30 May 2013
Syria: Diplomatic Code
By Gwynne Dyer
Sometimes, in diplomacy, a translator is not enough. You need a code-breaker. This is very much the case with the latest round of diplomatic statements about the civil war in Syria, currently the biggest armed conflict anywhere in the world. So here they are, deciphered.
It all started on Tuesday, when Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov announced that Russia would deliver S-300 air defence systems to Syria. He then added the following cryptic comment:
“”We think this delivery is a stabilizing factor and that such steps in many ways restrain some hotheads from exploring scenarios that would turn the conflict international with the involvement of outside forces.” What on Earth does that mean?
What Ryabkov was saying, decoded, was that giving Syria some state-of-the-art air defence missiles would enable it to shoot down American, British or French aircraft if they try to enforce a “no-fly” zone over Syria. And the “hotheads” he wants to deter are the American, British and French political leaders who talk about doing exactly that.
The NATO countries did not lose a single aircraft when they acted as the rebels’ air force in Libya two years ago, and Moscow wants to ensure that they won’t get a free ride if they try to do the same thing in Syria. The S-300s will stop them from “considering scenarios that would turn the conflict international with the involvement of outside forces,” and thus “stabilise” the situation in Syria by making Bashar al-Assad’s regime safer.
Ryabkov refused to say whether the missiles were actually on their way yet, and the Israelis promptly declared that they were not. But Israeli Defence
Minister Moshe Yaalon helpfully added: “I hope they will not leave, and if, God forbid, they reach Syria, we will know what to do.”
He is clearly saying that if the missiles do reach Syria, the Israeli Air Force will attack and destroy them. But he calls it a vital issue for Israeli security, even though the missiles are purely defensive weapons, incapable of attacking Israel. “Security” in what sense?
In the sense that Israel sees freedom to launch air attacks on Syria any time it feels the need as a vital element of its security policy. The S-300s would make it more dangerous to bomb Syria, so Yalon sees them as threatening Israel’s “security”. It’s an innovative use of language, to say the least.
And then there’s the European Union, which met on Monday to consider ending the blanket arms embargo against all parties to the fighting in Syria. The embargo was duly ended, and British Prime Minister David Cameron declared that it was a major step “to reinforce international efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria”.
This really does require translation. What Cameron means is that with no EU arms embargo any more, individual EU members (like Britain and France) will be free to send arms to any Syrian rebel group of their choice (but not the nasty Islamists, of course). Since giving them better weapons would put more pressure on Assad to negotiate or quit, it therefore “reinforces international efforts to reach a diplomatic solution.” Obviously.
Except that there won’t actually be any European weapons going to the rebels. The British and the French don’t want to get too far ahead of their EU colleagues, so they are postponing that decision to another summit meeting – in August. In the meantime, the EU countries will not “proceed at this stage with the delivery” of weapons.
And that’s about it. George Jabboure Netto of the opposition Syrian National Council said the end of the EU arms embargo was a “step in the right direction,” while the spokesman of the rival Syrian National Coalition said the move might be “too little too late.” (An inadvertent admission, perhaps, that things have not been going well for the rebels on the battlefield of late.)
And President Barack Obama most eloquently said nothing at all.
He said nothing about the EU’s initiative, because it’s so confused and contradictory that it’s embarrassing to talk about it.
He said nothing about the Israeli threat to attack the Russian anti-aircraft missiles because Israel is a “friend and ally,” and it’s best not to notice when its threats to attack other countries get too brazen.
And he said nothing about the Russian S-300s themselves, because he is probably secretly glad that they are being sent to Syria.
Obama is not one of the “hotheads” who want to intervene in Syria, but he is coming under increasing political pressure from those who do. Senator John McCain, the elder statesman of the Republican Party, slipped across the Turkish border into Syria for an hour on Tuesday and came back swearing that it would be easy to ensure that arms aid went only to the right rebels (i.e. not the Islamist ones).
So it actually helps Obama if the Syrian air defences get better, because it makes the case for “no-fly zones” and other forms of military intervention even less persuasive.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“Except…of late”)
7 May 2013
Israel Takes Sides
By Gwynne Dyer
After making two major air strikes in and near Damascus in three days, Israel informed the Assad regime on Monday that it is not taking sides in the Syrian civil war. But of course it is.
The Syrian government promptly claimed that these Israeli attacks proved what it had been saying all along: that the “armed terrorist groups” that are trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime (i.e. the anti-regime fighters of the Free Syrian Army) are really the tools of a demonic alliance between Israel, the United States, conservative Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and the Sunni Islamist fanatics of al-Qaeda.
That is just as ridiculous as it sounds, but there were always a few little bits of truth in the Syrian regime’s story, and they are gradually getting bigger. It’s true that the Free Syrian Army is getting money and weapons from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and that the United States supports it diplomatically. So do almost all other NATO members
It’s true that the al-Nusra brigades, the most effective fighting force in the Free Syrian Army, are made up of Islamist extremists whose leaders claim to have ties with al-Qaeda – and that this has not stopped the Arab Gulf states and the United States from supporting the FSA.
And it’s true that Israel is now attacking military targets on Syrian territory. It insists that those targets are actually advanced missiles and anti-aircraft weapons that Syria is planning to deliver to the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, and that may also be true. Hezbollah fought the Israeli army to a standstill in southern Lebanon in 2006, and Israel is anxious about what it could accomplish with better weapons.
But even if Israel’s main worry is that advanced weapons would reach Hezbollah, the air strikes took place on Syrian territory, and the Syrian regime claims that 42 officers and soldiers of its army were killed in them. At the very least, Israel no longer feels that preserving the hostile but stable relations that prevailed for so long between Tel Aviv and Damascus is a high priority.
Maybe this is just because it now assumes that Assad is a goner anyway, so there’s no point in worrying about whether he will be overthrown, even if what follows may be an Islamist regime that is even more hostile to Israel. Or maybe the Israelis believe that Assad will really accept that there is a difference between killing Syrian troops who are guarding weapons that may be shipped to Hezbollah, and killing other Syrian soldiers who are not.
They certainly hope that he’ll accept it. Tzachi Hanegbi, a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Israel Radio on Monday that the Netanyahu government aimed to avoid “an increase in tension with Syria by making clear that if there is activity, it is only against Hezbollah, not against the Syrian regime”. (Israel does not officially admit that it carried out the strikes, so it could not make an official statement about its motives for them.)
The Assad regime said that the attacks were tantamount to a “declaration of war”, and that is true. It’s not that the Israelis have decided that Assad must go. It’s rather that they have looked down the road, seen a Sunni-Shia war looming in the eastern Arab world – and decided, rationally enough, that they have to be on the Sunni side.
That war is already underway in Syria, where men from the majority Sunni Muslim community are the main fighters in a revolt against a regime controlled by Shias of the Alawite sect. The same sort of war may be re-starting in Iraq, where the Shia majority who dominate the government have already fought one civil war with the Sunni minority in 2005-07.
Those two Sunni-Shia wars might then coalesce and spread to Lebanon, where the Shias of Hezbollah are at odds with the Sunni Muslim and Christian communities. Weapons, money, and maybe direct military aid would come from Shia Iran to one side and from the Sunni countries to the south (Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states) to the other. In such a war, Israel would certainly prefer a Sunni victory.
It has no desire to take an active part in a Sunni-Shia war, nor would its intervention be welcomed by either side. It worries that radical Islamist regimes might come to power in Syria, in the western part of Iraq, and even in Lebanon if the Sunnis won such a war. But Israel is at peace with its Sunni southern neighbours, while the Shia regimes to its north in Syria and Iraq and the Hezbollah group in southern Lebanon are all its sworn enemies.
If it comes to an all-out struggle, Israel knows which side it wants to win. And in the meantime, it already feels a lot freer to take direct military action against the Syrian regime and Hezbollah if it thinks its interests are threatened.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Maybe…them”)
29 April 2013
Syria: Chemical Fantasies and Grim Realities
By Gwynne Dyer
First of all, dismiss all those news stories saying that the Assad regime has started using chemical weapons against its own citizens, and that this has crossed a “red line” and will trigger foreign military intervention in Syria. It is conceivable, though highly unlikely, that Assad’s troops have used poison gas against the rebels. It is not credible that any foreign leader is going to order his troops to go into Syria and stop the war.
The “evidence” for the Assad regime’s use of sarin (nerve gas) is flimsy, and it’s easy to see why the opposition fighters might choose to fabricate it. Equally flimsy evidence about alleged “weapons of mass destruction” was used to justify the American invasion of Iraq. Why wouldn’t the Syrian rebels have a go at the same game?
Moreover, there is no plausible reason why the Syrian regime would use poison gas. It would confer no lasting military advantage on the government forces, and the political costs of being caught doing it would be significant. But even if the accusations were true, it would make no real difference.
President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian and Chinese supporters would be embarrassed, but they would not drop their vetoes at the UN Security Council and authorise foreign military intervention in Syria. And even if they did authorise it, there would be no volunteers for the job.
No Western government – nor any Arab government, either – is willing to put soldiers on the ground in Syria. Meddling in a civil war is rarely a good idea, and the Baathist regime’s army could inflict very serious losses on an invader. Even imposing a no-fly zone would mean Western pilots dead or downed, because Syria’s air defences are modern, competent and extensive.
US President Barack Obama may talk sternly about how the use of poison gas by the Syrian regime would be a “game-changer” – but he doesn’t specify just how the game would change. He also spends much more time talking about how shaky the evidence is, because he has no idea what he would actually do if it were true. The one thing we can be sure of is that he would never send American troops in.
So if there is not going to be any foreign military intervention, when is the Syrian civil war going to end? Not any time soon.
From time to time the rebels overrun an air base here or a frontier post there. This is usually reported as proof that they are making progress, but half the time they lose their conquests back to the regime some weeks or months later. The front lines have scarcely shifted at all in Aleppo in the past six months, and the regime is even recapturing some of the Damascus suburbs that fell to the rebels last year.
The Syrian army lacks the numbers to hold down large tracts of countryside permanently, but it has never let the rebels close the main north-south freeway that links Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo. Assad’s divisions even re-opened the highway linking Damascus to Tartus and Latakia on the coast recently, after many months of closure. If they are not actually winning the war on the ground, they are certainly not losing it.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar continue to feed weapons to the rebels, but not in quantities that would give them a chance of winning. This is probably because they have become increasingly nervous about the kind of regime that would replace Assad’s dictatorship after a military victory. They wanted to replace Assad’s secular regime with a government controlled by Sunni Muslims, but they do not want to put a fanatical Islamist regime in power.
That, at the moment, is precisely what an insurgent victory would produce, for the jihadi extremists of the al-Nusra brigades are by far the most effective fighters on the rebel side. The prospect of a radical Islamist regime has also convinced many moderate Syrians that they must prevent the fall of the Assad regime, even though they loathe it.
A year ago, the battle for Syria seemed to be turning into a straightforward struggle between the Sunni Muslim majority, some 70 percent of the population, and the various minorities, Shia, Christian, Alawite and Druze, who backed the Assad regime because they feared Sunni domination. It’s probably more like 50-50 now, because many Sunni Muslims are equally repelled by the alternative of a radical Islamist tyranny.
There are no opinion polls to confirm this shift in Sunni opinion, but the evidence is there in the loyalty and the combat effectiveness of the Syrian army, most of whose rank-and-file troops are Sunni Muslims. So what should we hope for, in this almost hopeless situation?
The least bad outcome, at this stage, would be a stealthy military take-over of the regime that discreetly removed Assad and his cronies without abandoning the principles of the secular state, and then isolated the jihadis by reaching a generous peace settlement with the other elements of the rebel forces. How likely is that? Not very, unfortunately.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“Bashar…job”; and “US President…in”)
9 January 2013
Syria: No End in Sight
By Gwynne Dyer
The most frustrating part of covering the Lebanese civil war (1975-90) was that after a while there was nothing left to say. Syria is starting to feel just the same. It’s horrible, but atrocities are a daily event in all civil wars. It’s not going to stop any time soon, but you can only say that so many times before people get bored and move on. Except for the people who actually live near Syria’s borders, the audience for “news” about Syria has already moved on.
Consider, for example, last week’s exhaustive study by the United Nations Human Rights Commission concluding that 60,000 Syrians have been killed in the civil war since March, 2011. That’s considerably higher than the previous estimates of deaths in the war, which were running around 40,000, and the UNHRC hoped that this new number would finally galvanise the rest of the world into action, but it changed nothing.
The UNHRC’s interns worked hard at the job, tabulating and cross-referencing the names of the dead, but it didn’t have the desired effect. It never does: all numbers bigger than a couple of dozen just translate as “many” in the average person’ imagination.
Last month’s “news” was that the Russians were on the brink of abandoning their Syrian ally, President Bashar al-Assad, which would surely bring about his rapid downfall. “One must look the facts in the face,” said Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister and Middle Eastern envoy. “Unfortunately, the victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be ruled out.”
The world’s media, desperate for a different angle on the story, tried to build a new narrative on that: the Russians will stop defending the Syrian regime, and the United Nations Security Council, no longer paralysed by a Russian veto, will authorise foreign intervention, and foreign troops (whose? don’t ask!) will go in and stop the fighting.
However, Bogdanov did not actually say that a rebel victory was desirable. On the contrary, he said that it would not happen for a long time, if ever, and that such a victory would ruin Syria. Then the spokesman of the Russian foreign ministry, Alexander Lukashevich, announced that the media had simply misunderstood Bogdanov: “We have not changed our position, and we will not change it.”
Nobody else is going to change their position either, including all those Western governments that have no intention whatever of committing their troops to the Syrian civil war, but use the Russian veto as an excuse for their inaction. You can’t blame them: if they sent their armies into that meat-grinder, some of their young soldiers would die. Maybe quite a lot of them.
And so to this week’s piece of theatre: a widely touted speech in Damascus in which President al-Assad would propose a way to end the conflict peacefully. He did no such thing, of course, instead declaring his eternal refusal to negotiate with the “terrorists” who are fighting his army. He will only talk to the “puppet-masters” (an unholy alliance, he claims, between Israel, Western governments and al-Qaeda), not to the puppets.
Well, what did you expect? He and his Alawite sect are convinced that they must go on ruling Syria or face destruction. He’s not actually losing the war, either. Syrians are deeply divided by sect and ethnicity and class, and enough of those groups are on Assad’s side that he can probably hold out for a very long time. By the time he finally loses (or wins), perhaps years from now, Syria will indeed be ruined.
So why doesn’t everybody else “do something about it”? Because what “everybody else” really means is “somebody else, but not me.” No government is going to order its soldiers to risk their lives in a military intervention abroad unless it has reasonable confidence that their sacrifice will not be futile. That assurance is simply not available to governments that might contemplate intervention in Syria.
It’s a quarter-century since the first dictatorial regimes were overthrown by non-violent revolutions, and the remaining ones have all had time to study the phenomenon. They have unanimously and quite correctly concluded that their best chance of survival is to push the protesters into violence. In a civil war, everybody is in the wrong, and the side with the greatest ability to inflict violence (the regime) may win.
Some regimes, like the Communists in eastern Europe or the apartheid regime in South Africa, decided that they would not impose a civil war on the country even if the alternative was losing power. Others, like the Egyptian regime two years ago, could not trust the army to fight a civil war on their behalf. But the senior commanders of the Syrian army are almost all Alawites, and they were actually willing to fight a civil war rather than surrender power.
Now they have their war, and it will go on for a long time. By the end, there may not even be a unified Syrian state any more. And no outside force is going to stop it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 5 and 7. (“The UNHRC’s…imagination”; “The world’s…fighting”; and “Nobody…them”)