Category Archives: Syria

Brahimi on how to understand Syria

I just saw this May 18 interview with Lakhdar Brahimi. In it, the UN’s recently retired negotiator for Syria said:

I think the Russian analysis was right at the beginning, but everybody thought that it was an opinion and not an analysis. The Russians were saying that Syria is not Egypt and it is not Tunisia, and the president of Syria is not going to fall in a matter of two or three weeks. People thought that this was not an analysis, it was an expression of position: ‘We are going to support this regime’…

Maybe, maybe if people listened to them, and went to them, and said, listen you clearly know the situation in Syria better than anybody else. Let’s sit down and see how we can help Syria solve its problems. Perhaps things would have been different. But that did not happen.

I’d just like to note that the analysis that “Syria is not Egypt and it is not Tunisia, and the president of Syria is not going to fall in a matter of two or three weeks…” was not solely a “Russian” analysis. It was also the conclusion reached by several people in the United States who have studied Syria for a long time, myself included. Back in May 2011 (MP3) and again in late November 2011, I made precisely these same points during public presentations I made at two non-trivial think-tanks in Washington, DC– the Middle East Institute and SETA. So anyone in the city who was prepared to acknowledge that I had a fair bit of expertise on the topic could have heard and learned from what I said.
I don’t know how many of the people who heard me ended up being persuaded by what I said. (Why not, I wonder? An interesting question. Perhaps because I don’t have Haim Saban or the late Sidney Harman’s money behind me. Perhaps because I am female. Who knows?) But what is clear is that none of the people who opposed my positions in those panel discussions have had their analyses vindicated. I have. If anyone cares to go back and read the 80-plus earlier posts on my blog in which I wrote about Syria, from 2003 through 2013, or to read any of my earlier writings on Syria (including two books that dealt with Syria in detail), he or she is welcome to do so.
Actually, I think what happened in 2011 was not my failure to persuade members of the Washington DC power elite but rather, the absolute insistence among members of the power elite (including a number of people with alleged “expertise on Syria”, like Steven Heydemann) most simply, that “Asad has to go”– antecedently to encouraging Syrians to engage in negotiations on any other forms of reform.
This position did not come out of nowhere. It was a continuation of the strong support that most members of Washington’s elite have given for decades to a straightforward policy of “regime change” in Syria. That policy had its origins with the imposition of the first US sanctions on Syria in the late 1970s– punishments that were ratcheted up considerably in the 2000s, under George W. Bush, along with his introduction of increased covert funding to Syrian dissidents under MEPPI– a policy that Obama then continued after January 2009.
This deep and longstanding US push for regime change in Damascus is so durable that it even managed to survive several periods in which, at the surface level, relations between the two governments appeared to be somewhat improved, e.g., during Syria’s participation in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, in the Madrid peace conference of 1992, and in many years of the post-Madrid peace diplomacy; and more recently, when it gave a degree of tacit support to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. But still, regime change– the end of Baathist rule in Damascus–was the enduring bedrock of what the neocons, AIPAC, and all their zombies in Congress, the media, and the military-industrial complex continued to push for.
The eruption of “Arab Spring” protests in Tunisia and Egypt– and the undoubted excitement these protests aroused in many parts of the Arab world, including in Syria– gave them the opportunity they sought to implement their plan.
Brahimi makes some important points in his interview. But I think it’s important to note that the analysis in question was not purely “Russian”. People in Washington DC certainly had the chance to hear a very similar assessment being made.
As I’ve noted here on the blog before, it gives me no pleasure to say, “I was right on Syria.” None whatsoever. But anyone in Washington DC or elsewhere who currently claims that she or he “cares a lot” about what has happened to the Syrian people probably owes an apology to those of us who back in 2011 made a well-informed, and as it happened correct assessment of the sources and endurance of the regime’s power.
If they want to carry on pursuing their imperialistic and arrogant policies of imposing regime change on Syria and thereby keeping the country’s people trapped in the current carnage, then I suppose they are still able to do that– at least, until the Syrian people in their millions tell the “westerners” decisively to end their illegal, divisive, and extremely harmful intervention in the internal politics of sovereign Syria.
But after three long years in which the regime-changeistas’ assessments of the “imminent collapse” of the regime have all been decisively proven false, they’d do well to eat a bit of humble pie, admit they were wrong– and most importantly of all, to undertake the course correction needed to provide real help to those Syrians (all Syrians, including both supporters and opponents of the regime) who want to bring this terrible war to the speediest possible, and preferably negotiated, end.

The Russia-Syria deal: What it means and what now?

Watching Syrian FM Walid Muallem on the TV news announcing his country’s acceptance of Russia’s plan to consign all Syria’s CW stockpile to international control and then destruction was an amazingly powerful sight. With this one stroke, all the air went out of the campaign Pres. Obama has been ramping up, to win public and Congressional support for a U.S. “punitive” military attack against Syria. (Shortly after Mouallem’s announcement, the Democratic leader of the senate, Harry Reid, withdrew the war resolution from consideration there…)

As of now, the Moscow deal looks like win-win-win all round for everyone with legitimate interests in the Syria situation:

  • First of all and most importantly, it is a win for the vast majority of the Syrian people– those who are desperate for an end to the conflict and want nothing more than to go home and see their country’s war-ravaged fabric (physical and social) repaired. Under what political circumstances? Still to be determined. But at least they have a much better chance of this happening now than if U.S. Cruise missiles had been used to further stir up the  stew of their country’s conflict.
  • It’s a win for both Pres. Obama and the American people. The American people had shown, overwhelmingly, that they (we) neither wanted nor needed this war. But Obama was still kind of hoisted on the self-created petard of his various pronouncements about Syria’s CW– not only the various ‘Red Lines’ statements he made earlier, but also all the recent statements claiming a surety of knowledge about what happened August 21st that has never yet been backed up by the public provision of any evidence. Here in the United States as around the world, there were loud calls for him to present his evidence. He never has. As this made-in-Moscow deal goes forward (which I expect it will), Obama will likely be relieved that he never has to show what, by many accounts, seems to have been a very weak evidentiary hand. Continue reading

Syria in the crosshairs of the west

2013 is very far from being the time that independent Syria has been targeted by the west (sometimes, including Israel.) The history of western intervention in the country has been long– starting from, of course, the protectorate that France established there in the wake of World War I, under the guise of a ‘Mandate’ from the League of Nations– though not, of course, from the Syrian people. In 1949, just three years after Syria won its independence from France, the CIA engineered a coup by the head of the Syrian armed forces, Hosni Zaim, against the democratically elected president Shukri Quwwatly. CIA operative Miles Copeland wrote later (Game of Nations, 1969, p.50) that he and his colleagues had judged Quwwatly “not liberal enough”… and therefore he had to be toppled by a coup. (Echoes in Egypt today, anyone? People organizing a military coup in the name of “liberalism”?)

Sticking, for now, with the record of purely American interventions in Syria, this record is long indeed, running (in more recent times) through:

  1. 1979, when the State Department put Syria on the list of “states supporting terrorism” back in 1979– which triggered economic sanctions that have lasted until today, and have been progressively tightened ever since;
  2. December 2003, when Congress– in the first flush of enthusiasm that the U.S. victory in Iraq could be speedily replicated in Syria and Lebanon– passed the punitive “Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (SALSRA)”. In late spring 2005, after the growth of the Lebanese popular movement that followed the killing of former PM Rafiq Hariri, Syria did indeed withdraw from Lebanon the troops that had been deployed there since they first went in (at, it has to be said, Washington’s urging) back in January 1976. But even the restoration of Lebanon’s sovereignty was not enough to ease up the sanctions Washington maintained on Syria. Actually, the SALSRA was a great big dog’s breakfast of a sanctions bill; and it has been cited more recently as a source of legitimacy for U.S. punitive action against Syria on account of Syria’s CW capabilities.
  3. From 2009 until today: The funding of clandestine opposition movements in Syria under the MEPPI program that George W. Bush launched (with Liz Cheney supervising much of it in the early years.) Crucially, after Pres. Obama took office, he continued this program– as was revealed in some of the Wikileaks cables in April 2011. Continue reading

Notes as the imperial will starts to collapse, Pt. II

(Part I of this was here.)

Citizens here in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world have had ample chance, in the 12 years since 9/11, to see the results of U.S. military actions– in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya and (a little covertly), in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. In none of these cases have the results been anything that anyone can take pride in, to say the least.

Americans (outside the Washington Beltway) are not stupid. We have seen all these terrible outcomes… outcomes, that is, that have been terrible for our fellow-humans who are citizens of those targeted countries– but also, terrible because of the way they have helped to make the world a much more unstable and terrifying place and to further deepen the hatred for Americans in many parts of the world. The U.S.’s profligate use of military power in all these situations in the past 12 years has ended up being quite counter-productive in terms of making the word a better, safer place for Americans (and others.) And somehow, finally, an increasing number of Americans are seeing that this has been so.

Two years ago, on September 10, 2011, I wrote:

I believe that today, more Americans understand the futility and damaging nature of wars– all wars– than did ten years ago. But still, far too many of our countrymen and -women remain susceptible to arguments like those made in favor of the military “action” or military “intervention” in Libya earlier this year.

That was two years ago. Since then, a lot more Americans’ eyes have been opened as to the counter-productive nature of war– whether in Libya, in Afghanistan, Iraq, or (I hope) anywhere else in the world.

We definitely heard some of that during the meeting we had with Rep. Robert Hurt here in his district office in Charlottesville, on Thursday. And he told us, then, that the calls he’s been receiving on the Syria issue have been running “overwhelmingly” against the idea of a U.S. military attack. This is great. This is new. This is the result, in part, of new great awakening of Americans on issues of war, peace, and security. It’s the result, too, of the patient work of everyone in the anti-war movement who has kept on steadfastly organizing and making their (our) case even throughout the past 12 years of the crazy American wars.

There are three main groups of people here in the United States who, as of now, don’t see things this way. They are:

  1. Leaders of the military-industrial complex and their flaks.
  2. AIPAC (the America Israel Public Affairs Committee) and the leaders of some other prominent pro-Israeli organizations.
  3. Some liberal hawks.

Okay, let’s take the liberal hawks first, because they are the smuggest and the least well informed.

Continue reading

Notes as the imperial will starts to collapse

In 1997, I had the good fortune to move with my family to a place sufficiently far from the hype-soaked, MIC-funded confines of Washington DC that a person could actually have real conversations in public about issues like the Palestine Question without immediately being accused of being a traitor, or an anti-semite, or worse. Our Member of Congress here in Virginia’s 5th district is currently Robert Hurt, a pleasant but fairly good-old-boy-ish Republican who first won the seat in the Tea Party-inspired upheaval of 2010.

On Thursday, I was part of a 20-person citizen delegation organized by the indefatigable peace activist David Swanson that went to see Rep. Hurt, with the two goals of (1) pressing him to express his own position on the possibility of a US military attack on Syria and (2) expressing our own opposition to such an attack. (A fairly good local-news report of the meeting is here.) On the first point, Hurt said he “remained to be convinced of the need for the attack”, but he would “listen to the president and hear the administration’s briefings with an open mind.” During the meeting, I pressed him to listen to the admin’s briefings with a critical mind, as well, and not to be afraid to ask for questions and clarifications. He said he would. This seems all the more important in light of Rep. Alan Grayson’s account in today’s NYT of just how unsatisfactory he found the briefings that he was given on the subject, in his role as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Grayson, a Democratic member from South Florida, has emerged– along with libertarian-inclined Rep. Justin Amash of Wisconsin– as a leader of the DontattackSyria movement. (Any US citizen reading this who has not yet signed the petition there should do so asap.) All the more surprising because, as MJ Rosenberg has noted, Grayson had previously had something of a reputation as an AIPAC dupe.

* * *

Continue reading

Asad’s survivability, and US MSM

David Sanger in NYT today:

How did Mr. Obama find himself in this trap? Partly, it was an accident of history: in the early, heady days of the Arab uprisings, no one bet that Mr. Assad would survive this long, in a country where his Alawite sect is a minority.

Not true. Of course, responsible analysis of foreign affairs is not a casino, so what analysts do is not “bet” on possibilities; rather, they make their best assessment based on the knowledge/experience base they have and their powers of analysis. On that basis, since the beginning of the uprising in Syria, I have expressed my judgment that Pres. Asad has had much stronger support in Syrian public opinion than, for example, former Pres. Mubarak had; and that all the pundits saying “Asad won’t last until ‘the end of 2011′,” or whatever other timeframe they put on it, were ill-informed and wrong.

In 2011, based on my many decades of experience analyzing and writing about matters Syrian, I was able to have my views heard in Washington a tiny bit– at two small think tanks. Did David Sanger or any other wellpaid participant in the MSM ever seek my views, or those of other analysts who, also knowing a lot about Syrian internal affairs, voiced the same conclusions? No. Instead, they all just kept quoting the same denizens of the media-Beltway bubble (with the ‘quoting’ often led by people at the so-called ‘Washington’ Institute for Near East Policy, which is actually the AIPAC-spawned Institute for NEP… not designed to be a source of cool, impartial analysis or policy advice.)

This bubble/echo-chamber mentality among the MSM and the rest of the along-the-Acela-line elite had consequences. In April 2012, one mid-level official in the U.S. diplomatic machine told me in exasperation, “We never imagined that Asad would still be in power this long! We were convinced he would be out by the end of 2011.” I reminded this person that I had warned all along that Asad’s regime had more popular support and political resilience than the other regimes that had toppled the previous year.

Anyway, all this is just for the record at this point. But please, don’t let David Sanger get away with his claim that “in the early, heady days of the Arab uprisings, no one bet that Mr. Assad would survive this long.” I was there, David Sanger, and I was presenting my analysis. It was just that you– and too many others like you– weren’t paying attention.

Crucially, if more people in the U.S. power elite had tried to really understand the dynamics inside Syria, the Obama administration would not have taken the step, in August 2011, of declaring that “Asad has to go before there can be any intra-Syrian negotiations.” It is that position, steadfastly hewed to by the administration since then, that has condemned the Syrian people to two additional years of wrenching internal struggle and horrific levels of destruction of their infrastructure and their society.

Syria: The genocide risk, and no-fly zones

There are so many disturbing aspects to Pres. Obama’s decision to start providing weapons to the Syrian opposition(s) that it is hard to know where to start in commenting thereon. Perhaps, with the completely unclear, unsubstantiated nature of the allegations Obama’s spokesperson made regarding the Asad regime’s use of chemical weapons? Obama’s administration hasn’t even bothered, as Pres G.W. Bush did back in February 2003, to make any public presentation of the ‘evidence’ on which it bases its allegations. Do the president and his team take us all for mindless morons who will follow wherever he leads, or do they think we somehow don’t deserve to see the ‘evidence’ that they claim to have? … Or, do they know that the ‘evidence’ they have is all so flimsy and inconclusive that, once exposed to the light of day, it would do nothing to validate the president’s decision to take a huge step up the escalation ladder regarding Syria?

… Alternatively, should I make the point– that Marc Lynch, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Juan Cole, and others have already made– that we have heard no public exposition of any kind at all from the President or any of his top-level advisers of what the sought-for strategic end-point is for this latest extremely troubling and escalatory step? How, Mr. Obama, can you assure Americans or anyone else that this latest American escalation will not end up leading us all into a quagmire in Syria of exactly the same kind that, seven years ago, you rightly saw as having been the case with the U.S. military action against Iraq?

… Well, other people have made all the above arguments– and many other good ones, too. I want to concentrate here on two other, little-discussed aspects of the Syrian situation: First, the real and mounting risk of genocide in Syria– one that is being advocated, and mobilized around, by numerous hardline factions within in the same ‘opposition’ constellation that Obama now supports. And second, the disutility/absurdity of the whole notion of a ‘safe haven/ no fly zone’ that is now reportedly being discussed and planned for.

Let’s start with the risk of genocide.

On the risk of genocide in Syria.

Both ‘sides’ in Syria have been guilty of committing great violence against the other side and against far too many of the ordinary citizens caught up in the cross-fire. But only one side contains people who are openly engaged in sectarian/religious hate-speech and on occasion actual genocidal actions against members of other targeted groups. These are the takfiris: the hard-line Sunni fundamentalists from Al-Qaeda, Jabhat Al-Nusra, and myriad other loosely allied groups in the opposition who openly call for the killing of Shiites simply because they are Shiites, as well as of Christians, Alawites, and other non-Sunnis.. and even of anyone in their own (Sunni) community who disagrees with their own hardline views of the world.

Takfir, for those readers not familiar with the notion, is the act of denouncing someone else as a non-believer or an apostate. And that denunciation in and of itself, in the takfiri worldview, not only allows but also frequently mandates that the person(s) thus denounced be killed. The term takfiri could be translated as “denouncer”, but that would be too soft a term. The takfiris now in action in broad swathes of Syria  are genocidaires-in-waiting, like the genocidaires of Rwanda in the months leading up to April 1994. And like those genocidaires, these takfiris are disseminating their hate propaganda as widely and publicly as they can, trying to ramp up the level of fear and hatred in every way, including of course on the Internet.

Takfirism is a real and present danger wherever the black banners of these hate-filled extremists can be seen. It is what lies behind acts such as the blowing up of a Shiite mosque (and, reportedly, numerous other anti-Shiite actions) in the eastern Syrian village of Hatla last week. Takfirism was behind the shooting of the (Sunni) boy in Aleppo last week, on the mere grounds that he had “taken the name of the Prophet in vain.” Takfirism was behind the desecration of the Mar Elias church in Qusayr by some rebel bands, before the town was retaken by government forces ten days ago. Other examples abound.

I have heard many people here in the United States saying things, over the past few weeks, like “The Shiites and the Sunnis have been fighting each other for ever… Don’t blame America for everything that happens between them.” These kinds of arguments are either woefully ill-informed, or just plain dishonest. Yes, there have been many periods of tension between Shiites and Sunnis in the past (as well as tensions between Muslims and Christians in the Arab world), and these tensions seem to be a steep upswing right now. BUT the following facts also need to be borne in mind:

  1. On many occasions in recent years, our government has indeed taken actions that exacerbated tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in the region. Much of the policy pursued by the U.S. occupation administration in Iraq had the effect (intended or not) of essentializing and deepening the differences between the two groups, and turning politics inside Iraq and far beyond it sharply toward sectarianism and away from ‘national’ or more broadly humanistic forms of identification. Much of the policy pursued by the U.S. regarding Iran has been based even more intentionally on whipping up anti-Shiite fears and hatreds among the Sunni-dominated governments of the Arab side of the Gulf. The United States is not an innocent actor in these matters.
  2. Historically, Sunni-Shiite relations have frequently gone through periods when they are not very acute, or even considered by many Muslims to be very important. The number of Shiite-Sunni marriages in countries that contain both populations has often been fairly high. And even today, inside Syria, a large portion of the country’s Sunni citizens continue to side with the government and fight in the national army. If this was not the case, given the fact that Sunnis make up around 75% of the national population, there is no chance that the regime could have survived this long.
  3. The argument that ‘Sunnis and Shiites have been fighting for ever and we can’t do anything about it’ is one that, in the Syrian context, seems to put equal responsibility for sectarian hate-mobilization on both the government and the opposition side. But this is not the case. On the opposition side, there is a clear, visible, and significant portion of the opposition fighting forces that are mobilized and seek to mobilize others overwhelmingly on the basis of inter-sect hatred. On the government side there is no such mobilization (and also, no evidence of hate-based acts like desecrations or genocidal mass killings.)

My understanding of Obama’s Syria policy for the past two years is that the president has been blown about by competing winds– probably starting off with a baseline reluctance to get drawn into a repeat of the Iraq quagmire, but never quite figuring how to do so. This, against stubborn background aspects of Washington policymaking such as:

  1. Nearly thirty years of solid anti-Asad agitation (pere et fils), and the resulting tough anti-Syrian sanctions from Washington.
  2. The campaign that Hillary Clinton successfully waged, back in the summer 2011, to get Obama to declare that ‘Asad has to go’, and to make that– rather than the achievement of a negotiated settlement among Syrians– the top priority of U.S. policy towards Syria.

So now, it is Hillary’s husband who, using the crudest kinds of appeals to a version of Obama’s ‘manhood’, has pushed Obama over the precipice of promising direct U.S. military support for the Syria rebels. This is a position from which he will now find it hard to back down, even if he wants to. Make no mistake, this escalation of the climate of confrontation and tension in and regarding Syria has set in train consequences that are extremely hard to predict… but none of them will be good. Violence, as we all know (or surely, should know by now?), only begets more violence. And Obama’s decision to pour U.S. weapons into Syria is definitely an act of escalation and violence. Escalation, that is, over and above the previous policy of merely colluding with and quietly aiding Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan as those powers worked together to funnel weapons and foreign fighters into Syria.

By not standing up firmly against escalation, and by not committing himself fully and robustly to pursuit of a negotiated settlement, Obama has made himself almost a prisoner of the forces urging more violence. There are people in the Syrian opposition who have never wanted violence. There are others who got tempted by it a while back, but who now express a strong desire to see the conflict and its resulting destruction brought to an end. The voices and political strength of all these Syrians would have been bolstered if Obama had come out foursquare in favor of a negotiated settlement. As it is, his most recent decision has left them sidelined, and has given considerable new momentum to the men of violence– all of them, on both of the ‘sides’ in Syria.

On the anti-government side, I know that the stated policy of the CIA and its buddies in the Special Ops command has been to try to find non-extremist fighting forces in the Syrian opposition and try to strengthen them (in good part by promising them better capabilities, now including arms), thereby– or so the argument goes– reducing the power of the real takfiris. This is a fool’s game. Even after many months of the CIA and its buddies working in Turkey and Jordan to try to figure out the ever-shifting who’s who in the Syrian opposition, and to unify the allegedly non-extreme portions of the ‘Free Syrian Army’, it is clear that that effort has failed. The takfiris are stronger than ever. No-one in Washington (or in Incirlik or Amman) can be sure that arms funneled in to the Syrian opposition over the next few months won’t end up in takfiri hands.

Moreover, by succumbing to the first round of the FSA people’s blackmail (“You have to give us weapons, otherwise the takfiris will stay stronger than us!”), the stage has only been set for the next round of FSA blackmail, and the ones coming after that, too. No amount or types of weapons will ever be sufficient for these people’s demands. (And they have already been shown to have had their own supply, in some places, of CW agents like sarin. So what else can they possibly want?)

Indeed, what they most likely want is for the United States and NATO to enter the fighting directly and win their war for them, which is what the oppositionists in Libya back in 2011 achieved so brilliantly, and with such disastrous effects both for the people of Libya and for the safety and security of a broad swathe of Africa.

… Which is why we need to come, very soon, to a serious consideration of this whole business of a ‘no-fly zone’. But before I get to that, just a couple more points about the risk of genocide.

Firstly, we now know that there is a very present risk of genocide inside Syria, as has already been foreshadowed by the wide and systematic dissemination of hate-propaganda, and by the commission of numerous actual acts of hate-based violence that have stemmed from that propaganda (and that have, in turn, been actively glorified by many of those same propaganda organs.)

Secondly, we know that whenever widespread genocides have occurred in recent history, this has always happened in the midst of war and armed conflict. War and armed conflict provide the circumstances of massive social upheaval in which killing your neighbors just because of who they are, rather than because of anything they have done, can come to seem ‘normal’, or even admirable. In normal, peaceful countries, there may be individual hatemongers, or even broad networks of them. But the hatemongers cannot get a whole population caught up with their propaganda except in circumstances of continuing and destructive conflict.

Thus, if we want to prevent the eruption of a full-blown genocide in Syria, the best way to achieve this is by working 24 hours a day to de-escalate tensions, to conclude local ceasefires wherever and whenever possible, and to work with all parties for a negotiated, longterm peace.

On ‘no-fly zones’:

Of Washington’s three experiences with the imposition of a no-fly zone, the two that occurred in the Middle East are the ones with which I’m most familiar. That is, the pair of NFZ’s that the George H.W. Bush administration imposed on Iraq in the immediate aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, in early 1991, and the one that some NATO powers imposed on Libya in March 2011.

The Iraqi NFZ’s were established with a clear and somewhat persuasive purpose: To deny the Saddam regime the ability to use airpower against the two opposition movements that had arisen in the north and south of the country in the very last days of Desert Storm– in response, it needs to be noted, to the explicit call that Pres. Bush broadcast, to “the people and army of Iraq” that they should rise up and overthrow their president. Briefly, what happened was that in the north and south of the country, large-scale insurrections did almost immediately result. As soon as it was able, the Saddam regime moved in to crush them, which it did without mercy. But the armed forces of the same U.S. president who had called for the insurrection, which were poised on the southern borders of Iraq, never lifted a finger to help the besieged insurrectionists. They stayed south of the border because of decisions made in Washington (and also, at the advice of their hosts in Saudi Arabia.) The best that Washington felt it could do was try to deny to the Iraqi military the right to use airpower in their bloody putting-down of the insurrections. Washington claimed that Security Council resolution 688, which expressed grave concern about Saddam’s anti-insurrection moves, gave it a mandate to impose the no-fly zones. But anyway, back in 1991 the Soviet Union was in the throes of falling apart, and China was still much weaker than it is today; so no effective challenge was mounted to  the US’s imposition of the NFZ’s.

The one in Northern Iraq was more far-reaching than the one in the south. In the south, the Iraqi air force was still allowed to use helicopters. In the north, both choppers and fixed-wing aircraft were prohibited. In both zones, maintaining the NFZ involved the US (and its ever-willing junior partner the UK) using a significant amount of offensive force against Iraqi air-defense installations. The wielding of the NFZ weapon against the Saddam regime went hand-in-hand, throughout the 1990s and right until 2003, with the imposition of ever-tougher economic sanctions against the country. The sanctions were tied to the allegations about Iraq’s development and possession of various forms of ‘weapons of mass destruction’, including chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons; and they had a devastating effect on nearly all Iraqis– except for those within the northern NFZ, who were exempted from many portions of the sanctions and who were able to (re)build some fairly robust social institutions throughout the Kurdish-populated parts of the north.

In a sense, in Iraq, the imposition of NFZ’s in April 1991 was a fallback position from the other, more aggressive policy that some people urged, of sending the U.S. military marching from Saudi Arabia all the way to Baghdad and toppling the regime there and then. The NFZ applied in Northern Iraq probably did save lives. It is hard to say, of course, how many additional lives might have been saved if Pres. Bush had NOT issued that completely reckless earlier call on the people and army of Iraq to rise against their rulers.

The NFZ regime in Iraq did nothing to provide any longterm resolution of the country’s many remaining problems of grossly abusive governance. But along with the sanctions regime, the Iraqi NFZ’s froze in place a political situation of political dictatorship for another 12 years; and meanwhile, the sanctions killed an estimated 500,000 or more Iraq’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens. Not at all a humane situation.

The NFZ that a portion of NATO applied against Libya in March 2011 also had an ostensible ‘humanitarian’ goal: Namely, the ‘saving’ of the population of Benghazi which, Washington claimed, was in imminent danger of being massacred. As I wrote on this blog at the time, there were alternative mechanisms being actively explored at the time, primarily by the African Union, to negotiate a de-escalation of the tensions around Benghazi; and an African Union delegation was just on its way to Benghazi to launch this negotiation just as NATO announced its decision; and it turned back.

(I wish that now, just two years later and in light of all the terrible violence and social/political breakdown into which Libya has fallen since then, some officials in Washington might wish they had given the African Union delegation a bit more time to do its work? But actually, I don’t think that any American officials from Obama on down have yet shown any sign that they’ve learned anything useful from the tragic experience of Libya.)

In Libya, as we know, the U.S. and its allies took hold of the original, limited Security Council resolution (1973) calling for “all necessary means” to be used to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas from attack by the Qaddafi regime and pushed their implementation of it way beyond its original wording and intent, to undertake airborne military actions in support of the opposition as the opposition gathered around Tripoli and overthrew the regime. (This was seen as yet another great victory for, and vindication of, airpower. Of course, since the only people with boots on the ground were the ill-disciplined, internally competing Libyan militias, they are the forces that have been controlling the country ever since.)

The leaderships in China and Russia both felt they had been seriously misled by the western powers when they agreed to the terms of resolution 1973. They are not about to repeat that mistake. (And they are also both much more significant players on the world scene today than they were back in 1991.) The chances that these two governments would sign off on any kind of NFZ resolution regarding Syria are zero. If the United States and the dwindling number of governments that remain in its so-called ‘Friends of Syria’ group of countries want to establish an NFZ inside Syria, absent any enabling resolution from the Security Council, this will be– and will be treated as– an act of war. And if, as the recent reports in the WSJ had it, the plan is for the NFZ to be established just north of Syria’s southern border with Jordan, then evidently the military power of neighboring Israel will be a factor in the situation…

And then, what would be the strategic goal or end-game of any US-backed NFZ in Syria– whether in the north or the south? Would it, as in Libya, be simply a hasty way-station or act of political legerdemain on the way to supporting the rebels in a campaign to capture Damascus? Or would the creation of an NFZ be intended as  a less overtly ‘strategic’ move, but one that would create a kind of buffer zone within Syria in which the opposition forces could– along with their families, rest and regroup?

If it’s the latter, then the external forces protecting that ‘safe haven’ with their airpower would have some hard questions to answer. primarily, these two:

  1. What kind of opposition forces would be protected within the havens (see ‘takfiris‘, above)?
  2. How, by acting solely from the air, would the U.S. or its allies police the haven and ensure that takfiris or other men of violence would not terrorize the population inside the haven and/or continue their campaign to topple the regime in Damascus (and then, perhaps, continue on to ‘liberate’ Golan, and then Palestine)?

The idea of creating safe havens inside Syria in which the much-abused remnants of the country’s civilian population can be ‘protected’ by the actions of well-meaning foreigners may sound very appealing. The political realities of any such project are horrendous. Let’s hope that just as much thought is being put into the complex politics of any such move before it is undertaken, as is reportedly being put into doing the logistical planning for it.

The Hizbullah factor in the Syrian conflict

Practically all westerners looking at the influence that Hizbullah’s entry into the Syrian conflict has been having on the conflict have focused wholly on the military role that Hizbullah’s very well-trained and highly motivated fighters have played on the battlefield, especially in helping bring about the Syrian government’s reassertion of authority on Tuesday night, in Qusayr. But having studied Hizbullah’s development and SOP’s in Lebanon over the course of many years (see e.g. here and here), I suspect that the main impact its involvement has on events in Syria could well be in civilian affairs– that is, if the Baath Party and its allies are open to receiving coaching from Hizbullah’s civilian-affairs cadres on how to organize and build resilience in traumatized communities in times of war, then that could make all the difference.

During both of Hizbullah’s “definitive” battles against the (militarily very much stronger) IDF, in 1996 and 2006, it was the strength of the party’s civilian mass organizing that allowed it to “win”: In both cases, the Israeli government’s key war aim was to inflict such terrible losses on all Lebanese citizens that they would turn against Hizbullah; and in both cases, the effectiveness of the civilian mass base and the network of strategic alliances that Hizbullah had previously built up ensured that those bullying– one could even say openly terroristic– tactics pursued by the Israeli leaders were completely ineffective (even, very counter-productive) at the political level. In both cases, Hizbullah emerged from the Israeli assault politically stronger than it had been prior to the assault, and with its core military infrastructure unbroken.

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Four important reads on Syria

The first two are excellent, on-the-ground reporting from Aleppo, by the seasoned, native Arabic speaker Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Dec 27 and Dec 28.
The second two are from the Carnegie Endowment: This thoughtful Dec 24 piece by Yezid Sayegh: Can the National Coalition Lead Syria?; and this very well-informed Dec 4 piece by Aron Lund: Aleppo and the Battle for the Syrian Revolution’s Soul.
I have been arguing for more than 18 months now that the Syrian “opposition” (more accurately, “oppositions”) is/are incapable of entering into any meaningful negotiations under their own steam– even should they want to do so; since unlike the Algerian FLN, the ANC in South Africa or all other successful national liberation movements they lack internal unity, political clarity, and internal discipline.
The developments of the past 18 months have surely shown this to be the case.
Of course the Syrian government has made many mistakes– at the strategic, tactical, and moral levels. But so has the opposition. It is past time for all the Western and other international groupies and enablers of the opposition to stop indulging it and to work in a concerted way with the rest of the international community to bring an end to the carnage, fitna, and intense human suffering the conflict has already imposed on Syria’s people, in the only way possible: That is, through the negotiations that UN/AL Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi as been working tirelessly to convene.

Yes, I was right on Syria. (And what now?)

I realize it is unseemly, in the world of international-affairs analysis, for someone to say quite bluntly “I told you so”. I realize, far more importantly, that the situation in which Syria’s 25 million (or so) people find themselves is one of deep and very hard-to-escape crisis– one that, whether Pres. Asad stays or goes, will (as I noted here in early August of this year) continue to plague them for many, many years to come… and any contention among non-Syrian analysts as to who was “right” and who was “wrong” pales in importance to that deeply tragic fact.
But still, looking back, I think I have been fundamentally correct in my evaluations of the situation in Syria– from March 2011 until today. And that, at a time when a large majority of people in the U.S. (and ‘western’) political class had a very different analytical bottom line than my own. Their bottom line was, basically, that the Asad regime was weak, hollow, deeply unpopular, and would crumble “any day now.” And since people holding to this belief– which was nearly always, much more of a belief than an analysis– have been extremely strong inside the Obama administration as well as in the western chattering classes (including among many self-professed “progressives” or liberals), their belief in the imminent collapse of the Asad regime has driven Washington’s policy all along.
Of greatest concern to me has been those people’s rigid adherence to the policy of not negotiating or supporting the idea of anyone else negotiating with the Asad regime. Instead of any idea of negotiations, the overthrow of the regime was their overwhelming and primary goal. Negotiations about the future of Syria could, they said, be held only after the President’s removal.

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