Syrian security forces may have retaken the rebel Baba Amr strongholdin Homs, but the regime is losing the country’s second city, while the opposition is spawning militias with growing frequency.
“The migration of neighborhoods out of government control is unceasing,” notes analyst Joshua Landis, amid reports that the regime is now losing the allegiance of the northern suburbs of the formerly loyal and strategically-vital city of Aleppo.
“The Obama administration is moving to provide direct assistance to the internal opposition in Syria for the first time,” Foreign Policy’s The Cable reports, “marking a shift in U.S. policy toward a more aggressive plan to help oust President Bashar al-Assad.”
Last week, a group of senior Obama administration officials met to finalize a package of options for aiding both the internal and external Syrian opposition, to include providing direct humanitarian and communications assistance to the Syrian opposition, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable. This meeting of what’s known as the Deputies Committee of the National Security Council set forth a new and assertive strategy for expanding U.S. engagement with Syrian activists and providing them with the means to organize themselves, but stops short of providing any direct military assistance to the armed opposition……….
“These moves are going to invest the U.S. in a much deeper sense with the opposition,” one administration official said. “U.S. policy is now aligned with enabling the opposition to overthrow the Assad regime. This codifies a significant change in our Syria policy.”
The US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, today published satellite images (above)confirming that a mosque, medical centre and school were shelled in Baba Amr area of Homs.
“These pictures, combined with credible media reports about the savage government assault on Bab Amr and some other Homs districts, prove the Syrian government’s indiscriminate use of heavy weaponry against civilians,” he wrote on the embassy’s Facebook page.
While the provision of communications and other technical assistance, many democracy and rights advocates are calling on the West to arm the Syrian opposition – or risk more militant forces doing so.
“The promise of material assistance, including financial assistance, might persuade the opposition to unite behind a coherent political program. In the absence of such support, the opposition is already starting to fragment,” say Mark Palmer, a board member of Freedom House, and Paul Wolfowitz, a former U.S. deputy secretary of defense:
The bottom line: If the opposition remains weak, we may end up facing the difficult choice between intervening militarily ourselves, as became necessary in Libya, or watching and doing nothing while the Syrian regime repeats the horror of Srebrenica.
But the administration has drawn a line at arming Syria’s lightly-armed rebels who “scrounge weapons where they can,” Reuters reports:
Deserters bring some, others are captured in raids. Still more are purchased from “corrupt officers” in the national army, fighters say.
Well-worn smuggling routes to Lebanon have yielded some heavier, but unreliable, weapons from the stocks of Hezbollah, an armed Shi’ite Lebanese movement that supports Assad.
“In Lebanon, Hezbollah is playing a game with us. They sell us defective weapons,” a rebel commander nicknamed al-Ameed (the general) said. “When you fire an RPG, the firing capsule just breaks down.”
The administration is ramping up relations with the exiled Syrian National Council, as well as with internal opposition groups, including Syrian NGOs, the Local Coordinating Councils, and the Revolutionary Councils, The Cable reports:
The Free Syrian Army works with these councils, but the administration is not ready to engage the armed rebels directly out of concern that they are still somewhat unaccountable and may have contacts with extremist elements.
As part of the new outreach, the State Department and USAID have been tasked with devising a plan to speed humanitarian and communications assistance to the internal Syrian civilian opposition, working through State’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) office. There is no concrete plan yet as to how to get the goods into Syria if the Assad regime doesn’t grant access to affected areas.
“We’re leaving State and USAID to work that out. That’s the million-dollar question. We’re working on that now,” the official explained. …
“The prevailing narrative is enabling the transition while keeping options open for reaching out to the armed opposition,” the administration official said. “There is recognition that lethal assistance to the opposition may be necessary, but not at this time.”
Providing military assistance will at least allow democratic states to influence a militarization process that is already taking place, analysts suggest. But external actors should establish “coordinated frameworks” to guard against competing militias emerging from the divided opposition, says U.S. Institute of Peace scholar Steven Heydemann.
Prospects for a negotiated settlement and transition are rapidly receding, says a new report from the International Crisis Group.
“With every day of intensified violence and rising death toll, the possibility of achieving a political solution slips further away,” while former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan’s mission has little chance of success, the report suggests:
Annan’s best hope lies in enlisting international and notably Russian support for a plan that:
- o comprises an early transfer of power that preserves the integrity of key state institutions;
- o ensures a gradual yet thorough overhaul of security services; and
- o puts in place a process of transitional justice and national reconciliation that reassures Syrian constituencies alarmed by the dual prospect of tumultuous change and violent score-settling.
Such a proposal almost certainly would be criticized by regime and opposition alike. But it would be welcomed by the many Syrians – officials included – who long for an alternative to the only two options currently on offer: either preserving the ruling family at all costs or toppling the regime no matter the consequences.
The report continues:
There is every reason to doubt that the regime will accept meaningful negotiations and concessions. If that is to happen, it will be only if and when the leadership is persuaded that the balance of power is tilting against it. This in theory can be achieved in one of two ways.
First, the military balance could shift in a manner that compels the regime to sue for a deal. This brings us back to the option of outside – probably Gulf Arab – military assistance to the opposition and to the adverse consequences mentioned earlier. In any event, leveling the military field at best would take significant time. Meanwhile, the country would be further polarised and torn apart, diminishing chances of a compromise while reducing the possibility that regime supporters, whose backing for a genuine transition is critical, will jump ship. Realistically, this is the most likely option; it does not make it the better one.
The second, preferable option involves a shift in the international balance through enlistment of Russia in a genuine diplomatic initiative. For the regime, Moscow is key: losing it would mean losing a significant contributing factor to internal cohesion – the perception that, deep-down, the international community remains ambivalent at the prospect of real political change. Enter Kofi Annan: if the former UN Secretary-General can persuade Russia to back a transitional plan, the regime would be confronted with the choice of either agreeing to negotiate in good faith or facing near-total isolation through loss of a key ally.
Changing Russia’s approach will not be easy. But it might not be unfeasible. Moscow’s priority appears to be less upholding the existing Syrian leadership per se than ensuring some institutional continuity by preserving both the state apparatus and what can be salvaged of the army. If the proposed transitional plan addresses those concerns and gives Russia an important role in guaranteeing its implementation, it conceivably could be brought on board – all the more so if Moscow can be convinced that its cur-rent course maximises the risk of producing the outcome it professes to fear most: chaos, civil war and, over time, the empowerment of more extreme Islamist forces. …………….
Steps on the ground are urgently needed, including Syria granting international humanitarian organisations immediate access to areas that have experienced the worst of the violence. Beyond that, the only initiative with a chance of success is one that enjoys as broad an international consensus as possible – including both countries that back the regime (such as Russia) and countries that back the opposition (Arab states and Turkey). It should present a set of binding principles, with detailed timelines and modalities to be negotiated by the parties:
- o reform of the security sector to ensure that, ultimately, all civilian forces fall under the authority of the interior ministry and all military forces under the authority of the defence ministry, through:
- o restructuring of the army and police;
- o thorough, albeit gradual, overhaul of the security services. In order to undermine the transition, they might well provoke incidents and seek to spread chaos; to counter the threat, international observers could be embedded in them while the reform process is carried out;
- o demobilisation of the regime’s civilian proxies and opposition armed groups;
- o early elections for a president and constituent assembly to be monitored by international and Arab observers. The existing security services would have no role in supervising the polls; rather, elements of the army and police, large segments of which have not been involved in the repression, could be charged with providing security;
- o formation of an interim unity government, with fair representation for the opposition’s various internal and external components;
- o protection of communities most exposed to reprisals pending establishment of a transitional justice system; and
- o establishment of national reconciliation mechanisms, as well as a process for local reconciliation between neighboring localities engaged in reciprocal violence.
With every day of intensified violence and rising death toll, the possibility of achieving a political solution slips further away. But the alternative is clear, and it is ugly. If the international community surrenders to that fate, all will pay a huge price.
“I am encouraged the Obama administration is exploring steps to provide direct assistance to Syrians inside their country, but the incremental measures reportedly under consideration still do not come to grips with the fundamental reality in Syria, which is that Bashar al-Assad, equipped and resupplied by Iran and Russia, is now waging an outright war against the Syrian people, who are outmatched, outgunned, and urgently in need of decisive international intervention,” Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable today.
“To me this should begin with medical and military assistance for the opposition, including tactical intelligence and weapons, and ultimately should include targeted airstrikes against Assad’s bases and forces,” Lieberman said. “The United States should help organize such support for the Syrian opposition, but it should be international and include our concerned allies in the Arab League, the GCC, NATO, and the EU.”