later stage Al-Nusra will be rehabilitated - as happened with the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq. The US was also happy to support former members of Al Qaeda related LIFG in the Libyan uprising.

It looks like militarily there is no real alternative for Al-Nusra. The FSA has never become the centralized command that it was supposed to be and with the recent military successes its associated militias are increasingly inundated with opportunists and outright criminals. The consequence is increasing misbehavior and corruption. As a consequence its popularity with the population is sinking.

So a military victory for the rebels looks unlikely without the contribution of Al-Nusra. Thanks to that and to the presence of a multitude of other Jihadi rebel organizations many rebel fighters in Syria have condemned their designation by the US as a terrorist organization.

It seems unlikely that the rebel supporters in Washington, Ankara, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are prepared to give up on the rebels because of Al-Nusra. If they might isolate Al-Nusra anyway - because popular indignation in the West became too high - they would likely appoint another of the many Jihadi rebel organizations in Syria to take over its functions.

In the mean time Al-Nusra has recognized that it has an image problem and is trying to improve that. Until recently its fighters lived isolated from the population in training camps, tried to limit contact with the outside world and refused interviews. Now they have given their first interview and in that interview the downplayed their connections with Al Qaeda - that they had previously flaunted. They are also getting more involved with their surroundings - a.o. organizing food distribution.

Yet Al-Nusra bodes ill for the future of Syria. Unlike what many Syrian rebels like to believe Jihadi's don't believe in democracy and tend to be serious about establishing an Islamist state. And they won't have any qualms about blowing up moderate Sunni politicians when they think it might further their case.

In the mean time the Jihadi's keep expanding and their next target may be Lebanon.

This article in Spiegel claims that Al-Nusra doesn't exist as a central organization. Al Nusra first became public with some bomb attacks in Damascus that some claimed were done by Assad supporters to turn the population against the rebels. According to the article some local rebel cells have taken up this name to radiate strength. It seems to more probable that the journalist has fallen for some rebel propaganda that tries to counter the damage of the terrorist designation. The rest of the article looks at the situation in Syria with a very rosy look of the rebels.

Quilliam Foundation has published a study about Al-Nusra: Jabhat al-Nusra: A Strategic Briefing. Here is a summary. Quilliam is a counter-extremism think tank, founded by former ideologues of UK-based extremist Islamist organizations.

Some reporting about Al Nusra in After Assad, is strict Islamic rule ahead for Syria?: One former member, Abu Osama, said he left the group after it tried to get him to sign an oath pledging to fight with the group anywhere in the world. [..] The group, which forbids tobacco use, has also been known to pull cigarettes out of the mouths of smokers going through their checkpoints.

Here is a BBC interview with an Al Nusra member and some related reporting.

According to Syria Deeply: Analysts say Jabhat al Nusra’s success in battle comes from having experienced fighters. Activists tell Syria Deeply that up to 20% of the group’s ranks are foreign fighters, coming from Libya, Iraq, and other Arab countries.

Friday, December 28, 2012

An answer to Hof on Syria

Frederic Hof, a member of the Atlantic Council and until recently Obama's special advisor for transition in Syria, has written a list of attention points (Syria: Seven Key Points). In the light of Obama's disastrous Syria policy I will discuss those points.

- In his introduction he says that While a diplomatic, managed transition from the Assad regime to an opposition-led consensus national unity government would be ideal, the likelihood of it happening is very low.
As long the opposition and the government aren't talking the chance of a unity government is indeed low. Unfortunately the US is encouraging the opposition leaders not to talk. Hof bears responsibility for this position.
The term "opposition-led consensus national unity government" is a contradictio-in-terminis. National unity supposes that there is a balance of power and common points are stressed. That is in fundamental opposition with the term "opposition-led".

- "1. Time is the enemy"
Under this point Hof is repeating some myths. One is to describe Assad's rule and survival strategy as "sectarian", ignoring the fact that Assad has considerable appeal beyond the sectarian borders. Another is that Assad enabled the influx of Al Qaeda in Iraq during the American occupation there. This has been refuted by West Point studies: Assad could have done more to stop them but these were long existing smuggling routes outside the control of his government. Yet I can agree to the point that the longer the fighting goes on the worse it will get.

- "2. There is no silver bullet"
This point starts with an admission of the criminal proxy war that the US is waging: Many of those pressures—economic and diplomatic—were put in place with US leadership early in the crisis. And slowly the balance on the ground is shifting toward the rebels. Then follows some demonization about Assad being ready to use chemical arms. It ends with some discussion of an armed intervention. In the context of Libya his assertion that US bombing might "panic the regime into a rapid departure" seems rather unrealistic.

- "3. You can’t beat something with nothing"
This is a plea for having a opposition government in exile so that the many Syrians who are afraid of what will come if Assad leaves can see that it will not as bad as they fear.
It would be a welcome development to have a central body that feels responsible for what happens in the rebel occupied areas and that maintains law and order and takes care of food, fuel and other needs.
Such a body could also be a talking partner with the Assad government. Unfortunately Hof has at this point already forgotten about "national unity" and instead proposes to impose that provisional government on the country. He ignores the fact that that will tell the millions of Syrians who at the moment prefer Assad above the rebels that they have no say in the future of Syria.
The latter half of this plea however is nonsense. It is well known that millions of Syrians prefer Assad over the rebels. They see the defects of Assad but they see progress under his rule and consider him better than the primitive hatred of the rebels. Hof's claim is that these are all irrational fears fueled by Assad's propaganda and that when they see an opposition government in action these fears will vanish.
In fact it is Hof who is badly informed. The Syrian exile coalitions that the US support are dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the same Brotherhood that around 1980 waged a murder campaign against Alawite government officials and its leaders never have taken distance from that period of terrorism. Besides that the developments on the ground in Syria give little reason for optimism. According to the UN around 80,000 Christians have left Homs due to rebel pressure. In Qusair Christians were told from the minarets that they had to leave the town. There are reports about massacres of Alawites and mass expulsion of Christians. Rebel fighters shooting at and killing peaceful protesters.

- "4. Guns will likely decide the outcome"
Again a misleading use of words when Hof suggests that Brahimi is supporting his regime chance program where in fact Brahimi is looking for a real compromise. No wonder Hof considers the chance of success low: the US plans to obstruct Brahimi just as it did with Annan. This hypocrisy becomes even more clear when he says that only representatives from the present government with "blood-free hands" are welcome. This is war - everyone has blood on his hands - rebels too. You can be sure that both sides will have clear ideas about who from the other side is welcome and who not. That is part of the negotiations.

- "5. Who gets arms and from whom is important"
This is the familiar plea that the US should give arms to the rebels in order to have influence. Not a word of critique for the US allies (Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) who arm and support Al-Nusra. Instead some confused talk about cooperating with those countries to further the moderate forces in the Syrian opposition. Also not a word about the fact that it may be too late for that: by now Al-Nusra has become a magnet for the better fighters while the FSA increasingly is getting infected with criminal elements.

- "6. The post-Assad era will be messy"
Under this point Hof makes a number of recommendations to stabilize the situation after a regime change:
- Keep existing ministries and other institutions of state. Reform can come in time.
Hof seems incapable of understanding that that will be impossible once a victorious rebel army has occupied Damascus.
- Proclaim the necessity of national unity, the primacy of citizenship
It is a bit late for that - after all those months of rebel propaganda about Sunni exploitation by Alawites and appeal to sectarian sentiments.
- Request an international stabilization military force, working in coordination with the Supreme Military Council
After the dubious performance of NATO and the US in Kosovo and Iraq this is not very credible. Most likely the force will be used to oppress any remaining resistance - and in the process contribute to a worsening position for Syria's minorities.
- Open the country to UN aid and work on refugee return
Anyone who has heard the mocking tone in which diplomats in Kosovo talk about refugee returns will seriously doubt the sincerity of these intentions.
- Give the Syrian people a clear political horizon
This part contains a lot of nonsense about rule of law, civil society, elections, etc. All very nice, but useless as long as you don't have an agreement what the basic principles should be. The discussion about the Egyptian constitution is a good illustration of this problem.

- "7. The international community cannot be AWOL"
An interim Syrian Reconstruction Fund should be established by the Friends of Syria Group and provided with seed funding, mainly from Gulf sources.
It is easy to be generous with the money of other people. Fact is that the UN at the moment cannot even get enough money for food aid in Syria. That doesn't bode well for the future.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Should there be elections in Syria?

Brahimi is proposing elections for Syria. The discussion at the moment seems mostly about the question whether Assad and his supporters should be allowed to participate.

I seriously doubt whether elections are a good idea. To solve an armed conflict one needs a compromise where both sides get something they want and where each sides also gets guarantees that it will not unfairly treated in the future.

It is not hard to see what both sides want. The most important thing for the opposition is safety for its fighters. They don't want to be arrested and tortured. Next they have some economic wishes: an economic policy that pays more attention to the agricultural sector and an end to crony capitalism.

The side of Assad will want something similar. No "war crimes" persecution aimed at punishing anyone connected to the government while leaving anyone connected to the opposition off the hook. Safety from violence for regime supporters and members of minorities in rebel controlled/opposition majority areas.

The secular character of the Syrian state will be a hot point for both sides.

You cannot expect honest voting when for many people it is a matter of pure survival. We have seen in Ivory Coast how this can go wrong. There the opposition won according to the results. But according to the government supporters this was because in one opposition controlled area there was massive fraud. The West simply ignored these complaints and did an armed intervention to bring the opposition in power. Hundreds of thousands ended up in refugee camps in neighboring countries. Given the election fraud in Egypt and the well known aversion of Salafists against democracy it seems to me rather optimistic to expect fair elections in Syria.

For Syria you have in addition to wonder what the value of elections will be when the Assad side is not allowed to participate. It is well known that millions of Syrians prefer Assad above the rebels.

My preference would be a government of wise men who are acceptable for both sides. They should oversee the integration of the rebel fighters into civil life and the reform of the police and the army - cleaning them from torturers and making them more inclusive. Such wise men would need good diplomatic skills. They would need to convince both hard-line Assad supporters and hard-line rebel leaders that they are the best alternative.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Who causes the polarization in Syria?

It is remarkable how the West keeps believing its own myths and keeps making the same mistakes.

Take the issue of demonization. In Yugoslavia we heard that Milosevic was fueling ethnic hatred by playing on fears from the Serb minorities in Croatia and Bosnia. In fact these fears proved very real in Croatia where now most Serbs have been driven out. The fights organized by Milosevic certainly didn't help - they only further polarized. Now we hear the same thing about the fears of many Alawites and the Christians for the rebels. Again the reasons for those fears are clear and realistic and visible for all who want to see. But again the West prefers to close the eyes for the dark side of those who it supports and doing so creates a mess.

One of the cornerstones of rebel propaganda that Assad's rule is about Alawites suppressing and exploiting Sunnites. But it is not true. In fact Assad was popular before the uprising started and even many of the rebels will admit that they supported Assad at that time.

As all dictators Assad surrounds himself with a core of people he can trust and those are mainly Alawites. But in the commercial area Sunnites dominate. And despite the inevitable occasional discrimination (we all tend to favor folks like ourselves) the Alawites as a whole are still a relatively poor community.

There are aspects of Assad's economic policy that many criticize: the lack of attention to the agricultural sector - that led to mass migration to the cities - and the rise of a corrupt crony capitalism stand out in that respect. But these are just economic policies - they are not sectarian and there is no need for the rebels to treat them as if they are sectarian.

What the Alawites fear even more than this propaganda is the other propaganda, that is mainly found among the Salafists and Jihadists. It refers to the fact that for a long time the Alawites were a dirt poor discriminated group against whom there were Medieval fatwa's that proclaimed them as more infidel than Jews or Christians and that condoned or even praised killing them.

The main publicist of the rebels - Arour - played on these emotions. His statement that Alawites who oppose the revolution should be chopped up and fed to the dogs is well known.

The revolution in Syria is very similar to that in Iran in 1979. The core of the uprising are again disgruntled farmers and former farmers who recently migrated to the cities - due to policies that neglected agriculture - and religious conservatives and extremists. There is also a group of Westernized intellectuals among them, but in Iran that group became soon marginalized after the revolution and the situation for Syria doesn't look much better.

8 June 2013: Sermons on Syria fan Mideast sectarian flames: In Egypt, by far the most populous Arab state, where the Arab Spring protests of 2011 brought the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to power, a leading cleric and Brotherhood member led televised prayers on Friday in which he described Hezbollah - 'the party of God' in Arabic - as "the party of Satan". "God, break the backs of Bashar and his supporters," Salah Sultan, secretary-general of Egypt's Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, said at a Cairo mosque. "God, break the back of Hezbollah, the party of Satan, God, break the back of Iran."

In the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, where Shi'ites and Sunnis have fought, a hardline cleric, Sheikh Bilal Baroudi, told worshippers: "Hezbollah is responsible for the consequences of this jihad invasion against Sunnis in Qusair. "The response that is coming will be harsh."

In Beirut, where the Shi'ite southern suburbs erupted in joy after the fall of Qusair, prominent Sunni preacher Da'i al-Islam al-Shahhal urged followers to resist Iranian attempts to control Iraq, Lebanon and Syria as a step to conquering the Gulf states: "I call on all those zealous and concerned to help us," he said. "Stand with us financially and morally to foil the plan."

Senior Saudi cleric Sheikh Saleh al-Fawzan, in comments in al-Madina newspaper, underlined Sunni suspicion of such calls: Shi'ites, he said, "pretend to be Muslims and try to get closer to the Sunnis ... in order for them to be able to plot against Islam ... these days their hostility has become more apparent in their war against the Sunnis in Syria."

In the Gaza Strip, whose Palestinian Hamas rulers were once allies of Assad and Hezbollah, hardline cleric Imad al-Daya told worshippers that Qusair had exposed the "fraud" of Hezbollah's rhetoric about leading "resistance" to Israel. "Wake up," he told worshippers. "This is a war of religion." Shi'ites, he added, had always been "a knife in Muslims' backs".

In the Red Sea city of Hurghada, where some Iranians have been on holiday lately, preacher Mohamad Daraz, whose Salafist movement sees the Brotherhood as too liberal, said: "God, annihilate the Shi'ites and those who cooperate with them."

See also Hezbollah Entry in Syria Fans Shiite-Sunni Fires

25 June 2013: New wave of foreigners in Syrian fight: The call of Qaradawi has had effect. This article reports that many Egyptians are flocking towards Syria.

22 June 2013: Fight or flight? Saudi cleric heads to London after call for jihad in Syria

14 June 2013: Egypt Brotherhood backs Syria jihad, denounces Shi'ites: Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood blamed Shi'ites for creating religious strife throughout Islam's history, as the movement joined a call by Sunni clerics for jihad against the Syrian government and its Shi'ite allies.

1 June 2013: Middle East: Influential Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi has called on Sunni Muslims to join the rebels fighting the Syrian regime, as he lashed out at Shiite group Hezbollah for sending its men to fight the mostly-Sunni insurgents in Syria. Qaradawi, a controversial figure in the West but who has millions of supporters, mostly from the Muslim Brotherhood, also hit out at Iran for backing the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. "Every Muslim trained to fight and capable of doing that (must) make himself available" to support the Syrian rebels, the cleric said at a rally in Doha late Friday."
The reaction from a pro-Assad source was: After the killing of the head of the Islamic scholars in the Levant, Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Bouti, by a suicide bomber inside al-Iman Mosque and during his funeral at the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus, the crowd that were paying him their respect started calling for the head of al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric who is the main theologian of the Muslim Brotherhood and a star guest on al-Jazeera’s program al-Sharia w al-Hayat (Sharia and Life). On one of the episodes, he issued a ‘death fatwa’ as he clearly advocated the killing of all Syrians who side with the government, while explicitly mentioning that pro-government Islamic scholars are legitimate targets.
Here is a critical review of prior radical statements by Qaradawi from The Global Muslim Brotherhood Daily Watch

31 December 2012: Saudi Wahhabi Cleric Issues Fatwa Allowing Jihadis to Rape Syrian Women: A prominent Saudi cleric issued a fatwa allowing jihadists to rape women in Syria as young as 15 years-old. From the video: A Wahhabi cleric in Saudi Arabia, Muhammed al-Arifi, who is very influential in Jihadi circles, recently issued a fatwa (religious edict) that permits all Jihadist militants in Syria to engage in short-lived marriages with Syrian women that each lasts for a few hours in order to satisfy their sexual desires and boost their determination in killing Syrians. He called the marriage as ‘intercourse marriage’. It requires that the Syrian female be at least 14 years old, widowed, or divorced.

28 October 2012: Saudi cleric calls for 'urgent' action to stop Syria bloodshed: The imam of Mecca's Grand Mosque called on Arabs and Muslims on Friday to take "practical and urgent" steps to stop bloodshed in Syria that has killed some 30,000 people, and urged world states to assume their moral responsibility towards the conflict: "The world should bear responsibility for this prolonged and painful disaster (in Syria) and the responsibility is greater for the Arabs and Muslims who should call on each other to support the oppressed against the oppressor," said Sheik Saleh Mohammed al-Taleb in his sermon during Eid prayers."

16 March 2012: Egyptian cleric issues death fatwa against Al Assad: Egypt's prominent Muslim cleric Safwat Hejazi has said that the killing of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad is a duty for every Muslim. "He who has the chance to kill Al Assad and does not do this is a sinner," Hejazi told a rally held in Cairo in support of a popular revolt against Al Assad's rule." "Hadn't I been a known face, I would have gone myself and killed him," added Hejazi, who had a high profile during an uprising that forced long-serving Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to step down last year.. Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy wrote an article (Welcome to the Syrian Jihad) in which he describes Qaradawi as an opportunist who always seems to seek to tell what the Arab mainstream thinks. He sees the recent Syria speech as a knee fall to Saudi Arabia that has been hostile to Hezbollah for a long time.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The perils of regime change

The US has a long history of fomenting regime change in other countries. Most infamous are probably the overthrows of democratic governments in Guatemala (1954) and the 1973 overthrow of Allende in Chile. But there were many more.

In this post I want to investigate the effects of those regime changes.

Regime changes work best - from the point of view of power politics - when the resulting regime stays dependent on the US for its survival. This can take different forms:
- one is that of the dictatorships in the Third World. Those guys knew that without US support their long position was dubious in the long term. So they took care to stay friends with the US and support its policies. As nowadays dictatorships are out of fashion in the West this model no longer applies. Some vestiges remain: the US will not openly criticize its dictatorial friends (like Bahrain) and it is more tolerant when friendly semi-democracies (like Georgia under Saakashvili) violate press freedom or otherwise tries to bend the democratic rules than with countries it doesn't consider friends.
- then there are the countries that for their survival depend on the US. This applies to Kosovo and Israel. The result is a strangely perverted relationship where the US seems to encourage its client to behave irresponsibly so that it stays dependent on the US. In Israel this happens with a far going indulgence towards Israels mishandling its Palestinians. In Kosovo we see a complete ignoring of the position of the minorities while the most obvious solution (border changes) is actively obstructed by the US. I don't believe this is intentional. It looks more like the behavior of some parents whose children stay dependent on them long after they have passed 20.
- a third category are the losers. Thieu in South Vietnam and Karzai in Afghanistan are the best examples. The US has installed them but they don't have it in them to become an effective ruler. They don't have clear goals and instead allow the circumstances to dictate their actions. They see allowing corruption and incompetence as means to keep their underlings happy but they feel threatened by competent underlings and will undermine them. From the point of view of US power politics they are clients from hell: they need permanent support, yet replacing them is impossible as they don't allow alternative power structures to arise.
- a related problem happens is the anarchic situation. Where in the previous situation there was one ruler with too little power base there are here too many politicians with each their own power base. This typically happens when the US has brought the rulers to power. Think of Afghanistan after the departure of the Russians, Iraq after the departure of Saddam or Libya after the departure of Gaddafi. The US can try to appoint someone or try to get the different leaders agree on a way forward. But typically you end up with a lot of unresolved issues and smoldering power struggles. Building a state from the ground up is fundamentally different from continuing from a status quo. But US leaders usually prefer pummeling enemies above making a compromise with existing powers. And so while in Iraq it would have been preferential to have a compromise with the Sunni's and in Libya a compromise with Gaddafi would have contributed to stability the US preferred to humiliate its (imagined) adversaries to the bottom - with dire consequences. It looks like the US is doing the same with Syria.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

When and how started the armed struggle in Syria?

In this post I want to investigate when and how the peaceful protests evolved into an armed struggle. Additional information is welcome.

Just like previous posts about foreign involvement in the Syrian uprising and misbehavior by the rebels this is meant as a post to be regularly updated with new information.

The article "Has Syria's peaceful uprising turned into an insurrection?" from 9 June 2011 discusses the massacre at Jisr al-Shughur where 120 soldiers and police were killed. The government claimed it was done by rebels. The opposition claimed it was the government killing defectors. Anyway, it was the moment that the uprising definitively ended to be peaceful. Interesting is the notion in the article that prices for weapons on the black market in Lebanon were rising: Before the uprising in Syria began in mid-March, a top quality Russian AK-47 assault rifle, known in the local trade as a “Circle 11” from the stamp on the metalwork, fetched around $1,200. Today, the price has soared to nearly $2,000. A rocket-propelled grenade launcher, beloved of insurgents in the Middle East, has risen from $900 in early March to $1,000 while individual rounds have risen by 50 percent to $150 each. This means people were already arming themselves and preparing for war. Unfortunately the article doesn't provide more exact timing.

- The Price of Loyalty in Syria: In early April 2011, Aliaa told me, she was in traffic on a coastal road when she heard loud explosions and gunfire that lasted for several minutes. Only after returning home to Jableh, where she lives, did she learn that nine Syrian soldiers had been ambushed and killed nearby. Early reports described them as would-be defectors killed by their superiors, but no evidence for that claim has ever emerged, and amateur video taken at the scene suggests the killers were rebel gunmen.[]

That spring, despite the protesters’ insistence on an inclusive movement, sectarian rhetoric began creeping in. One popular slogan was “We don’t want Iran, we don’t want Hezbollah, we want someone who fears God.” This may sound harmless to outsiders, but in Syria it was a clear call to Sunnis to rally against their enemies. During the summer of 2011, a bizarre rumor spread that if rebels banged on metal after midnight and uttered the right prayer during the holy month of Ramadan, Alawites would disappear. When I visited Aliaa’s home, she led me out to the balcony and showed me a terrace on the neighboring building. “You see that terrace?” she said. “They were banging on metal in the middle of the night. My father got out of bed and shouted: ‘Shut up! We’re not going to disappear!’ ” Later, as we were walking down the stairwell, she pointed out a circle with an X in it drawn on the wall. “That was a symbol the opposition used to mark their targets,” she said. “The guy who lives there is the brother of a high official.”

Aliaa’s younger brother Abdulhameed described for me his own sectarian shock. He is a 23-year-old amateur boxer who was studying in Egypt last November, living with five Syrian friends in a house in Alexandria. One night a young man with an Iraqi accent knocked on their door and asked if he was Syrian. Abdulhameed said yes, and the Iraqi walked off. Late that night, a group of men tried to break down the door, while shouting sectarian abuse. Abdulhameed and his friends fought the attackers off and drove them away. “But the worst part came after,” he said. “A few days later there was a posting on Facebook, with our exact address, saying, ‘These guys are Syrians, funded by Iran and Hezbollah to spread Shiism in Egypt, and you must kill them.’ ” Three of the Syrians gave up their studies and went home.

- According the West Point study "Al-Qa'ida's Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Record" Deir Al-Zour, Idlib and Daraa were top sources from which Al Qaeda fighters left for Iraq. This is rather similar to Libya where the Benghazi region was a top provider for both Al Qaeda and the uprising. See also Bombers, Bank Accounts and Bleedout: al-Qa'ida's Road In and Out of Iraq.

- Robert Fisk: The bloody truth about Syria's uncivil war tells the story from the point of view of the Syrian army, including the uprising that was armed from day one. One fragment: In Duma, a mosque leader told worshippers: "Among us, there is an Awaini," – a traitor. The man was beaten to death. His name is recorded as Abu Ahmed Akera.

- Syria: Seven Police Killed, Buildings Torched in Protests: Seven police officers and at least four demonstrators in Syria have been killed in continuing violent clashes that erupted in the southern town of Daraa last Thursday[=17 March]. So there were already armed protesters right at the beginning. Note that reports from 15 March - usually seen as the beginning of the protests - saw no police violence in Damascus.

- Robert Fisk: The war has reached Damascus, but for now it is not a warzone: In fact 25 days after the beginning of the revolution, a convoy of the government army’s 145th Infantry Brigade was attacked on Banias bridge. Up to 12 soldiers were killed, 40 more wounded.

- The Alawite Dilemma in Homs: He notes, in particular, the killing of Brigadier General Abdu Telawi, his two sons, and a nephew near Zahra in April 2011 at a time of heightened anti-regime demonstrations. The event was highly publicized with the mutilated bodies of the men and the funeral in Wadi al-Dahab widely broadcast on television. Interviews with the general’s daughter and his wife speaking in recognizable Alawite accents also highlighted the family’s sectarian affiliation. This incident is considered a major turning-point for the Alawite community of Homs

- Former Syrian Soldier Describes Life in the Army at the Start of War: Our unit was sent to Dara’a after the protests started in March of 2011 and our area was at the center of the problems because it contained the Umari mosque.[..] When we arrived in Dara’a we were given strict orders to never speak with civilians there.[..] In the beginning we were strictly prohibited from shooting at the protesters and the officers were very careful to avoid confrontation.[..] When this didn’t work, my captain ordered me to fire a tank shell into a building near the protesters, but we didn’t kill anyone until later in April.[..] Only one of my soldiers was hurt in the fighting while I was there. One night, we were at a security position outside our BMP vehicle when someone threw a grenade at us from a nearby building. One of my soldiers was hit by fragments, but he lived. Much of the fighting was at night when the resistance could move around without being seen. There was a lot of mortar and RPG fire at us, but it was mostly inaccurate. Because units didn’t talk to each other there were lots of friendly fire incidents at night, 20 soldiers were killed that way while I was there.[..] We were encouraged to abuse the people, even when it seemed pointless. We collected 2,000 motorcycles off the street and destroyed them. I ran over many with my BMP. The motorcycles are how poor people get around and live. We stole whatever we wanted from stores as we passed them. My soldiers’ favorite thing to steal was Marlboro cigarettes.[..] By August we were rounding up any young man we found, whether we were looking for him or not.

This video, dated 21 march 2011, shows the destruction of Baath headquarters in Daraa. In a similar attempt in Latakia a few days later two protesters were shot: Police were not in evidence when they marched to a cemetery chanting: "The people want the downfall of the regime," a refrain heard in uprisings from Tunisia to Egypt and Yemen. Emboldened by the lack of security presence, the mourners also chanted: "Strike, strike, until the regime falls!"

Syria's security forces seize arms smuggled from Iraq: Grenades, firearms and ammunition belts found in truck loaded in Baghdad. The story is no longer on the Guardian website. See instead here or on

Syria Daraa Revolution was Armed to the Teeth from the Very Beginning: Arab only; This is an interview of Anwar al-Eshki, a former Saudi commander, with the Arab BBC.

Syria Exclusive: Islamist Militants Fight Alongside Rebels: The Ahrar started working on forming brigades “after the Egyptian revolution,” Abu Zayd said, well before March 15, 2011, when the Syrian revolution kicked off with protests in the southern agricultural city of Dara’a. The group announced its presence about six months ago, he said. Abu Zayd denied the presence of foreigners, even though TIME saw a man in the group’s compound who possessed strong Central Asian features. “Maybe his mother is,” Abu Zayd said unconvincingly. “We are not short of men to need foreigners.”

In Homs, Syria, some decry U.N. aid effort as benefiting 'terrorists': Contrary to the widely disseminated narrative of a rebellion that began with peaceful protests, many in Zahra recall a wave of violence engulfing Homs amid a chilling rebel slogan: "Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the coffin!" As the war ground on, Alawites who say they faced expulsion or death in other areas fled to Zahra for safety, swelling the population. (9-2-2014)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The push for armed intervention in Syria

In the article Intervention in Syria risks blowback and regional war Seumas Milne gives a good overview of the drive towards armed intervention in Syria with false arguments.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Arab Spring: powergames versus real change

Today the NY Times has an article (In Cairo Crisis, the Poor Find Dashed Hopes) about disappointment in Egypt about the course of the revolution. A few days ago there was a rather similar piece about Tunisia. I am not astonished.

Before the revolutions there was high economic growth (about 7%). There were many complaints about corruption, but those Arab countries had low inequality - at a level comparable to the more equal European countries. That is quite an accomplishment when you consider that poor countries usually have rather high inequality.

Sure, a lot of young people were unemployed. But anyone could see that a revolution would only make things worse. The inevitable instability was bound to lead to a fall in economic growth. And despite the complaints about corruption it was unlikely - given the low inequality - that there was much to gain with redistribution. Those people advocating their revolution with economic arguments were plainly deceiving their audience.

That Ben Ali in Tunisia gave up after a short time was not an indication that the region was ripe for revolution - as Obama so eagerly assumed. It meant just that as a man in his 80s he didn't have the stomach for a big political fight.

In fact the Arab Spring was harmful. Instead of a discussion about real issues it resulted in endless power fights with a prominent place for the curse of the Arab world - Islamist organisations sponsored by the oil sheikhs.

Those protests could have had real results for the poor people - when they had not resulted in regime change. In that case the discussion could have focused on real issues: corruption and economic liberalization. Now the politicians are too busy fighting each other and gathering power to be concerned with issues like corruption.

The future of international criminal law

I have always been rather skeptic towards the ICC, the ICTY and other efforts for international criminal justice. I believe in the primacy of politics whose job it is to guarantee peace and to provide the rules for inter-human behavior.

One claim of the international lawyers was that it would help to establish facts and so to prevent future disputes. The Nuremberg Trials didn't completely prevent Holocaust denial but they at least limited the damage - is the reasoning. But those trials also showed the arbitrariness of those rules. For example the bombing of (civilian) Rotterdam and London could not be proclaimed a crime because the Allies later on had done much larger scale bombings of German cities.

We see the same now with former Yugoslavia. In Slovenia - that started the violence and by doing so set the pattern for the rest - no one was even indicted. Croatia drove out some 400,000 Serbs and killed many hundreds of them - but again no one was convicted. In the end the only non-Serbs convicted of war crimes were Croats attacking Muslims.

Regarding politics the ICTY was just as bad. By sticking to the "Great Serbia" myth it evaded any realistic discussion about how politics in Croatia and Bosnia had derailed into war. Sure, Serbia played a role, but so did the EU with its harmful Badinter Commission.

Reports from Africa aren't very encouraging either. Finding a solution for the insurrection of the LRA in Uganda is seriously hampered by an ICC indictment of its leader Kony - that makes it impossible to offer Kony impunity in exchange for an end to the violence. More recently we see similar developments in Eastern Congo around the indictment of Ntaganda that led to the formation of the M23. Another tool of our modern "humanitarian warriors", the boycott of "blood diamonds" and other minerals led to their recent offensive.

And then there is Bangladesh. As the Economist recently reported (The trial of the birth of a nation) it has its own tribunal for crimes during its independence war in 1971. Yet the tribunal was only set up in 2008 and it seems mainly meant to harass the Islamist Jamaat party that during that war was allied with the Pakistani and is now part of the opposition.

Jadaliyya, an Arab magazine, has an article "Imagining Justice Beyond the ICC". It tells in detail how both the ICC and the R2P principle are in practice dependent on the main world powers for the supply of suspects and witnesses and how that undermines its neutrality.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Why Georgia's transition is no big deal

Georgia just got a new government. Many people see this as an example where a color revolution did work out well. I don't share that conviction.

Most dictators nowadays are "soft dictators". On paper everything looks fine: they have a parliament, elections, multiple parties and a free press. But they always find some way to stay in power: the opposition press faces libel trials or opposition media get bought by government friendly people, opposition leaders are bribed to change sides or see their citizenship challenged, government sponsored thugs disturb meetings, etc.

Color revolutions are a way to challenge these soft dictators. By building a lot of pressure at once they overwhelm the defenses of the dictator. But that they doesn't solve anything. You just get a different set of guys in power who - facing the same challenges - will very likely show similar behavior.

Real change happens on the basis of factual arguments. But color revolutions are based on lies. They claim that the present rulers are corrupt and incompetent and that when the opposition rules everything will become better. But corruption reflects a set of institutional and cultural defects that can only be cured with a sharp diagnosis and consistent effort. By focusing on people and power revolutions tend to divert the attention away from the structural issues. The consequence is that - just as the pigs in Animal Farm - they end up showing very similar behavior.

The problem with the recent power change in Georgia is that is looks a lot like a color revolution. Here it was a prison video that swung public opinion within a very short period and overwhelmed the defenses of the soft dictatorship. International pressure withheld Saakashvili from all too fragrant tricks. But as the underlying problems haven't been addressed it is rather likely that the new rulers will end up showing very similar behavior.

It may be seem better to have at least a regular change of dysfunctional government than consistently the same one. But in fact that depends. In countries where there is little alternative employment for dismissed ministers there is a great temptation to use the period till the next election to make their future safe. And the fact that Georgia's opposition won mainly thanks to the quirk of the prison video is an open invitation to the kind of soft dictatorship that tries to manage that kind of quirks to its advantage.

I do hope that Georgia's new leaders will turn out well. But we should do better to take a more distant perspective on what happens there.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

More fallout from Libya

The Jeruzalem Post reports:

Fifty percent of the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council (SNC) budget came from the Libyan government. Since Libya is very much a US client, it’s reasonable to conclude that the Obama administration encouraged this generosity.

Yet this money was financing a Muslim Brotherhood front. (A lot of arms have been flowing from Libya to Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip and to radical forces in Syria. Some claim that the US government was coordinating that traffic, though this has not yet been proven.) If true, this means the Obama administration was using a barely disguised channel to fund a revolutionary Islamist movement seeking to take over Syria. That this group was also anti-American, anti- Semitic and genocidal toward Jews was apparently not significant. The rest of the SNC budget came from Qatar (38%) and Saudi Arabia (12%).

Jihadi's on Israel's Syria border

Another report from Warsclerotic:

We estimate that there are between 3,000 to 4,000 rebel fighters belonging to radical Salafist groups who all belong under the al-Qaida umbrella,” the official said.

“Some of these fighters are fighting against the Assad regime, but there are groups that have begun deploying near our border and are stockpiling weaponry. There are now several hundred jihadis deployed along the border with Israel in the area of Kuneitra, Bir Ajam, Barika, and some other areas. The assessment is that they possess quantities of weapons that are not being used against Assad’s army and that it will be Israeli soldiers who will be faced with this weaponry. We are certain that they have MILAN, Metis-M, and Kornet anti-tank missiles, as well as shoulder-fired SA-18 anti-aircraft missiles, which are particularly problematic,” the intelligence official said.

US navy in Mediterranian

Warsclerotic reports

The USS Eisenhower Strike Group transited the Suez Canal from the Persian Gulf Saturday, Dec. 1, sailing up to the Syrian coast Tuesday in a heavy storm, with 8 fighter bomber squadrons of Air Wing Seven on its decks and 8,000 sailors, airmen and Marines.
The USS Eisenhower group joins the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group which carries 2,500 Marines.

Facing Syria now are 10,000 US fighting men, 70 fighter-bombers and at least 17 warships, including the three Iwo Jima amphibious craft, a guided missile cruiser and 10 destroyers and frigates.
Four of these vessels are armed with Aegis missile interceptors.
This mighty US armada brings immense pressure to bear on the beleaguered Assad regime after it survied an almost two-year buffeting by an armed uprising. Its presence indicates that the United States now stands ready for direct military intervention in the Syrian conflict when the weather permits.
Left behind in the Persian Gulf is just one US aircraft carrier, the USS Stennis and its strike group.

Postscript (6 December 2012): now 17 US warships off Syrian coast

US allowed Qatar to supply weapons to Libya rebellion

The NY Times reports (U.S.-Approved Arms for Libya Rebels Fell Into Jihadis’ Hands ) that the US gave Qatar permission to supply the Libyan rebels with weapons. But when the Qatari sent it to radical groups - about which rebel leader Jibril complained - the US had little leverage to influence them.

On Libya:
American officials say that the United Arab Emirates first approached the Obama administration during the early months of the Libyan uprising, asking for permission to ship American-built weapons that the United States had supplied for the emirates’ use. The administration rejected that request, but instead urged the emirates to ship weapons to Libya that could not be traced to the United States. [..] Qatar supplied weapons made outside the United States, including French- and Russian-designed arms, according to people familiar with the shipments.

The article has also a puzzling section about Marc Turi, an American arms trader who supplied Libyan rebels via Qatar: The Qataris, he complained, imposed no controls on who got the weapons. “They just handed them out like candy,” he said.

On Syria:
The Obama administration did not initially raise objections when Qatar began shipping arms to opposition groups in Syria, even if it did not offer encouragement, according to current and former administration official

The Top Ten Myths in the War Against Libya

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Arab Spring target Lebanon

The influence of Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon has long been a thorn in the eye of the Wahabi Gulf dictatorships. In the past years Turkey and Qatar have tried to counter it by building up the Sunni-led Internal Security Forces in which General Ashraf Rifi and Wissam al-Hassan played a central role. Al-Hassan, who was recently murdered, played also a very important role in arming the Syrian uprising (see Syrian Rebels' Supply Lines and Lebanon: Lessons from Two Assassinations).

It seems clear that after Syria they will also aim for a Sunni takeover in Lebanon.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Another view on the start of the latest Gaza conflict

Gershon Baskin, an Israeli peace activist, claims that he was mediating between Israel and Hamas and was close to an agreement when the present trouble started. Ahmed Jaabari, the commander of the military wing of Hamas, was the key actor on the Palestinian side. They seemed close to an agreement when Jaabari was murdered by the Israeli.

The big question of course is why...

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Next stop: Jordan

While Syria is still burning the Gulf States are already busy starting their next regime change project in Jordan. The developments until now:
- the Gulf states have stopped subsidies, resulting in a 3 billion government deficit.
- add to that the influx of 200,000 Syrian refugees
- So the government felt the need to rise the fuel prices, what was a nice excuse for protests.
- the Muslim Brotherhood has "expanded alliances with the extremists known as Salafists, unions and the loose-knit, largely secular protest movement known as the Hirak."
- Of course all the troublemakers claim to speak on behalf of "the people" and any concession the government makes is considered "not enough".

It looks like the Jordan king will pay a high price for the way he betrayed Syria.

In the mean time the smell of fear in the Arab world - that was already sensible when the Arab League accepted its resolutions against Gaddafi with many voting blank (obviously fearing that the Gulf States would target them next for regime change) - keeps rising.

Postscript: Today an article (In foiled Jordanian terror plot, officials see hand of resurgent al-Qaeda in Iraq) about a foiled Al Qaeda attack on the US embassy in Jordan: A Western intelligence official familiar with the Amman plot said most of the suspects had fought in Syria before returning to Jordan with new skills and a changed perspective toward their native country. [..] “They are real fighters,” the official said. “From Syria, they had weapons training and tactics. They were good at shooting, and they knew how to use complicated communications systems.” They also had another important advantage: easy access to the almost endless supply of weapons in Syria, where arms bound for rebel fighters arrive daily across the Turkish border. Cases of TNT, mortar shells, grenade launchers and even belt-fed machine guns were smuggled into Jordan for an attack that planners hoped would wreak havoc across the capital and lead to the collapse of the country’s Western-backed government. [..] To build the biggest bombs, the Jordanians received vital help from AQI, including a formula for enhancing the explosive power of ordinary TNT, the officials said. The instructions were passed via e-mails, and the key ingredients were delivered to a safe house in Syria.

This article (Al Nusra: Al Qaeda’s Syria Offensive) provides more details: Last October the Jordanian intelligence service foiled a plot based in Syria by al Qaeda to stage a mass-casualty terror attack in Amman that was apparently modeled on the 2008 attack by Pakistani terrorists on Mumbai, India. The attack would have begun with suicide bombers in two shopping malls in Amman; then, when the security forces rushed to deal with those, other attackers would attack the American embassy and other Western diplomats in the city.

Jordanian authorities believe that the planned attacks were scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of the November 9, 2005, terrorist attacks in Amman, in which 60 people were killed and 115 injured in multiple hotel bombings. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attacks, citing its rejection of Jordan’s alliance with the United States and its 1994 peace treaty with Israel. Jordanian intelligence said that group nicknamed its terror plot “9/11 the second” after the 2005 bombings. Among those arrested were two cousins of the Jordanian founder of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musaib al Zarqawi, who planned the 2005 attack.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Salafism: how facism works

The NY Times has an article (Tunisia Battles Over Pulpits, and Revolt’s Legacy) about the role of Salafists in Tunisia. They don't recognize democracy and violently try to impose their will - taking over mosques, destroying selling points of alcohol, etc.

According to the article the Tunisian government is slowly taking back control of the mosques. Some 800 Salafists are already in prison. But it looks like the Salafists are getting stronger in other areas.

These Salafists are a good illustration of the old principle that you can't have other armed groups outside the control of the state. The violence monopoly of the government is one of the most essential foundations of democracy. When you have armed groups around they form a kind of alternative government and some people will look at them for that. That explains why a considerable number of people will feel attracted by such armed groups.

This explains also why I am so vehemently against those "democratic" uprisings in Libya and Syria. They undermine the violence monopoly of the government and in that way make democracy less viable.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

How to get realistic on mediation in Syria

An increasingly heavy conflict has been developing in Syria for more than one and a half year now. In the course of time several outside parties have tried to mediate the conflict and until now all have failed. The reason: an unrealistic view on the situation and how to mediate it.

The first to mediate was the Turkish government. Still basking its perceived glorious role in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings it hoped to bring around a similar regime change here too. When that didn’t work out immediately the Turkish government turned against Assad and started supporting and arming the rebels. It was a rather strange vision on mediation

Next was Annan. He demanded for Assad’s departure and for foreign pressure on the Syrian government. He didn’t make similar demands from the rebels. Doing so he violated the most basic principle of mediation: neutrality.

An alternative vision could recently been seen in the new “National Initiative Council” that is promoted by the US and the Gulf States as the new foreign representative of the Syrian rebels. I think Clinton is deluding herself with this initiative. Millions of Syrians prefer Assad above the rebels and that won’t change with this initiative. Neither will it stop the ongoing radicalization of the rebel fighters that is increasingly driving neutral Syrians to prefer Assad. There is no real alternative to accepting Assad as a full partner in the discussions about the future of Syria.

Clinton seems to see Syria as part of an international power game and to see removing Assad is a step in her conflict with Iran. It is not hard to see the immoral side of this attitude. But from the political point of view it is a risky move too. The core support groups of the rebels in Syria are the same of the those of the Mujaheddin and Taliban in Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution: religious fanatics, social conservatives and people hurt by economic modernization. It is unlikely that a win of those groups will be in the long term interest of the US.

Brahimi has preserved a neutral position. Unfortunately he made the mistake of organizing an armistice without first organizing talks between the parties. Predictably both sides saw the armistice as something that they needed to do as a public relations gesture towards the West. But they didn’t see it as a first step towards peace and only saw it as a short break in a battle that has to fought till the bitter end. So their commitment was low.

I found both Annan and Brahimi unfortunate choices for a mediator. Real mediation is a rather humble profession. The mediator functions as the sound of reason and the source of solutions. But he has no power over the sides and has to watch powerlessly when parties change their mind. For such a job Annan and Brahimi have a much too high status. A lower ranking diplomat would have been a better choice.

That the they have been chosen anyway has to do with a rather strange vision on diplomacy in which “mediating” diplomats more or less dictate solutions. As they miss military power and rely on diplomatic pressure they need a truce to operate in: that is also the reason that both Annan and Brahimi started with organizing a truce.

Such solutions often work well between a few big parties where the main issue is power distribution. However, when things get ugly with discrimination and expulsion and rebuilding trust between the parties is important they tend to be dysfunctional. A good example was the Kosovo mediation of Ahtisaari that ended with the unilateral Ahtisaari Plan. It was a good excuse to declare Kosovo independent but it did nothing to improve the relations between the ethnic groups in Kosovo or to bring the many remaining refugees back. It rather froze the bad relations. Unfortunately the West’s role in those solutions mean that the status of our diplomats gets connected with those solutions: when later on Serbian and Kosovar politicians seemed on their way to reach a real agreement that included border changes – something Ahtisaari had refused – American diplomats were sent in to block this.

Syria’s primary problem is a total lack of trust between segments of the population. The Alawites remember being treated as pariahs before World War I and they have seen how some rebel propagandists are trying to push them back in the same corner. The Christians see among the rebel fighters the same people who were instrumental in the expulsion of half of Iraq’s Christians. Westernized Sunni see the rebels as revengeful fanatics who waged a murder campaign around 1980 that has poisoned the political climate since then and who nowadays murder people for the faintest association with Assad. They see also rising cultural intolerance including pressure on women to wear head scarves. On the other hand many rebel fighters fear that if they loose the battle they will have to spend the rest of their lives as exiles.

You can’t solve such problems by imposing a solution. Such a “solution” would only raise the fears of one – if not both – parties. What is needed is a dialogue that re-establishes Syria as a place were both sides can live together in peace. Such a dialogue has by definition to take place in the open. Only the light of publicity can expose and marginalize extremists who don’t want to respect other people. Only the light of publicity can point the way to consensus.

Such a dialogue will be intensive and take a considerable time. Representatives have to be chosen, trust has to be built and the participants will need regular contact with their support base.

Efforts to start such a dialogue should have begun long ago. Unfortunately the UN was too preoccupied with its visions of grand diplomacy while the US and Turkey were too occupied with their visions of regime change. Both saw negotiations between the Syrian factions as just a final gathering that should – under heavy diplomatic pressure – rubberstamp the decisions they have made.

Unfortunately you can’t solve a situation like Syria’s that way. Syria needs a real dialogue.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Sanctions cause medicine and food shortage in Iran

According to the NY Times (Iran Sanctions Take Unexpected Toll on Medical Imports) the US sanctions against Iran are causing an unexpected shortage of medicine in Iran. After the heavy fines that the US has imposed on banks for past transactions with Iran banks have now become anxious to have anything to do with Iran and they refuse even transactions that are not forbidden by sanctions - like medicine sales.

But rather than considering this "unexpected" I think this is the logical consequence of Obama's view of trade as an arm. I am fundamentally opposed to that policy as it undermines the foundations of free trade.

Besides that it is well known that trade sanctions don't work and only strenthen sitting regimes. It it much better to have symbolic sanctions that clarify your position without imposing major harm.

According to Reuters (Sanctions side effect hits Iran's food system) Iran's food import has been similarly affected.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

The Chinese don't get it either on Syria

According to Xinhua the Chinese have during their discussion with Brahimi proposed a four points plan for Syria that starts with an armistice and is followed by the Syrian parties - under guidance of Brahimi and the international community - writing a roadmap for transition.

It is the same madness that has made Brahimi's mission such a poor performance!

Note that they don't even use the word "negotiations". That is because there will be no real negotiations. Just as with the Ahtisaari Plan for Kosovo and later Cooper's "technical" discussions the plan for Syria is basically an international dictat. But you can't solve distrust with a dictat: only open talks can do that. We have seen that in Kosovo where the Ahtissaari Plan did nothing to improve the inter-ethnic relations and we will see that again in Syria.

The distrust and fear between the parties in Syria is almost proverbial. Many rebel fighters fear they will have to spend the rest of their life in exile if they don't win. Many Alawites fear discrimination or even expulsion if Assad is driven out. The Christians aren't much more optimistic - having seen what the Iraqi colleagues of the rebels did to their co-religionists there. Only open talks between the parties can really address this distrust.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The "arming the moderates" argument for Syria

One of most popular argument used by those in favor of an intervention in Syria is that if we leave the arming of the rebels to the Saudi's and the Qatari's they will arm their friends - Salafi, Brotherhood supporters and other radical Muslims. So - they argue - we should arm and support our friends: the moderate Syrians. Otherwise, when everything is over and the rebels have won it is the radicals who will dominate.

There are several errors in this thinking. The first is the assumption that it is desirable that the rebels will win. Assad has at least 20% of the population behind him and maybe much more. If the rebels win these people will become second rate citizens - something irreconcilable with democracy. So if you want to have a democratic Syria one should strive to reach some compromise between the two sides. As an additional benefit it will prevent a lot of bloodshed.

A second error is to think that a smaller group of Jihadi's is less dangerous. Tunisia had no fight and the extremists did poorly at the elections. Yet nowadays armed Jihadi group dominate the scene. Most selling points of alcohol have been closed and more and more women cover their head. Actually this is a rather normal pattern: in many revolutions (for example Russia (1917), Fance (1789) and Iran (1979)) after some time a radical minority grabs the power. This very probably stems from the fact that a revolution legalizes the principle that power comes from the mouth of a gun.

Neither should one forget that just as the communist of yore the Jihadi's believe that any means is justified to reach their goals. If they believe it will help their cause they will be happy to kill some of those moderate leaders.

A third error is to think that those moderate Syrians will blame it on us that we don't give them enough weapons. According to this logic they will always blame us when we don't help them enough to win. They know we can win the war for them so some of them will always blame us for not doing their bidding. But it is their fight and it is their decision not to compromise and instead to adopt radicals who antagonize a considerable part of the population. We should not reward them for that.

Friday, October 19, 2012

US intelligence helping rebels?

As I mentioned in previous posts there are rumors that US intelligence is helping Syria's rebels with a.o. satellite information. I suspect that the attacks on Aleppo and Maarat al-Numan were initiated and coordinated by the US. Initiated to occur at a moment government troops in the area were weak and coordinated because many different rebel groups were involved.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Brahimi on a dead track

According to the Jerusalem Post Brahimi is visiting the Arab capitals and Iran in order to get support for an armistice. According to the article Brahimi thinks the opposition is prepared to that and it is the Syrian government that is resisting: We heard from everyone we met in the opposition, and everyone (else) we met that, if the government stops using violence 'We will respond to this directly'," he told reporters.

It seems hard to me to believe that an opposition that is attacking peaceful areas like Aleppo and Raqqa province where a majority of the population prefers to be ruled by Assad is interested in peace.

What the opposition really is interested in is having its own color revolution. One can expect that as soon as there are serious talks about an armistice they will demand the right to demonstrate. Never mind that the level of intimidation that emanates from those demonstrations is such that they might be forbidden in many Western countries. Never mind too that they will aim for a big final demonstration in the center of Damascus - that will end with an attempt to overrun parliament and government buildings.

Syria's opposition has yet to show any interest in real peace - that should come from negotiations and compromise. It is a pity that Brahimi is not stressing that point more.

We know how Annan's armistice went: some rebel groups openly refused to participate - while many others confessed to journalists that they committed themselves only because they feared refusing to so so might make bad propaganda in the West - but that they didn't expect anything from it. Brahimi has done nothing to diminish this lack of faith in a negotiated solution.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The value of real diplomacy

Amidst America's failure in Afghanistan and its dubious results in Iraq and its senseless sanction regime against Iran it is good to see Obama finally doing it good against one adversary: Israel. He got Israel to give up on the attack plans on Iran by increasing military and intelligence cooperation.

If only Obama could muster the courage to apply such a positive approach to Iran...

Repeating Bush's mistake

We all know that Bush made a mistake invading Iraq and that he worsened it by abolishing the Iraqi Army and with the de-Baathification policy. Yet what Obama has done in Libya and still is doing in Syria looks almost a carbon copy of these policies:

- in both cases a government is attacked that formed no threat for the US but was seen as opportune to attack by the neo-cons who are more interested in finding the next outlet for their hatred than in achieving any political goals.
- in both cases all opportunities for compromise or a gradual transition are rejected.
- in both cases the results are a power and security vacuum, anarchy and opportunity for extremist groups like Al Qaeda.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Obama's amateurish foreign policy

Many article nowadays analyze Obama's foreign policy. Some put the accent on the realism: Obama's policy is not that different from the latter years of Bush jr. Others stress Obama's lack of personal relations with other world leaders.

One remarkable thing were the "leaks" that Obama is personally involved in the selection of targets for the drones. I see that as a regrettable form of micromanagement. It gives me a chilly feeling: Obama seems proud of his power to decide over life and death. But the downside are many. His close involvement robs him of the ability to see alternatives to drone attacks and leads him to ignore the weaknesses of the intelligence. It leads to a lack of interest in the big picture - as became painfully obvious when Obama refused to meet world leaders during the yearly UN session.

Then there is the Arab Spring. Obama felt that he had missed an opportunity with the Green Revolution in Iran and so he was determined not to miss the boat in Tunisia. But while he was right in feeling that this was more than a short uprising his understanding of how revolutions work is zero. And in seeing every uprising as a first step towards democracy he was rather mistaken. Democracy is more than voting. It needs freedom and a rule of law as a basis to function. Unfortunately revolutions break the rule of law and create a climate where power comes from the mouth of a gun. Obama could have intervened as a mediator between government and protesters interested in creating a climate with more freedom and in the end elections. But it looks like Obama finds it very hard to bring up the humility that is demanded from a mediator. Instead he showed the hubris of calling for the departure of Mubarak and Assad - blatantly ignoring international law. In Libya he sent his bombers and refused any negotiated solution. And now he is astonished about the anarchy...

The mistake to mention a date of departure in Afghanistan is well known. But his handling of Iraq - where he failed to achieve an agreement that guaranteed US influence - falls in the same category. In both cases there is an absence of a long term vision.

Then there is the "Eastern pivot": the move of troops to Eastern Asia to counter Chinese influence. It was clear that Chinese nationalism was getting obnoxious and something had to be done. But I found it disturbing that Obama turned to sable rattling while he didn't use more peaceful means to influence Chinese public opinion. It was even more distasteful as the policy was rather hollow: most of those troop moves simply meant returning soldiers who had been moved to Iraq in the previous years.

Obama claimed for a short time to want a dialogue with Iran. But his words weren't matched by his actions - he simultaneously worsened the sanctions. Obama seems also unfamiliar with the idea that trust needs to be deserved and built and that that takes time. Since Obama gave up on Iran he has behaved like a revengeful rejected lover.

Obama's Africa policy is a story of neglect. Only the conflict between Sudan and South-Sudan got some serious attention. While in some other places like Latin America the off-hands approach is welcomed after the aggressive Bush that is not the case in Africa.

Obama had little experience with foreign policy when he became president. But he could have repaired that by outsourcing it to someone who did know. Unfortunately it looks like Obama loves the power to much to hand it over. This has led to a focus on rather unimportant things like drone strikes and an overcommitment to the Arab Spring. On many subjects he has no vision and he seems incapable of the cool steadiness that is so necessary for results. It looks like the situation has hurt Hillary Clinton. After a few years as Secretary of State she looks much older and reportedly speaks in a monotonous way. What bothers her we may never know and she is too much the loyal good soldier to quit.

Postscript: This article (Inside Obama's Decisions: From Libya To Lunch) only strengthened my impression. The idea that he saved 100,000 Libyan lives is rather presumptuous but Obama doesn't show any sign of doubt. And leaving decisions about clothing and eating to others may sound wise but at the same time it raises the specter of a monomaniac who is so focused on his job that he is losing the perspective. Together is raises the impression of a president who is hopelessly dependent on his staff.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Syria, please negotiate with the Brotherhood

It is known that Brahimi finds the fragmentation of Syria's opposition the most difficult part of his job. One could add that the armed opposition is not independent but relies for its finances and arms on Qatar and Saudi Arabia. So if one group would decide to negotiate with Assad the likely consequence would be that the financiers will simply switch and support a different group.

All this financing is of course a violation of international law but I am afraid that complaints about that will achieve nothing.

So I think the most workable option is having the Muslim Brotherhood to negotiate with Assad. The Brotherhood doesn't represent all rebels but an important part of them does so. And as the present conflict is also partly a repeat of the conflict in the early 1980s a consent of the Brotherhood will give an important signal that a solution is possible. In addition, the Brotherhood is as a non-military organization less sensitive to foreign pressure.

It won't be easy to get the Brotherhood to compromise with Assad, but I think it is Syria's best chance. The Brotherhood is the only organization with enough authority not to see itself marginalized when it negotiates and compromises with the government. If it - with it grudges dating from 1982 and before - can reach a solution anyone can.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Solving America's polarization

The Unraveling of Government by a former House member tells about some of the policies that cause polarization. One fragment: On the House floor, Republicans and Democrats must speak from separate lecterns and when they step off the floor to use their phones, drink coffee or read newspapers, they do so in separate cloakrooms. That well-known center aisle is like the mighty Mississippi, a wide divide that extends through everything the Congress does. That is why on almost every major issue, from spending and taxes to Supreme Court nominations, almost all Republicans are on one side and almost all Democrats are on the other side.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

US still using "double taps" - killing helpers

One of the often repeated complaints about the NATO bombing in Libya was the use of "double taps". After NATO had bombed a place a couple of minutes later it would come back to bomb again - and hit all those who had rushed out to help the victims.

Now it appears the US is using the same tactic in its drone attacks on Pakistan.

The UN is investigating the issue (UN team to investigate civilian drone deaths).

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Mob rule

As I have mentioned before I consider the "non-violent" protests inspired by the color revolutions and the Arab Spring as classical examples at mob rule. The protesters do not represent the majority of the population but they just behave that way and then are accepted as such by the Western press. All the behavior like occupying the most important square of a town is supposed to transfer message of entitlement.

This climate of mob rule has continued after the fall of the regimes in Northern Africa. Reports from Tunisia tell about militia's imposing Islamic rules in the villages and towns. Most alcohol shops have been destroyed or disappeared. Many women feel now forced to walk veiled. To a lesser extend the same process is at work in Egypt.

In Libya the mob rule has gone one step further with its steady growing militias. Recently Islamic militias destroyed Sufi shrines. They were busy for days and it took place in the center of Tripoli but the government did not interfere. The interior minister defended it as that he didn't want to endanger government troops. Only after the killing of the US ambassador was he forced to resign.

The recent eviction of several militias from Benghazi may sound as an improvement but it is once again "mob rule" instead of the government resuming the monopoly of power.

According to the NYT another reason for not abolishing the militias is that there are too few authorized police to do the job. But that is nonsense. One could absorb some militia members in the police with the explicit requirement that they follow studies. This would place them at least under government control. According to the article Libya's government has now ordered the breakup of the militia's. But the article is skeptical whether that will work.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The impossible science of international relations

It is well known that World War I happened completely unexpected. Everyone thought only in terms of short victorious military operations. And then suddenly they were in a swamp.

This is no coincidence. When people know here is a danger for large war they tend to take precautions not to let minor conflicts get out of hand. But when they feel safe to prevail arrogance often gets the upperhand.

We see this arrogance in Syria too. We keep hearing that just a little bit more support for the FSA will help the rebels win. In fact the only thing that changes with more support for the FSA is that the daily death toll rises. As I have written before a Libya-style victory in the Syrian context could easily cost the lives of 200,000 people. (In Libya 30,000 people were killed. Syria has a population that is three times as large, better defendable terrain and sharper ethnic divisions.) If our leaders would be open about this risk they would feel pressured to seek some compromise. But as long as everyone keeps hiding behind the idea of a speedy victory the conflict is doomed to go on.

Syrian Jihadism

Here some quotes from the report Syrian Jihadism by the Swedish Institute for International Affairs. The report is 46 pages, so this is just an impression.

As Fabrice Balanche has documented, major military conflict is limited to Sunni Arab areas only, while territories inhabited by religious minorities (such as Alawites, Druze or Christians) have by and large remained passively or actively supportive of the regime (Balanche 2011). [page 7]

The following fragment discusses the fact that more deaths are registered in Sunni areas. It is interesting because this is the province where the rebels claim to just have conquered a border post and are trying to infiltrate: The only real outlier in terms of religious demography and casualty numbers is the Raqqa Governorate in north-central Syria. Its more than 800,000 inhabitants are mostly Sunni Arabs, but the number VDC-counted deaths stood at only 73 on August 7, 2012. Different hypotheses may be advanced for this, including the tribal nature of the area, the low population density in the countryside, pro-government attitudes in some recently constructed communities (in conjunction with the Tabqa Dam project on the Euphrates), etc, but the Raqqa case clearly merits further study. [note page 7/8]

The non-armed opposition both inside and outside Syria retains some high-profile activists from a religious minority background, many of them formerly leading figures within the secular, pre-revolutionary dissident movement (including Alawites like Abdelaziz el-Khayyer or Aref Dalila, and Christians like Georges Sabra or Michel Kilo). However, this “political” opposition is by now marginalized by the military confrontation.
Virtually all members of the armed insurgent groups, regardless of their ideological inclination, are Sunni Arabs. They hail mostly from agricultural regions and provincial towns, which have suffered economically from Bashar el-Assad’s reform program. Major cities and middle-class areas have mostly remained quiet, but the insurgency now has a firm foothold in the ”poverty belt” of ramshackle suburbs ringing both Aleppo and Damascus, after decades of in-migration from deteriorating conditions in the countryside. [page 9]

The insurgent movement comprises some tens of thousands of fighters. It is organizationally split among hundreds of autonomous units, generally called ”brigades” (katiba, pl. kataeb), regardless of their actual size. [..] They are generally ”gathered along village or extended family lines, with little ideological content”. Fighters tend to be ”conservative and practicing Muslims” but organized and ideologically conscious Islamists form only a small minority (Jaulmes 2012).4 Even so, most fighters are acutely aware of their Sunni Muslim identity, and over time, the insurgent movement has taken on a Sunni sectarian hue. [page 9]

Nir Rosen, an American journalist who has travelled extensively among the Syrian rebels, points out that many insurgents ”were not religious before the uprising, but now pray and are inspired by Islam, which gives them a creed and a discourse.”(Rosen 2012a).[page 10]

A 1979-1982 uprising against Hafez el-Assad also began in a wave of broad civil protest against tyranny and a faltering economy, but was quickly sidetracked into violent sectarian conflict. [page 11]

The opposing side is not only a secular tyranny, but also identified with a ”heretical” religious group, the Alawites – or ”Noseiris”, as jihadis prefer to call them, using an older, denigrating term. Most Sunni theologians agree that Alawites cannot be accepted as Muslims, and the stricter salafi interpretations, which rely on old fatwas by the medieval scholar Ibn Taimiya, call for their expulsion or even extermination. Last but not least, el-Sham (a word which can mean both Damascus and the Levant or Greater Syria) plays an important role in Muslim eschatology, as a battlefield near the end of days.[page 11]

There are also a number of FSA Military Councils (Majalis Askariya) inside the country, currently nine. The councils generally represent the single strongest coalition of insurgent groups in their home areas, but this varies considerably from province to province. According to a source sympathetic to the Military Councils, they collectively gather some 50-60 percent of the total number of fighters identifying as “FSA” (excluding a significant minority of rebels who do not use the FSA label at all). [page 12]

“If you ask any of the nine Military Council commanders, they will tell you they have no general commander”, explains Brian Sayers, director of government relations for the Syrian Support Group, an American organization which provides funds and training to the FSA Military Councils.
In March 2012, five Military Councils jointly announced the creation of a new “internal” FSA leadership, appointing the Homs Military Council commander Col. Qasem Saadeddine as their top commander. Many viewed this as a move intended to displace Col. Asaad’s ineffectual exile leadership. Months later, the joint command does not appear to function well, if at all. Col. Saadeddine continues to appear in the media under this title, but his influence does not seem to extend beyond his own Homs Military Council. [page 13]

While attempting to build up the SNC-FSA alliance as the centrepiece of the Syrian opposition, these same states have also tried to hamper the development of rival, non-state Islamic donor channels. In May 2012, a number of Saudi religious scholars were ordered to stop collecting funds privately, and instead direct their followers to officially sanctioned aid agencies. A salafi-led aid group known as the Ulema Committee to Support Syria was forced to shut down its activity. [page 17/18]

High-ranking members of the Saudi religious establishment have since decreed that it is unlawful for Saudis to finance or fight in the Syrian jihad on their own initiative. According to Ali bin Abbas al-Hakami and Abdullah bin Mohammed al-Mutlaq of the Senior Ulema Commission, ”the FSA is responsible for the fighting and jihad in Syria, and should be supported”, but only through official channels set up by the Saudi government. Other states have issued similar rulings via the mosques, to stem the flow of volunteers and money to Syrian extremist groups ('Tunisian spokesman calls on preachers to stop pushing jihad in Syria among the youth'.)
However, private donations keep trickling into Syria, and the insurgents remain heavily reliant on informal methods of transfer. For example, a financing network run on behalf of the Syrian salafi theologian Mohammed Surour Zeinelabidin (funded mainly by Gulf donors) appears to be active in supporting both humanitarian and paramilitary Islamist groups, primarily in southern Syria. Islamic organizations and expat Syrian financiers continue to be a favored source of support even for non-ideological rebel commanders, due to the minimal red tape and corruption, and their proven track record of getting money into Syria. [page 18]

In an interview with Time Magazine, a member of the jihadi Ahrar el-Sham Brigades noted the inefficiency of the FSA’s state support in contrast to their own privately funded religious channels, saying that FSA members “get more support than we do, but our support is delivered to us, theirs doesn’t make it to them. [...] Their support stays in Turkey, it doesn’t make it to the revolutionaries here. If our supporters send us 100 lira, we get 100 lira.” [page 20]

Two groups in particular have been identified with the foreign fighter phenomenon: Jabhat el-Nosra and the Ahrar el-Sham Brigades. Both are among the most extreme salafi groups in the Syrian rebel movement, and Jabhat el-Nosra in particular is closely tied to the transnational jihadi environment. When asked by an el-Hayat reporter, an FSA commander in the Hama countryside singled out these two groups for using foreign fighters, claiming however that they comprise less than 20 percent of the manpower in Jabhat el-Nosra and less than 5 percent in Ahrar el-Sham. [page 21]

About the Jabhat el-Nosra group (believed to be closest to Al Qaeda): The same source adds that Jabhat el-Nosra freely receives non-Syrian volunteers, and that although the foreigners rarely participate in battles, they carry out the majority of suicide operations and conduct training for local members. However, the source also claims that some members of Jabhat el-Nosra are known to him for collaborating with the Assad regime during the Iraq war, and states that he believes that the group is “indirectly” manipulated by the regime. [page 26]

The second half of the report discusses a number of rebel organizations with some jihadist sympathies.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Radicals among the Syrian rebels

In this post I want to collect links about the role of Muslim radicals among the rebels. As some other posts in this blog it is a post that will be updated regularly with new information.

Syria Rebel: Sunni Jihadists After Shiite Hostages: A Syrian rebel commander holding 10 Lebanese Shiites hostage said Thursday he is willing to release the men but fears doing so could set off a wave of reprisal attacks by Sunni extremists. [..] He said the kidnappings were aimed at persuading Hezbollah, a strident backer of President Bashar Assad, to reconsider its commitment to the Syrian regime. Instead it set off a string of revenge kidnappings by Shiite clansmen inside Lebanon, with two Turks and some 20 Syrians being snatched by gunmen. [..] "After (Omar's) release, the Northern Storm brigade began to receive threats from Sunni extremist groups in Lebanon, Iraq and some in Syria," Abu Ibrahim told The Associated Press in an interview at a customs house in this Syrian border town: "They told us, the hostages are members of Hezbollah and should be killed."

Holy Warriors:
A field guide to Syria's jihadi groups
by Aron Lund provides a description of the main fighting groups in Syria.