Monday, February 25, 2013

Autocrat Gone Wild!

Is it good for international stability, and for the credibility and viability of the existing international order to allow mayhem in Syria to continue? To allow for the likes of Assad to get away with the systematic destruction of a whole country, with the systematic decimation of an entire population? Forget about the disintegration of Syria and the eventual spillover of ethnic violence and instability into neighboring countries, there are other hotspots in this world, with other dictators and other rebels, watching, waiting… What lessons would they draw, I wonder, from international inaction on Syria? Hint: don't think in too rational terms while looking for an answer, because reason often takes a backseat when identity conflicts are involved. In short, the only thing more criminal than what Assad and his sectarian militias are doing in Syria, is Russian and Iranian connivance, and the dithering of Western leaders.

Sunday February 24, 2013

My new paper, prepared for a briefing in Washington, D.C. that took place on January 15, 2013, is now out and is titled “Syria 2013: Rise of the Warlords.” It should be read in conjunction with my previous briefing “The Shredded Tapestry,” and my recent essay “The Creation of an Unbridgeable Divide.

First, let me apologize for failing to provide any updates for the last 10 days, but traveling and conferencing allow little time for serious blogging. But a quick roundup of main events seems in order before returning into the full swing of things…

Death of a Country

The Economist declares the death of Syria in an editorial that might as well be a summary of my own recent take on the subject.  

As the world looks on (or away), the country jammed between Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Israel is disintegrating. Perhaps the regime of Bashar Assad, Syria’s president, will collapse in chaos; for some time it could well fight on from a fortified enclave, the biggest militia in a land of militias. Either way, Syria looks increasingly likely to fall prey to feuding warlords, Islamists and gangs—a new Somalia rotting in the heart of the Levant.

If that happens, millions of lives will be ruined. A fragmented Syria would also feed global jihad and stoke the Middle East’s violent rivalries. Mr Assad’s chemical weapons, still secure for now, would always be at risk of falling into dangerous hands. This catastrophe would make itself felt across the Middle East and beyond. And yet the outside world, including America, is doing almost nothing to help.

Death of a Comedian

But, as fate would have it, we are bound to continue mourning this country, one figure at a time:  

A prominent Syrian comedian has been killed in Damascus after apparently being caught in the crossfire between rebels and government troops. The SANA state news agency says Yassin Bakoush was killed Sunday by a rebel mortar round that landed on his car in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus. The anti-regime Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group says Bakoush was killed when a rocket-propelled grenade launched by government troops slammed into his car. The part of Damascus where Bakoush was killed has been hit by fierce clashes between rebels and regime forces in recent months. The 75-year-old Bakoush was known for playing characters that were likeable but naive and dim-witted.

Videos: Bakoush is greeted at a rebel checkpoint in Yarmouck Camp in late January Rebels show Bakoush’s body shortly after his car was hit with an RPJ round

The New Toy

And how could a country avoid death, when Scuds are now being used to punish rebel areas? This is the kind of devastation the first Scud attack has caused

Videos: the aftermath of a second Scud hit on Al-Hamrah

Enter the Mullas

As Syria disintegrates, Iran continues to reassert its commitment to remain relevant there, with Mahdi Taeb, a senior hardline cleric claiming Syria as Iran’s 35th province. Of course, he was speaking figuratively and by way of stressing the strategic importance of Syria to Iran, or at least one hopes, but the point is made.
“Syria is the 35th province [of Iran] and a strategic province for us. If the enemy attacks us and wants to take either Syria or Khuzestan [in western Iran], the priority for us is to keep Syria….If we keep Syria, we can get Khuzestan back too, but if we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran.” Hojjat al-Islam Taeb, the head of the Ammar Strategic Base (an organization established to fight the “soft war” against the Islamic Republic of Iran) said.

Khuzestan province provides 90 % of the Iranian oil . It is about 6.5 times the size of Lebanon and has a population of about 4. 5 million. The inhabitants of Khuzestan are usually referred to as Ahvazi or ( Ahwazi) Arabs . They speak Arabic but are not allowed to have Arabic language teaching schools .

Iran actually has 31 provinces, but Taeb may have considered each of the three UAE islands that were occupied by Iran as a province and that is how he may have come up with the number 35 after adding Syria.

Iran occupied in November 1971 the three UAE islands of Greater and Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa.

Taeb also pointed to the Islamic Republic’s support of Syrian militias through Iranian advisors inside the the country. He explained:

Syria had an army, but did not have the ability to manage a war inside Syria’s cities. It is for this reason the Iranian government suggested that, to manage an urban war you must form a Basij …The Syrian Basij was formed with 60,000 [members] of Hezbollah , who took over the war in the streets from the army.”

The Hezbollah Intervention

Well, while a figure of 60,000 Hezbollah fighters sounds like an exaggeration, local reports from the Lebanese-Syrian borders near the town of Qusayr speak of a 15,000 member Hezbollah contingent planning an incursion into Syrian territory to take over the restive town and protect the Shia villages there. Already 6 villages inside Syrian territory have now come under Hezbollah occupation.

The Lebanese news site al-Kalima Online reported last week that the Free Syrian Army accused Hezbollah of occupying six Syrian villages on the Lebanese border. The occupation of the villages, according to an FSA spokesperson, followed clashes between Hezbollah and FSA forces along the border.

The FSA on Thursday lashed out against what it said were Hezbollah hostilities and bombarded the group’s positions inside Lebanon for the first time. Earlier last week, Hezbollah and Syrian rebels clashed on the Lebanon-Syria border, leaving at least one Hezbollah fighter and five rebels dead.

More Videos

Meanwhile, the bloodshed continues: rebels arrive too late to rescue prisoners held at a prison in Marrat Al-Nouman, Idlib. Pro-Assad militias had executed all prisoners before leaving (Feb 19)

MiGs continue to pound cities, including Rastan

In Daraa, more sophisticated weapons are allowing rebels to score more hits and to push back pro-Assad militias by destroying their tanks: Sahwah  

In Deir Ezzor Province, battles intensify, and so do the defections. Here is a video showing the defection of an entire unit

A video found on the cellphone of an arrested pro-Assad militiaman shows how his particular group divided up their loot