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Archive for August, 2012

More On: What About Syria?

Monday, August 27th, 2012

Several of you directed me to the July 27th Wall Street Journal article on this topic by RAND’s Seth Jones, which includes this:


“What can be done?  The US and its allies should launch a covert campaign to ramp up intelligence collection efforts against al Qaeda, capture or kill its senior leaders, and undermine its legitimacy”

Here’s the entire article:

“The United States and its allies should consider opening a second front in the Syrian war. In addition to helping end Bashar Assad’s rule, there is a growing need to conduct a covert campaign against al Qaeda and other extremist groups gaining a presence in the country.

While al Qaeda makes up a small part of the resistance movement, its strength appears to be rising. Since last December, al Qaeda has conducted roughly two dozen attacks, primarily against Syrian security service targets. Virtually all have been suicide attacks and car bombings, and they have resulted in more than 200 deaths and 1,000 injuries. According to estimates from one intelligence service in the region, al Qaeda has doubled its ranks to at least 200 full-time operatives—veterans of the Iraq jihad, small numbers of foreign fighters, and local extremist recruits.

Al Qaeda’s presence appears to be growing in several cities, especially Aleppo, Damascus, Deraa and Idlib, where the group has established cells. Its leadership structure is headed by Abu Muhammad al-Julani, a veteran jihadist.

What explains al Qaeda’s rise? One factor is the draw of a new jihad—smack in the middle of the Arab world. While roughly three quarters of Syria’s Muslims are Sunni, the government is ruled by a minority Alawite sect. For Sunni extremist groups like al Qaeda, such a government in Sunni territory is unacceptable.

Al Qaeda in Syria (often operating as the “Al Nusra Front for the People of the Levant”) is using traffickers—some ideologically aligned, some motivated by money—to secure routes through Turkey and Iraq for foreign fighters, most of whom are from the Middle East and North Africa. A growing number of donors from the Persian Gulf and Levant appear to be sending financial support, according to U.S. Treasury Department officials I interviewed.

In addition, al Qaeda in Iraq has provided important direction and support. Since 2003, Syria has been the primary transit hub for foreign fighters headed to Iraq. Now the tables have turned. Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has apparently sent small arms and light weapons—including rifles, light machine guns, and rocket propelled grenades—to its Syrian contingent. It has also sent explosives experts to augment the Syrian contingent’s bomb-making capabilities, plus fighters to boost its ranks.

Julani and other al Qaeda leaders in Syria have begun to establish an organized political and military structure. They have appointed a management council, set up a headquarters and created regional networks with military and religious leaders to run operations, manage cross-border activity, and procure weapons and other supplies.

The danger is clear. Assuming Assad’s regime eventually collapses, a robust al Qaeda presence will undermine transition efforts and pose a major threat to regional stability. With U.S. troops now gone from Iraq, al Qaeda in Iraq has increased its attacks to nearly 30 per month, up from roughly 20 per month during the past two years. And this week Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testified to Congress that al Qaeda in Iraq even poses a growing threat to attack the U.S. homeland.

What can be done? The U.S. and its allies should launch a covert campaign to ramp up intelligence-collection efforts against al Qaeda, capture or kill its senior leaders, and undermine its legitimacy.

Some Syrian oppositionists have become alarmed at al Qaeda’s activities, according to government officials from the region. These rebels appear concerned that al Qaeda’s growing involvement will jeopardize their badly needed international aid and muddy their goals. After all, al Qaeda seeks to establish an extreme version of Shariah law that is eschewed by most members of the Free Syrian Army.

Some might fear that a second front would create fissures within the Syrian opposition just as the Assad regime is teetering, but this view is short-sighted. The stronger al Qaeda becomes in Syria, the more difficult it will be to destroy in the future.

In the end, the easiest aspect of the Syrian war may be overthrowing the Assad regime. Much like Iraq, Afghanistan and even Libya, the most difficult part is what comes next. Targeting al Qaeda and other extremists is a good place to start.

Mr. Jones, associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, is author of “Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of Al Qa’ida Since 9/11″ (Norton, 2012). He previously served as a senior adviser in U.S. Special Operations Command.     


In addition, the Combating Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy, West Point, on August 23rd produced “A Fight for the Spoils: The Future Role of Syria’s Armed Groups.” 

Aug 23, 2012     

On August 6, 2012, President Bashar al-Assad’s prime minister defected, dealing another blow to the Syrian leader’s efforts to preserve his regime. Since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, the strong central authority the al-Assad regime built and institutionalized during four decades has been rapidly crumbling. Yet the factors that made Libya’s uprising succeed—a united and organized opposition, sparse population patterns and a weak army—are absent in Syria. The country becomes more militarized after each passing week, with various, competing rebel groups gaining more leverage and territory—and even reportedly committing their own massacres.[1] For now, the rebels—habitually termed the Free Syrian Army[2] (FSA)—mostly operate independently on tribal and geographic bases, and interaction between them, violent or cooperative, is for the most part relatively rare.[3] Jihadist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, have also definitively entered the fray.     

The role and future actions of the milieu of armed groups operating in Syria is sure to affect the shape of the country following the seemingly inevitable fall of al-Assad’s regime. Rebel units number in the dozens. Some are secular, while others call for an Islamic state in Syria. All are vying for weapons and territory. For now, what unites them is their shared goal of defeating the Syrian regime. This mutual interest will likely change if the regime falls.

Conversely, the future role played by those who fill the ranks of the government’s roving shabiha gangs is also troubling. Infamous for their brutality mostly upon civilians in dissenting areas, the largely Alawite shabiha have been successful in sowing sectarian divisions among Syrians by attacking Sunni civilians.[4] As the central authority controlling the shabiha breaks down, the role these government militias play will be significant in the future.

If the al-Assad regime falls, these heavily armed, battle-hardened fighters will likely destabilize the country going forward. As a result, the post-Assad authorities will face a number of challenges. This article will assess the evolution of the FSA and what role the group will serve in a post-Assad Syria. It also addresses the challenges of the shabiha, determining whether the pro-Assad militias will return to their mountain villages or attempt to mount a counterinsurgency against a new FSA-organized government in Damascus.

The Evolution of the Free Syrian Army
The FSA is largely a collection of defected Syrian army soldiers and local civilians who have grouped together to fight the Bashar al-Assad government in their immediate neighborhoods and towns. The FSA is not a unified entity, and as a result there will be difficulties restructuring or disbanding these forces in a new political system.[5] Many FSA battalions are clan- and tribe-based, organized around a specific geographical area—such as a town, village or city district. Fighters answer to local commanders—often a respected member of the local community—not to a central command.[6] In many respects, this operational system has worked to their advantage in a guerrilla war against the Syrian army.

At its core, the rebel movement is not manifestly Islamist. Religious rhetoric has been a feature of war rebels seeking inspiration for centuries. Against a far more powerful army, the rebels turn to God for inspiration and to find meaning in continuing their fight under such testing conditions. As the regime upped the ferocity of its attacks on both civilians and armed opposition elements, the rebels have turned more religious in their rhetoric.

Limited public backing from Western states makes the rebel movement often appear a product of, or at least sponsored by, Gulf states Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two conservative and undemocratic countries. Many secular Syrians, particularly in the major cities, fear Gulf influence in the country and believe these states are attempting to destabilize Syria and replace the al-Assad regime with an Islamist government. Indeed, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have openly committed financial support and weapons to the rebels.[7] This is a version of events that also worries Syria’s non-Sunni minorities, who compose around a quarter of the country’s population.[8]

Violent Islamist elements, however, have attempted to hijack the uprising, and jihadists are beginning to puncture through the rebel movement.[9] Militant groups such as al-Qa`ida and Jabhat al-Nusra are confirmed to be operating in Syria, once a country with an extraordinarily competent security apparatus.[10] The Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that excites significant fear among Syria’s minority groups, reportedly now has fighters on the ground.[11]

The capture and consequent release of two Western photographers held by foreign fighters inside the Syrian-Turkish border post of Bab al-Hawa confirms past suspicions about foreign jihadists.[12] Up to 100 fighters had camped inside the Syrian border in July, and evidence of al-Qa`ida activity in other parts of the country grows each week.[13]

Moreover, foreign fighters have recently been confirmed in Syria fighting government forces. The Irish Times reported the presence of a number of Libyan fighters outside the northwestern town of Idlib in July. An Irish-Libyan revolutionary, Mehdi al-Harati, has been operating a militant group in Syria since last spring and has introduced an Islamic undertone to the Syrian revolt.[14] A Syrian fighter working with this Libyan-led brigade, the Liwa al-Umma, said he wanted to take part in their operations because they are “fighting for truth and justice with an Islamic background.”[15]

As the violence surges and the regime endures, the growth and spread in jihadist activity will likely expand. Islamists will begin to claim responsibility for military gains against the regime and consequently assert that they have a genuine stake in shaping Syria’s future.

What constitutes today’s FSA leadership, where it exists, will likely become the central military figures in a new Syrian political system if for no other reason than it is they who fought and died to oust the al-Assad regime (and not the traditional political opposition watching events from the safety of other countries).[16] Divisions between rebel leaders and the political opposition—such as the Syrian National Council (SNC)—are likely to destabilize the political climate post-Assad as neither are united and both feel it is their right to govern the country.

The perfunctory head of the FSA, Riad al-Asaad, is unlikely to hold much sway in a post-Assad Syria since he has spent much of the revolution in Turkey rather than fighting regime troops inside the country. He is a figurehead; few FSA members answer to him today, and they are unlikely to in the future.

The Shabiha
The central kernel in the regime’s attempts at maintaining control of power centers is the deployment and actions of the government’s militias, the shabiha. Originally a small group of men—some from the president’s extended family—who operated in trafficking and smuggling in and around the coastal city of Latakia on Syria’s northwest coast during the 1980s and 1990s,[17] the shabiha today number in the thousands.

Many in the newly rejuvenated gangs are career criminals whose loyalty was bought through a series of “political prisoner amnesties” enacted by the regime over the course of the uprising.[18] The shabiha are mostly drawn from the Alawite sect to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs and have roamed town centers and surrounded mosques at prayer time since the uprising’s beginning. They have been accused of atrocities in the towns of Houla, Tremseh and Qubeir in May, June and July 2012.

As of December 2011, one respected source claimed that shabiha members were reportedly being paid 50,000 Syrian pounds ($800) per month in cash that came from Iran via Hizb Allah in neighboring Lebanon.[19] If true, Iranian meddling in Syria illustrates yet another difficulty facing any post-Assad government. The possible role played by the shabiha gangs after the inevitable demise of the al-Assad regime is difficult to quantify and chart. If regional supporters Hizb Allah and Iran provide them with financial backing, however, then they will be a destructive force during the reorganization of the Syrian state. With outside backing, the shabiha could mount a counterinsurgency, possibly resulting in a long-term civil conflict.

Until now, direct confrontations between rebel forces and pro-regime militias have been rare. In the absence of a central authority (the Syrian armed forces) controlling important cities, the future may bring many such clashes. As the regime seeks to consolidate its control of urban centers such as Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s open countryside will be free for shabiha and rebels to operate and fight each other.

The Syrian government’s stockpile of chemical weapons and missiles remains secure. Yet if al-Assad falls, an organized transfer of government weapons and security installations to a new authority appears unlikely.[20] The possibility of these weapons falling into rebel, shabiha or Islamist hands is a growing prospect.

Controlling a Multifaceted Powder Keg
The bloodshed and destruction that has engulfed Syria for the past 17 months means that a successful revolution will not bring the stability seen in Egypt or Libya. As such, it will require far more international involvement in peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction. A UN-backed monitoring presence to oversee the internal workings and developments of the nascent government will be crucial to maintain law and order. Furthermore, an international peacekeeping force that protects against the possibility of reprisals and sectarian fighting in regions where tensions between Alawite and Sunni towns exist may be necessary. Few international actors want Alawite militias roaming western Syria and Lebanon, destabilizing an already volatile neighborhood.

For Syrians themselves, amnesties and statements that assure the safety of Alawite civilians will be essential in helping eliminate further inter-religious strife. Dialogue between rebel leaders and the political opposition that includes, among others, the SNC, over the makeup and formation of a new Syrian army and government must be fruitful. A nationwide arms dump program that incentivizes rebels and shabiha militias to hand in weapons will help Syria on the road to a more peaceful future. Of course, none of these measures are guaranteed to take place. As more Syrians die, piecing the country back together becomes increasingly difficult. As long as the al-Assad regime remains in control of militias and key army divisions—which looks likely for at least several more months—Syria’s future looks dark.”

Stephen Starr is a freelance journalist and author who lived in Syria from 2007 to February 2012. His writings have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post,, USA Today, the Guardian and the London Times. His book, Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising, was released in North America on August 14, 2012.


 I’d love to share your views and ideas with our readers after you’ve had the opportunity to read the bits that follow.  Please comment on the Roundtable at, or send me a note at, and I’ll share them.


What About Syria?

Sunday, August 19th, 2012

So many of you responded to last week’s blog concerning what will occur in Afghanistan after the US withdraws, and your comments almost all included a questions something like “OK, let’s see if we apply what we have learned from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the current situation in Syria.”  So this week, I’ve compiled for you a broad set of expert views on “what we ought to do about” the Syrian conflict….the Washington Post, the Center for New American Security, RAND,  the Council on Foreign Relations, Brookings, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Foreign Policy magazine, and more.  They are organized starting with the oldest to the newest, so you can read the story as it develops.  

But first some personal perspective from one observer.
The Syrian conflict is typical of the very complex and ill-defined situations that are likely to be the main course for the US in the future.  Is it a civil war, and insurgency, a proxy fight, a regional conflict? 
The first, and maybe hardest, realization America must come to is that we are no longer so much different, stronger, or principaled that we can or even ought to define a role, leadership or otherwise, for ourselves in every upheaval worldwide……heck, we’re not even viewed in many situations as on the right side of the conflict. And our involvement is not even sought in numbers of situations.  Yes, we are an inextricably intertwined member of the global society, as dependent on as we are depended on……maybe a humbling admission for some but a fact of dozens of other nations also becoming “powerful” and influential…………and we ought to stand for goodness.  But that also means we have to act as part of larger collaborations for the world to have a positive effect on situations like these, rather than seeking to impose our will or our ways on others and possibly further destabilizing the situation.
Situations like Syria are regional, and not primarily about Syria at all.  As Afghanistan has turned out to be primarily about Pakistan and requires a regional response, so I believe Syria is primarily about Iran, or maybe Israel and Iran.  Yet, because these conflicts are about very complex combinations of family, tribe, religion, culture, economics, politics, etc., and because those mixtures differ from place to place, the answers are very much local in nature. 
Maybe the Syrian conflict is just happening at the wrong time in the wrong place with the wrong set of circumstances and cannot be “resolved” in any way in the short term.
I was talking with a very smart friend involved in figuring out how we leave Afghanistan appropriately, and he kept referring to “withdrawal from AFPAK”…..a better way to view this circumstance.  We talked about his concept of “limited wars with limited aims” as an urgent US policy need.  Similar to this is the “more brains, less bullets” look of future US involvements, and the implications for future US military engagements.
At the very least, the confusion and conflict in Syria has to be viewed by the US as a situation about which we need to gather data, intelligence, knowledge and understanding of the many groups, influencers inside and outside the country, and dynamics involved in the fighting.  Might this best be done by having some resources on the ground?
A friend who might know recently said, as our presidential election draws closer, the Iran-Israel tensions will become an even more overriding issue and consideration relative to whether and what we do relative to Syria?
I’d love to share your views and ideas with our readers after you’ve had the opportunity to read the bits that follow.  Please comment on the Roundtable at, or send me a note at, and I’ll share them.


American Options in Syria

Policy Innovation Memorandum No. 9

Author: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Publisher Council on Foreign Relations Press
Release Date October 2011
“With each month, the level of violence in Syria rises. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has killed just short of three thousand citizens, and with defections from the army growing, it appears the population is starting to fight back. A full-scale civil war, with the Alawite minority regime fighting for its life against an armed rebellion by forces based in the Sunni majority population, seems increasingly plausible.
The goals of U.S. policy should be to end the violence, bring down the Assad regime, and lay the bases for a stable democratic system with protection for the Alawite, Kurdish, and Christian minorities. It is a tall order. The Obama administration has already abandoned the goal of regime reform, and rightly so: there is no basis in Assad regime behavior for sustaining a belief that he could lead a transition to democracy. Instead, the American, European, and Turkish goal is the end of Assad family rule. But how can U.S. policymakers attain that goal in as short a period and with as little additional violence as possible?
The answer is a strategy aimed at both weakening the regime’s support bases and encouraging the opposition to demonstrate that it seeks a nonsectarian and democratic Syria.

Isolating the Assads

The regime’s support rests in the Alawite community, the Alawite-led security forces, and the business community (Sunni as well as Alawite). Syria’s population is 74 percent Sunni Muslim, while the Assad regime is Alawite—an offshoot of Shiite Islam often considered heretical by orthodox Sunnis—that comprises only 10 percent or 15 percent of Syrians. The best-armed and best-trained divisions of the Syrian army are Alawite.
The United States’ first goal should be to isolate the Assad family and its closest cronies from the rest of the Alawite community, which largely has not shared in the riches Assad has dispensed to close supporters. While all Alawites fear vengeance against their entire community should Assad fall, there are varying degrees of loyalty to the Assads. The United States should continue to press the many groups now opposing the regime to present a united face. They have begun to do so, forming a 140-member Syrian National Council in early October 2011. And the council must clarify the kind of Syria it wishes to build, both by repeatedly affirming its commitment to equal treatment of all Syrians without regard to sect or religious belief and by including Alawites and other non-Sunnis prominently in its ranks. The council should be loud and passionate in its denunciation of any violence against Alawite citizens or communities, which is likely to grow if gun battles between the regime and the opposition increase. The council should pledge that post-Assad Syria will protect all minorities—the Alawites, the Kurds, and the very nervous Christian communities. They should agree now to an international role in providing these protections and guarantees. The more detailed these pledges are, and the more publicity and international support they get, the more good they will do inside Syria.
As for the military and police, Western and Turkish officials should pressure the Alawite generals in the Syrian army to separate themselves from the regime. They should argue that the generals can salvage their community’s post-Assad future as well as their own by refusing now to kill their fellow citizens. The U.S. military has no ties to these men, but it can be assumed that the Turks, Jordanians, and perhaps the French have useful channels for carrying such messages. “Why sacrifice yourself for the Assad mafia that is doomed anyway?” is what they should be emphasizing, along with, “Be a survivor.” Here statements from the Syrian National Council can also help. The council should make clear that there will be no wholesale purges of Alawite officers, but there will be punishment in Syria and via the International Criminal Court (ICC) of officers involved in killing peaceful demonstrators.

Turning the Business Community

A second step should be to turn the business community against the regime. To date, the business leadership—Sunni, Christian, and Alawite—is on the fence. The United States and its partners must lead them to view the Assads as an irredeemable liability whose continuation in power will only bring more of the economic pain Syria is already experiencing. Already this year, foreign direct investment and tourism are both down by more than half, and exports by two-thirds. If Assad stays in power, they must come to understand, this will only get worse. The United States is “sanctioned out” when it comes to Syria; there is almost no trade or investment. It is critical that the European Union (EU) cut off the Syrian economy, and indeed this is beginning to happen. Europe bought 95 percent of Syria’s oil exports, thereby providing the regime with about one-third of its overall hard currency earnings, but the EU has now banned the importation of Syrian oil and any new investments in Syria’s oil industry. The closer and faster the EU moves toward a total ban on trade with Syria the better, as both the signal and actual damage to Syria’s economic elites will be greater.
This would be economic warfare against the regime, and the more allies are involved in that war, the more effective it will be. Turkey has announced that it will impose its own sanctions, and if those are heavy, the political, psychological, and economic effects will be considerable. Clearly then the United States and EU should press the Turks to undertake sanctions that are far more than symbolic. They should also press the Gulf oil producers to stop all further investment in Syria. The wider U.S. financial sanctions are, the larger the justification for the Gulf states to tell their banks to avoid Damascus.

Dealing with Violence

The United States will need to adopt a policy going forward on three more difficult issues. The first is what to do if a serious military struggle—a civil war—begins. Estimates vary as to how many men have defected from the Syrian army and whether they have any real capacity to fight the official forces. The United States should encourage defections but should not encourage violence in any form. Yet if a military opposition comes into existence and fights the regime, U.S. policymakers will not want to see that opposition crushed. Thus, the United States should not discourage other governments from assisting the rebels if they wish to do so. Nor should it try to stop other groups—for example, Sunni tribes living on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border areas—from assisting brethren inside Syria. If violence and refugee flows escalate greatly, the United States will need to discuss no-fly zones or safe havens along Syria’s borders with Syria’s neighbors and its NATO allies.

The Future of Assad

A second issue is the future of the Assad family itself. It should not be assumed that Assad will fight to the finish. Were he to conclude at some point that his continued rule is untenable or at least in real doubt, he might well seek a safe haven for his family. This would be hard to guarantee due to the existence of the ICC, but it is worth pursuing. If some nation offers Assad a haven, the United States should not attempt to stand in the way, and indeed should encourage him to take it. Many other cases have demonstrated that justice may be long delayed or never achieved; nevertheless, the Syrian people could advance toward their own goals in the meantime.
A third issue is whether the United States and its allies should pursue or agree to an Alawite regime without Bashar al-Assad at its top. A palace coup could present the United States with this alternative to the current situation, but it should not be an American goal. The Assad regime has lost the consent of the governed, and it is difficult to see how a replacement Alawite regime would be able to regain this consent. It would be led by too many officials deeply complicit in the abuses of the old regime, and would by definition remain a minority ruling a majority Sunni country. As such a regime could not win a free election, it would have to rule by force—especially with the Sunni populace now clamoring for more rights and already engaged in fighting for them. That would mean continued turmoil and violence in Syria. An Alawite replacement regime that removed the Assad clan from power and was clearly only a transitional step to democracy could be useful in ending the violence and providing a way forward, but only if it is clearly limited in time and ambitions. Those in charge would need to demonstrate their good faith—and their short timetable—to the populace and to the international alliance now sanctioning and criticizing Syria, but this would not be impossible. An end to government violence, timetables for elections, and the inclusion of opposition leaders in a transitional government would show positive intent.

An American Gain
The end of the Assad regime would be a great gain for the United States. The regime is a bloody dictatorship that is host to Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups, Iran’s only Arab ally, the route through which Iran arms Hezbollah, and a permanent threat to Lebanon’s sovereignty and internal peace. Moreover, by doing its best to assist jihadis seeking to fight Americans in Iraq, it was complicit in the deaths of many Americans soldiers and the wounding of far more. As the regime fights its own populace and clings to power, effective sanctions and vigorous diplomacy can help shorten its life and lay the foundations for a determined effort to build a democratic state in its place.”

Top of Form

The Brookings Institution
Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Testimony | April 19, 2012
Options for U.S. Policy in Syria
Editor’s Note: On April 19, 2012, Tamara Cofman Wittes offered the following remarks before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Wittes discussed policy options for the United States in Syria. Mr. Chairman, Senator Lugar, thank you for inviting me to appear today before the committee to discuss policy options for the United States in Syria.
The tentative cease-fire established a week ago is already breaking down, with human rights groups suggesting that about twenty Syrians have died each day since last Thursday. Syrian forces continue their shelling and refuse to withdraw from urban areas, and international monitors are facing stiff challenges to beginning their work on the ground. And yet the cease-fire was only ever one, initial component of UN and Arab League Envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point plan. The ultimate goal was to begin a political process that would include the opposition and would lead to meaningful change. Thus, the facts so far do not bode well for a diplomatic strategy.If Annan sought to end the violence and begin a political dialogue, we have so far seen only shaky progress towards the former, and no move toward the latter at all. The relative reduction in violence this past week did open a small window for the United Nations. The insertion of international monitors, if they can work with autonomy and freedom of movement, could help to keep violence down and encourage renewed peaceful protests. But the world must not allow Syria to waste time wrangling over every preliminary element of implementing a cease-fire. Without a rapid start to a political process that will lead to meaningful change, there is no way forward for diplomacy alone to reduce human suffering and promote lasting stability for Syria and the region.Still, the path of coercive diplomacy remains the only alternative to an escalation in violence on the ground that would have dire humanitarian consequences, and would present the danger of spiraling instability in Syria’s already-volatile neighborhood. It remains, therefore, the preferred path to achieve the goal shared by the United States and many other governments, the same goal clearly and consistently articulated by the Syrian people over more than a year – the removal of Bashar al Assad from power.

Today, then, international diplomacy must focus relentlessly on bringing about a political transition and the establishment of a Syrian government accountable to its people. Any diplomatic effort must be backed by equally relentless pressure, focused on key pillars supporting the Assad regime: the military, the commercial elite in Aleppo and elsewhere, and the Alawi community. Sanctions, efforts at human rights accountability, and support to the Syrian opposition are all useful forms of pressure, but more can and must be done. In the end, more coercive options must be planned and prepared for – not only in case diplomacy fails, but in order to give it the best chance of success.The role of Russia remains crucial, and the time has come for a clear decision. The Russian government, which finally and belatedly threw its weight behind the Annan Plan, faces a challenge to its international credibility if it cannot use its leverage effectively to compel Assad to maintain the ceasefire, to allow international monitors to operate freely, and to fulfill the other elements of the Plan, including most importantly allowing a political dialogue to begin. It should be obvious to Russia by now that Assad faces a permanent challenge to his unaltered rule – that Syrian military forces cannot decisively crush either the armed insurgency or the peaceful protest movement. Continued brutality at this scale is thus both futile and, as the economy buckles and the military tires, increasingly unsustainable.It is difficult, but not impossible, to envision Russian policy makers under these circumstances seeking a way to preserve their relations with Syria, but not with Assad himself. The United States and others should focus their engagement with Russia, not on specific words or actions in New York, but on a realistic assessment that will lead Russia at last to acquiesce in efforts to move toward a Syria without Assad. This shift would dramatically increase pressure on the Syrian regime, and itself might help induce key Syrian actors to seek a way out, and make political change possible. The Russians should not waste any more time or any more Syrian lives in making their choice.
On sanctions, the United States has successfully worked with allies and partners in the region and globally to apply unprecedented pressure on the Syrian regime and on figures within it who are directly responsible for human rights violations. These sanctions are slowing eroding the regime’s ability to fund and sustain its repression and insulate its supporters from harm. The new Sanctions Working Group that met this week in Paris is a good way for governments to share information needed to maximize the application and impact of their sanctions. Given time, this pressure may help to erode the unity of Assad’s supporters in the military and commercial elite of the country, and could facilitate a transition that takes Assad out of office.

Accountability measures are also important, because they increase the incentives for regime supporters to disassociate themselves from the vicious brutality now being practiced on Syrian citizens, and from those who order it and carry it out. The new accountability initiative launched by the Friends of the Syrian People can offer further positive impact, in that its efforts to train and equip citizens for human rights monitoring also improve their ability to communicate and organize, helping those within Syria to strengthen their efficacy and their ability to engage as part of the opposition and shape their country’s future. But although many assume human rights documentation is directed toward enabling a referral of violators to the International Criminal Court, this step may not be consistent with political efforts to loosen Assad’s grip on power. In the current phase, it does not make sense to restrict the options for a negotiated transition by demanding that Assad be tried for his crimes, no matter how heinous they undoubtedly are.

It’s also important to recognize that certain actions, which might potentially be seen as increasing pressure on Assad, could in fact be counterproductive. An international arms embargo, for example, might be seen as a logical next step in enforcing and maintaining a cease-fire. However, an arms embargo would not reduce violence – at best it would simply freeze the deep imbalance in armed capability currently evident on the ground, leaving the Syrian government with a massive advantage and denying Syria’s scattered insurgents the basic tools they need to slow down the regime’s onslaught against civilians and sustain pressure on the Syrian military. Moreover, an embargo is unlikely to work — even if Russia could be convinced to support such a measure at the UN Security Council, the Iranians would be highly unlikely to comply, making the move fruitless as a way of constraining the regime’s repressive capacity.

With Iran resolutely supplying the regime, and with Gulf states already providing cash for salaries to the Free Syrian Army’s soldiers and talking about lethal aid, the militarization of the Syrian uprising is proceeding apace. But while an armed opposition might be able to fight an effective insurgent campaign, it’s not at all clear that they would be able to bring down the regime. At worst, uncontrolled militarization will turn the Syrian uprising into a wider conflict that could draw in jihadis and other extremists from across the Muslim World, offer up tempting ungoverned spaces to terrorists and organized criminals, and produce refugees and other ripple effects that could destabilize Iraq, Lebanon, and possibly other neighbors.

But this possibility must not deter clear thinking: the United States cannot halt or reverse the militarization of the Syrian uprising, and should not try. What the United States can usefully do is manage this militarization by working with other governments, especially Syria’s neighbors in the region, to try to shape the activities of armed elements on the ground in a manner that will most effectively increase pressure on the regime – to drain the Syrian military’s ability and will to fight, to help induce a political transition, and thereby to bring an end to the violence as quickly as possible. Without a strong lead driven by the strategic logic of weakening the regime’s pillars, disparate actors both inside and outside the region could provide lethal support in ways that would exacerbate spillover effects and increase the damage militarization will cause to the goal of restoring order in a post-Assad Syria. To do this, the United States should drive the international planning and engagement necessary to identify key armed leaders and elements, improve coordination and communication, build effective fighting units, and shape an effective insurgent strategy. At the same time, Syria’s immediate neighbors will need extra support in border security, refugee relief, and other areas to ensure that the effects of militarization in Syria do not destabilize them as well. Working to manage the uprising’s militarization, focus its impact on the Assad regime, and contain its impact on the neighborhood, is essential to ameliorate the instability that Assad unleashed by choosing to declare war on his own people.

In this context, it’s absolutely crucial that the United States and other governments continue to scale up their support for the political development of the Syrian opposition. The opposition activists most urgently need to improve their internal cohesion and their ability to effectively and authoritatively represent the Syrian people in any political process – without this, it is hard to see how a political transition can lead to a better or more stable future for Syria. The factionalism and mutual mistrust evident amongst the Syrian opposition activists are unsurprising outgrowths of the severe repression and political stagnation of the Syrian context. This legacy can be overcome, but not by fiat, not through exhortations, and not overnight.

To become a more effective and unified force, the Syrian opposition activists need to focus on three key goals: inclusion, a shared vision for the future, and consistent communication with Syrians both inside and outside the country. Some in the opposition may wonder what the utility is of planning for a post-Assad Syria, when Syrians are under assault today. In fact, developing and marketing a vision for post-Assad Syria that demonstrates organization and a commitment to inclusion and democratic accountability is perhaps the key means through which the activists can overcome their existing differences, mobilize wider support, and represent something beyond factions and personalities. The international community, including the United States, must invest strongly in helping opposition activists – inside and outside Syria – communicate and plan jointly for the future.

The current moment poses challenging questions for the United States, and for all those governments who are working for consensus in New York and through the Friends of the Syrian People contact group. Assad has already demonstrated his willingness to use as much violence as he deems necessary to preserve himself in power. However, the regime that a few months ago appeared to be at a tipping point may hold on, weakened but still viable. If the international pressure slackens, or if the opposition fails to present an effective alternative, key Assad constituencies will stop thinking about the possibility of abandoning him as a path to self-preservation. A weakened Assad would be even more dependent on Iran, and the Syrian people would suffer not only from his continued rule but from sustained isolation and economic hardship along with the insecurity wrought by an ongoing insurgency.

If, as is increasingly likely, Annan’s plan fails to produce a path to political change, and if increased pressure from steps like sanctions, militarization, and a more effective opposition do not coerce the Syrian regime’s internal supporters into removing Assad and opening up to the opposition, then two outcomes are possible: either protracted civil conflict, with all the attendant dangers both for the neighborhood and for Syria’s future; or a weakened Assad who continues to rule, but with fewer constraints on his behavior, including his support for Iran or Hizballah and his hostility to his neighbors. If, as I believe, neither of these outcomes are palatable to the United States, then we must take heed now of what more must be done to prevent these outcomes from coming to pass.

Some would argue that pursuing the above set of recommendations begins a “slippery slope” to direct intervention. I would argue instead that anticipating the failure of diplomacy and preparing for more coercive options is not only realistic, it is also necessary to create the pressure that will give diplomacy its best chance of success. It’s quite clear that Assad only acts under extreme pressure, and that demanding his removal is an existential challenge. Dithering over diplomatic measures, while ruling out more coercive options, is the quickest path to irrelevance for U.S. policy. Furthermore, early consultation, planning and preparation for more robust steps would enable the United States to maximize the extent to which others might participate in or even take the lead in those actions. This, too, would strengthen our diplomatic muscle, and increase the likelihood of a swifter, less costly, more satisfactory resolution to the Syrian crisis.”



Statement before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
A Statement by
Jon B. Alterman, Ph.D.
Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy
and Director, Middle East Program
Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
April 19, 2012
“Mr. Chairman and members of the committee,
It is an honor to talk with you today about Syria. In a year of tremendous change in the Arab world, Syria is among the places where change would be most welcome and where its ripples may have some of the most profound effects. As I see it, events in Syria are linked to those happening in the rest of the Arab world, although sometimes in surprising ways.
The Syrian people drew lessons from the political events in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011, which they watched live on television. Yet, while they drew lessons from those events, few recognize the lessons that the Syrian government drew from those same events. I would like to enumerate five of those lessons here.
1) Concessions do not bring security. After watching President Zine al-Abdine bin Ali forced from power after six weeks, and President Hosni Mubarak in only 18 days, Bashar al-Assad likely concluded that that those leaders gave in too soon, and the public saw their willingness to negotiate as a sign of weakness. Assad surely noticed that Moammar Gadhafi held out for months, and would likely still be in power were it not for six months of NATO air assault.
2) Militaries still matter. In Egypt and Tunisia, the military decided the president’s time was done. In Bahrain, the military helped decide that the King would stay. Bashar al-Assad has assiduously maintained control over the military since he first came to power in 2000, and he has been careful to cultivate his assets there – leaving elite brigades under the control of family members, and ensuring that members of his own Alawite minority are in control of the senior officer and enlisted ranks.
3) Allies matter, and P5 allies matter most. Moammar Gadhafi mistakenly thought that his concessions to Western powers in 2003 and after would help secure his rule, and he never sought close ties with either China or Russia. When the UN Security Council voted a year ago to authorize the use of force in Libya, China and Russia abstained. Syria has made no grand gesture to the West in the hopes of winning protection, and it has actively sought to cultivate support from both Russia and China. While neither country fully supports Assad, each has been a bulwark against collective international action that would remove him from power.
4) Minority rule is a resource. We often see minorities as a source of cleavages in a society, but the anxieties of minority groups can make them cleave to ruling governments. The twelve percent or so of Syrians who are Alawite, the ten percent or so who are Christian, and the smaller Kurdish, Druze and Armenian populations, are all a source of strength to Assad, for they fear dominance by the Sunni Arab majority. In many cases, they will fight to the death for the ruling government, because they fear ruin if it is deposed.
5) The nature of the opposition matters. The easier it is for the public to imagine a better alternative to the status quo, the more attractive that alternative will be. A confused and chaotic opposition that encompasses radical voices and includes supporters of violence is an asset to the ruling government, especially when it comes to maintaining the loyalty of urban elites who have the most to lose. While the Assad government has only indirect influence over the opposition, its interest is decidedly in encouraging splits in the opposition and goading the opposition to abandon the pursuit of a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
What Bashar al-Assad is thinking is unknowable, but to the outside observer, it appears that he believes he can withstand the current challenge, much as his father stood down an Islamist opposition in Hama in 1982. Reports continue to surface that Assad is obsessed with comparisons to his father’s leadership, with siblings and even his mother unfavorably comparing his resolve and his ruthlessness to that of his father.
While most regional observers also believe the younger Assad compares unfavorably to his father, he appears to have several advantages that make him less susceptible to overthrow than some of the other regional leaders who have lost their posts in the last year. He has indeed managed to learn from the mistakes of others, and he seems committed not to make them. He has been able to maintain loyalty within his inner circle, in part through sectarian ties. He is also blessed with an opposition that, by many measures, is one of the weaker ones in the region. Even after a year of organizing, many who have worked with the oppositions in Libya and Syria believe that the Libyan opposition was much more organized than its Syrian counterpart. The Libyan opposition also had the benefit of controlling territory from the earliest days of the uprising, and it enjoyed the prospect of tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues to distribute annually. The Syrian opposition has none of those advantages.
In my judgment, however, Assad has made fundamental miscalculations, particularly with regard to the outside world, that make his long-term survival unlikely.
1) Alienating Turkey. This is his biggest mistake, especially since Turkey had been assiduously courting him as part of its “zero problems with neighbors” strategy. After a long period of Turkish-led courtship, Turkey turned against Assad last August after what the Turks saw to be an insulting meeting between Assad and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Turkey’s instinct in regional affairs in the last decade has been heavily oriented toward mediation and conflict resolution, but it has decided to pivot against the Syrian regime and, in their words, on the side of the Syrian people.1 Turkey now hosts much of the Syrian political opposition as well as the Free Syrian Army. Turkey is large and powerful enough that it can provide both a buffer for Syrian refugees and a base for anti-regime operations. Little remarked, but equally important, Syria cannot use an alienated Turkey as a bulwark against global isolation. Were Turkey in its traditional role, it would be harder for the United States and its allies to squeeze Syria; with Turkey in a more hostile position, it is harder for Syria to escape the squeeze.   Foreign Minister Davutoglu told a CSIS audience February 10, 2012, “We have problem, yes, with Syrian administration, but [not] with the Syrian people. And in the future, after a process, I am sure we will be having excellent relations with the new Syria, established by the people of Syria, with the free choice of Syria. In order to avoid the existing crisis, we cannot sacrifice for our future relations with Syria.”
2) Alienating Saudi Arabia and Qatar. For much of the last decade, these two countries have often sought to protect Assad, or at least to buy him off. After Syria’s forced withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, Qatar and Saudi Arabia put money into Syria in order to secure peace and out of a conviction that, if cornered, Bashar would be ferocious. That conviction has yielded to a determination that he should—and must—go, in part driven by the GCC’s sense of accomplishment for having helped drive the loathed Moammar Gadhafi from power. Some view GCC hostility as an outgrowth of the Gulf leaderships’ efforts to weaken their perennial nemesis, Iran, through weakening Iran’s Syrian proxy. The dispute has more personal roots as well. Bashar seems to hold special disdain for the hereditary rulers of the Gulf, seeing them as wealthy Bedouin with neither education nor culture, and blessed only with deep pockets. They see him as the callow heir to his father, with neither the wisdom nor the resolve to guide his country successfully. Neither side sees the other as a worthy peer.
3) Failing to create durable alliances with Russia and China. Neither country seeks Assad’s demise, and each is alarmed at the prospect of a popular revolution giving rise to a potentially pro-Western state in the Eastern Mediterranean. Still, neither country appears to share a vital interest in Bashar’s survival, each is confident a successor regime can meet all of its needs, and each is cautious of ending up on the wrong side of another popular revolution.
4) Failing to create a diversified economy. Syria has been a client state for decades, first of the Soviet Union, and then of a combination of Iran, Iraq and the GCC states. After relying heavily on support from the outside, that support is no longer coming. By summer, international sanctions will be biting hard. The Iranians are unlikely to be a savior, as they will have their own priorities and preoccupations. Syria relies heavily but not completely on imported fuel, and that fuel will become harder to obtain. Syria is, in many ways, both economically isolated and economically dependent, and that will create significant problems going forward.
5) Becoming less preferable to many than the unknown. Assad’s behavior has become so noxious that a faceless leader is preferable to virtually all of Syria’s neighbors, as well as to many Syrians. While all of Syria’s neighbors seek to avert chaos in the country, none has a particular urge for democratic governance there, either. The conservative GCC states would be concerned by the precedent of a popular revolution, and Israel would be concerned by the prospect of another Islamist state on its borders. Many Lebanese seek stability of any kind, while Iraq maintains a grudge against Bashar for what he did facilitating the passage of Sunni extremists into Iraq (although they certainly do not want those extremists to run post-Assad Syria, either). In many ways, a military coup, whether led by Alawi or Sunni officers, meets all of their needs. It is unclear how such a coup could arise – which is not to say one would not.
The timeline of change in Syria remains a mystery. If there is a long war of attrition between the government and opposition, it could well drag on for years, as most wars of attrition do. It is worth remembering that sanctions isolated Saddam Hussein for more than a decade but were unable to remove him from power. Saddam had more assets than Assad does, but he also had more enemies. They were not enough to do him in.
Some argue that social media is a game changer here, making long-term and large-scale repression impossible. I am less sure. Certainly, social media makes is easier for the outside world to see what is happening in Syria. Yet, social media also makes it possible for the Syrian government to track networks and understand how the opposition works. I also do not know how long the world will continue to care about Syria if it seems like events there have fallen into a stalemate. Syrians are not heavily wired, and the government controls all of the mobile phone networks. Secure communications on a broad level is difficult. U.S. law has made the export of encryption technology to Syria illegal for many years, although some encryption is freely available on the Internet. I have no idea how many Syrians have been able to obtain such technology through smuggling and circumventing government censorship; I am not sure anyone has a much better idea.
Over the next year, Syria may tilt sharply toward civil war. With a ruthless government, a range of outside powers willing to support proxies, the possibility of staging attacks from neighboring countries, and a widespread perception that the alternative to victory is death, antagonists are likely to dig in. Levels of violence could escalate from what we have seen so far and approach what we saw in Iraq in 2006-2007, with a similar sectarian flavor. For those who seek change in Syria, it is worth noting that the more militarized this conflict becomes, the more the advantage accrues to the government. Militarization not only puts the conflict into an area where the government is likely to enjoy a permanent advantage in firepower. It also legitimizes brutal attacks on civilian populations that radicalize segments and authenticates a narrative of a patriotic government fighting against foreign-financed brigands. The Syrian government is at its weakest when other Syrians question its legitimacy, evidenced most clearly by massive peaceful protests. I draw one chief lesson from Tunisia and Egypt, two states with legendary internal intelligence services that had reputations for both effectiveness and brutality: police can be effective against hundreds, but they cannot be effective against hundreds of thousands. The quick scaling of protest movements swiftly undermined the legitimacy of these governments. It is worth pointing out, however, that the immediate transition was not to a civilian government, but instead to some remnant of the former regime that acted in order to preserve its own institutional legitimacy.
I cannot give you a three-point plan on how to fix Syria this month, or even how to avoid disaster in the next year. We need to be realistic about how much we do not know in Syria and how much we cannot begin to predict. Even so, a number of policy conclusions that flow from the foregoing:
1) Plan for a long engagement. Tunisia and Egypt created an expectation that change could be fundamental and swift. Bashar has learned those lessons. Even though I think political change in quite likely, the odds of it happening this month, next month, or even in the next several months, remain low.
2) Do not expect the opposition to sweep into power. I do not think it is likely that the opposition will constitute a viable alternative government in the near or even intermediate term. It remains too divided, too feckless, and too torn by jealousy. Over time, successful donor coordination—for both humanitarian relief and more lethal assistance—can help forge chains of command and create incentives for greater cooperation. I do not think a putative government in exile is any more likely to come into power in Syria than was the case in Iraq.
3) Understand that militarization helps Assad. The more the protest movement looks like an armed insurrection, the more it will play into the hands of a relatively well-armed and well-trained Syrian army. Armies have proven relatively ineffective dealing with massive protests of hundreds of thousands of people that deny legitimacy to the ruler and ultimately threaten the legitimacy of the army if it confronts the people. Sustaining a focus on legitimacy rather than armed confrontation will save lives and harm Bashar much more than a guerrilla war would.
4) Remember that diplomacy remains vital. In particular, keeping Russia and China open to the possibility of a change in government in Syria is essential. Full coordination with Saudi Arabia and Turkey and other friendly states will make both their efforts and our own much more effective. Maintaining order as refugee flows into neighboring countries increase will also require extensive diplomatic efforts on all aspects of donor coordination. The chief strength of the Annan Plan, in my view, is not in its effect on Syria. Instead, it is in its effect on the countries outside of Syria, providing unity and a sign of resolve.
5) Be ready for non-linear change. With no territory to control, and no country seemingly willing to cede a buffer zone, it is hard to imagine a Vietnam- or Afghan-like insurgency that eventually takes over the country. I am also extremely pessimistic that Bashar al-Assad will make any meaningful concessions under any circumstances. While Assad has talked a language of compromise, his instinct, revealed in a personal conversation with me as well as in other venues, is that compromise is a sign of weakness, and resistance is a sign of strength. Because he is consumed with his own sense of weakness, he would see compromise as threatening his power (as it ended the rule of Ben Ali and Mubarak). In my judgment, the most likely outcome remains some sort of military coup, which in the estimation of the neighbors provides the best assurance of a relatively positive outcome with the least risk. Surrounded by neighbors who have both the means, the resources and the interest to make such a coup take place, I suspect he will succumb to their actions.
Last week, I chaired a panel with two former national security advisers, Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski. They were extremely cautious about Syria, arguing that we lack both the instruments and the understanding to effect positive change there. While I have a healthy dose of humility about our ability to shape outcomes in Syria, I am a little less pessimistic than they are about our ability to play a positive role. There is one thing they both agreed on, and on which I agree fully: we cannot do this alone. We share strategic objectives with both Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and perhaps surprisingly, there is much we agree on with both Russia and China. If we seek to fine-tune a solution to the problems of Syria, we will not only lose Russia and China with certainty, but we are unlikely to be able to sustain Turkish and Saudi support. If we seek to avoid some of the worst outcomes in Syria, we are more likely to have their support, and the support of others, too. It is not hard to imagine how continued turmoil in Syria could reverberate broadly throughout the Middle East and even into the Caucasus. There is a wide variety of contingencies that many are quite eager to avoid.
The Syrian people have suffered and continue to suffer, but we cannot be their liberators. We will best serve their interests, as well as our own, if we work broadly with others to limit the most damaging outcomes that lay before us.”

Time for a rethink of U.S. policy towards Syria

Posted By Geoffrey Aronson Thursday, April 26, 2012 – 6:01 PM  
“It’s easy to hate Bashar al-Assad, the crypto-modernizer-turned bloody tyrant. What is there to commend about a regime that kills thousands of its own? How could it not be fair to demonize a president who, in his first interview after coming to power after his father’s death in 2000, questioned the very notion of a civil society in Syria? Yet however good righteous indignation may feel, it makes for bad policy.
When U.S. President Barack Obama called for Egypt’s octogenarian president Hosni Mubarak to step aside last year, he could be confident that by doing so he was breathing new life into the “deep state” — ruled by the generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). U.S. policy was not abetting revolution in Egypt so much as short-circuiting it, even if we tried to convince ourselves otherwise. And our policy was consistent with the often inchoate sensibilities of Egypt’s majority. Remember the popular refrain: “The Army and the People are One!” In that case, U.S. policy was both right and smart.
Syria presents another challenge entirely, one that is far more complex and dangerous for U.S. policymakers. As with Iraq, the Syrian state — the security forces and governing institutions — may well not survive a collapse of the regime. Assad’s father may have killed two and perhaps four times as many fellow Syrians as has the son, but it was only the latter whose rule Washington deemed illegitimate. Despite the blood on his hands, Hafez al-Assad was courted by a generation of U.S. officials seeking an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty. This effort too was both right and smart.
Bashar Assad, unlike Egypt’s generals, has precious little capital to draw upon in the Obama White House. Ambassador Robert Ford, our man in Damascus, ceased acting as an envoy to the government. His brave support for the popular revolt against the regime warmed our hearts. Showing solidarity with the struggle against the regime, re-branded as a democratic uprising, was inspiring. It was the right thing to do, but doing the right thing is not the same as doing the smart thing. 
Simply opposing Assad is not a policy, but that is what the current U.S. policy risks. By demonizing the regime, Washington has walked away from the table. This decision left the U.S. ill-placed to tease out disaffected members of the regime in the hopes of mounting an insider’s coup, the best hope for a less violent transition. That power now rests in the hands of Moscow and Teheran, who may yet decide that a change in the regime is the best means of preserving their interests. Efforts by Syria’s Arab antagonists to undermine the ruling family have come to naught. This vacuum has left the diplomatic field to Kofi Annan, Tehran, Beijing, and Moscow, who appear united in an effort to craft a diplomatic solution with the regime — repudiating Washington’s preferences both tactically and strategically.
Washington’s ambivalence about the Annan mission is a product of the squeeze Moscow, Beijing, Baghdad, and Teheran are putting on U.S. policy. “Walking back” American support for regime change and the concomitant opposition to everything short of this goal, is not easy, but some former U.S. diplomats and even others currently wearing pinstripes believe it can be done. Our lukewarm support for Annan reflects the first, tentative baby steps in this direction.
The Obama administration, however, cannot bring itself to support a solution with the regime and its allies. It is has proven easier to embrace a number of more vague and often incompatible policy options: to snipe at the Annan mission from the sidelines, to debate tactical questions relating to humanitarian relief, or to engage in internal debates about the ease with which, for example, Syrian air defenses might be taken out.
Lacking a strategic compass, Washington finds itself not leading from behind but being dragged from behind in support of the policies and agendas of others — including in the Gulf and among the Syrian National Council — that promise at best to continue bleeding the regime, its opponents, and the long-suffering Syrian people, and that threaten the institutional and even the territorial integrity of the Syrian state.
These are the stakes of the game now being played by diplomats in drawing rooms and rebels in the alleys of Daraa and Homs. The Assad regime and the ruling state institutions are heinous, but there is still room for Washington to champion an engagement that aims at moving the Syrian government and the Syrian public to a wary, uneasy accommodation. The Obama administration must end its role in the slide towards civil, sectarian war. Annan’s effort needs more American support than is currently the case for his effort to be credible. His effort to craft a diplomatic solution through the regime is the best attainable outcome. Adoption of such a policy will help to dispel the polarization between the U.S. and Russia and China that harms the prospects of a diplomatic outcome. But the best course would be to reestablish an effective, direct channel to the regime and its various power centers. This course charts a future in shades of grey rather than black and white — less satisfying to those lusting for Assad’s head perhaps, but far more effective.”

Geoffrey Aronson is director of research and publications at the Foundation for Middle East Peace and organized the “Swiss Track” negotiations between Israelis and Syrians in 2007. 


White House says Assad ‘losing control’ but holds line against arming rebels
By Jeremy Herb – 07/18/12 05:56 PM ET

“The Obama administration said Wednesday that the situation Syria is spinning out of control and President Bashar Assad is losing his grip after a bomb in Damascus killed Syria’s defense minister and his deputy.
But the dramatic events appeared unlikely to change U.S. policy, with the administration remaining opposed to directly supplying arms or other military support to the rebels.
The Damascus bombing, which Syrian rebel forces claimed credit for, was a major blow to the Assad regime, killing Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha and Assef Shawkat, the deputy defense minister and Assad’s brother in law.
The White House reiterated that it would not get involved in the conflict militarily and called on the international community to come together so a political transition could occur.
“We do not believe that violence is the answer, and it is precisely because of the ongoing campaign by President Assad against his own people that we are seeing a situation that is getting worse and worse,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday. “The incident today makes clear that Assad is losing control, that violence is increasing rather than decreasing, and that all of our partners internationally need to come together and support a transition.”
But critics in Congress who have argued for the administration to intervene in Syria warned that, without U.S. and international action, the atrocities in Syria could escalate, particularly if Assad retaliates. 
“The Obama Administration, and the world at large, is fiddling while Syria burns,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement. “I hope we don’t end up regretting our inaction.”
Russia has angered the Obama administration by blocking further action in the United Nations Security Council against Syria. The UN Security Council delayed a vote on a new Syria resolution for a day on Wednesday in an attempt to get Russia on board.
Defense analysts said that the attack on senior members of the Syrian regime was a significant step for the opposition’s attempts to fight back against Assad.
“It does signal a strength of the opposition forces that may have been underappreciated before. I think that’s a major development,” said Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Danielle Pletka, an analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said the administration might tout its strategy of avoiding military action if the opposition continues to make gains. But she warned that the lack of U.S. involvement would be felt once Assad is forced from power.
“How much influence are we going to have, how will we help manage the aftermath, how are we going to have a stake in helping along the transition of a country that we want desperately to move away from Iran?” Pletka said.
“And the answer is we won’t have any influence at all.”
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Ct.), who has frequently joined Graham and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in criticizing the administration on Syria, said he was concerned about U.S. influence if Assad’s government falls.
“I think we’re at a turning point, and obviously these events today show that the opposition is gaining ground on Assad, and the defections particularly from his military and civilian government are significant,” Lieberman told The Hill.
“It’s very important we be more involved to help the opposition because if we are, the government that follows Assad will be more open to us and our values than if we’re not.”
One of the chief U.S. concerns about Syria is the presence of al Qaeda within the opposition, something that King Abdullah II of Jordan acknowledged in a CNN interview on Wednesday.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta noted the instability in the region when he said in response to the bombing that Syria was “spinning out of control.”
McCain said that he didn’t expect much change from the administration on Syria, even if it was “inevitable” that Assad would go. 
“But meanwhile we’ve already slaughtered 17,000, and more are coming,” McCain said, referring to the number of Syrians killed in the 16-month conflict.”
Step Up Opposition Support
·         by James Dobbins, RAND
August 9, 2012
“Like Iraq, Syria is a country divided by religion and ethnicity, held together by a brutal regime that is drawn from a minority element of the population, which has, in turn, profited at the expense of the majority. As in Iraq, the minority will not cede power easily, while at least some elements of the majority will see the demise of the regime as payback time.
And like Iraq, Syria also has a large Kurdish population, which will seek to take advantage of the regime’s fall to gain greater autonomy for its people and region. Should a three-way civil war follow post-Assad regime, it would drag in Turkey (against the Kurds), Iraqi Kurdistan (for the Kurds), Iran (for the Alawites), Saudi Arabia and other Arab states (for the Sunni majority), and various Lebanese factions (on all sides).
To avoid such a region-wide free-for-all, the United States needs to work to unify the opposition, marginalize Al Qaeda and other extremist elements, stimulate defections from the regime — particularly from its Alawite core — and encourage inclusion of representatives from the Alawite community within the new opposition leadership.
American influence and ability to advance such goals will tend to be in direct proportion to the help the United States provides the opposition. Well-meant advice and promises of postwar aid will mean much less in forging a relationship with the eventual rulers of Syria than decisive assistance now. As I testified last week to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the new Syrian leadership will be formed in the crucible of war, and in all likelihood will prove resistant to the admixture of elements that did not participate in the fight, or to influence from governments that did not support them in it.
It would be a great mistake to allow that leadership to conclude that Al Qaeda had done more to help them prevail than had the United States. Washington needs to do more now than provide advice and nonlethal assistance, if the United States is to be in a strong position to head off a larger sectarian conflict once the current campaign to oust Assad succeeds.
This op-ed was part of a NYT Room for Debate discussion: “How to End the Chaos in Syria

James Dobbins, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state and special envoy under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, is director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution.
This commentary appeared on on August 8, 2012.

The Right Way to Help Syria’s Rebels

·         by Dalia Dassa Kaye, David Kaye, RAND
August 9, 2012
“The United States can support the insurgents without providing arms.
As diplomatic options for ending the conflict in Syria have failed, calls to arm and provide air support for Syrian rebels are becoming more widespread — with several senators, a former Bush administration senior official and a former Obama State Department official leading the charge.
Although we share their commitment to a humanitarian end to the brutality of the Assad regime, arguments to support the rebels militarily are based on three common assumptions that do not withstand scrutiny:

Military support will make the war shorter and enable the rebels to win.

Analysis by close observers, such as the widely respected and nonpartisan International Crisis Group, suggests that a protracted civil war based on sectarian divides would probably continue even after President Bashar Assad falls. It’s not clear how outside air power or arms for the rebels would quell such sectarian conflict (and no one is talking about sending ground troops).
As a result, a clear-cut military victory that ends the bloodshed seems increasingly unlikely, with or without U.S. support. To the contrary, outside military involvement may only increase the incentives for Russia and Iran to continue to support the regime now and its remnants after Assad goes.

Increased and direct military assistance to the rebels will expand U.S. influence after Assad falls.

Pro-interventionists often argue that staying out of the Syrian conflict will lead the opposition to resent and resist U.S. influence after Assad falls, throwing the opposition into the sway of less liberal influences. But, just as in other conflicts in which the United States has lent support, military assistance may not buy us long-term political influence.
In any event, while rebel groups may resent being turned down by the Americans now, it is hard to imagine they would turn their backs on U.S. support that is likely to stream in quickly after Assad is gone. Moreover, what alternative partner would be as attractive to a new Syrian government as the United States? The Russians and Iranians, with their unwavering support for Assad, have all but written off their prospects for ties with future leaders.

American military support will stem Al Qaeda’s growing influence.

A more likely outcome is that a U.S. military role would bring extremists more, not less, support. Al Qaeda would be happy to exploit U.S. support for more liberal secular opposition groups as a way to taint those factions and erode their influence among the Syrian population. And how can we be sure that American weapons don’t make their way into the hands of extremist elements within the opposition?
It may very well be that, in the heat of struggle, most Syrian opposition fighters and an array of civil society activists want U.S. military support. And we are not ruling out logistic or even military support of a humanitarian nature if the situation drastically deteriorates. But the demand for U.S. arms now doesn’t make it the right option, for the activists or for the United States. The risks are high, something even the supporters of arming the rebels acknowledge, without sufficient evidence that such efforts would prove effective.
It’s also important to remember that military might isn’t the only way to support the activists and fighters. The Obama administration, far from sitting on its hands, as Sen. John McCain and his colleagues allege, has led international efforts to isolate and sanction those most responsible for the regime’s violence, and those efforts — along with diplomacy to bring Russia and China along — should be strengthened.
The State Department and others are already working with Syrians to prepare for a post-Assad world. Even there, however, U.S. policy should have a light touch, focused on encouraging Syrians — especially those within the country — to begin building a pluralistic polity, embracing and empowering its many ethnic groups while being governed by the rule of law. Sunni Muslim leaders especially should be encouraged to embrace those minorities most fearful of Assad’s ouster, especially the Alawites.
American influence flows not only from our weapons but from the concrete assistance we can provide after the uprising, such as security sector reform, humanitarian and economic assistance, and technical and legal training. Being a partisan to the conflict through military support — causing us to be seen, for instance, as an opponent of key “losing” ethnic groups — would make such assistance less effective.
As they move beyond the shadow of four decades of Assads, Syrians will have to decide how to go forward, such as what institutions to build or rebuild and how to do it, what principles should guide a new government, how to replace authoritarianism and corruption with the rule of law, and whether to hold accountable those responsible for the violence of recent months and the decades of abusive rule by the regime. We should be there to support those efforts, but it would be infinitely more complicated if we enter with the force of arms.”

Dalia Dassa Kaye is a senior political scientist at Rand Corp. and a 2011-12 visiting fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations. David Kaye, a State Department lawyer from 1995 to 2005, is a professor at the UC Irvine School of Law.
This commentary appeared in Los Angeles Times on August 8, 2012.

Fiasco in the Levant

Unless the United States gets serious now about its postwar planning, Syria could spin out of control.


“As bad as things are in Syria, they could get much worse once Bashar al-Assad’s regime falls, as it eventually must. Like Iraq, Syria is a country divided by religion and ethnicity, held together by a brutal regime drawn from a minority element of the population. And as in Iraq, that minority has profited handsomely at the expense of the majority, meaning that it will not cede power easily and that when it finally does, at least some elements of the majority will see it as time for payback. In other words, Syria after Assad could very well be al Qaeda’s dream come true.
Already, al Qaeda is positioning itself to engage in sectarian violence. As my Rand Corp. colleague Seth Jones has pointed out, al Qaeda makes up a small part of the resistance movement, but its strength appears to be rising. Since December, it has conducted roughly two dozen attacks, primarily against Syrian security service targets.
More ominously, al Qaeda may be poised to make inroads with more moderate fighters who are cash-strapped and desperate for military backing. Over the weekend, NBC’s Richard Engel reported from Aleppo that one rebel brigade doesn’t “have enough weapons to fight and they’re dying.” Al Qaeda, he said, has offered weapons and money, which the rebels are seriously considering. “They’d rather have support from the United States, the U.N., or Europe, but it hasn’t come.”
The State Department, through the U.S. Institute of Peace, is assisting Syrian émigrés and more recent refugees to plan for postwar reconstruction. This is certainly a useful exercise. Yet planning divorced from resources and power, as these efforts necessarily are, will likely have only a limited impact. What is more important for the U.S. government to do at this stage than drafting plans is forging relationships with those likely to next govern Syria. These relationships should be developed at multiple levels: diplomatic, covert, military, economic, and political.
To avoid Iraq-like sectarian violence in Syria, it will be important to work during the civil war to unify the opposition, marginalize al Qaeda and other extremist elements already increasingly active there, stimulate defections from the regime — particularly from its Alawite core — and encourage the inclusion of Alawites within the opposition leadership. I expect that Barack Obama’s administration is already advising the Syrian opposition along these lines.
But the United States’ ability to shape future events in Syria will only be as great as the support it gives the rebels in their fight to topple Assad. Decisive assistance right now will do more to forge a relationship with the eventual rulers of Syria than mere promises of postwar aid. The new Syrian leadership will be formed in the crucible of war, and in all likelihood it will prove resistant to postwar overtures by governments that did not support it from the outset. It would, for instance, be a great mistake to allow rebel leaders to conclude that al Qaeda did more to help their cause than the United States.
Having helped organize multinational military operations in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, I would be the last to understate the complexities, dangers, and costs associated with any greater American involvement in Syria’s civil war. For this reason, I do not believe the United States should become the chief standard-bearer for an external military intervention. I do believe, however, that the United States should up its assistance to the rebels to include lethal equipment and training. It should also remain open to even greater involvement if the Syrian opposition requests it and other regional powers call for and are prepared to participate in any such effort, much as it did in Libya when those conditions were met.”

Syrian Scenarios

·         by Brian Michael Jenkins, RAND
August 8, 2012
“The fighting in Damascus is so far not the Battle of Berlin or the Fall of Saigon, marking the clear beginning of the end. The endgame, indeed, may be a long way off.
So what happens next? It is difficult to sort out the military situation on the ground or the maneuvers behind the scenes. But here is a brief sketch of possible scenarios.

A Peaceful Transition

Forget about a peaceful transition for now. The escalation of fighting has scuttled whatever slim chance there was of a negotiated political settlement. The Kofi Annan plan is dead but not buried—and Annan himself has resigned as UN Special Envoy to Syria. Months of inconclusive fighting could persuade the exhausted belligerents to look for a way to end the bloodshed. Annan could yet return in Act III.

Assad Hangs on

Although Assad’s forces are widely considered to be doomed, it is not inconceivable that with support from Iran (whose security chief paid a visit to President Assad in Damascus just today), Hezbollah, and Russia, they could crush the revolt. While Western nations tend to be pessimistic about the ability to counter insurgencies with military force, Russia has had a different experience. Chechnya’s rebels were defeated in two bloody wars. Sporadic terrorism and banditry continue in the Caucasus, but the separatist struggle has been suppressed. With sufficient ruthlessness, Assad could prevail.

An Assad Regime Without Assad

Events in Syria could instead follow the model of Yemen, where the president was forced to step down but his lieutenants still rule. In Syria, this would allow the continued dominance of Assad’s Alawite supporters minus Assad. He could flee or his senior commanders could decide that Alawite survival can be assured only with his removal in the form of a coup or assassination. With Assad and a handful of others out of the picture, his successors could seek some kind of accommodation.

The Rebels Win

Generously financed from abroad, covertly assisted by the West, its ranks swelled with defectors, the Free Syrian Army could ultimately grind down government forces and expand its own area of control. This is essentially a Libyan scenario but without direct foreign intervention, which, in the Syrian case, Russia has prevented. However, a foolish move by the Assad government—for example, shooting down another Turkish aircraft, using its chemical weapons against its own people, or transferring them to others—could provoke action from abroad and hasten the regime’s demise.

Civil War and Partition

The most likely outcome, in my opinion, may be no outcome at all, but instead a civil war lasting years. The conflict has become an existential struggle for its participants—their survival is at stake. It might look like Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, with the country divided along sectarian and ethnic lines. Assad’s Alawites, who comprise 10 to 12 percent of the population but dominate the top government posts and the economy, would hold on to their stronghold in Western Syria, with the Kurds backed up along Syria’s northern border with Turkey, leaving the Sunnis dominant in Eastern Syria. Actually, Syria’s ethnic, religious, and tribal composition comprises a more complicated mosaic, presaging fighting along multiple fissures and the same self-sorting and sectarian cleansing that Iraq saw during its insurgency.

A Regional Conflict

In a protracted civil war, outsiders would back their local proxies. Russia, with its naval base at Tartus in the Alawite stronghold, backs the Alawites. Assad counts on assistance from Iran and Iran’s Hezbollah protégés. The rebels receive help from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, with the United States and some European countries providing covert aid. Sunnis from Iraq bolster their brothers in Iraq. Al Qaeda, the West’s unwanted ally, is already operating in Syrian territory. Some would profit from a regional upheaval.
Faced with tightening international economic sanctions as a result of its nuclear program, Iran would welcome a regional crisis that diverts the world’s attention from Tehran. The new dangers created by a regional war might also persuade Israel to shelve any plans for a military strike on Iran. And it might not be easy to enforce an embargo on Iranian oil if Saudi and other Gulf oil production were imperiled by regional turmoil.
Finally, the ever-opportunistic al Qaeda, which already has benefited tactically from the Arab uprisings in North Africa, the Sinai, and Yemen, would find new operating space in a wider war. In the cynical calculus of the Middle East, to some, the value of continued violence exceeds the promised dividends of peace.”

Brian Michael Jenkins is senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution.
This commentary appeared on and on August 7, 2012.

The Case for Expanding Assistance to the Syrian Opposition

·         by  James Dobbins, RAND
August 1, 2012
The following is excerpted from James Dobbins’ Aug. 1, 2012 prepared testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs regarding the situation in Syria.
“What is important for the U.S. government to do at this stage is forge relationships with those likely to next govern Syria. These relationships should be developed at many levels, diplomatic, covert, military, economic and political, to include democracy building work by our Republican and Democratic Institutes, contacts with individual members of Congress, as well as with all the relevant arms of our Executive Branch.
As we get to know the Syrian opposition better, we will discover, I have no doubt, that not all are democrats, that many are ill disposed toward the United States, and that most if not all are ill disposed toward Israel. We will also discover, I expect, that most are even more ill disposed toward Iran, and therefore not inclined to help Tehran extend its influence into the Levant.
My expectation is that Syria’s civil war will result in the regime’s collapse, not a negotiated settlement, that the victors will not want foreign troops on the ground, and that there will therefore be no serious consideration of a large-scale foreign manned stabilization force. One can envisage circumstances where very limited external military assistance might be needed, for instance to secure chemical weapons sites, but a far better outcome will be for the regime’s armed forces to remain largely intact, albeit under new command, and thus still responsible for the security (and eventual disposal) of these weapons. Contrary to Iraq, where the American military dropped leaflets informing Iraqi troops that they would be killed if they remained in uniform and under arms, the Syrian opposition should be encouraged to assure rank and file Syrian soldiers that they will be safe, and indeed paid and protected as soon as they cease fighting. It appears that the Obama administration is so advising the Syrian opposition.
Having myself helped organize international military operations in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, I would be the last to minimize the complexities, dangers and costs associated with any such effort in Syria. It is for this reason that I do not believe the United States should become the standard bearer for such an intervention. I do believe, however, that the United States should up its assistance to the rebels; quietly let those on the front lines, particularly Turkey and Saudi Arabia, know that it will back initiatives they may wish to take toward more direct military engagement; and provided the earlier mentioned conditions can be met, America should provide those military assets needed for success that only the United States possesses in adequate number.”
Ambassador James Dobbins is the director of the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center.

This Week at War: The Next Proxy War

By Robert Haddick
Small Wars Journal Blog Post | Aug 10 2012 – 6:18pm

“In my Foreign Policy column, I explain why the U.S. should intervene in Syria. Hint: the reason is not about Syria. 
In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joseph Lieberman argued for stepped-up U.S. intervention in Syria’s civil war. They called for providing Syria’s rebels with weapons, training, and intelligence. They also called on the United States to support the establishment of safe zones inside Syria, to be protected by U.S. air power and other capabilities (but not American ground troops). Failure to take these steps, they argued, would prolong Syria’s bloody civil war, boost the role of Islamic radicals such as al Qaeda, increase the chance that Syria’s chemical weapons will end up in dangerous hands, and cause the U.S. to be shut out of the country after the Assad regime falls.
A key step in formulating effective strategy is confining oneself to realistic and obtainable goals. Significantly shortening Syria’s war, determining which factions come out on top, and seizing control of Syria’s most threatening weapons in the midst of chaotic combat are goals very likely beyond the grasp of U.S. policymakers, at least at reasonable cost. The senators’ rationale for U.S. intervention implies an ability to influence events in Syria beyond what seems feasible. Should U.S. intervention fail to rapidly end the war or quickly seize Syria’s chemical weapons, the United States would risk finding itself climbing a ladder of escalation, with increasing use of air power and even ground troops in an effort to achieve the campaign’s goals. Once committed in a large and visible way, U.S. prestige would be at risk, forcing policymakers to continue adding resources in the hope of achieving overly ambitious objectives.
However, that does not mean that the United States should avoid the conflict. In fact, there are important and achievable objectives in Syria, obtainable with little risk and for a modest price. Rather than attempting to influence the course of Syria’s civil war, something largely beyond Washington’s control, U.S. policymakers should instead focus on strengthening America’s diplomatic position and on building irregular warfare capabilities that will be crucial in future conflicts in the region. Modest and carefully circumscribed intervention in Syria, in coordination with America’s Sunni allies who are already players in the war, will bolster critical relationships and irregular warfare capabilities the United States and its allies will need for the future.
The conflict in Syria is just one front in the ongoing competition between Iran and America’s Sunni allies on the west side of the Persian Gulf. That competition has played out in the past with proxy warfare in Lebanon and Yemen, and Iraq may become the next surrogate battlefield. Should Iran become a nuclear weapons state, the competition will almost certainly intensify. Regardless of the outcome in Syria, U.S. allies around the Persian Gulf must brace for deepening security competition with Iran.
The Sunni Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are building up their conventional military forces, in particular coordinated missile defenses to counter the threat from Iran’s ballistic missiles. However, the actual fighting in recent years has been conducted by insurgent militias that have usually been armed and trained by Iran and some of the Sunni countries. For example, Qatar, whose special forces played a large role in the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in Libya, is a major sponsor, alongside Saudi Arabia, of the rebels in Syria. On the other side, the capture this week of 48 Iranian Revolutionary Guard advisers by the Syrian rebels illustrates Iran’s role in the country.
This kind of irregular warfare will very likely continue to be the most common manifestation of the security competition between Iran and the Sunni countries. Hezbollah in Lebanon, various Shiite militias in Iraq, and the current training and support Iran is supplying to pro-Assad militias in Syria demonstrate Iran’s experience with this form of warfare. The Sunni countries have a strong interest in stepping up their own irregular warfare capabilities if they are to keep pace with Iran during the ongoing security competition.
The civil war in Syria provides an opportunity for the United States and its Sunni allies to do just that. For the United States, supporting Syria’s rebels would constitute a classic unconventional warfare campaign, a basic Special Forces mission. Such missions are typically covert and usually performed in cooperation with regional allies. So, U.S. and GCC intelligence officers and special forces could use an unconventional warfare campaign in Syria as an opportunity to exchange skills and training, share resources, improve trust, and establish combined operational procedures. Such field experience would be highly useful in future contingencies. Equally important, it would reassure the Sunni countries that the United States will be a reliable ally against Iran.
Normally, the goals of a combined U.S.-GCC unconventional warfare campaign in Syria would be the overthrow of the Assad regime and the establishment of a government friendly to U.S. and Gulf Sunni interests. However, policymakers should recognize that unconventional warfare campaigns are fragile projects with no assurance of success. They can take years to run their course with plenty of opportunity for embarrassments along the way. The Syrian war is proving to be just as dirty as any other modern proxy war, with both sides apparently guilty of war crimes. Rather than committing to the goal of overthrowing the Assad regime, an elusive task that could result in an unpleasant spiral of escalation, the U.S. should limit itself to the goal of growing coalition irregular warfare expertise.
But to improve the odds of achieving this limited goal, policymakers should expand U.S. participation beyond its current limits. They should not rule out providing lethal assistance to the rebels not available through other partners. U.S. special forces advisers and trainers should be allowed to visit rebel sanctuary camps in Turkey and Syria. Finally, U.S. policymakers should consider the limited use of air power — for example, drones for intelligence-gathering and close air support. Since the principal U.S. goal would be the buildup of GCC irregular warfare capacity, GCC intelligence and special forces officers should have the lead, with U.S. officers supporting them. This approach would do the most to build overall alliance special operations capacity while limiting U.S. exposure and risk.
Some will no doubt criticize this approach as an exploitation of the humanitarian disaster in Syria to allow the U.S. and its allies to refine some unpleasant techniques. A historical analogy would be the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, another very ugly civil war, which Europe’s great powers used to tune up their military doctrines before World War II. By this view, intervention would only accelerate Syria’s suffering and make the United States an accessory to a dirty war.
However, to the extent U.S. intervention in support of its Sunni allies shortens the war and hastens the end of the Assad regime, it will save lives and reduce the suffering in Syria. U.S. intervention cannot assure such a result and U.S. policymakers should not commit U.S. prestige to such an outcome. But as we saw in the Balkans in the early 1990s, standing aside while a civil war rages has its own moral problems. By contrast, when outside adviser assistance to the Croatian and Bosnian militias was finally allowed, the fighting soon ended. No one can guarantee a similar result in Syria. On the other hand, we can see what Syria is going through right now. Although ending the war should not be a goal of the very limited intervention discussed here, the odds of ending the fighting on favorable terms would seem to be higher than with no intervention at all.
Furthermore, irregular warfare is the future for which the U.S. and its allies must prepare. When Senators McCain, Graham, and Lieberman — the most hawkish elected officials in Washington — rule out the use of conventional ground troops, policymakers should conclude that they have a depleted toolbox for addressing future security challenges. With the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan still fresh, policymakers will be highly reluctant to employ conventional ground forces in future contingencies. Among the few remaining tools will be intelligence and special operations officers pursuing irregular warfare techniques alongside allies. Supporting the Sunni allies in Syria will sharpen irregular warfare skills, improve operational relationships, and prepare the United States and its allies for future contingencies. And it may even end the war and save some lives.”

What the Hell Should We Do About Syria?

Source: Foreign Policy
CNAS Author:
Dr. Andrew M. Exum, Center for New American Security
May 30, 2012
“ Lock up the WMDs
There is little reason to expect a swift resolution to the Syrian conflict. For the moment, Syrian government forces enjoy a tremendous advantage in terms of both manpower and equipment, and the regime has no reason yet to think it will lose. The Alawi minority group — which fears the loss of its political and economic power — has strong incentives to act as a spoiler to any potential political settlement.
Which is not to say the United States is powerless. The Obama administration should press for a resolution to the conflict, promoting greater freedom and justice for the Syrian people without becoming mired in Syria’s civil war. Working with the U.N. Security Council and the Friends of Syria, the contact group set up to aid the Syrian opposition, the United States should continue to publicize regime atrocities, attempt to establish coherence and inclusion in the Syrian opposition, and exert international pressure on regime officials to promote a political transition negotiated between the Syrian opposition and government. While the Pentagon will and should prepare military contingencies, without a more cohesive Syrian opposition, an international mandate, and a viable strategy for success, the United States should not rev up the B-52s. Under current conditions, military intervention in Syria would, in the words of Foreign Policy’s own Marc Lynch, “alter but not end the dynamics of a long conflict, embroiling the United States directly in a protracted and bloody insurgency and civil war.”
As the United States works to facilitate a transition, it must also recognize the limitations of its leverage over Syrian actors, prepare for the likelihood of a long conflict in Syria, and work to mitigate the effects of that war on U.S. interests. This means containing the conflict and discouraging human rights abuses while seeking a political solution. At the same time, the United States should counter efforts by other states, including those in the Friends of Syria coalition (think: Saudi Arabia), to empower surrogates with advanced weaponry or otherwise exploit the situation in ways that serve their own sectarian or narrow national interests.
The United States should worry about two particular consequences of the conflict in Syria: terrorism and the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons. The 2007 violence between Lebanese security forces and the Fatah al-Islam terrorist group, led by a militant released by Syrian authorities and resulting in the displacement of nearly 30,000 Palestinian refugees, is a harbinger of the kind of violence that might spill over from Syria. To mitigate the outbreak of limited, terrorist-led sectarian violence in Lebanon and other surrounding countries, the United States should provide security assistance and intelligence support to Syria’s neighbors — as it did in 2007 with arms and equipment, in addition to intelligence support. The United States has excellent relationships with the security services of each neighboring country, which will serve as a valuable asset in the event of a contingency.

The spread of chemical or biological weapons is more difficult to mitigate. None of Syria’s neighbors has an interest in such weapons crossing its borders. But the ease with which people and weapons have been smuggled during the conflicts in both Syria and Iraq points toward how porous the Syrian borders with Iraq and Lebanon can be. Both countries have maintained relationships with the Assad regime, and each country should lobby the regime to safeguard its chemical and biological weapons stockpiles. The United States must work with the security services of each neighboring country, meanwhile, to develop plans to halt the movement of such weapons outside of Syria. The last thing this combustible region needs is weapons of mass destruction on the loose.”

Stopping Syria’s War

By Kenneth Pollack, the Brookings Institution
Aug. 11, 2012, 5:01 p.m. CDT
Special to The Washington Post.
“The beginning of wisdom,” a Chinese saying goes, “is to call things by their right names.” And the right name for what is happening in Syria — and has been for more than a year — is an all-out civil war.
Syria is Lebanon of the 1970s and ’80s. It is Afghanistan, Congo or the Balkans of the 1990s. It is Iraq of 2005-2007. It is not an insurgency. It is not a rebellion. It is not Yemen. It is certainly not Egypt or Tunisia. It is important to accept this simple fact, because civil wars — especially ethno-sectarian civil wars such as the one burning in Syria — both reflect and unleash powerful forces that constrain what can be done about them. These forces can’t be turned off or ignored; they must be dealt with directly if there is to be any chance of ending the conflict.
So, how do these kinds of wars end? Usually, in one of two ways: One side wins, typically in murderous fashion, or a third party intervenes with enough force to snuff out the fighting. Until Washington commits to either helping one side or leading an intervention in Syria, nothing else we do will make much difference. The history of civil wars — and of efforts to stop them — demonstrates what is likely to work and what is likely to fail.
_ Stop chasing mirages
At the top of the list of initiatives that rarely succeed in ending a civil war on their own is a negotiated settlement. The likelihood that this could work without force to impose or guarantee an accord is slight. It’s why Kofi Annan’s mission as the U.N.-Arab League envoy was always likely to fail and why, now that Annan has announced his resignation, the effort should be cast aside as a distraction.
It’s also why the Obama administration’s fixation on Russia’s supposed leverage with the Syrian regime and the idea of a Yemen-style solution in which President Bashar al-Assad steps down are equally misconceived. Assad is unlikely to step down, because — like Radovan Karadzic, Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gadhafi and many others before him — he believes that his adversaries will kill him and his family if he does. And he is probably right.
Even if he did voluntarily leave office, his resignation or flight from Syria would probably be meaningless: The war is being led by Assad, but it is being waged by the country’s Alawite community and other minorities, who believe that they are fighting not just for their privileged place in Syrian society but for their lives. Were Assad to resign or flee, the most likely outcome would be for another Alawite leader to take his place and continue the fight.
The insistence that “Assad’s days are numbered” is not only probably incorrect, it is largely irrelevant. Throughout the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1991, there was always a man sitting in the Baabda Palace calling himself the president. And he had a military force that reported to him called the Lebanese Armed Forces. In truth, he was nothing more than a Maronite Christian warlord, and the remnants of the Lebanese Armed Forces had become nothing but a Maronite militia, yet the names persisted.
So Assad may not fall for some time, and he may continue to call himself the president of Syria. He may even be able to sit in an embattled Damascus, defended by a military formation still calling itself the Syrian Armed Forces. But that won’t make him anything more than the chief of a largely Alawite militia.
_ The dangers of picking winners
If the United States decides that it is in its interest to end the Syrian civil war, Washington could certainly decide to help one side win.
In effect, we’ve already done so. Not only has the Obama administration demanded that the Assad regime relinquish power, but numerous media reports say that the United States is providing limited covert support to the Syrian opposition. According to these reports, the aid is nonlethal — helping to vet fighters, providing some planning guidance.
What Washington has not done is give the opposition the kind of help that would allow it to prevail in short order. Right now, the standoff in Syria is about guns against numbers. The regime has a small pool of tanks, artillery, attack helicopters and other heavy weapons that allows it to beat back the opposition wherever such forces are committed. So whenever the opposition threatens something of great importance to Assad’s government — such as Damascus or Aleppo — the regime can stymie the attack. But the opposition’s numbers are growing, allowing it to take control of large swaths of territory that is of low priority to Assad.
Over time, and especially if its supply of replacements and spare parts from Iran and Russia can be choked off, the government’s stockpile of heavy weapons will diminish, and as the war becomes a contest of light infantry on both sides, the numbers of the opposition should begin to tip the balance.
The problem is that helping the opposition “win” might end up looking something like Afghanistan in 2001. Opposition forces may end up in control of most of the country, even Damascus, but the Alawites and their allies might be holed up in the mountains, continuing the fight. And as in Afghanistan, where the Northern Alliance held the Panjshir valley for years against the otherwise overwhelming force of the Taliban, so too might the Alawites be able to hold their mountainous homeland along Syria’s western coast for a long time.
The parallels are plentiful. The Syrian opposition is badly fragmented, with divisions within and between the political groups and fighting forces. In Afghanistan, after the Soviet departure in 1989, a similar situation was a recipe for internecine warfare. Indeed, the various mujaheddin groups fell to fighting one another even before the Soviet puppet regime of President Najibullah fell _allowing the regime to survive until the Taliban crushed Najibullah and the mujaheddin alike.
In Syria, the dominant force that might emerge from an opposition takeover could be the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The group, living for decades under persecution from the Shiite-dominated Syrian Baath Party, is a very different creature from the Brotherhood parties that have taken power in Egypt and Tunisia. It is an old, unreconstructed, hard-line, sectarian version — more like the Taliban.
For all of these reasons, an opposition victory could mean trading one regime of persecution and slaughter for another. All of this needs to be factored into any U.S. discussion of whether to help the rebels prevail.
If Washington does choose to intervene, however, there are ways to reduce these risks. First, America could start providing lethal assistance, particularly more advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to help kill off the regime’s heavy weapons faster and allow the opposition to prevail more quickly.
Even more important, the United States and its NATO allies could begin to provide military training for Syrian fighters. More competent opposition forces could better meet and defeat government troops. Such training would also help diminish the factionalism among the armed groups and bring greater discipline to the opposition, including in a postwar environment. Indeed, the American program to organize and train a Croatian (and Bosnian Muslim) army in the mid-1990s was crucial both to military victory in the Bosnian civil war and to fostering stability after the fighting.
Moreover, one of the best ways for the United States to influence a post-civil-war political process is to maximize its role in building the military that wins the war.
_ Ending a war vs. building a nation
Historically, the only real alternative to ending a civil war by picking a winner is for an outside force to suppress the warring groups and then build a stable political process that keeps the war from resuming. The military piece of this — shutting down the fighting — is relatively easy, as long as the intervening nation is willing to bring enough force and use the right tactics. The hard part is having the patience to build a new, functional political system. The Syrians in Lebanon, NATO in Bosnia, the Australians in East Timor and the Americans in Iraq demonstrate the possibilities and the pitfalls.
This course is typically the only way to end the violence without the mass slaughter of the losing side. It also can prevent fragmentation and an outbreak of fighting among the victors. If done right, it can even pave the way toward real democracy (as the United States started to do in Iraq before its withdrawal last year), which results in greater stability in the long run.
But it is not cheap, and it requires a long-term commitment of military force and political and economic assistance. The cost can be mitigated in a multilateral intervention such as in Bosnia and Kosovo, rather than a largely unilateral effort along the lines of the U.S. reconstructions of Iraq and Afghanistan. In the case of Syria, that means the United States isn’t the only nation that needs to sign on; Turkish, European and Arab support matter as well.
Right now, there is absolutely no appetite in the United States for a Bosnia-style intervention in Syria. That is understandable. Unlike in Libya, the humanitarian disasters unfolding in Syria have not been enough to galvanize the United States to action. In addition, there is nothing intrinsically important there for U.S. vital interests. Syria does not have significant oil reserves, nor is it a major trading partner. It is not an ally and was never a democracy. If Syria were merely to self-immolate, it would be a tragedy for the Syrian people but extraneous to American interests.
However, if Syria’s civil war spills over into the rest of the Middle East, U.S. interests would be threatened. Civil wars often spread — through the flow of refugees, the spread of terrorism, the radicalization of neighboring populations, and the intervention and opportunism of neighboring powers — and Syria has all the hallmarks of a particularly bad case.
At its worst, spillover from a civil war in one country can cause a civil war in another or can metastasize into a regional war. Sectarian violence is already spreading from Syria; Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan are all fragile states susceptible to civil war, even without the risk of contagion. Turkey and Iran are mucking around in Syria, supporting different sides and demanding that others stop doing the same. Terrorism or increasing Iranian influence might pull even a reluctant Israel into the fray — just as terrorism and increasing Syrian dominance pulled Israel into the Lebanese civil war years ago.
This is what we must watch for. Spillover may force Washington to contemplate real solutions to the Syrian conflict, rather than indulge in frivolous sideshows. If that day comes, our choice will almost certainly be between picking a winner and leading a multilateral intervention.
Chances are we will start with the former, and if that fails to produce results, we will shift to the latter. That may seem far-fetched, but it is worth remembering that in 1991 there was virtually no one in the United States who supported an American-led multilateral intervention in Bosnia, and by 1995 the United States, under a Democratic administration, was doing just that.
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Kenneth M. Pollack is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of “A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East.”

Wall Street Journal-Aug 13, 2012
Syria’s Coming Sectarian Crack-Up
Assad’s forces will retreat to the north, and an Iranian-backed Alawite canton will be born.
The Obama administration has been decrying the spread of sectarianism in war-torn Syria and calling for the preservation of state institutions there. A “managed transition” is the new mantra in Washington. This isn’t a policy but a prayer. Syrian state institutions are inherently sectarian, and they are crumbling before our eyes.
Syria is like Humpty Dumpty. Made up of four or five diverse regions glued together after World War I, the country is an accident of great-power politics. Like neighboring Lebanon, it has now dissolved into its constituent parts. The Free Syrian Army isn’t a unified force but rather a network of militias, each with its own regional power base and external patron.
Consider Aleppo. Syria’s largest city, its economic hub, is the central battleground in the current civil war. In the early 1920s, the French dragged Aleppo kicking and screaming into the new Syrian state, which they created. Today, Bashar al-Assad’s schools teach that Ibrahim Hananu, the leader of the Aleppine rebellion against the French, was a great patriot who fought for independence. He did fight the imperialists, yes, but for Turkey—not Syria.
In 1920 Aleppo was closer—economically, socially, and geographically—to Turkish Anatolia than to Arab Damascus. It was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, who armed and equipped Hananu and his men.
When the Turks were forced to cut a deal with the French, Hananu’s rebellion collapsed. As a result, the border between Syria and Turkey fell 40 miles north of Aleppo. It could just as easily have fallen much further south, with Aleppo nestling comfortably in the bosom of modern Turkey.
It was anything but comfortable in the new Syria. In the decades that followed, two parties dominated the country’s political life—one representing the interests of Aleppo, the other of Damascus. Each had its own separate foreign policy: Aleppo aligned, naturally, with Turkey and Iraq; Damascus with Egypt. By the mid-1950s, the Syrian state was disintegrating. Iraq, with the help of Turkey, stood poised to take control of the country—a development that would have privileged Aleppo over Damascus.
Then Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s charismatic proponent of pan-Arab nationalism, came to the rescue of his Damascene allies (just as, today, Iran is rescuing Assad). Nasser quickly founded the United Arab Republic, a Syrian-Egyptian amalgamation, in 1958.
Within four years, the Syrians bolted from the union. The country descended into a period of turmoil that ended only in 1970, when Hafez al-Assad imposed a new order with an iron fist. The core of the new regime was a group of close associates of Assad, almost all of them from the Alawite sect, a despised religious minority concentrated in the mountains of the north, above Latakia. The Alawites, who were marginal to the life of the main cities of Syria, rose to power through the military.
The new regime disguised its sectarian character by, among other tactics, stressing its pan-Arab credentials and its hostility to Zionism. There is no little irony in the fact that Assad, an Alawite, played the scourge of Israel. Historically, his sect was immune to the call of Arab nationalism. In 1936, for instance, Hafez al-Assad’s father joined a delegation of notables who petitioned the French to establish an autonomous Alawite canton—one centered on the mountains of the north, the minority’s heartland.
The delegation justified their demand as a necessary defense against Muslim intolerance. As evidence, the Alawite notables cited the unjust treatment that the “good Jews” of Palestine were receiving. The Jews, their petition stated, “scattered gold, and established prosperity in Palestine without harming anyone or taking anything by force, yet the Muslims declare holy war against them and never hesitated in slaughtering their women and children.” As a result, “a dark fate awaits the Jews and other minorities” when the Muslims would receive their independence.
By the time Hafez al-Assad took control of the Syrian state, he and his fellow Alawites had learned to embrace the anti-Israeli norms that prevailed among their Sunni neighbors. But beneath this veneer of agreement, the fear of the Muslim majority remained.
The sectarian nucleus of the state has always been a defining characteristic of the Assad regime. But the Alawite order is collapsing today, and it will never be reconstituted. Syria is now a regional battleground, with Tehran and Moscow backing Assad while Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan back the rebels.
When Assad loses Aleppo and Damascus—and this loss is almost a certainty—his Russian and Iranian patrons won’t abandon him. They have no other horse to ride in Syria. Instead they will assist in establishing a sectarian militia, an Alawite analogue to Hezbollah. In fact, such a militia is already rising up naturally, as Sunni defections transform the Syrian military into an overtly Alawite force.
If the rebels finally succeed in dislodging the regime from the main cities, it will retreat to the north, and the autonomous Alawite canton that Bashar al-Assad’s grandfather envisioned will finally be born. “Alawistan,” as the Mideast scholar Tony Badran called it, will join Hezbollah in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon as another sectarian island in the Iranian archipelago of influence.
If the breakup of Syria and the rise of an Iranian-backed canton are indeed undesirable, then Washington must get to work immediately to create an alternative. The planning should begin in Turkey, which borders not just Aleppo but also the future canton of Alawistan.”
Mr. Doran, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of defense from 2007-08, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution.
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