Can the Rebels Hold On in Aleppo?

From my dispatch today for VOA:

“The huge Assad assault — regime reinforcements were sent to the city this weekend in what Damascus calls a ‘decisive final battle’ — is testing not only the endurance of an estimated quarter-of-a-million civilians trapped, bombed on and starving in the eastern pocket.

It is testing the rebel forces — to the breaking point, fear diplomats, analysts and some rebel leaders.

‘Can they hold out? No, sadly no, from a military point of view, of course, they can’t,’ says Gen. Salim Idris, a former commander-in-chief of the Free Syrian Army.”

You can read the full report here.

War, Refugees And Munich

Gaziantep

The news gets bleaker: at Munich the West appears to have fallen into a Russian trap, it seems to me. And Syrians can see that the Russian/regime noose is not only being tightened on Aleppo but that the West is preparing another noose for them. Soon they won’t have any place to go outside Syria with Turkey still determined to keep its border closed to the bulk of new refugees. NATO warships are to deploy off Turkey to try to stop war refugees already in Turkey from heading to Europe; and signs are increasing that Schengen may be suspended for two years to stop those who make it to the EU from moving around. Presumably their future is to be thrown back to Turkey — with the EU paying the Turks ever bigger bribes to take them back.

We are in essence deciding to “quarantine” the “Syrian contagion” and in the process certainly breaking the 1951 international refugee convention in spirit — if not the letter of the agreement. What a sad commentary on what Euro politicians like to call “European Values.” I understand the challenges and dangers of admitting and settling so many refugees, but if you want to avoid having to do so, then do something about the war in Syria. Because if Assad remains, the problem will get worse added to which a rising number of increasingly enraged young moderate and nationalist fighters will heed the siren voice of the jihadists.

Those are my personal views. Below are extracts from VOA dispatch today from the Turkey-Syria border.

Syrian rebels warn their five-year-long struggle to oust President Bashar al-Assad will go underground, if they are deserted by Western backers or an attempt is made to foist an unacceptable political deal on them. They will wage a relentless guerrilla campaign against the Assad regime and “foreign invaders” from Iran and Russia, turning the war into a national liberation fight, rebel commanders and opposition politicians say….

With the partial cease-fire deal announced by the ISSG in Munich not including a clear commitment from the Kremlin to end blistering Russian airstrikes immediately — a key demand of the Syrian opposition — the rebels dismiss the idea that Munich represents a breakthrough in the search for a political solution to end the brutal five-year-long civil war that has left upwards of 250,000 dead.

They view it instead as another way-station on a road that will lead to an inevitable Western-backed negotiated political deal that they won’t be able to accept…

The biggest concern of rebel commanders in north Syria is that the Russian-backed regime will use the cessation of hostilities as a PR cover for a shift in battlefield focus, one Western powers will have inadvertently provided a stamp of approval for and won’t be able to object to later.

Read the full report here

Realism and Syria

An interesting New Yorker look at Obama thinking on Syria and the so-called “realist” school of foreign policy. And John Cassidy has some clear-eyed perceptions, including this:

“Safeguarding the stability of Europe is surely a vital U.S. interest. Indeed, there is strong realist case for regarding it as part of an extended clean-up operation made necessary when the Bush Administration decided to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein.”

But as ever with commentators who are only US-based there is this stand-out on the Washington-backed international talks in Vienna:

“It is hard to hold out much hope that these talks will succeed unless the United States drops its demand for regime change.”

Actually, aside from the moral argument about why Assad and his inner circle should have to go, there is a practical one: Syrian rebels won’t settle for anything less. So it isn’t up to Washington or any outsider to drop this demand: rebel commanders and fighters are determined not to finish their fight until Assad is history and are even prepared, they tell me, to fight on, even if all their off-and-on-again foreign backers desert them.

Assad Offensives Seek to Stretch Rebels

Gaziantep, Turkey

My latest dispatch for VOA explores what is happening on the ground in Syria as Assad offensives unfold with Russian air support.

Militia commanders say they suspect the strategy of the government of President Bashar al-Assad is focused on stretching the rebels, seizing control of key highways and encircling larger insurgent-held towns in northern Syria….

A Turkey-based European diplomat agrees with the rebel assessment of the Assad regime strategy.

“I think the aim is to create a cordon sanitaire in parts of central and northern Syria stretching from Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib through to the Aleppo countryside involving the isolation of some insurgent-held towns and reasserting control of the M5 highway linking Damascus, Homs and Aleppo.  It is very tactical,” the diplomat told VOA.

Read the full report here

ISIS Threatens Syrian Rebel Supply Lines From Turkey

Islamic extremists overran three towns in northern Syria this weekend, capturing them from Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebels and Islamist brigades as Syrian warplanes struck widely across the north of the country, dropping barrel bombs on towns controlled by both competing insurgent groups.

Despite FSA claims that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, were coordinating their attacks, two of the biggest barrel bombs were dropped on the town of Al Bab, controlled by Islamic State.

Read my full VOA dispatch here

Alien vs Predator: The Face-Off Between Hezbollah and Al Qaeda

From my piece in today’s Daily Beast:

“The Lebanese have been fearful ever since the civil war erupted next door in Syria that it would spread to their nation and trigger communal fighting within their borders. And with the influx of huge numbers of refugees and occasional clashes in the north between Lebanese sects supportive of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and those opposed to him, such fears have had plenty to feed on the past few months.

Now, a new development could bring sectarian conflict that much closer to Lebanon and have wider repercussions for the entire Arab region: the likelihood of a confrontation along the border between Lebanon’s Shiite armed movement Hezbollah and Sunni fighters with Jabhat al-Nusra, the jihadist militia that has evolved into the most effective rebel formation fighting to oust Assad.”

Read full article here.

 

We Have a Dog in the Fight – Freedom

The winds of change are blowing once again — this time in the Middle East. When British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made his historic 1960 “Winds of Change” speech in Cape Town about the continent of Africa, he elected to place Britain on the side of history and to hasten decolonization.

Ever the realist, Macmillan recognized that change was coming, and even though its arrival would be disruptive, the best thing for the West would be to be on the right side of it. To imperialist opponents in his own country, and to white South Africans, he warned, “Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.”

Likewise, we face a choice now: to be timid or to be bold. How far should we go to encourage and nurture change in the Middle East even when that change won’t necessarily be helpful to our short-term interests, and even when it may result in the overthrow or weakening not only of foes but also of some Gulf regimes that we count as allies?

On the eve of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, I was a senior editor at the Washington Times Corp. and broke with the editorial line by opposing the U.S.-led invasion on the grounds that democracy would likely not take root if imposed by foreign armed intervention. Invading Iraq would strengthen Iran, distract us from the War on Terror and lead us to neglect the already-invaded Afghanistan, I wrote at the time.

I still believe that position was the right one. But the situation in Libya is different, and this time my concern isn’t that we have entered the fray but that we are not going far enough.

What is in the offing in the region is easily as historic as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet Communism. Not everything that comes out of it will be good: the defeat of Communism gave us the blessings of democracy in central Europe and the reuniting of Europe, but it also gave rise to Slobodan Milošević, a series of vicious Yugoslav civil wars and Vladimir Putin.

And the same will be the case in a changing Middle East. Turmoil will be unsettling for our oil-dependent economies. We can’t be sure where this all will end and certainly won’t be able to guarantee the nature of the governments and leaderships that may replace outgoing regimes. Some are likely to be more pro-Western than others; some will be serious about multiparty democracy, while others may pay lip service to it in the same sly and ridiculing way of Putin, with his “managed democracy.”

Election results won’t always be to our liking — as we found in 2006 when Hamas won a decisive majority in the Palestinian parliament.

In Libya, we don’t at this stage fully understand the balance of power within an opposition consisting of secular liberals, Islamists, Muslim Brothers and defectors from Gaddafi’s camp. We do know Al Qaeda attracted many recruits for its terror campaign in Iraq from eastern Libya, the heartland of resistance to Gaddafi. But not all Islamists are the same and it is naïve of us to lump them altogether — the Islamist government of Turkey is no ally of Al Qaeda and the current leadership of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has been respective of secular liberals.

We know also that many of those who have taken to the streets across the Middle East to protest against oil-rich despots and repressive rulers have been the young and educated. They are eager for a dignified future of individual liberty. They have not been chanting Al Qaeda slogans or pledging allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Instead they have been calling for freedom and dignity and demanding a greater say in what happens to them.

Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and now even Syria, where 60 percent of the population is under 24 years old. On Friday, in the most serious protests to have been mounted against the al-Assad family in four decades, demonstrators in dozens of cities and towns across the country called for freedom and not jihad.

Back in 1960, Macmillan saw that the tide of national consciousness rising in Africa had its origins in the West: “For its causes are to be found in the achievements of Western civilization, in the pushing forwards of the frontiers of knowledge, the applying of science to the service of human needs, in the expanding of food production, in the speeding and multiplying of the means of communication, and perhaps above all and more than anything else in the spread of education.”

The origins of what is happening now in the Middle East are to be found in the West, too.

That is something President Barack Obama should outline to the American people tonight when he addresses the nation. It is something he should have been saying to U.S. lawmakers even before American planes were launched to enforce the no-fly zone as part of an administration effort to ensure Congress was adequately consulted and supportive.

So what further practical steps should be taken?

First, we shouldn’t be timid. The protesters across the region, as well as the rebels in Libya, are urging us to help — this isn’t change we are imposing but change we are being asked to assist.

That doesn’t mean putting boots on the ground — the Arabs have to win their own freedom for it to take root. It does mean continuing with the expanded no-fly zone and going even further, striking and degrading Libyan government forces. If Gaddafi succeeds in staying, it will chill the Arab Spring and embolden other rulers, such as the al-Assads. It could well encourage the young and frustrated to turn to Al Qaeda and other extreme groups to execute change.

Second, we should be arming the Libyan rebels and making it clear that our mission in Libya is to see the end of Gaddafi and his handing over by the Libyans to the International Criminal Court.

Third, President Obama should be leading and cheerleading more. While it may make sense to hand over command and control of military operations to the Europeans, he should be coaxing and goading them to be bold. The last time the Europeans took the lead was in the Balkans, where they couldn’t agree on what to do and things went from bad to worse.

Lastly, we and the Europeans should be channeling funds rapidly to our democracy and governance and civil society NGOs and hurrying them into the region to train and counsel in Tunisia and Egypt.

This is an historic moment and we need to seize it. A positive outcome is not assured. But if we fail to back protesters and rebels alike, then we risk not only prolonging repression in the Middle East but providing succor to Al Qaeda and the Islamists, who won’t be slow to find ways to benefit.