I came across two interesting articles today on the situation in Syria, one from CNN on the experience of Syrian refugee women, and one from the Arab Orthodoxy blog giving highlights from the United States House of Representatives Joint Subcommittee Hearing on Religious Minorities in Syria. I of course do not endorse what is expressed in others’ testimony during the hearing, but I share these links for their interest and representation of less frequently heard viewpoints.
In 1951, the British temporarily lost control of Iran’s oil fields, because they had refused to respond to Iranian complaints that the UK was not sharing the profits from the sale of oil with Iran. In response to Britain’s cold shoulder, the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh nationalized the Iranian oil industry, to which Britain responded with a naval blockade and trade embargo. When economic sanctions failed to produce the desired de-nationalization of Iranian oil by 1953, the UK looked for more extreme possibilities. Due to UK support for the US during the Korean War, the US supported the UK in Iran by executing “Operation Ajax,” a covert operation to depose the popular Prime Minister and replace him with an Iranian military leader who would support greater power being held by the pro-Western Shah, Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi. As a result of the successful coup, the US secured a good share of Iranian oil and Iranian oil profits, and an ally against Soviet Russia to the north. The post-coup military rule crushed all political dissent and developed a much-hated secret police, SAVAK, trained by the CIA.
After 26 years of rule with Western support, the now widely-hated Shah was deposed in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but the American role in 1953 was well-remembered. When the US admitted the exiled Shah into the country nine months after he left Iran, a group of Iranian students supporting the Islamic Revolution took over the American Embassy in Tehran and precipitated the Iran Hostage Crisis (known in Farsi as تسخیر لانه جاسوسی امریکا, “The capture of the American spy lair”). Thirty-four years after the Islamic Revolution, the government in Tehran remains firmly opposed to the US.
In retribution against Iran for the Islamic Revolution, the US supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, during which Iraqi forces invaded Iran, were driven out, and Iran pressed the offensive onto Iraqi soil. The US supported Iraq with intelligence regarding bombing targets and engaged the Iranian navy directly, including shooting down the civilian airliner Iran Air Flight 655, which the US claims was mistaken for a fighter jet. The US military also supplied arms to the Iraqi military during the war, arms which it would then face against itself during the two Gulf Wars. The government of Iraq is now pro-US, after two bloody US invasions of Iraq and a decade of even more deadly sectarian violence.
In the 2011 Arab Spring, protests broke out in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrayn, and Syria. Of the rulers challenged by these protests, President Zayn al-‘Abidin bin ‘Ali of Tunisia, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih of Yemen were US allies, despite their widely perceived autocratic and financially corrupt governments. By contrast, the US opposed President Mu’ammar Qaddafi of Libya and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. The presidents of Tunisia and Egypt were deposed, and their elected replacements came from Islamist anti-US parties, while when ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih of Yemen finally stepped down, he was able to name a pro-US successor who was ratified by a popular referendum. The US ally Bahrayn crushed the protests with support from another US ally, Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the US-aided ousting of Gaddafi in 2011 has opened the door to Libyan factional fighting and provided an excuse for Russian and Chinese intransigence regarding the government of Bashar al-Assad, with whom President Obama recently announced that he has lost patience and will “start” supplying arms to the Syrian rebels. The revelation this week that the CIA has already been supplying arms to and training the rebels since 2012 is hardly a surprise, as it is in keeping with the picture of covert CIA activities supporting American interests abroad.
I am not arguing that Bashar al-Assad is fine or Gaddafi was fine, or that the current president of Egypt, Muhammad Morsi, represents the “will of the Egyptian people” (there were election problems, including Morsi supporters violently intimidating people suspected of opposing Morsi, including Christians and liberals, in order to prevent them from voting at all). I am arguing that US foreign policy and CIA operations have pursued a narrow and short-term definition of “American interests” which have destabilized and impoverished Middle Eastern countries involved and stoked anti-American sentiments there, ultimately to the detriment of longer-term American interests abroad. An Eastern European recently said to me over dinner, “I would not mind living in America, but I would not want to be a target of American foreign policy.”
In light of this perennial neglect of long-term interests, the US government needs to re-think its approach to the Middle East region as a whole. The short-term “solutions” employed by the US to respond to current crises have only succeeded in creating another round of crises. To take a particular current example, will US involvement in the Syrian Civil War against Bashar al-Assad actually create “a better Syria,” or will it simply supply arms to the next round of Middle Eastern forces that the US will then seek to dismantle five, ten, or thirty years down the road? The only way to avoid perpetuating the cycle of crises generated by previous crises is to view Middle Easterners as people with their own interests, rather than solely as possible calculi in American interests abroad. Unless Middle Easterners can be understood on their own terms, as people in their own right, the US will continue to “guess wrong” in its strategic initiatives in the region. These faux pas, to put it mildly, result in continual loss of life both to Americans and especially to Middle Easterners, and must be stopped.
Journalists write stories for particular audiences. It is widely known that in order to succeed in the business of publishing news, or what is taken as news, they need to write about what interests their intended audience. What is less often publicly acknowledged, but no less true, is that what they write needs to be plausible enough that it is not rejected as a test of credulity (“the Loch Ness monster attacked tourists!”) or propaganda (“the Loch Ness monster works for the communists!”). But what one audience considers plausible another considers pure fantasy or mere agitprop. On any of the numerous contentious issues swirling around the modern Middle East, events which are considered reliable “news” to one audience are “impossible” to another, and these boundary lines often (though not always) lie along national, linguistic, and religious lines.
A news source I do not usually read reported on June 13 that the Free Syrian Army massacred the entire Christian village of al-Duwayr near Homs “late last month” as they withdrew from al-Qusayr in the wake of its capture by the Assad regime. Apart from many pictures showing damage to a church, to church property, and to houses, the text of the report is worth quoting in full (fortunately it is not too long):
More details of a massacre in Homs late last month have emerged following the global outcry of a massacre in Deir el-Zour yesterday.
The massacre, carried out by Free Syrian Army militants reportedly targeted men, women and children in the Christian village of al-Duwayr/Douar close to the city of Homs and the border with Lebanon. The incident received little media attention, having occurred at the same time as thousands of Syrian troops converged on the insurgent-occupied town of al-Qusayr.
According to sources, around 350 heavily armed militants entered the village, broke into homes and assembled residents in the main square of the village where they were executed. The final death toll is not known but photos show severe damage to property in the village.
Syrian army sources said that they reached the village after the massacre, resulting in clashes with militants. Sources also reported that Turkish and Chechen extremists were among the perpetrators. Chechen militants are known to have kidnapped two Christian bishops in Aleppo earlier this year. The following images show al-Duwayr/Douar village after the massacre:
Conditions for ethnic and religious minorities have been made increasingly worse as Free Syrian Army affiliated organisations includingincrease ethnic and sectarian cleansing across Syria. Kidnappings, executions and assassinations are common.
Late last month, around the time of the massacre in Homs, a fifteen year old girl was kidnapped by militants in Damascus, who demanded $100,000 for her release. Miryam Jbeil, a niece Damascus-based Catholic priest Nader Jbeil, was released after a number of days in captivity.
In the aftermath of the Syrian army assault on al-Qusayr, the church was discovered to have been desecrated by Free Syrian Army militants.
This outlet reproduces this article from Syria Report, whose article dated 12 June on the subject does not cite anything, so in order to find out where Syria Report got the information from, it took some additional searching. The Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), which reports on issues relevant to Assyrian Christians in the Middle East or in the diaspora, published a clearly related story on 29 May, drawn from the Fars News Agency‘s identical article dated 27 May. Fars News Agency seems to be the original source in English. From there the story has branched out, and especially in the past five days it has been picked up by many blogs and anti-Obama discussion forums, but by no Western news outlets. Google News is not as effective at searching Arabic news outlets but I did eventually find an article on the Syrian news agency breakingnews.sy (Arabic, English).
The Fars News Agency’s short article reads as follows:
Armed Rebels Massacre Entire Population of Christian Village in Syria
TEHRAN (FNA)- Armed rebels attacked a village in Syria’s Western province of Homs and slaughtered all its Christian residents on Monday.
The armed rebels affiliated to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) raided the Christian-populated al-Duvair village in Reef (outskirts of) Homs near the border with Lebanon today and massacred all its civilian residents, including women and children.
The Syrian army, however, intervened and killed tens of terrorists during heavy clashes which are still going on in al-Duvair village.
The armed rebels’ attack and crimes in al-Duvair village came after they sustained heavy defeats in al-Qusseir city which has almost been set free by the Syrian army except for a few districts.
Syria has been experiencing unrest since March 2011 with organized attacks by well-armed gangs against Syrian police forces and border guards being reported across the country.
Hundreds of people, including members of the security forces, have been killed, when some protest rallies turned into armed clashes.
The government blames outlaws, saboteurs, and armed terrorist groups for the deaths, stressing that the unrest is being orchestrated from abroad.
In October 2011, calm was almost restored in the Arab state after President Assad started a reform initiative in the country, but Israel, the US and its Arab allies sought hard to bring the country into chaos through any possible means. Tel Aviv, Washington and some Arab capitals have been staging various plots to topple President Bashar al-Assad, who is well known in the world for his anti-Israeli stances.
The relevant portion of the article on breakingnews.sy reads more briefly:
The “Free Army” militia has committed a massacre on Monday 27 May, in the right of civilians in Homs countryside, as the army continued operations in al-Qusair and thwarted the infiltration of gunmen from Lebanon and killed Saudi members from al-Qaeda.
The elements of armed militia’s has broken in the village of al-Dweir in Homs countryside, committed a massacre in the right of civilians, killing women and children.
Our correspondent in Homs pointed that the army has intervened and currently is engaged in severe battles against the insurgents in the mentioned village, claiming martyrs of the army and tens of deaths in the militia’s ranks.
Our correspondent noted that the gunmen have break through the town and carried out the massacre after their major defeats in al-Qusair, which is about to fall in the army’s grip.
It is obvious that the news of Syrian rebels massacring Christians, especially the Free Syrian Army which Sen. John McCain was already campaigning to supply with weapons, looks well for the Assad regime and poorly for President Obama who has just decided to provide greater arms to that group. Even the most cursory review of the headlines on breakingnews.sy reveals its pro-Assad stance, and of course the semi-official Fars News Agency follows Iran’s public support for the Assad regime, so it is no surprise that these news outlets would run this story.
The more important question is how much of this is true. For many Americans, merely saying the story was found on Syrian and Iranian news outlets is enough to condemn it to implausibility, which just shows the differences of intended audiences (although my inability to find translations of this story in Farsi, Arabic, or Turkish on the Fars News Agency website may indicate that it is primarily intended for an Anglophone audience). The reason Western news outlets have failed to report on this story is no doubt that they do not trust the source, and they do not regard it as sufficiently plausible for their audience. But we dare not break down the world into mutually exclusive news feeds for mutually exclusive audiences; we need news from sources that do not agree with our preconceptions, in order to reveal to us our own blind spots.
Our ability to evaluate parts of this story is aided by the identification of progressively increasing sources. The original report that portions of the Free Syrian Army massacred Christian civilians in al-Duwayr is the most important detail. Fars News Agency states that the Free Syrian Army massacred all the inhabitants of al-Duwayr, but they probably have no source apart from the breakingnews.sy, so the “all” component can be confidently rejected. Indeed, from the logic of the case, the breakingnews.sy article indicates that the Syrian Army engaged the Free Syrian Army in the village of al-Duwayr, which most likely indicates that the massacre cannot have killed the whole village, unless the Syrian Army interrupted the murderers in the post-execution process of looting.
It is unclear what sources Syria Report has to peg the number of militants who perpetrated the massacre at 350, or their method of rounding up the villagers in the central square. Syria Report also comes up with a way to include both Fars News Agency’s report that “all” the villagers were killed and also breakingnews.sy’s report of Syrian Army engagement with the rebels in the village: the Syrian Army reached the village “after the massacre.” The rest of the Syria Report article is their gloss on the situation, linking Jabhat al-Nusra with the Free Syrian Army and highlighting rising sectarianism and violence against civilians.
Finally, it is not at all clear that breakingnews.sy has correctly identified the group responsible for the attack on al-Duwayr. Indeed, news articles from 10 March 2013 celebrate the Free Syrian Army’s “liberation” of al-Duwayr from regime control, which suggests that they were in control of the village before the massacre took place.
Unfortunately it is only too plausible that a massacre took place in the Christian village of al-Duwayr near Homs. Sources favorable to the Assad regime blame the Free Syrian Army, the group to which US President Obama has just promised weapons. The absence of counter-claims by the rebels suggests that at least some rebel group probably did carry out the massacre. Their motive is less clear; the contemporaneous battle for al-Qusayr may indicate that looting was the desired goal, or perhaps a desire not to leave anything that would help the regime when it came into town, but it is unlikely that the Christian village of al-Duwayr had any equipment that would be useful to either side. Some graffiti in the ruined church indicates an Islamist rejection of other religions (to a degree not required by shari’a), but it is not clear whether this graffiti was the tag on the church or the motive for the entire attack. If the fighters had recently escaped from a siege in al-Qusayr, they may have been primarily after food. But like so many other war crimes and works of opportunistic violence during the Syrian Civil War, the actual chain of events along with any possibility of justice in this situation may be lost beyond recovery.
Iran has been one of the Syrian regime’s staunchest allies, even loaning Bashar al-Assad some of its elite Revolutionary Guards to protect him. But Iran just held a presidential election in which the victor was Hasan Ruhani, a moderate cleric who resigned his previous post shortly after current president Mahmud Ahmadinejad was elected, due to clashes with the then-new president. How will last Friday’s election of Hasan Ruhani affect the intractable situation in neighboring Syria?
In the short term, not much. First, because he will not be inaugurated for two more months. Second, because as a moderate (not really a reformist) he will want to antagonize the conservative clerical establishment as little as possible, especially early in his tenure, until he can build political alliances to support his position. Third, because the increasingly sectarian nature of Syria’s civil war pushes Shi’ites to support the Assad regime, as seen in Islamic State of Iraq‘s killing of 60 Shi’ites in Hatla last Tuesday and their demolition of the Shi’ite husayniyya there on Friday. Ruhani is a Shi’ite cleric and Iran will remain the major Shi’ite power in the Middle East. Given that a large portion of the Syrian rebel forces is run by Sunni jihadis, Iran will continue to support Assad against them.
In the long term, the election of a moderate Iranian president might make something of a difference, although in precisely what form is unclear. Ruhani has promised increasing “integration” with the rest of the world in order to reverse the isolation Iran has experienced under Mahmud Ahmadinejad. While most US observers hear this and think of the stalled nuclear talks (Ruhani was Iran’s nuclear negotiator until his resignation in 2005), increasing dialogue with the rest of the world may also serve to broaden international cooperation around Syria. What benefit may arise from that increased dialogue is unclear at this time, although reduced likelihood of an Iranian strike at Israel in the event of a US-supported military defeat of Assad is among them. Of course, any benefits derived from increased Iranian willingness to dialogue with other countries will only be realized slowly, if the Syrian conflict extends for more years. Given the current state of violence, and the threat of a post-Assad second war between jihadis and secularist Sunnis, such a scenario seems plausible.
US President Barack Obama decided this week that American weapons will be supplied to the Free Syrian Army under Brigadier-General Salim Idris. Of course, the announcement was made in advance of next week’s G8 summit in Northern Ireland to put the US in a better bargaining position relative to Russia with regard to the Syria issue. This is especially necessary since Russia secured the “in principle” agreement of the Assad government to the “Geneva 2” peace talks originally scheduled for this month, which have now been pushed back indefinitely since the US failed to secure from the Syrian National Coalition. Amid wide-ranging media speculation about the precise extent and nature of the US military aid, it is important to know a bit more about who will be receiving the materiel in Syria.
Salim Idris (سليم ادريس) is the Chief of Staff of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army. Born in 1957 to a poor farming family south of Homs, he enlisted at a young age in the Syrian army. He was trained in electrical engineering in Dresden in East Germany from 1977 until at least 1990, earning a master’s degree in 1984 and a doctorate in 1990. He spent twenty years as a professor of electrical engineering at the Military Engineering Academy in Aleppo. Previously a brigadier general in the Syrian Army, he defected from supporting the Assad regime to the Free Syrian Army, then under the command of Colonel Riad al-As’ad (رياض الأسعد), in July 2012.
In December 2012, a meeting of the commanders of the Free Syrian Army retained Colonel al-As’ad as symbolic Commander-in-Chief but reorganized the structure to create a Supreme Military Council with Salim Idris at its head and five deputy chiefs of staff under him. It is not clear to me from the Wikipedia article how these deputy chiefs of staff line up with the nine regional commanders of the FSA reported in the English Wikipedia article, with regional military councils in eight of the fourteen governorates of Syria: Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Idlib, Dar’a, and perhaps Latakia and (the commanders of these latter two provinces are listed as “unknown”). The army is reportedly based in Idlib province.
In assessing how likely weapons supplied to the Supreme Military Council are to end up in the hands of al-Qa’ida, there are several factors in play. One is how much of the weaponry will be expended in the war with the regime, but that is difficult to predict. Another is how much central control the Supreme Military Council has over the use of weapons. A third is what connections the central command has with al-Qa’ida aligned rebels. An excellent Reuters article quoted Abu Nidal, a fighter in the Islamist faction Ahrar al-Sham, to say that while they are not formally part of the Free Syrian Army, they fight “in formation” with the FSA, which presumably involves sharing weaponry. An earlier Reuters article from the time of the reorganization indicated that at least two of Idris’ deputy chiefs of staff are “Islamists”: ‘Abd al-Basit Tawil from Idlib and ‘Abd al-Qadr Salih from Aleppo. I have not yet been able to find any additional information about these two and their “Islamist” connections.
Per a reader suggestion, I am constructing a list of military groups in Syria for easy reference, but that will take some time. I may post unfinished draft versions of that page in the process of development.
Yesterday Reuters reported that Syrian helicopters bombed the Lebanese village of Arsal. A couple days ago I blogged on Syrian rebel attacks on the Lebanese village of Hermel, but this is a horse of a different color. Both sides are receiving some support from Lebanese fighters, but until recently most of this support was individual and unorganized. The open declaration of Hezbollah‘s military support for the Assad regime last month opened the door to more organized Shi’ite participation, which as I commented is likely to increase after rockets were fired by a rebel group (probably the Free Syrian Army) at the predominantly Shi’ite village of Hermel. Similarly, the Egyptian shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi recently started calling for widespread Sunni fighting against Assad and Hezbollah, although the organization would be provided by rebel groups within Syria. Still, many Lebanese Muslims, both Sunni and Shi’ite, remember the dark days of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) and have tried to avoid getting more involved in Syria’s current civil war.
Since a Syrian helicopter has bombed the mainly Sunni village of Arsal, the calculus for many Lebanese Sunni Muslims has probably changed. There is no question as to the source of the attack: Syrian rebels do not have helicopters, and the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA, the state news outlet) claimed responsibility for the attack as an attempt to target fleeing “terrorists” (i.e. rebels) taking shelter in the town. For many Lebanese Sunni Muslims, this will recall the Syrian involvement in the Lebanese Civil War and the ensuing Syrian occupation of Lebanon, which lasted until the 2005 Cedar Revolution. The 2005 revolution against Syrian military occupation was sparked by the assassination (widely blamed on Syria) of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, himself a Sunni Muslim. Since the Syrian regime has now demonstrated its willingness to bomb Lebanese Sunni villages, it is likely that more Lebanese Sunnis will regard non-participation in the conflict as simply willingness to be killed whenever the Syrian regime chooses. The only option to lying down and playing dead, it may now appear, would be to join forces with the Syrian rebels and attempt to accomplish in Syria what was accomplished in Lebanon eight years ago. Indeed, for Lebanese Muslims under the age of 25, those most likely to want to get involved in the Syrian conflict, no memory of the pain of the Civil War will dampen the enthusiasm begotten by the victorious Cedar Revolution, which in just over two months threw off the rule of this same Syrian regime which is now being opposed by rebel groups.
Unless their elders can restrain the hot-headedness of a younger generation, the attacks on two Lebanese villages this week will likely increase Lebanese participation in the Syrian Civil War. Sunni voices calling for keeping Lebanon out of Syria’s war might appeal to the fact that Arsal was the scene of an ambush on the Lebanese army a few months ago, and thus distance themselves as loyal Lebanese from the non-cooperative residents of Arsal, but this is unlikely to be appealing. And given the mosaic of religious groups in Lebanon (seen in this Wikimedia image), increased Sunni and Shi’ite involvement in Syria’s civil war will lead to renewed hostilities within Lebanon between Lebanese. According to a recent non-governmental statistical study cited by the Wikipedia article on Lebanon (for political stakes, there has been no official census since 1932), Sunnis and Shi’ites are about equally numerous in Lebanon, but they are distributed into different areas that often include small enclaves of other groups. This will facilitate inter-communal massacres within Lebanon.
The Syrian regime may have estimated that, having the firepower and a good guess where some rebels (or at least rebel sympathizers) were hiding, they could attack the rebel forces more effectively in the Lebanese village of Arsal. But the cost of this attack will not be measured solely in helicopter fuel and munitions spent. Increased involvement of Sunni Muslims in Lebanon will offset the advantage the regime recently acquired through the increased involvement of Hezbollah, and may be more likely to prompt international military intervention to prevent the Syrian Civil War from completely engulfing its western neighbor. Although Syrian maps of Syria’s borders defy international recognition by claiming Lebanon as merely the most beautiful part of Syria, in this instance acting on the viewpoint that Lebanon was an unruly Syrian province is likely to cost more than the Syrian regime expected.
- Robert Fisk: The Lebanese army fears rise of the Sunni Muslim Salafists (independent.co.uk) provides another take on growing Sunni involvement in the Syrian Civil War.
In war, some tactics work and others don’t. Some tactics are very satisfying to our human desires for power or revenge, but actually hurt the cause for which the tactic is nominally carried out. Two significant mistakes on the part of the rebels appeared this week, ahead of US government deliberations whether to arm the rebels.
The first is the Syrian rebel shelling of Shi’ite villages in Lebanon in retaliation for Hezbollah involvement in Syria (reported in the bottom half of this NYT article). While it is all too natural to want to strike back at those who have wounded you or killed the people you care about, I do not see how this tactic will do anything but mobilize greater Hezbollah involvement in Syria on the side of the regime. In an age before rockets, when fighting was more local and attacks could be repulsed, then a sensible tactic to draw an enemy away from a location was to attack a place they cared about more, so that they would race to protect the second place and abandon the first. But with indiscriminate rocket fire, if Hezbollah fighters were still in Shi’ite towns in Lebanon, they would not be able to protect anyone there. No doubt the Syrian rebels are hoping to discourage further Hezbollah attacks on the theory that any attack from Hezbollah will result in further attacks on the Hezbollah fighters’ families. I suspect the Hezbollah fighters will view these attacks, even apart from the personal desire for revenge stirred up by casualties, as further evidence that they need to support the Assad regime against rebel groups that would shell their villages and kill their families. This tactic is more likely to confirm Hezbollah involvement than diminish it.
The other rebel misstep comes from Aleppo, where jihadi rebels abducted, tortured, and then publicly executed a fifteen-year-old boy for blasphemy against Muhammad. (The Telegraph reported that the particular group was the Islamic State of Iraq, while al-Jazeera (Arabic) blamed the execution on Jabhat al-Nusra. Both groups are affiliated with al-Qa’ida, and according to al-Jazeera the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq declared the two groups unilaterally merged, until overruled a few days ago by al-Qa’ida’s top leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.) Al-Jazeera (English) reported that the alleged “blasphemy” occurred in a phrase commonly used in colloquial Syrian Arabic, and that the executioners were mostly composed of foreign fighters speaking other dialects. While one can understand the religious reasoning that goes into this decision, it is also easy to see that criminalizing a local idiom (on pain of death) will quickly breed widespread popular resentment, and executing a fifteen-year-old boy will make parents with younger children wary of the group. After last week’s re-capture of al-Qusayr by the regime, everyone is expecting a regime battle for Aleppo in the near future, and this summary abduction, torture, and execution will make the populace of Aleppo much less inclined to support the jihadi rebels during that battle. Indeed, the execution of the teenager might provide the Assad regime with enough additional support to enable it to regain Aleppo itself. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights described the act, as paraphrased by al-Jazeera, as “a gift to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,” and that is what it is.
Both the loyalists and the rebels in Syria have committed innumerable criminal acts during the war, in an attempt to capitalize on Machiavelli‘s famous dictum in The Prince that rulers can rule through fear or through love, but it is “safer” and easier to rule through fear. Perhaps the Syrian Civil War is giving the lie to the Renaissance Italian political theorist.
Today Turkish Prime Minister Istanbul, Ankara, and other major Turkish cities for the first time. His prior remarks concerning the “looters,” as he has termed the protesters, have most commonly been termed “defiant” as he called for an immediate end to all protests without concessions. But according to Vice-Prime Minister Bülent Arınç today, he will meet with protest leaders on Wednesday, as reported by the BBC. The question is what Erdoğan intends to get out of this meeting.appeared to soften his tone toward the protests which have rocked
On the one hand, Arınç indicated that the government would abide by court rulings with regard to the Gezi Park development, in response to protesters’ complaints that the government was violating a court ruling. Thus it could be that Erdoğan is extending a conciliatory hand to the protesters in a move to broaden his appeal ahead of next year’s presidential election. It is being widely speculated that Erdoğan may run for the presidential office after this term as prime minister is finished, since he has reached the constitutional limit for election as prime minister. In the last Turkish presidential election in 2007, protests against a possible Erdoğan candidacy for president drew millions of people, and although he was not a candidate, he pushed a constitutional amendment to make the president elected directly by popular vote, rather than indirectly through the parliament. The current president Abdullah Gül, formerly of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) since Turkish presidents must renounce party affiliation, will be Turkey’s last indirectly elected president.
On the other hand, Erdoğan has consistently taken an aggressive stance against the protesters and has insisted that he is the legitimately elected Prime Minister of Turkey, so that the protesters have no legitimate grievance. In the BBC report, Arınç promised, “All necessary actions against illegal acts will have been completed, and we will see this all together, by the weekend.” So Erdoğan is expecting these meetings to be the end of the protests entirely. His popularity has often been expressed in light of his being a strong leader who does not back down, and making Turkey strong through an improving economy, for example. Could it be that instead of extending a conciliatory hand to the protesters from a position of political strength, he hopes to separate the leaders of the protests long enough to deal with the leaders and the rest of the protesters independently? Perhaps the Prime Minister thinks that a forceful unyielding response to the protesters is the best way to bolster his popularity, rather than courting secularists who are likely to remain suspicious of him.
Whichever way his plans turn, he is likely to risk losing some of his followers. A conciliatory approach might lose precisely those staunch supporters who admire him for never bowing to opposition, while setting a trap for protest leaders might lose some of his followers who want him to be a role-model of democratic dialogue. (Are there any of these latter? This Washington Post article quotes one at the end.) In any event, how Erdoğan deals with these protesters will set a precedent for how political dissent will be handled in Turkey, either through silencing others’ voices or through encouraging dialogue. We will have to wait until Wednesday to see what the Prime Minister has in mind.
The best thing I’ve read on Syria in a long while is this New York Times opinion piece, written by Alia Malek. It provides an excellent survey of the lead-up to the current revolt and poignant anecdotes revealing how can everyday life differ from what one reads in the headlines. There is also an amusing discussion about varieties of beards (Hezbollah, Salafi, cosmetic, or now loyalist), amusing in part based on how important the beard identification can be.
More importantly, Malek makes a crucial distinction between what started the Syrian Civil War and what sustains it. To paraphrase her piece, what started the peaceful demonstrations was complaints about financial corruption ruining the economy and impoverishing the vast majority of Syrians. She makes that point that most beneficiaries of the corruption were urban Sunnis, while most ‘Alawis (the sect to which Bashar al-Assad himself belongs) were also impoverished, unless they were close to the President himself. What sustains the revolt now is sectarianism, which has been used both by those who would lead the rebels and by the government to claim legitimacy. Although Malek does not bluntly spell out the import of the distinction she draws, it holds out the hope that non-sectarian help (help provided across sectarian lines and contingent upon eschewing sectarian rhetoric) could de-sectarianize the movement. The success of such interventions, of course, would depend heavily on who was receiving the aid, and who else they hoped to receive aid from.
There is nothing I could say to improve this thought-provoking and excellently written piece, so I will just refer you to her words.
The recently released report of the United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the (here) is disappointingly vague. After Carla del Ponte‘s remarks last month indicating evidence of rebel use of chemical weapons, the report’s cautious statement in paragraphs 137-139 (“The Government has in its possession a number of chemical weapons… It is possible that anti-Government armed groups may access and use chemical weapons… though there is no compelling evidence that these groups possess such weapons or their requisite delivery systems… It has not been possible, on the evidence available, to determine the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator.”) are a let-down, with no discussion of evidence paralleling the discussion of evidence for massacres and sexual violence earlier in the report. While it is good that the commission is cautious in drawing conclusions from problematic evidence (as there are always suspicions in these cases that the commission’s conclusions will be unfair and biased), a more complete and factual report of the specific evidence weighed for chemical weapons would have been more useful for international diplomatic decisions. Failing that, some explanation from del Ponte regarding why her earlier remarks are not born out by the official report would be very welcome, given how significantly timed those remarks were.