Tag Archives | Syria

Syria Boiling – Death Toll Now 5,000

After the largest and one of the most deadly Friday afternoon demonstrations against the Assad government, the death toll has reached 5,000.  The Syrian opposition has increased its demand that the Arab League take action against Assad, including sanctions.  The League announced it would meet Wednesday, call for Assad to stop violence and begin negotiations and push for him to allow League representatives into Syria to monitor the situation and ensure compliance.

In the meantime, Russia offered its own Security Council resolution calling for all parties to cease violence and begin negotiations.  Neither asks for sanctions or foreign help.  Russian and China vetoed anti-Assad resolutions proposed by the European Union in October.

Assad has simply blown off all attempts by the Arab League to stop the violent clashed, first agreeing to a cease-fire and then clamping down on demonstrators the next day.  But the Syrian economy is hurting and Turkey, its neighbor and one-time ally, has even hinted about sending troops into Syria to prevent a wave of expected refugees entering Turkey as the situation worsens.

Members of the opposition and international communities are split on whether Russia’s proposal marks a real step on Russia’s part to rein in Assad or is window dressing.  If Assad goes down, Russia will emerged substantially weakened in its influence across the region.


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In Depth on Syria

Joshua Landis’ Syria Comment brings breaking news and in-depth analysis to an American audience starved for information.

For example:

The Syrian crisis may or may not have entered its final phase, but it undoubtedly has entered its most dangerous one to date. The current stage is defined by an explosive mix of heightened strategic stakes tying into a regional and wider international competition on the one hand and emotionally charged attitudes, communal polarisation and political wishful thinking on the other. As dynamics in both Syria and the broader international arena turn squarely against the regime, reactions are ranging from hysterical defiance on the part of its supporters, optimism among protesters that a bloody stalemate finally might end and fears of sectarian retribution or even civil war shared by many, through to triumphalism among those who view the crisis as an historic opportunity to decisively tilt the regional balance of power.   – Peter Harling

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Arab League & UN Assail Syria

UN investigators have released a new report accusing senior Syrian government officials and leaders of the country’s military and security forces of ordering mass atrocities in efforts to crush anti-government protests since March.

The Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria said on Monday that Syrian government forces committed crimes against humanity, including the killing and torturing of children, and held state officials responsible for murder, rape and torture.

“The commission believes that orders to shoot and otherwise mistreat civilians originated from policies and directives issued at the highest levels of the armed forces and the government,” the panel said in its report.

The UN actions and claims that over 200 children have been killed in months of violent clashes came in the wake of the Arab League voting to impose sanctions on the Assad government.  The US and Germany are pushing the Security Council to take ‘decisive’ action against the regime.

“Now with the Arab League having acted and it becoming increasingly clear even for those that would rather deny it, that the Assad regime has participated in outrageous and now documented atrocities. The patience of its neighbors and now the international community has evaporated.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu continued his country’s criticism of Assad, adding,

“If the current pressure will open the way for a large-scale refugee movement, if tens, hundreds of thousands of people start advancing towards Iraq, Lebanon, the Turkey borders, not only Turkey, then the international community may be required to take some steps. But it will not be up to Turkey’s appeal only.”

Even without military intervention, Assad’s days are numbered.  For the West, the stakes are higher than just Syria.  The collapse of the Assad regime would be a blow to its ally, Iran, not to mention Hamas and Hezbellah.



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Syrian Opposition Organizes!

Reports about Syria come fast and furiously.  Just yesterday, the big news was that Iranian President Ahmadinejad urged Syrian President Bashar Assad to stop the violence and implement some of the reforms the opposition demands.  A bit of bizarre political theater given Iran’s brutal crackdown on those protesting election fraud in June, 2009, but still adding to the Assad’s regime’s isolation, especially considering the Syrian’s ruling Alawi sect’s closeness to the Shias who run Iran.  Turkey, Syria’s neighbor to the west, had already denounced the regime’s violence, despite the two country’s trading ties.  For the last few years, Turkey had feverishly courted Syria as an Arab gateway to increase its influence in the Arab world.

Today’s headlines are especially good news.  According to a report in Syrian Comment, one of the most authoritative blogs on Syrian politics,  opposition groups met in Turkey for two days.  Among the attendees were 70 from the Kurdish minority.  They called on President Assad to step down and hand power over to the Vice-President to pave the way for democratic elections.

The Muslim Brotherhood, tribal leaders, Islamist, the older secular opposition and the young opposition were all represented.  They elected a 31-member executive committee to lead an umbrella opposition council was.

Among steps and statements of policy the conference endorsed:

1.  Separation of church and state, a debate won by the secularists against the Brotherhood and Islamist parties.

2.  No reprisals on the Alawi sect.

3.  No foreign intervention.

4.  No discrimination among sects

This is all uplifting news in the deadly battle for control of Syria.

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Who Falls First: Assad or Economy (con’t)

Another person in the business services sector agrees, arguing that relations with Syria’s biggest trading partner are crucial. “[Syrian allies] Russia and China are no substitute for the EU,” he says. “Losing it will be disastrous.”

Many businesses are already feeling the impact of international isolation. Dollar transactions into and out of the country stopped last week, with the regime blaming tighter US sanctions…

“Those who have made their money through corruption or because their fathers are former generals will probably stay with Assad until the end,” admits Mr Monajed.

But there is a bigger question over how long the government can depend on the wider business class, particularly the merchant families in Damascus and Aleppo who may have less to lose from regime change, despite being traditional Assad supporters. – Financial Times</em>

In Egypt, all eyes were on the military.  Would they stick with Mubarak or recognize that their own power within Syrian society depended on the leaders of the future, not the past.  In Syria, the business community may be the weak link in Assad’s power.  Although Assad has favored business elites and benefited from their support, ‘business is business’ and businesses in Syria are feeling the pinch.  Assad rules as a member of a sectarian sect associated with Shites, while the majority of Syrians are Sunni.  For many years, these sectarian divides were secondary to a Syrian nationalism that bond the country together.  But this fragile unity is suffering from the pressure of sectarian fighting in next-door neighbor Iraq and harsh sanctions imposed by Western countries over the past few weeks.

Syrian opposition forces have taken heavy hits, up to 2, 500 Syrians killed since the uprising against Assad began. But it’s their refusal to give up their protests that will spell the end of the regime.  Not because of their moral authority against a corrupt regime but because their opposition is inflicting mortal wounds against it.  Assad’s living in the past.

The pressure of ordinary citizens rallying against the regime has been answered with brutal repression of protest by Assad.  In the ‘domino theory’ of reactions, Assad’s brutality  has driven Syria’s trading partners (particularly Europe) to embrace economic sanctions against the Assad regime, and the sanctions in turn are squeezing the Syrian business elite, Assad’s base of support.

In Syria, all eyes are on the business elite.  They will have to decide which option, staying with or dumping Assad, will be in their interests then throw their political support in that direction



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The Gods at Play: Multinationals Circling Libya

British businesses are scrambling to return to Libya in anticipation of the end to the country’s civil war, but they are concerned that European and North American rivals are already stealing a march as a new race to turn a profit out of the war-torn nation begins.After five months of fighting in the world’s 12th-largest oil producer, industry figures are acutely aware that billions could be made in the coming years from rebuilding Libya. Immediate focus will fall on the country’s oil fields that are currently producing a 10th of the 1.6 million barrels a day that were exported pre-revolution.

There is also intense lobbying for the multibillion-pound reconstruction contracts that are likely to be offered once fighting ends. The Independent conducted a straw poll of more than 20 Western companies with previous business commitments in Libya. None would talk publicly about its plans but many admitted privately that they were keen to return once security allowed.  - The Independent, UK

According to the CIA, Libya ranks 18th in the world in oil production, behind other regional players Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Emirates, Algeria, Iraq and Iran.  The next largest producer that underwent upheaval in the Arab Spring is Egypt, ranked 29th.  It is no co-incidence that France and Britain urged Western help to the rebels.  Libya is not a major oil producer but what it does produce, Europe needs.

I am reminded of the scene from Jason and the Argonauts  in which the gods were gathered around a globe deciding the fates of mortals.  I can see Britain, France, Germany, the US, Italy and others debating:

US: Let’s leave Tunisia alone and see where it goes.

ALL:  Agreed!

(a few days later)

SAUDI ARABIA:  Ok, guys, now it’s spread to Egypt.  When are  you going to stop these kids from upsetting our plans.

FRANCE:  Hold on.  The group at Tahrir keeps growing even when the militias whipped their horses through the crowds.

SAUDI ARABIA:  Oh, come on!  The last thing we need is to alarm Israel!

US:  But the army isn’t shooting!  Doesn’t that mean Mubarak’s toast?

BRITAIN:  Being the ranking colonial power, we pass on this one.

US:  We’re talking to the military.  After all, we give them $3 billion/year in mostly military aid.  And those generals want to keep it! Yes they do!

ALL: So what are you saying?

US:  I don’t know about you guys but we’re cutting Mubarak loose.  It’s a risk but we’re getting emails demanding an English language Al Jazeera!  They’re more popular than CNN, for gods sake.

ALL (except Saudi Arabia):  We see what you mean.

SAUDI ARABIA:  Well, Bahrain is in our neighborhood and we’re sending in troops.


US:  Hey, they have a point.  Our 5th fleet is stationed there.  So, we’ll call for reform, you invade.

SAUDI ARABIA: Deal!  (high fives all around)

SAUDI ARABIA: (aside)  Give them the ‘democratic’ role and they always bite.

ALL:  What about Yemen?

US:     Let’s do nothing!

ALL:  Agreed!

ITALY:  Hey, we just heard Libya is being liberated by the non-violent opposition.

ALL:  Good!

ITALY:  But Qaddafi’s going to bomb them.

FRANCE:  It may not be a lot, but Libya has oil.

BRITAIN:  No shit!

ITALY, FRANCE, BRITAIN:  These guys are good.  Let’s give them some help.

NATO:  Brilliant!  They fight on the ground. We’ll bomb from the sky!  They take the casualties, the folks back home won’t complain!

GERMANY:  Are you c-r-a-z-y?  Leave us out.

FRANCE:  ooo-kkkkayyyy! But that means we get first dibs on the oil.  What about you, US?

US: Are you c-r-a-z-y?  We can’t bomb yet another Muslim country?

FRANCE:  Or can you?  What if the Arab League and UN endorse the bombing…..

US:  Well, maybe….

CLINTON: Sure tootin’!  We humanitarians need this conflict.  We know we can’t touch Syria (everyone laughs, as if the Syrians would oppose Bashar!).  And besides, it could give a new face to intervention, a humanitarian face!

FRANCE, GERMANY: Didn’t you try that with Iraq?

OBAMA:  Wait, she’s right!  As long as the rebels ask politely and the UN and even Arab League front their cause, how can we refuse to intervene?

ALL:  Agreed!




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New Axis of Evil? Iraq, Iran and Syria

Congratulations to President Bush, etc!  If there was any doubt about the wrongheaded strategic thinking that went into the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq, this should be the item that solicits an ‘oops’ from all involved.  Iran had no love for Saddam Hussein who waged war against it throughout the 1980s.  But instead of trying to seek accommodation, if not help, from Iran against its hostile neighbor, Iran was declared one leg of the Bush Administration’s ‘axis of evil.’

Many warned the neoconservative theorists that crushing Iraq would only strengthen Iran.  And now, on this vital regional issue, Iraq is siding with Iran and against the US/Western strategy of wringing Syria dry with sanctions for Assad’s brutal repression of dissent.

According to Juan Cole:

It is not entirely clear. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki does not state motivations. But it appears that two things are going on. There is a domestic reason; Maliki is worried about Bashar al Assad being overthrown. Assad belongs to the minority Shiite sect of Alawites.  Many of Assad’s opponents are Sunnis- some of whom are Sunni fundamentalists. And some of those are the sort of people who were supporting the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Maliki does not want them to come to power in Damascus and become his neighbors.

Another consideration that has been suggested is that Maliki owes his position as prime minister in this round [of elections held in 2010] to the support of Iran for coalition building of the Iraq Shiites. So he may be paying back a debt.






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Like many non-interventionists, I have a difficult time accepting any Western meddling in other countries and am especially skeptical when it is sold to Americans on ‘humanitarian’ grounds .  I think there are, however, a couple of non-humanitarian features unique to the Libya situation that haven’t been widely discussed in the ongoing intervene/don’t intervene debate.

First, an organized, broadly popular, if not majority-supported, opposition was already in the field peacefully ‘liberating’ major cities before Qaddafi declared war against it.  In the Iraq invasion and other ‘interventions’ there was no opposition that could take power and unify the nation, one reason the invasion was so cynical.  Second, the Libyan resistance movement asked for Western fire-power openly and ruled out ground forces from the start.  The former preceded the latter.

Given these two conditions,  I think it’s a bit arrogant for Western non-interventionists (I include myself as one) to second-guess the strategic decisions of a popular Libyan opposition unless they don’t accept the Libyan opposition’s legitimacy.   The rebel themselves had one duty to their supporters and one duty only:  to use anything and everything  at their disposal to win victor.

There is little doubt the West will want pay-back.  Cameron and Sarkozy haven’t engaged their self-promotion campaign for nothing!  How a new government navigates a complex relationship with the West will determine the future of Libyan sovereignty, not the military victory itself.  No doubt the next few weeks will be a dicey time for all Libyans, and the Qaddafis may have enough rump support to stage a significant counter-revolution.

Model or Not

This doesn’t, however, mean the operations in Libya are a ‘new model’ of Western intervention as President Obama seems to believe they are.  (After all, President Ky of Vietnam supposedly asked for US help, too.)    One only has to look back at the history of the Nicaraguan ‘contras’ in which the Reagan Administration tried to pass off a CIA-organized and financed band of mercenaries as ‘popular resistance’ to see how the ‘Libya model’ can be misused and manipulated as just as any can.

The nationalist foundations of the Arab Spring speak for themselves. None of the other movements within the Arab Spring asked for Western support.  Even today, the Syrian opposition directly rules it out.  They consider it paramount to maintaining the independence and national credentials of the movements.  That doesn’t mean the Libyans were naive or opportunist in calling in Western air strikes as a tactical measure in their rapidly deteriorating situation.  Why shouldn’t they take advantage of the Western governments’ schizophrenic reactions to a series of uprisings that took them all by surprise?

Of course, Western powers will spend money and time trying to influence the newly forming political structures in states like Tunisian and Egypt where reform movements have succeeded with minimum bloodshed, as well as in Libya, where the West militarily aided the insurgents. What else is new?  Did anybody honestly expect the US would cut back the multi-billion weapons line of credit when Mubarak was ousted?  Of course not.

The Arab Spring 2011 is not China 1949.  These are reform movements uninterested in tearing down the institutions of state.  But their impact will be lasting, as the Spring revealed the Oz-like nature of regimes considered legitimate throughout most of the post-WW2 years.  Another form of repressive rule bites the dust.  There will be other attempts to grab power for the benefit of a few oligarchs or ‘families’ and ways to prettify repression, but give credit where it’s due.


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