Monday, November 21, 2011

The Civil War Blues!

The situation on the ground in Syria begs for credible proactive and pragmatic leadership on part of the opposition and the international community, if we are to prevent a major humanitarian crisis from taking place.

Monday 21, 2011

On Sunday, 14 people were killed: 11 in Homs, 2 in Idlib and 1 in Hama. 

On Monday, 15 people were killed, 12 of them in Homs City’s Bayadah Neighborhood which witnessed random shelling by pro-Assad militias. 

Over 50,000 people are reported to have migrated from Homs to Tartous over the last 8 weeks on account of the ongoing conflict. The IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) are said to hail from all sectarian backgrounds, but the majority is said to be made up of Alawites and Christians, as most Sunnis preferred to go to the rural areas around Homs. 

Meanwhile, back in Homs City, Sunni and Alawite religious scholars issued on Sunday a joint statement decrying sectarian-motivated kidnappings and killings, saying that such practices are strictly prohibited under any and all conditions.


I am currently undertaking a new European tour, which will cause some interruptions in updating the blog, I apologize for that, but things will return to normal by early December.

The Freudian Slips Continue

For all the talk about descent into civil war, and I am one of those who are warning against scenario, we still need to put things in perspective here. And who is better than Assad Foreign Minister, Walid Moallem to help us do that? Referring to Mrs. Clinton recent warnings of an impending civil war in Syria, he said in a press conference on Monday: ““When Mrs. Clinton says the opposition is well-armed... it is, as they say in English, ‘wishful thinking’.”

Indeed, the Assads do still have an overwhelming monopoly on the use of violence in Syria, we should all bear this in mind when examining the situation in Syria: we still a clear aggressor (the regime)) and a clear victim (the people) here. The two sides are not alike, and will not be.  

Departures in the Shadow of Civil War

My recent presentation at the conference “Departures in the Arab World: Developments and Prospects,” organized by the German Green Party in Berlin under the auspices of Kerstin Müller, Speaker for Foreign Affairs, focused on the need for NATO-supported intervention in Syria as the only way to prevent descent into nation-wide civil war and manage a transition towards a democratic form of governance in which minority rights are protected. Naturally, this was not a popular stance, but it received a sympathetic audience, simply because it marked a radical departure from my erstwhile opposition to such policy. I argued that the situation in the country has deteriorated to the level where purist stand on this issue is no longer tenable, and that the Assads have succeeded in imposing the logic of violence on all. The inability of world leaders to enunciate a stronger position on developments in a timely manner have paved the way to this, I argued, and if the same leader continue to dither, they will be morally responsible for the bloodbaths that will take place. Intervention will be costly in human and material terms, I know, but the cost of civil war will be higher.

The counterargument to this was made by Muriel Asseburg of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. While agreeing with me on my assessment of the situation, Dr. Asseburg saw that my call for the creation of safe havens and supporting the Free Syrian Army will lead to an increased militarization of the situation, a development that will have dire consequence for Syria’s minority groups who, she believes, will be signaled out for revenge. On the surface of it, the argument seems to make sense. But in reality, it’s pretty naïve. 

For you see, we are indeed heading towards further militarization, and since most of the defectors tend to be Sunnis, and most loyalists Alawites, whatever clash will take place is bound to acquire a confessional coloring. Let’s not forget here that both loyalists and defectors are graduates from the most sectarian institution in the country: the military. The loyalists are already acquiring weapons and logistical support from Russia, Iran and elsewhere, and defectors will soon begin to acquire them from Gulf states, directly or tacitly. They will never reach parity, but their numbers and determination will make up the difference. And defectors will be beholden to those who supplies them with weapons, and the political opposition and NATO will have little influence over the process and therefore little ability to establish limits and impose rules. But when NATO takes the lead here, acting through a regional alliance and through an established political opposition coalition, pragmatic and savvy enough to establish a working relation with the FSA and their military council, then NATO and the political opposition will have some measure of control over developments and might be able to establishment some rules for the ensuing engagement that can protect civilians and minority groups from revenge. Through involvement, one can induce the desired trends by introducing a system of rewards and incentives. The task will be a complex one for sure, but with NATO on the sidelines it will be on impossible one. In short, whoever provides support to the FSA will be able to influence their agenda and tactics. For the only way I know of to retain some influence over paramilitary groups is to support them thus introducing an element of indebtedness and dependence into the mix. The relationship will have to go both ways of course, and that is very problematic indeed, it is also the nature of the beast. There is no substitute for vigilance in these circumstances.  

It is for this reason that I advised the SNC and other opposition groups to engage and recognize the Free Syrian Army, warning that failure to do so will push Riyad Al-Ass’aad and colleagues to go their own way and establish their own council, especially considering their popularity and credibility in the streets. Instead, my colleagues in the opposition dismissed Col. Al-Ass’aad and colleagues as “simpletons” who fail to comprehend the political realities of the world. Post-independence politicians made the same mistake, and paved the way for 50 years of life under military rule. For these “simpletons” only appear so in the academic sense, but as far as the ways of the world are concerned, they are far more savvy than we give them credit, and what they lack in savviness they can compensate for in brute force. More importantly, they remain far closer to the grassroots than any of us.  And it’s already showing.

The situation on the ground in Syria begs for credible proactive and pragmatic leadership on part of the opposition and the international community, if we are to prevent a major humanitarian crisis from taking place.

Those who don’t want blood on their hand should understand that every choice they make today, even that of silence, will result in blood being shed, and there is no telling which choice will result in more or less bloodshed, and which choice is the ethical one. Personally, I can only tell you at this stage which choice has the better chance of seeing this revolution achieves its main goal of toppling the regime: it is the choice that embraces a NATO-supported intervention. Then stars are not aligned that way at this stage, I know. But it’s our job to get them there, rather than brood over it. 

Military Diplomacy

FSA continues its outreach efforts to Syrian expat community and regional powers. In this clip a member of the Military Council addresses by phone the crowd of protesters standing outside the Syrian Embassy in Paris. He describes Col. Riyad Al-Ass’aad as a hero and everybody applauds. No political leader has managed to garner such a consensus

In this interview with Col. Riad Al-Ass’aad, the man comes out as a very practical, down-to-earth and even charismatic guy. He doesn’t say anything new, so I won’t provide a summary of what he says. Just observe his mannerisms. He comes out as a man of the people, unlike SNC leader Bourhane Ghalioun, and the plethora of other pretenders to the throne we see on Arab media. Hence the appeal and the danger

In this piece in Arabic, Syria’s foremost political philosopher and one of her most modest intellectuals, former political prisoner Yassin Al-Haj Saleh points out the danger of having the military leadership take over the management of the revolution at this stage, echoing my sentiments above. He is not for international intervention though, at least not so far, but like so many of my purist colleagues, he offers no solution at the stage other than the hope that demilitarization will somehow take place, allowing for a halt in the protests and for Bashar Al-Assad to have an epiphany allowing him to call for a presidential referendum while easing controls over state media and curbing security apparatuses. Yassin is not naïve as to believe that something like that can happen, as all his previous writings indicate, he is just desperate and afraid, not for himself, but for the country and the people. So am I!

In a related development, the Free Syrian Army issued a statement on Sunday retracting its erstwhile claims of responsibility for the recent attacks on the security and Baath Party headquarters in central Damascus.

On Sunday, the commander of a group of Syrian army defectors retracted earlier claims that his followers launched an unprecedented attack inside the capital, Damascus, in an embarrassing turnaround for the armed movement. Riad al-Asaad, a Turkey-based air force colonel who heads the Free Syrian Army, said in a video posted on the group's Facebook page Sunday evening that Assad's government was trying to tarnish the image of the revolution. "We did not target the party building in Damascus and we will not target any civilian installation," said al-Asaad, who was wearing his military uniform.

Indeed, the style of the attacks, according to eye-witness reports, which consisted of throwing rocket-propelled grenades outside the buildings, seems to be uncharacteristic of the kind of attacks promised and those previously actually carried out by the FSA, which included attempts to storm and plant explosives inside the targeted premises, and avoid damaging non-military buildings or endangering civilians. This lends more credence to reports that the attacks were indeed staged by Assad’s own security forces to discredit the FSA, whose popularity is growing by the day in the City and across the country.

As to why FSA spokesman claimed the attacks to begin with, this seems related to decentralized nature of the group, where different units plan their own missions according to their own timetable in accordance with previously agreed guidelines. As such, the media center of the FSA may have rushed to claim the attack before checking with their local affiliates to see if they have indeed been involved.

But even if we assume that elements affiliated with the FSA, or that amateur FSA-sympathizers, were responsible for the attacks, the rush to distance itself from them shows certain sensitivity to public opinion and image, which makes the FSA a more trustworthy entity amiable to be accepting restrictions on is behavior commensurate with both domestic and international concerns. This is encouraging.

Opposition Blues

The following clip by Al-Arabiya, shows that with the launch of the newly formed National Initiative for Change, which I referred in my earlier post, the Syrian opposition is now made up of the following main groups

1)       The Syrian National Council: made up mostly of Muslim Brotherhood with the addition of some in-country activists and popular committees and some independent figures like Burhane Ghalioun.
2)      The National Initiative for Change: largely an offshoot of the Antalya Conference for Change, dominated by liberal figures working in collaboration with Kurds, tribal figures and representatives of confessional minorities
3)      The National Coordination Committees: an amalgam of traditional Damascus-based opposition groups.
4)      The Syrian Revolution General Commission: a group of in-country activists and protest leaders that supports the SNC but remains outside of it, largely in the hope of negotiating its way to controlling one-third of the seats at some point – a highly unrealistic expectation. 
5)      Independent figures, such Michel Kilo, Aref Dalila and the recently released Kamal Labwani.

The UK today urged the opposition – uncoordinated and beset by personality differences – to unite, after Foreign Secretary William Hague met with rival groups.

“I’ve emphasized the importance to them of achieving a united platform and a unified body among the opposition,” he said. “At an extreme moment in their nation’s history it is important for opposition groups to be able to put aside their own differences and come to a united view of the way forward.”

Britain could not offer formal recognition, “partly because there are differing groups.”

“There isn’t a single national council as there was in Libya … and the international community has not yet reached that point,” he said.

Other Videos:

In Yabroud / Rural Damascus / Nov 20, residents demonstrate in front of the local Baath headquarters So, and as the regime crackdown in Homs, more and more areas in Rural Damascus are joining the revolution, and their slogans hearken back on their early days of the revolution: the simple and all-telling “the people want to topple the regime.”

Elsewhere in Rural Damascus, defectors form a new Brigade, the Liberty Brigade, under the auspices of the Free Syrian Army (Nov 20) Defections continue day after day, and the number of 17,000 defectors now begins to sound credible. These defectors hail from the Air Force Academy in Homs (Nov 21)

Nov 20: Locals a town in Hauran/Deraa Province, manage to sabotage an armored vehicle. We are told that occupants of the armored vehicle were taken prisoner and delivered to the FSA

An all-women demonstration in Insha’aat Neighborhood in Homs City (Nov 21) calls for an intervention by the FSA 

In Khaldiyeh Neighborhood in Homs City (Nov 20), and due to fuel shortages, people invent their own make-shift stoves to get warm using wood chips The inventors says “we have brains, we don’t need Bashar’s petrol.” He then adds: “We have distributors in all provinces.” Another look at the final product

But of course, the pounding of residential neighborhoods continues: Bab Al-Sibaa (Nov 21)

And of course, people keep taking to the streets: Bab Houd (Sign says “what are you waiting for Erdogan, they violated your borders and killed your own people?”) Deir Baalbah And this is Baba Amr, the neighborhood that pro-Assad militias pounded for weeks and have allegedly taking control of “the people want international protection” And this is Bayadah, the neighborhood that was pounded earlier tolday

And of course, demonstrations took place in communities all over Syria, and the demands remain the same now, as this sign from Assaly Suburb in Damascus (Nov 21) shows: No fly zone, safe haven, protection of civilians, and support to the Free Syrian Army”