President Barack Obama today extended the legal framework for sanctions against Syria, notifying Congress that it poses an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security interests. The move came as the Arab League announced plans for a unity convention of Syrian opposition groups in Cairo next week and a day after a leading Senator called on the administration to do more to protect Syrian civilians, including the establishment of safe zones and possibly arming the opposition.
“You have to change the current dynamic. That’s to me the bottom line,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable in an interview Tuesday. “We have to increase the pressure, change the calculations, and succeed in creating a capacity for a movement to a negotiated reform process with a transition that takes place through elections at the right moment.”
But there is absolutely no chance of a pacted reform process arising from the effectively defunct Kofi Annan plan, says a prominent analyst.
Having irrevocably fractured the Syrian state and nation, the Assad regime “will never be able to glue the pieces back together,” writes the Beirut Daily Star’s Michael Young.
“At best an improbable triumph would have to be reinforced by years of ferocious intimidation, in the context of a disintegrating economy, in a society devoid of cross-sectarian cohesion and solidarity,” he argues. “Assad has neither the skills nor the wherewithal to rebuild his legitimacy, and as his late father well understood, a minority regime with no national legitimacy cannot long endure.”
The administration’s Syria strategy is “fundamentally, structurally unable to achieve its policy objectives,” a Washington meeting heard today.
The U.S. has tried to “break the regime from within by initiatives from without,” including punitive sanctions designed to “raise the cost of loyalty and peel away core constituencies,” said Steven Heydemann, a senior adviser for Middle East Initiatives at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
But sanctions are “not biting deeply or quickly enough to affect the regime’s cohesion and strategic calculus or diminish its repressive capacity, he told a forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Syria is circumventing western sanctions by importing vital supplies of grain via Lebanon, European traders told Reuters today:
The trade is not illegal because food imports are not included in sanctions imposed by the European Union, the United States and other Western countries on President Bashar al-Assad’s government over his crackdown on a revolt.
Senior U.S. will meet in Washington this week with Syrian Kurdish leaders in a bid to build a “more cohesive opposition” to the Assad regime.
“It’s part of our ongoing efforts, discussions… to help the Syrian opposition build a more cohesive opposition to Assad,” State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said. “Syria’s Kurdish population as well as all the other ethnic minorities in Syria has been and always will be an important part of the country’s diverse social fabric,” Toner said.
Robert Ford, the former ambassador to Damascus and special Syria coordinator Fred Hof are meeting with delegates from the Syrian Kurdish National Council.
“They discussed the Syrian revolution, specifically how the KNC, along with other Syrian opposition groups, can help with Syria’s transition to democracy,” said Toner, adding that “this meeting is in the context of our overall effort to reach out to a wide array of Syrian opposition groups.”
The Assad regime has been able to retain the allegiance or at least the passivity of Syria’s minorities by raising the specter of sectarian violence opposition, said exiled dissident Ammar Abdulhamid, a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
“The communal divide has given the regime room for maneuver,” he told the Woodrow Wilson forum. But the opposition also shares the blame for failing to give sufficient guarantees of minority rights or to respect Kurdish identity and aspirations for autonomy.
The international community has given “sympathy, but not support” for the opposition, said Abdulhamid, who called for more assistance with capacity building and transitional planning.
Radwan Ziadeh, a US-based member of the Syrian National Council (SNC), defends its stance on the Kurdish issue.
The group is talking with the KNC about admitting it to the exiled opposition coalition, but it is “too early” to promise autonomy to Syrian Kurds, he told AFP.
Tensions between the SNC and the Kurds may undermine the Arab League’s plans to bring them together in Cairo next week with the internally-based National Coordination Committees. The NCC incorporates most of the political parties in the National Democratic Rally,” including the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party.
The SNC objects to the PYD which, it claims, “on the one hand cooperates with the al-Assad regime and on the other hand presents itself as part of the opposition.” “Our vision of a new Syria cannot be built with the current regime in place, and we can only discuss a transitional period that will lead to regime change,” an SNC official told the Hürriyet Daily News
Iran is “working assiduously” to support its Syrian ally, the lynchpin of a strategic Shia crescent stretching from Lebanon’s Hezbollah to Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraq, the Atlantic Council’s Barbara Slavin told the WWC event. The regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which has long enjoyed close links with Syria’s mukhabarat, is drawing on its experience in suppressing the Green Movement to provide logistical support, including technical advice on monitoring the Web to identify and eliminate activists.
But Tehran is an opportunistic actor and it would readily sacrifice Assad to a military coup – what Middle East Institute analyst Randa Slim calls a “SCAF minus one” option or even to a chaotic failed state so long as it could maintain its supply routes to Hezbollah.
While Iran is an ideologically-driven, disciplined and resolute actor, the international community and the U.S. in particular are paralyzed by indecision, strategic confusion and the fear of unintended consequences. At least that was the only conclusion to be drawn from a fiercely argued and highly impressive debate at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Weinberg Founders Conference last weekend (above).
Military intervention in the form of Kosovo-style air strikes would break the back of the regime, sap the morale of the regime’s dysfunctional “army in slippers” and pave the way for a negotiated transition, said Fouad Ajami, a Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author of the forthcoming The Syrian Rebellion. Drawing on heart-rending testimonies from refugee camps he recently visited in Turkey and Lebanon, Ajami insisted that the U.S. had a moral imperative to provide air protection for a no-fly, no-drive zone and to provide military assistance to the opposition.
Yet there is an equally compelling moral imperative to gauge the consequences of intervention, said The Economist’s Peter David. The 10,000-plus fatalities were genuinely tragic, he said, but more than 10 million have died during conflicts in the Congo without causing outcry in the West, although the most appropriate parallel and precedent to provide cause for constraint is closer to hand.
“First do no harm,” he said, or risk a significantly greater tragedy than the sectarian conflict prompted by the intervention in Iraq.
Military options should remain on the table, said Ambassador Theodore Kattouf, a former U.S. envoy to Syria and president of AMIDEAST, a leading regional NGO. But policy-makers had an obligation to consider the range of possible consequences and none of the scenarios he could envisage suggest anything but a protracted conflict. The U.S. and its allies should continue to pressure the regime through sanctions and diplomatic isolation, be attentive to Russian sensitivities, provide assistance to the opposition and make detailed contingency plans for a post-Assad transition in order to avoid the “stuff happens” chaos and authority vacuum experienced in post-Saddam Iraq.
The risk of international intervention exacerbating the prospect of sectarian violence and jihadist radicalization is a genuine concern, said Dennis Ross, until recently a principal advisor on Middle East affairs to President Obama. But current indicators are that this is already happening or is a likely scenario arising from the international community’s disengagement.
Kattouf’s cautiously incremental approach was echoed on Sunday morning by Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough said the Obama administration would continue to “lay the groundwork for a Syrian-led transition.”
“The question is how do you define intervention?” he told the conference, suggesting that aiding the opposition and “sanctions to bleed the regime’ met the definition.
“And the question is whether you make the leap to the next step, which is either the United States undertakes military action or enables others to take military action,” he said. “We plan for every contingency, in the event we need that, but we just don’t think the analysis at the moment is that-we do not believe that intervention hastens the demise of the regime.”
Those contingency plans has better include provisions for full-blown civil war, says Young, the Daily Star’s opinion editor.
“We’re not quite at the stage where Syria has institutionalized a civil war,” he suggests:
But we’re nearly there, and the prospective political and military dynamics are not liable to derail such a terrible outcome. The diplomatic impasse will only encourage outside countries to arm the rebels. Assad and the criminal enterprise he leads will not cease their repression, because that would spell their end. This was obvious a year ago when the Syrian uprising began, and yet the international community did nothing. Now we have a colossal mess to clean up.
Credit to the MIE blog and Josh Landis and Syria Comment for highlighting Syria Maps, a project by Esther Kim and Brendan O’Hanrahan, to provide cartographic insight into events in Syria. It’s got two maps up so far – of Homs (left) and Idlib.