Nick Bryant reports: In a conflict where 140,000 people have been killed, including more than 7,000 children, while 250,000 civilians are still trapped in besieged communities, it must beggar belief to those unused to the geopolitics of the United Nations that a proposed resolution boosting humanitarian relief should be a matter of angry contention.
The draft resolution put before the UN Security Council in New York has the potential to be a game-changer on the ground.
It demands a lifting of the sieges, condemns starvation as a strategy of war, singles out the barbarity of the barrel bombs dropped on civilian populations by the Assad regime and, most crucially of all perhaps, calls for aid convoys to be allowed to cross the Syrian border from neighbouring countries such as Turkey and Iraq.
It also criticises opposition forces that have besieged areas, though on a smaller scale, and expresses concern about the rise of al-Qaeda-affiliated terror groups in Syria.
However, it is by no means certain that the draft will ever emerge from the Security Council.
The resolution, which was drafted by Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan, has exposed the longstanding division within the Security Council. Three of its permanent members, France, Britain and the US, are pushing hard for its passage because of the alarming deterioration in recent months of Syria’s humanitarian crisis.
Russia, which has stymied efforts in the past to boost humanitarian aid and vetoed three previous UN resolutions on Syria, has again been resistant. [Continue reading...]
The Wall Street Journal reports: Saudi Arabia has sidelined its veteran intelligence chief, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, as leader of the kingdom’s efforts to arm and fund Syrian rebels, replacing him with another prince well-regarded by U.S. officials for his successes fighting al Qaeda, Saudi royal advisers said this week.
The change holds promise for a return to smoother relations with the U.S., and may augur a stronger Saudi effort against militants aligned with al Qaeda who have flocked to opposition-held Syrian territory during that country’s three-year war, current and former U.S. officials said.
Prince Bandar, an experienced but at times mercurial ex-diplomat and intelligence chief, presided over Saudi Arabia’s Syria operations for the past two years with little success, as a rift opened up with the U.S. over how much to back rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who has won praise in Washington for his counterterror work against al Qaeda in Yemen and elsewhere, is now a main figure in carrying out Syria policy, a royal adviser and a security analyst briefed by Saudi officials said Tuesday. [Continue reading...]
Bob Dreyfuss writes: It’s time for the United States to surrender on Syria. The embattled government of Bashar al-Assad hasn’t won the war, exactly, but it’s demonstrated that it isn’t going anywhere. The rebels, increasingly dominated by hard-core Islamists and Al Qaeda types, aren’t fit to take over. For Washington, the only way out of the crisis, other than to give up the fight, would be conduct a military operation on the scale of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and not only would that be a regional disaster for the United States, Syria and its neighbors, but it’s also out of the question, politically. Using American air power to dislodge Assad won’t work, though it could cause vast casualties, and it would force Russia and Iran to step up their military aid to Damascus in response. And simply upping the ante, by giving the rebels more and heavier weapons, will only prolong the carnage.
According to The New York Times, President Obama is deeply “frustrated” with the crisis in Syria, though it’s a crisis partly of his own making. The US-Russia diplomacy, including two rounds in Geneva since January, has not moved forward, and today the Times quotes an official involved in the discussion of what to do about Syria thus:
The Russian view is that their guy is winning, and they may be right. So we’re back to the question we faced a year ago: How do you change the balance and force the Syrians to negotiate?
Answer: you don’t. You give up.
Like quite a few other observers trapped by their own ideological presuppositions, Dreyfuss views Syria through the prism of “regime change” and so all Washington has to do to extricate itself from a crisis that is supposedly of its own making is to give up the hope of toppling Assad.
Stuck in an Iraq-based time-warp, the columnist and those fixed in the same mindset, don’t seem to have noticed that declarations from Washington that Assad “must go” have never been coupled with a coherent strategy to make that happen. These have been expressions of a desired conclusion and little more.
At the beginning of the recent peace talks in Geneva, Secretary of State John Kerry rejected the idea of Assad being included in a transitional government, saying: “There is no way… that the man who led the brutal response to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern.” That’s a rather uncontroversial statement — unless one imagines the Syrian ruler could win a fair election.
But maybe for Dreyfuss, Assad is the kind of strongman Syria needs — someone who can hold the “hard-core Islamists and Al Qaeda types” at bay. Maybe Bashar should be seen as our man in Damascus fighting the good war against terrorism.
Either Assad stays in power, or never again will it be safe to fly on El Al.
What about the Syrian people? At least for Dreyfuss, they aren’t even worth a mention.
The Guardian reports: A heart-rending picture of a four-year-old Syrian boy apparently alone in the desert, separated from his family and clutching a tattered plastic bag of possessions, seemed to epitomise the refugee crisis caused by the civil war.
The image went viral after it was tweeted by United Nations staff who helped the child find his family, with the caption: “Here 4 year old Marwan, who was temporarily separated from his family …”, and then retweeted to a wider audience by a CNN International anchor with the caption “UN staff found 4 year-old Marwan crossing desert alone after being separated from family fleeing #Syria”.
But it was not quite what it seemed at first glance. A second photograph, posted by UN staff on Tuesday, showed that the boy was straggling behind a larger group of refugees. “He is separated – he is not alone,” Andrew Harper, head of the refugee agency UNHCR in Jordan, who took the first picture, clarified. Marwan had been reunited with his mother within 10 minutes.
The picture triggered a wave of sympathy on social media, swiftly followed by scepticism and anger at the perceived misrepresentation of Marwan’s plight.
A Storify analysis in which both tweets are embedded, each showing the time they were posted — the first at 9.54AM and the second at 10.02AM — nevertheless claims “Gorani followed up, 30 minutes later”.
It seems like the sticklers for accuracy aren’t too hot about ensuring the accuracy of their own reporting.
To the extent that clarifications about the Marwan story then provoked a “backlash” (though I can’t say I’ve been able to find an abundance of backlash tweets), this would seem to represent one of the pathologies of Twitter: that it empowers cantankerous nitpickers.
The Pulizer-prize winning photograph of Phan Thị Kim Phúc — a naked girl who was a victim of a napalm attack during the Vietnam War — was selective in highlighting one of the most heart-rending moments of her distress. There were other photos that showed her running but not crying. Did the choice of one moment of anguish make a photo that became one of the most famous icons of the whole war in some way a misrepresentation?
To focus on ostensible discrepancies of this nature is to some extent simply the product of pettiness — an unwillingness or inability to look at the big picture.
But it also seems to represent a deficit in the very ability to recognize and use icons — a consequence of an overly literal way of thinking that narrowly circumscribes meaning.
Marwan may not have trudged across the desert alone, but the image of a lost child in the desert remains emblematic of a people who have been largely forgotten by the world.
Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and the doctor wishes to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the man does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If he were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first.
Translate this to Syria and this parable takes an ugly twist:
Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and he asks a doctor to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the doctor does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If the doctor were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first.
The principle, do no harm, applies just as well to politics as it does to medicine, yet it’s a mistake to view this as a choice between action and inaction. If conceived in those terms, the balance will always incline towards inaction because we can’t know the future. We can never say with certainty that our actions will cause no harm.
Yet if we endeavor to do no harm, we have to recognize that inaction has effects. A passive bystander who actually possesses a significant amount of power yet declines to wield it in any meaningful way, is not lacking in agency. More often, he is simply climbing through the moral escape-hatch which every day affords people across the globe some fragile peace of mind: it’s not my problem. I don’t need to worry about it.
In an op-ed for the Washington Post last week, Stephen Hawking wrote:
What’s happening in Syria is an abomination, one that the world is watching coldly from a distance. Where is our emotional intelligence, our sense of collective justice?
When I discuss intelligent life in the universe, I take this to include the human race, even though much of its behavior throughout history appears not to have been calculated to aid the survival of the species. And while it is not clear that, unlike aggression, intelligence has any long-term survival value, our very human brand of intelligence denotes an ability to reason and plan for not only our own but also our collective futures.
We must work together to end this war and to protect the children of Syria. The international community has watched from the sidelines for three years as this conflict rages, engulfing all hope. As a father and grandfather, I watch the suffering of Syria’s children and must now say: No more.
Hawking is clearly frustrated with global inaction, he sees the suffering of the Syrian population as an affront to any conception of universal justice, and he is appealing for the war to end. What he fails to do is propose any course of action which might lead to that outcome.
A theoretical physicist can reasonably claim he is unqualified to outline such a plan. Nicholas Burns, on the other hand, was a career diplomat and was the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs in the Bush administration. We might expect that while appealing for action he would go further than offer a McCainish something must be done.
There are no easy answers to the Syria crisis. A US-led ground invasion would require something on the scale of the 1991 Gulf War — hundreds of thousands of troops. That’s not in the cards for a president, Congress, and public emerging from two major wars since 9/11. Russia and China continue to shield Syrian President Bashar Assad from international pressure at the UN, going so far as to object to proposals to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid. For now, the main, and mainly vain, hope is UN-led talks for a ceasefire and transition from Bashar Assad’s rule. At its current languid pace, that could take years to materialize.
Washington finds itself in an uncharacteristically weak position to drive events in Syria. President Obama has taken force off the table, refusing to strike last September following Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Obama has still not provided effective, lethal support to moderate rebels or threatened strikes on Assad’s air force if the brutal killings continue. As a result, the United States lacks the leverage and credibility to intimidate Assad. The administration plods along the diplomatic path, remaining a responsible contributor of humanitarian aid but lacking the strength to produce a solution on its own.
The one country that could make a decisive difference to stop the fighting is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But Putin, aligned with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah, prefers to run arms to the Syrian government and serve as Assad’s de facto lawyer in Geneva.
Putin will never reach a “Srebrenica moment” on Syria. That leaves the rest of us to consider once more — how many more lives will be claimed by Syria’s ceaseless civil war before we are finally shamed to stop the killings?
The question is: how?
Opponents of war, who nowadays seem to be much more concerned about avoiding involvement in other people’s wars than in ending wars — let’s call them the Not-Our-War-ists — seem to commonly have a kind of organic perspective on Syria.
If allowed to, the war will follow its natural course — though no one’s particularly clear about where that leads. In one breath the conflict in Syria involves no “good guys” and thus there is no basis for taking sides. Yet in the next breath, the conflict is driven by external powers and the Assad regime is resisting Western imperialism.
While it’s impossible to construct a coherent picture from these elements, the unifying theme is that Syria must not become another Iraq.
On those terms, since there has been no invasion, no bombs dropped nor cruise missiles launched from American warships, I guess — at least for now — Syria counts as one success story in the campaign to end U.S.-led wars in the Middle East.
While 140,000 have been killed and 6 million Syrians have lost their homes, this hasn’t become America’s war.
If this is mission accomplished, this is the kind of victory that leads to ruin.
So what’s the alternative?
One of the many reasons Americans tend to have a twisted view of war is because the continuation or end of a war has often had so little impact on life in America. Ending a war is a political choice here, but the physical implications play out elsewhere. America and American civilians collectively, face no existential threats.
The day the war ends is not the day the bombs stop dropping because for most Americans during wartime the bombs were always dropping somewhere else. War thus appears to be nothing more than the product of the callous calculations of governments — governments which might just as easily choose to end such wars as they chose to start them.
In Syria, on the other hand, both sides see themselves as facing an existential threat. There can be no return to a status quo ante bellum.
But as much as this is true for the Assad regime, it is not true for its principal supporters. Iran’s future does not depend on its alliance with Syria and neither does Russia’s. And while Hezbollah’s dependence may be the greatest, its involvement in Syria is actually serving to postpone its greatest existential challenge: whether it can ever fully evolve into a political entity, or whether it will always need weapons to compensate for a deficit in its popularity.
Without these three pillars of support, Assad is finished, and everyone knows that all four will not all rise or fall together.
Burns is right that Putin will never reach a “Srebrenica moment” on Syria — but neither will the U.S. and its allies. That moment came and went last August.
So what’s left?
Assad rules Syria from the air and now more than ever through barrel bombs which plummet aimlessly from helicopters. This crude use of power utterly depends on the weakness of his opponent, but that may soon change.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal, quoting Western and Arab diplomatic sources, reported that Saudi Arabia is about to supply Syrian rebel forces with “Chinese man-portable air defense systems, or Manpads, and antitank guided missiles from Russia”.
[I]f the Manpads are supplied in the quantities needed, rebels said it could tip the balance in the stalemated war in favor of the opposition. The antiaircraft and Russian Konkurs antitank weapons would help them chip away at the regime’s two big advantages on the battlefield—air power and heavy armor.
“New stuff is arriving imminently,” said a Western diplomat with knowledge of the weapons deliveries.
Rebel commanders and leaders of the Syrian political opposition said they don’t know yet how many of the Manpads and antiaircraft missiles they will get. But they have been told it is a significant amount. The weapons are already waiting in warehouses in Jordan and Turkey.
Earlier in the conflict, rebels managed to seize a limited number of Manpads from regime forces. But they quickly ran out of the missiles to arm them, the Western diplomat said.
Following the logic that more weapons means more violence, the supply of Manpads would have to be viewed as an unwelcome development. Moreover, no one can plausibly claim that Saudi Arabia has an interest in promoting democracy in the region. Yet assuming that the Manpads do in fact materialize, the most immediate and likely effect they will have is to bring a sudden end to the regime’s use of barrel bombs. Perhaps a broader shift in the balance of power will follow.
An end to this war depends less on finding enough people willing to give peace a chance than it does on changing the status quo.
And while some observers will always be inclined to see nefarious motives in all Saudi actions, their decision at this time, along with Washington’s quiet acquiescence, provides yet another telltale sign of AIPAC’s dwindling power.
The most vociferous opposition to Manpads circulating in Syria comes from Israel — which also happens to be the power that appears most content with a continuing stalemate.
— Hala Gorani (@HalaGorani) February 17, 2014
Marwan, found today, was later reported to have been reunited with his family, yet this image of a child alone in the desert seems like an icon representing the connection between Syria and the rest of the world.
BBC News reports: The leader of the Lebanese Shia militant Hezbollah movement, Hassan Nasrallah, says his members will continue to fight alongside government forces in Syria’s civil war.
In a televised address on Sunday, he called on “political forces in the Arab world” to “stop the war on Syria”.
He said if this happened, then “of course” his forces would also leave.
Hezbollah’s presence on the ground has fuelled sectarian tensions back home, with violence spilling over the border.
Hezbollah forces have been fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, while Lebanese Sunni Muslims tend to back the Syrian opposition.
Dozens of people have been killed in a string of deadly suicide blasts in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, and the northern city of Tripoli in recent months, with both Sunni and Shia militants blamed for the attacks. [Continue reading...]
The Daily Beast reports: In March 2012, Omar Hammami, the American jihadist who called himself Abu Mansour al Amriki and fought for Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s branch in Somalia, released a short videotape claiming his life was in danger. But Hammami wasn’t fearful that American or Somali forces were pursuing him. Instead, he feared that Shabaab’s emir might kill him him due to differences with strategy and the implementation of Islamic law.
Shabaab responded on its Twitter account, and denied that Hammami was targeted for death. Hammami followed his video by taking to Twitter to lash out at Shabaab and its emir. Hammami even released his autobiography via Twitter.
The Twitter War between Hammami and Shabaab continued for 18 months until Shabaab finally tired of the American’s critiques and sent its secret intelligence unit to execute him and a Brit follower.
The Hammami/Shabaab Twitter war was one of the first instances in which jihadists, who once were voiceless or confined to more structured forums, have aired their dirty laundry in public. [Continue reading...]
The Washington Post reports: The Syrians who reach this Turkish border town after escaping the northern city of Aleppo bring stories of horror about exploding barrels that fall from the sky.
The worst part is the terrifying anticipation as the barrel bombs are unleashed from warplanes roaring overhead, said one man who fled after three bombs demolished the street where he was living. The sight of rescuers scraping human remains from the sidewalk outside her home prompted another of the refugees to leave. A third Syrian, a grandmother, said she left simply because life had become unsustainable in the wrecked, rubble-strewn city, where entire neighborhoods have been almost completely depopulated.
“Aleppo is empty,” she said as she sat surrounded by luggage and children after arriving in Turkey this week. “There’s no one left — no shops, no markets, no life at all.”
As peace talks in Geneva ended in deadlock Saturday, with U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi setting no date for their resumption, the Syrian government’s barrel bombing campaign against the rebel-held half of Aleppo offers a glimpse of what may lie ahead for the country now that negotiations have failed.
The campaign, which began in December, intensified as the peace talks got underway last month, underlining one of the biggest impediments to a negotiated settlement, said Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
“The regime feels it can win this on the battlefield and they feel they can win this politically,” giving it little incentive to compromise in the peace talks, he said. [Continue reading...]
It’s one thing to note an escalation in the use of barrel bombs but it’s misleading to describe their use as a “new tactic.”
The “barrel bombs” have emerged as an improvised weapon with the aim of causing maximum death and destruction, The Daily Telegraph can disclose, as the regime seeks to break rebel resistance in Syria’s second city, Aleppo.
That’s from a report published on August 31, 2012.
The Associated Press reports: A Syrian activist group says the death toll in that country’s conflict has reached 140,000.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Saturday the dead from three years of political violence include civilians, rebels, members of the military, pro-government militiamen and foreign fighters.
The group bases its count on a network of informants on the ground.
The group says more than 3,400 people have been killed so far this month, an escalation in the violence even as the government and opposition hold peace talks in Geneva.
The Wall Street Journal reports: Washington’s Arab allies, disappointed with Syria peace talks, have agreed to provide rebels there with more sophisticated weaponry, including shoulder-fired missiles that can take down jets, according to Western and Arab diplomats and opposition figures.
Saudi Arabia has offered to give the opposition for the first time Chinese man-portable air defense systems, or Manpads, and antitank guided missiles from Russia, according to an Arab diplomat and several opposition figures with knowledge of the efforts. Saudi officials couldn’t be reached to comment.
The U.S. has long opposed arming rebels with antiaircraft missiles for fear they could fall into the hands of extremists who might use them against the West or commercial airlines. The Saudis have held off supplying them in the past because of U.S. opposition. There was no indication of a change in U.S. policy and officials in Washington declined to comment on the plan.
The U.S. for its part has stepped up financial support, handing over millions of dollars in new aid to pay fighters’ salaries, said rebel commanders who received some of the money. The U.S. wouldn’t comment on any payments.
The focus of the new rebel military push is to retake the southern suburbs of Damascus in hopes of forcing the regime to accept a political resolution to the war by agreeing to a transitional government without President Bashar al-Assad.
But if the Manpads are supplied in the quantities needed, rebels said it could tip the balance in the stalemated war in favor of the opposition. The antiaircraft and Russian Konkurs antitank weapons would help them chip away at the regime’s two big advantages on the battlefield—air power and heavy armor. [Continue reading...]
The BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, Bridget Kendall, writes: The second round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva is drawing to a close. But apart from the truce to let UN aid convoys into Homs – a deal done on the ground between the UN and Damascus – it’s hard to point to any concrete achievement.
No common ground has been established between the two rival delegations. And now the US and Russia are at loggerheads too, over a possible UN resolution to press for humanitarian access across Syria.
It feels as though the diplomacy over Syria is going backwards. At the Geneva talks, the two sides have been so deadlocked that they are not even sitting in the same room any more.
Two weeks ago they were at least airing opposing views across a table, and discussing concrete steps like possible ceasefires and prisoner exchanges. Now they can’t even agree on an agenda. Damascus insists talks must first tackle terrorism. The opposition says only in conjunction with political talks.
Both sides claim they want to keep going – neither wants to be blamed for the talks’ collapse. [Continue reading...]