Tag Archives: John Kerry

What America Forgets About Syria

As the US Congress appears to be inclining towards authorizing a unilateral and, by most standards, illegal military strike against Syria, here are some points that seem to be forgotten or overlooked in the news I’m reading:

1. One of the US government’s main concerns with the Syrian conflict has been that chemical weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists such as al-Qa’ida.  The presumption that al-Qa’ida does not already have chemical weapons is a crucial piece of the reasoning which blames the Syrian regime for the attack in the Damascus suburbs two weeks ago.  Yet attacking Syria, as President Obama is now proposing, will weaken the Syrian Army’s ability to defend those chemical weapons arsenals.  Since the most effective opposition fighting forces are jihadis affiliated with al-Qa’ida, terrorists are the ones most likely to benefit from any US attack on Syria.  It is worth contrasting John Kerry‘s assertion that “There is a real moderate opposition that exists” and 15-20% of the opposition are extreme with the view of an analyst located in Dubai: “For the U.S. and Western powers, there is a Syrian opposition that they’d like to see and that doesn’t exist.”  In light of al-Qa’ida’s dominance of the Syrian opposition, a US attack on the Syrian regime will increase the feasibility for jihadis to seize chemical weapons.  In other words, a US attack on the Syrian military will increase rather than reduce the threat of chemical weapons deployment against American civilians.

2. A foreign attack on Syria would be a very significant escalation of the conflict.  As I indicated last week, no foreign country has specifically and publicly attacked Syria during this civil war without first being attacked by Syria.  Foreign involvement in the Syrian Civil War, both for and against the regime, has been limited to financial and material supplies and the provision of some foreign fighters acting under the commands of Syrian leaders, with only two exceptions.  Those two exceptions are Turkey, which has returned fire randomly into Syria whenever a Turkish civilian has been hit by bullets coming cross the border, and Israel, which has refused to acknowledge its targeted air strikes of what it alleges were rockets destined for Hezbollah.  For the US or any western country to attack with its own military would escalate the war beyond even a regional conflict into a world conflict.

3. When President Obama was first attempting to build support for attacking Syria, he proposed a “brief” or “surgical” military intervention as “a shot across the bow” in order to send a message to Assad without getting too involved.  Now the Senate Foreign Relations committee is recommending the President be authorized for 60 days, two months, for a war of limited duration.  A shot across the bow demonstrates one’s ability to kill without actually killing anyone, and I suppose the parallel case in Syria would be to bomb the uninhabited desert east of Damascus.  In seeking Congressional support, President Obama has also greatly broadened his notion of US engagement in Syria, which is exactly what the American public fears.

4. The Obama administration released an unclassified document outlining why it believes the Assad regime is behind the chemical weapons attack, intended to convince domestic and international skeptics of the obligation to punish Assad.  Most of the evidence cited in this document supports the assertion that chemical weapons were used, without specifying by whom.  Part of the argument is that the opposition couldn’t have done this, but the report treats the opposition as a unified group, and in particular it does not engage with earlier reports that al-Qa’ida has used chemical weapons in neighboring Iraq (here and here, to cite only Western media).  Much of the evidence in the report is only referred to in vague ways (“We have intelligence,” “streams of human, signals, and geospatial intelligence,” and “Multiple streams of intelligence indicate”) which will not convince a skeptic, but perhaps these bits of evidence cannot be revealed without endangering our informants.  That unfortunately leaves the argument largely still in the “trust us” category, which does little to assuage concerns.

There is one piece of evidence cited in next-to-last paragraph of the US intelligence report which could clinch the case against Assad: “We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21.”  If it exists and is authentic, this document should be enough to convince skeptics such as Russia that the charges against the regime are not merely “rumors.”  If this is truly an intercepted communication, then presumably it can be released without endangering the interceptor, who is neither the sender nor the recipient.  It should be reasonably straightforward for an Arabic linguistics expert to authenticate the language as educated Syrian Arabic of a sort likely to be used by senior officials.  And yet this document has not been released, and Russia is not convinced.

5. Although the US (and the British Prime Minister) have declared a potential attack legal, the United Nations has disagreed.  Not only the opinion of the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is the man tasked with ending the conflict, even the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said US military intervention would only be legal in self-defense after UN Security Council approval.  The basis of the legality argument requires either that the United States be declared the universal police officer, which understandably no other country has recognized, or that in general any country can attack any other country if it thinks doing will help some people, perhaps at the expense of others, which is a dangerously low bar to international military conflict.  While a possible attack will not open President Obama to prosecution before the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice, this is because the US will presumably use its veto power on the UN Security Council to prevent the case from being referred to an international court.  The irony is that a Nobel Peace Prize recipient is advocating an illegal military action which will be sheltered from prosecution only by his country’s self-interested obstructionism in the United Nations, which is something Western media usually ascribe to Russia and China rather than the US.

6. There has been much talk about American “credibility” in the international community.  But credibility has far less to do with following through on threats and much more to do with holding on to principles even when they are inconvenient.  Since it is clear that the US military used chemical weapons in the Iraq War, the message sent to the international community by a US strike allegedly in response to chemical weapons use is that no one else is allowed to break our monopoly on extreme violence.  Is this the message the US government really wishes to send?  The international community expects US foreign policy to selfishly seek its own narrow interests at the expense of other countries.  As an international friend of mine 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.”  The only way to break this perception is to act in accordance with clearly stated principles such as the rule of international law even when it is distasteful and inconvenient, rather than using military means to oust regimes (even heinous and criminal regimes) that we have declared to be our enemies.

The Bottom Line

I believe a US attack on Syria would increase the death and violence of the Syrian Civil War and would escalate the conflict into a world-wide affair.  I do not think that the Syrian regime is fine or that the use of chemical weapons ought to go unpunished.  But I believe that the United States of America is not the body to enforce the chemical weapons ban, apart from authorization by the United Nations.  The fact that Russia and China have been obstructionist in that body does not authorize us to ignore it; instead Syrian blood is on their hands, but we must engage Russia and China diplomatically to break their deadlock.  By attacking Syria the United States will not support the chemical weapons ban, because its attack will be perceived as simply US self-interested foreign policy.

While I have been writing this post, those who stand to benefit from a US strike on Syria have taken the ridge above a Syrian village and shelled the civilian population below.  Does the United States really want to aid these particular rebels?

 

The Human Dimension of Syria’s Conflict

This past week, US Secretary of State John Kerry toured the largest Syrian refugee camp, the Za’atari camp in Jordan, and encountered “the human side of this crisis,” as he put it.  Indeed, the situation in the camp is very difficult, so difficult that thousands of Syrians have left the camp to return to the civil war in Syria.  There has been intermittent reporting about the endemic sexual violence suffered by women in these camps.  The human side of the Syrian Civil War, as seen in the Za’atari refugee camp, is very bleak.

But it is also only one side of the suffering.  Three weeks ago the LA Times ran an interesting piece on two religious minority shrine enclaves, the town of Saydnaya with its ancient Greek Orthodox monastery of the Virgin and the Sayyida Zaynab suburb of Damascus with its grave of Zaynab, the daughter of ‘Ali and Muhammad‘s daughter Fatima.  The human side of the Syrian Civil War includes besieged minorities expecting to be annihilated if the regime falls.

One quotation in each of these articles stood out to me:

  • “A 43-year-old woman in a tan jacket and gray headscarf asked Kerry what the U.S. is waiting for. As a superpower, the U.S. could change the equation in Syria in 30 minutes, the woman said. Like other refugees, she asked not to be named for security reasons.”
  • “‘I have a question for you,’ Azar [the head of Saydnaya’s defense] asks a visiting U.S. reporter. ‘Why does America want all the Christians out of the Middle East?'”

The first quotation shows how the myth of American omnipotence is taken for granted among refugees, generating a lot of anger at US failure to take their side in the conflict.  The second quotation shows how the unintended consequences of previous US interventions in the Middle East, such as the targeting of the Iraqi Christian population in the sectarian violence following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

These pieces are best read together to get a sense of the multiple human sides to a conflict which has torn Syria apart.  What is clear is that there are no good options for anyone in this war.  What is often forgotten is that none of the fighting forces, rebel or loyalist, are “the good guys.”

Syria: That Other Middle Eastern Crisis

When the “Arab Spring” started to hit the Anglophone news with the protests in Tunisia and then Egypt early in 2011, Middle Eastern historians and Islamic Studies experts sat up and took notice.  The resignation of Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011 drew in a wider readership, but for most Americans anyway it was the sharp spike in gasoline prices in March 2011 as the US intervened in Libya to impose a no-fly zone and aid the revolt against Mu’ammar Qaddafi that indicated something was happening in the Middle East.  During the ensuing Libyan Civil War, which lasted until October 2011, Libyan headlines dominated the “Middle Eastern spot” in US world news media reporting.

But African nations were not the only venues for Arab Spring protests.  Yemen was already a divided nation with President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih in the capital of Sana’a contending on the one hand with the Shi’ite Houthi rebellion in the north of the country and on the other with a secessionist desire in the south to undo the 1990 unification of Yemen (in which the northern Yemen Arab Republic absorbed the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen).  When major protests began in Sana’a at the end of January, some reporters confidently predicted the swift end of Salih’s presidency.  In fact, Salih held on thirteen months through a rising civil war until he secured a transfer of power to his vice-president at the end of February 2012, with himself remaining in Yemen and immune to prosecution.  Things turned out rather better for Yemen’s Salih than for the former presidents of Tunisia or Egypt.

In the same month, almost the same day, protests in Syria started against the presidency of Bashar al-Assad.  They went mostly unnoticed by Anglophone news media focusing on Egypt and then Libya.  (Perhaps the nineteenth-century European colonial partition of Syria as French and Egypt as English continues in the interests of their respective news constituencies.)  Hafez al-Assad, the predecessor and father of the current Syrian president, had demonstrated his willingness to violently crush any political opposition in his repeated destruction of the central Syrian city of Hama (in 1981 and most violently in 1982, when estimates of 10,000-40,000 people died).  People who knew Syria knew that Bashar al-Assad would not resign easily, but it was after the early March, 2011 arrest of children in Dar’a in the south that protests rapidly grew, and then violence escalated as the army was sent to kill protesters.  Some soldiers and officers defected, refusing to gun down peaceful protesters, and from July 2011 armed rebels have fought back against the remaining state army in the Syrian Civil War.

In Anglophone news media, there have been occasional whispers of continually worsening problems in Syria, but meanwhile US attention focused on Yemen (another former British protectorate), and then on Egyptian elections.  Syria only occasionally made front-page headlines, and only consistently in April-June 2013 as there was public discussion whether chemical weapons had been used and whether that would cross President Barack Obama’s “red line” and trigger US involvement.  Reporting on Syria was often more concerned with US/UK relations with Syria’s allies Russia and Iran, or Israel’s enemy Hezbollah.  However, with the announcements in early June that the EU had withdrawn its arms embargo on Syria and the US would arm the rebels, coupled with the revelation the following week that the CIA had already been training the rebels, it seems that Anglophone public interest in the Syrian Civil War has waned.

For the casual peruser of Google news, it seems the “Middle East spot” in World news is again occupied by Egypt, which is experiencing enormous protests against President Muhammad Mursi, inaugurated one year ago, and the Muslim Brotherhood to which he belongs.  Events in Egypt have certainly been dramatic, with up to millions turning out on the streets of Cairo and other cities, staging rival protests in support of or against the president, resignations of non-Muslim Brotherhood members of Mursi’s cabinet, and a 48-hour ultimatum by the army.  Western news outlets have been caught between not particularly liking Islamists of Mursi’s stripe and not particularly liking military coups deposing democratically elected presidents.

(One cautionary note: several news reports, including this one from the BBC, indicated that the elections which brought Mursi to power were “considered free and fair.”  The passive voice is concealing who considered the elections to be free and fair.  It is true that the elections were not legally challenged, and did not immediately spark widespread street protests, and Mursi won with only a narrow margin rather than a suspicious landslide.  It is also true that there were allegations of Muslim Brotherhood intimidation of voters suspected of opposing Mursi.  I cannot now find the news articles, but at the time there were public threats by preachers against Coptic Christians if Mursi should not be elected, unreasonably blaming the Coptic minority for all opposition to the Islamist candidate, and subsequent low voter turnout in areas with concentrations of Coptic Christians.  The elections were “considered free and fair” by Western governments not wishing to intervene.)

In some ways, Egypt’s news is bigger news than Syria’s.  The news in Syria is: more people are dying.  There continues to be violence.  Just a new number of people killed today.  And Egypt has an estimated population of 84.5 million to Syria’s 22.5 million.  And more Western tourists go to Egypt than to Syria (or at least, they did until the Arab Spring brought the Middle Eastern tourism industry to a standstill).  Egypt is what Anglophone readers want to hear about.

But when even a search of Google News for “Syria” only turns up hits on US Secretary of State John Kerry (not himself a Syrian, as it turns out) and US diplomacy with Russia (neither country part of Syria), it is clear that Syria is not interesting to readers of English-language news.  (This search result has changed during the period of composing this post.)  I fear the result will be that US and UK involvement in Syria will be limited to poorly considered and haphazardly implemented measures designed merely to keep Syria out of the political discourse in the US and the UK, to prevent the “Syrian situation” from becoming a tool against the current governments in those countries.  It need hardly be said that such an evaluation of US and UK “national interests” will only make the Syrian Civil War more complicated and less tractable.  For Western intervention in the Syrian Civil War to do more good than harm, it will take sustained interest in the situation on its own terms, an open willingness to engage with multiple conflicting Syrian perspectives on the conflict, and a refusal to let the siren song of optimistic quick-fixes and band-aids lure policy-makers away from careful analysis, much of it rather bleak.

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Lost or Found: Driving a Hard Bargain?

One aspect of Middle Eastern culture which is almost completely foreign to me personally is the culture of bargaining.  Where I grew up, we bargained for baseball cards and used cars, and nothing else.  But in most of the Middle East, prices are negotiable.  You ask the price of an object, you do some quick arithmetic to see how far above what you want to pay that price is, you take the difference off what you want to pay, and you make a counter-offer.  At that point it’s a game between seller and buyer to see who can give up less.  A Middle Eastern friend of mine told me before my first visit to the region, “You can always play the walk-out.  If there’s something you really want, and you can’t get the price you want, just start to walk away.  Don’t worry, the shopkeeper will call you back!”

What I do not know, but very much hope, is whether some of the positions and statements of Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian National Coalition are simply posturing in order to secure a more favorable outcome of the Geneva 2 dialogues next month.  It is worth remembering that Russia insisted that there must be no preconditions to these talks, largely as a way of disqualifying the Syrian National Coalition’s previous position of seeking the removal of Bashar al-Assad before agreeing to dialogue.  Since then, both the Syrian National Coalition and the Assad regime have made statements that sound like preconditions to Geneva 2, and the question is what these statements are intended to achieve.

On the regime’s side, President Bashar al-Assad has agreed “in principle” to participate in the Geneva 2 dialogues, with the goal of seeking a political solution to the violence (which US Secretary of State John Kerry has stated will create a transitional government acceptable to all parties and thus ensure the removal of Bashar al-Assad).  But al-Assad has also said that he does not intend to step down, but will seek re-election in the 2014 elections.  He has declared that the loyal Syrian Army is defeating the rebels.  He has stated (in a press release for an interview) and implied (in the actual interview) that he has received the first shipments of Russian missiles, although Russian sources contradicted him.

On the opposition side, although the lesser-known National Coordination Coalition has agreed to the talks, the Syrian National Coalition has rejected the notion of dialogue with the regime as long as the “massacres” continue.

This rejection by the Syrian National Coalition seemed short-sighted to me.  Certainly, one can understand the emotional reasoning and the dread of “striking a deal with the devil” in their eyes, since they blame Bashar al-Assad personally for all of the awful things of this war.  But their position seems absurd: they require the regime to unilaterally declare a ceasefire and the president to voluntarily step down, before dialogue can happen at which sides might agree to a ceasefire.

But the interchange regarding the Russian missiles reminded me that not all is as it seems in the Middle East, and words mean different things in different contexts.  If, as seems likely, the Russian sources are correct that the missiles haven’t shipped (and won’t get there for at least a few months), then the president’s claim to the contrary is an attempt at intimidation and indicating a strong position from which to bargain.  He does not need to drop his price very much.  Because the other side of bargaining is that the buyer needs to be willing to pay a price which the seller is willing to take seriously.  From the opposition perspective, since they want al-Assad to go, the opposite counter-offer of his insisting he’ll seek re-election is to insist that he leave from the start.  Are these statements just rhetorical preparation for bargaining at Geneva 2?

I do not know.  They could be, and I hope they are.  That would make a lot more sense of the Syrian National Coalition’s position.  On the other hand, Bashar al-Assad last November vowed to “live or die” in Syria, so it may be that he fully intends not to compromise on his re-election bid.  And the Syrian National Coalition must know that a public refusal to take part in the Geneva 2 dialogues, even only a temporary refusal, is costing them a lot of international support.  The strife of their meeting in Istanbul last week already cost them a lot of support within Syria (here, and here).  If these statements are not driving a hard bargain, the talks can still go on even without the Syrian National Coalition (after all, the National Coordination Coalition agreed to participate), but the Geneva 2 are even more unlikely than they already seemed to bring an end to the Syrian Civil War without some involvement from the Syrian National Coalition.  A lot is now riding on whether the bargaining culture of the Middle East is found or lost in these statements of both the Syrian regime and the Syrian National Coalition.

The Chechen Connection

On Friday, Time published some remarks by Andrei Klimov, a leading Russian legislator (and not to be confused with the undefeated lightweight boxer of that name), which indicated why Russia is going ahead with supplying anti-aircraft and anti-naval (“ship-killer”) missiles to the Assad regime, despite requests from the US and Israel to halt the shipments.  In sum, Klimov presented the move as an attempt to ensure that outside force is not used to end the Assad regime in Syria without a political solution freely chosen by Assad and his allies (Russia and Iran most notably among them).  Klimov signaled distrust of the US particularly and regret over the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya which turned a “no-fly zone” into direct attacks on Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi‘s forces.

President Obama’s recent decision to rule out unilateral US involvement in Syria probably speaks to Moscow’s concerns.  But commentators have criticized Obama for this move, and have criticized Secretary of State Kerry and others for their failure to budge Moscow’s policy of arming the Assad regime (as if it were in their power to do so).

One additional aspect of the ongoing civil war in Syria which may worry Moscow, which was not mentioned by Klimov, could either prompt additional military support for the regime or hesitancy about pouring more weapons into Syria.  That is the Chechen element in the jihadi Syrian rebel groups.  The commander of the Muhajireen Brigade is Abu Omar al-Shishani, a Chechen Islamist who has previously fought against Russia in his native Chechnya, and other Islamist groups are employing Chechen fighters.  It was even rumored that the two abducted metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo were abducted by Chechens.  A month ago Mark Galeotti documented other instances of Chechen involvement in Syria, and the potential Russian government concern over the subject, in a post which deserves to be more widely known.

The effects of the Chechen concern may turn on how confident Russia is that the Assad regime can ensure that the Russian weapons do not fall into the hands of rebels.  Rebel forces have captured weapons and ammunition, even tanks, from the regime in the past, and used them against Assad’s own forces.  Especially with Israel openly threatening Assad with additional air strikes, the possibility of Assad’s forces spreading themselves thinner in order to respond to further Israeli attacks raises the possibility for further rebel gains against the regime forces, and thus for capturing Russian missiles.

While any captured anti-aircraft weapons would mostly likely stay in Syria to be used against the regime (and the Russian navy need not fear any “ship-killer” missiles launched from mountainous Chechnya), after the end of the war (whether jihadis take over Syria or are forced to withdraw) any captured weapons might make their way out to be used in Chechnya against Russian government forces there.  Just as the US has been wary of supplying weapons to the Free Syrian Army which might make their way into al-Qa’ida‘s hands, thence to be used by al-Qa’ida in attacks against the US, so the Russian-supplied arms to Assad might be captured in battle by jihadi militants with Chechen connections.

Russia might respond to this possibility in various ways.  It might decide to intervene more directly in Syria to prop up the Assad regime against the Chechen jihadi rebels, for example.  Or it may decide that future weapons shipments to the Syrian regime should not contain more powerful weapons that, if removed to a Chechnyan context, could threaten its own forces.  Mark Galeotti suggested that the existence of Chechen jihadi fighters moving from one hotspot to another may mean that Russia will consider the prolongation of the conflict in its own domestic best interest.  But the Chechen connection certainly complicates both Russian involvement in the Syrian Civil War and Western attempts to sway Russian support away from the Assad regime.