Fighting the last war and other illusions
This posting has these items on what is believed about Syria:
1) BBC: Forces which could be used against Syria, map of forces for deployment;
2) Stratfor: Syria and the Limits of Comparison, Robert Kaplan – it’s not Yugoslavia 1999;
3) Tikun Olam: Kerry’s “Munich Moment” and Other Historical Fallacies, Richard Silverstein – it’s not Germany 1938;
4) Euronews: Who in Syria is waiting to fill the power vacuum if Bashar al-Assad is ousted?;
5) BBC: Syria minister: US strike on Syria ‘would benefit al-Qaeda’ ;
6) BBC: Middle East press apprehensive over Syria;
Forces which could be used against Syria:• Five US destroyers – USS Gravely, USS Ramage, USS Barry, USS Mahan and USS Stout – are in the eastern Mediterranean, equipped with cruise missiles. The missiles can also be fired from submarines, but the US Navy does not reveal their locations; • Airbases at Incirlik and Izmir in Turkey, and in Jordan, could be used to carry out strikes; • Two aircraft carriers – USS Nimitz and USS Harry S Truman are in the wider region; • French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is currently in Toulon in the western Mediterranean; • French Rafale and Mirage aircraft can also operate from Al-Dhahra airbase in the UAE. BBC diagram.
Syria and the Limits of Comparison
By Robert D. Kaplan, Global Affairs, Stratfor
August 28, 2013
Because so many war plans simply do not survive the reality of war itself, each war is a unique universe unto its own and thus comparisons with previous wars, while useful, may also prove illusory. One of the many wrong assumptions about the Second Gulf War before it started was that it would somehow be like the First Gulf War, in which the pessimists had been humiliated by the ease of the victory. Indeed, the Second Gulf War unfolded in vastly different ways, this time proving the pessimists right. That is why the recent media refrain comparing a military operation in Syria with the one in Kosovo in 1999 worries me.
There are profound differences.
Syria has a population ten times the size of Kosovo’s in 1999. Because everything in Syria is on a much vaster scale, deciding the outcome by military means could be that much harder.
Kosovo sustained violence and harsh repression at the hands of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, which was met with a low-intensity separatist campaign by the Kosovo Liberation Army. Violence was widespread but not nearly on the scale of Syria’s. Syria is in the midst of a full-fledged civil war. The toppling of Milosevic, moreover, carried much less risk of ever-expanding anarchy than does the toppling of Syrian ruler Bashar al Assad.
Kosovo was more or less contained within the southern Balkans, with relatively limited chance for a spillover — as it turned out — into neighboring countries and territories. Full-scale sectarian anarchy in Syria threatens to destabilize a wider region.
The Kosovo Liberation Army may have been a nasty bunch by some accounts, with criminal elements. But it was not a threat to the United States like the transnational jihadists currently operating in Syria. For President Bill Clinton to risk bringing to power the Kosovo Liberation Army was far less of a concern than President Barack Obama possibly helping to midwife to power a Sunni jihadist regime.
Kosovo did not have a complex of chemical weapons facilities scattered throughout its territory as Syria does, with all the military and logistical headaches of trying to neutralize them.
The Kosovo war campaign did not have to countenance a strong and feisty Russia, which at the time was reeling from Boris Yeltsin’s incompetent, anarchic rule. Vladimir Putin, who has significant equities in al Assad’s Syria, may do everything in his power to undermine a U.S. attack. Though, it must be said, Putin’s options should Obama opt for a significant military campaign are limited within Syria itself. But Putin can move closer to Iran by leaving the sanctions regime, and ratchet-up Russia’s anti-American diplomacy worldwide more effectively than Yeltsin ever wanted to, or was capable of.
The Kosovo war did not engage Iran as this war must. For all of the missiles that America can fire, it does not have operatives on the ground like Iran has. Neither will the United States necessarily have the patience and fortitude to prosecute a lengthy and covert ground-level operation as Iran might for years to come, and already has. A weakened or toppled al Assad is bad for Iran, surely, but it does not altogether signal that America will therefore receive a good result from this war. A wounded Iran might race even faster toward a nuclear option. It is a calculated risk.
The Kosovo war inflicted significant pain on Serbian civilians through airstrikes, but the Syrian population has already been pummeled by a brutal war for two years now, and so it is problematic whether airstrikes in this case can inflict that much more psychological pain on the parts of the population either still loyal or indifferent to the regime.
The goal in Kosovo was to limit Serbia’s geographic influence and to ignite a chain of events that would lead to Milosevic’s ouster. Those goals were achieved: Milosevic was forced from power in the fall of 2000, largely because of a chain of events stemming from that war. His ouster, as I wrote in The New York Times on Oct. 6, 2000, meant the de facto death of the last ruling Communist Party in Europe, even if in its final years it had adopted national-fascism as a tactic. Because the war was in significant measure a result of the efforts of a single individual, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, it demonstrated how individuals can dramatically alter history for the better.
Kosovo thus symbolized the power of human agency over impersonal forces in order to wrest a victory for human rights. This is a popular cause among liberal journalists and intellectuals, as is the desire to do something to punish the massive human rights violations of the al Assad regime. The comparison between Kosovo and Syria follows from that. But it is a flawed comparison: Elegantly toppling Milosevic incurred no negative side effects. Toppling al Assad could lead to a power center in the Levant as friendly to transnational jihadists as the one in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan was in the late 1990s until 2001.
Of course, the Obama administration will try to calibrate its military effort in a way to avoid further jihadi chaos in Syria. But even with overwhelming firepower, it is not necessarily in control. Whereas ending Milosevic’s rule meant an end to ethnic cleansing, it is far from certain that sectarian carnage would end with al Assad’s demise; it might possibly even intensify, with Sunnis exacting revenge on a weakened and cornered Alawite community.
Obama faces a dilemma more extreme than the one Clinton faced in Kosovo. If he chooses limited military strikes to send a message against the use of chemical weapons, he risks looking weak, especially following the powerful rhetoric employed by his secretary of state, John Kerry. If he chooses regime change — while not calling it that — he threatens to unleash a jihadi nightmare. He may try a middle option calibrated to seriously erode al Assad’s power base while sending a message to Russia and Iran to help him negotiate a stable transfer of authority in Damascus — something that might yet open up a wider diplomatic process with Iran. But that is obviously very difficult to do.
Keep another thing in mind about Kosovo. At that time, the United States had not been in a long ground war for a quarter-century and thus the American people were not weary of war. Even so, Clinton rightly calculated that the public would not tolerate casualties on the ground in a war that did not involve a naked American interest. But the American public is now tottering from more than a decade of bloody ground war, and so Obama has even less leeway than Clinton, even as Syria presents a greater military challenge than Kosovo.
So far, Obama has handled the Middle East tolerably well. He has reduced and ended ground force commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, while avoiding quagmires elsewhere in the face of regional change and chaos. This is in keeping with the leadership of a global maritime power that has serious military commitments in Asia and elsewhere, even as its energy dependency on the Middle East is on the wane. But Obama now faces a defining event that will test his commitment to keep America out of regional quicksand while being able to wield considerable power in the region at the same time. If Obama prosecutes a significant military operation, one thing is certain: Syria will be its own war for the United States with its own narrative, for better or worse.
By Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam
Seeptmber 02, 2013
Obama the gunslinger (Roni Gordon/Maariv)
When a country plans to go to war, the rhetoric leaders use to demonize the enemy and rouse the faithful are instructive. George H.W. Bush called Saddam “a new Hitler.” Saddam called the Iraq war the “mother of all battles.” George W. Bush had his embarrassing “mission accomplished” moment on board the U.S.S. Lincoln. Bibi Netanyahu regularly compares Israel’s battle with Iran to the Holocaust. One of his most memorable (and toxic) historical analogies is: it’s Munich, and the year is 1938.
Now John Kerry has taken a page from Bibi’s book and called the Obama plan to attack Syria Congress’ “Munich moment.” This is a ludicrous and false historical analogy that places the looming U.S. assault on Syria in precisely the wrong context. It may go down in history as one of those dumb overstatements to which U.S. leaders are prone.
First, with all his warts, Assad is no Hitler. The options in the current conflict are not black and white, not good vs. evil as they were during World War II. Munich was seen as a decisive turning point, when Britain’s appeasement allowed Hitler to prepare for the all-out war he’d planned. This is no Munich moment. If the U.S. bombs Syria it will not stop Assad. It will at most wound him. And a wounded dictator can be more dangerous than one who is intact.
Finally, if this is a Munich moment it means that Kerry is not contemplating giving Assad a bloody nose, but rather a battle to the death to topple his regime. After all, what followed Munich was not a bloody nose, but all-out war. That’s why Kerry’s historical analogy is grossly inapt, unless of course Obama intends regime change.
Leaders always get tripped up in demonizing the enemy, in overstating the righteousness of their cause. The result is that when the battle turns ugly and your side falls short, that your original words come back to haunt. That’s the sort of statement John Kerry has made today.
One of the Democrats on the conference call during which Kerry made this comment retorted quite aptly that the administration had “historical amnesia.” I’d say they have a case that’s far worse than amnesia. They’re mangling history rather than just forgetting it.
In Syria, we face a moral quandary: a dictator willing to use chemical weapons on his own people. Do we attack? If we do, we assuage our conscience. But will attacking help the situation? If not Assad, then who? The rebels? Who are they? What guarantees do we have they will govern any better than Assad? In such a predicament I turn to the doctor’s motto: do no harm. Attacking Syria will do some small amount of good, perhaps. But it threatens to do far more harm than good. Until we have a viable alternative to Assad, I don’t think we can take him on. If we do, and it turns out badly, we have only ourselves to blame.
Yesterday, Jodi Rudoren wrote that the Israel lobby was expected to stay out of the debate about attacking Syria. I doubt this can be true. Aipac is dying to topple Assad. After all, how often do you get a chance to overthrow an enemy of Israel? The only thing stopping it may be an explicit directive from Netanyahu to keep its powder dry. An interesting bellweather will be how J Street responds. It is what I call “Jews for Obama.” Thus far, J Street has denounced the Syrian chemical weapons attack. But it has not advocated military intervention. Frankly, I’m shocked, as there is almost never any daylight between Jeremy Ben-Ami and Obama administration positions.
Israeli analysts and journalists are almost universally derisive of Obama’s “waffling” on Syria. There is no understanding within Israel of America’s democratic process nor of the push and pull between the president and Congress. This is because Israel is not a true democracy. Nor is there a separation of powers or checks and balances between branches of government as here.
Israelis also have a peculiar view that when they face a challenge or threat the only option is to smash it with all their might. Talk, to the average Israeli, is sissy stuff. The only thing that matters is who has the biggest gun. That’s why Israel is in the mess it is. It’s why Israel has so few policy options available to resolve the issues it faces. It’s why Israel is a questionable ally and loose cannon.
Who in Syria is waiting to fill the power vacuum if Bashar al-Assad is ousted?
August 30, 2013
Uncertainty over who would fill any power vacuum in Syria is arguably among the key reasons the UK’s parliament decided against taking part in military action.
Although it is unclear at this stage what form any intervention would take, France’s President Francois Hollande has insisted all options are still on the table.
But what is indisputable is the myriad of groups and alliances that make up the Syrian opposition. So who could potentially replace Bashar al-Assad?
The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, comprises opposition factions in Syria and abroad. It was set up in November 2012 and it was hoped the coalition would gain international recognition and plan for a post-Assad transition.
It was reportedly created following pressure from the international community, which wanted a new alliance to replace the Syrian National Council (SNC), which was viewed as ineffective and consumed by infighting. The council, which is dominated by Syria’s majority Sunni Muslim community, has been criticised for failing to reconcile different opposition factions.
The National Co-ordination Committee is made up of a host of leftist political parties. But crucially it differs from the SNC on whether to speak to Bashar al-Assad’s regime (which is of the Alawites religious group from the Shia school of Islam) and the issue of foreign intervention. It wants dialogue with al-Assad on the condition of withdrawing the military from the streets and it opposes foreign military intervention.
Among the military groups are the Free Syrian Army, which was set up by army deserters based in Turkey. It claims to have up to 40,000 men, but analysts say the real figure is likely to be a quarter of this. They have been unable to hold onto territory when under seige from the Syrian army, such as when they lost their stronghold Homs in 2012. The FSA has functioned mainly as an umbrella group for army defectors, civilians who have taken up arms and Islamist militants. But it has found it difficult to work with the SNC, which wants to safeguard the uprising’s non-violent character.
Many groups within the FSA are Islamist and the rhetoric is often religious. It is therefore difficult to distinguish between moderate Islamist elements and the more conservative, which explains why western governments are unsure whether to arm them or not.
The Nursa Front (Salafist) is possibly the country’s most powerful jihadist group and is thought to comprise 6,000 fighters. It was founded with help from al-Qaeda in Iraq and is considered a terrorist organisation by the US.
The Syrian Islamic Front is the umbrella group for other Salafist (Sunni Muslim) factions. As with the Nursa Front they want to establish an Islamic emirate in Syria.
Most of these extreme groups have worked with the FSA but there have been disputes over resources and territory.
Speaking to the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said terrorism would flourish everywhere if the US attacked Syria
Any US military action against Syria would amount to “support for al-Qaeda and its affiliates,” Damascus has said.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad also told the BBC that armed groups backed by America – not Syrian troops – had used chemical weapons.
The US says it has evidence that Damascus used the nerve agent sarin in a deadly attack in August.
President Barack Obama has vowed punitive action but wants Congress to vote on the issue first.
The alleged chemical attack took place on 21 August in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. The US says more than 1,400 people were killed, including 426 children.
The French government has said it will hand over its own evidence to French lawmakers on Monday, linking the Syrian regime to the attack.
“It will be a set of evidence of different kinds that will allow the regime to be clearly identified as responsible for the August 21 chemical attack,” a government source told the French news agency AFP.
There is growing pressure for French President Francois Hollande to hold a parliamentary vote on the issue, in line with Britain and the US.
The French parliament is due to debate the issue on Wednesday.
US lawmakers are due to reconvene next week, and White House officials have said they believe they will support the president.
Campaigning to convince people and politicians that military intervention is the right way forward has already begun in America, correspondents say.
US press reaction
The New York Times says that by asking Congress for authorisation to retaliate against Syria, President Obama has put himself “at the mercy of an institution that has bedevilled his presidency for years”.
But Amy Davidson in the New Yorker praised Mr Obama’s decision to go to Congress, saying “he may have just saved his second term from being consumed by Benghazi-like recriminations”.
The Chicago Tribune says Mr Obama “did what he needed to do, at considerable risk to his credibility”.
Henry Allen in the Washington Post examines why the US believes in fighting wars for virtuous reasons. “The good war, the virtuous war. We believe in it. We have to believe in it or we wouldn’t be Americans.”
But by putting off an attack and seeking congressional approval, President Obama has taken the biggest gamble of his presidency, the BBC’s North America editor Mark Mardell says.
He adds that if Congress does not back him, it would be disastrous for the president and his decision to call for a vote would look foolish.
In other developents:
UN experts have gathered evidence in Syria to determine whether chemical weapons attacks have taken place – and they are now analysing samples
Arab League foreign ministers urged the world community to “take the deterrent and necessary measures” against Syria. But several members – including Lebanon and Iraq – did not back the call
Jordan – a key US ally in the region – ruled out joining any US-led coalition against Damascus
‘Hatred for Americans’
Mr Mekdad told the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen in Damascus: “Any attack against Syria is support for al-Qaeda and its affiliates, whether Jabat al-Nusra or the State of Islam in Syria and Iraq.”
Jabat al-Nusra and other groups linked to al-Qaeda have come to play a significant role in the fight against President Assad’s government.
Mr Mekdad – who is considered to be highly influential within President Bashar al-Assad’s government – also warned that possible US intervention would deepen “hatred for the Americans” and destabilise the whole Middle East.
He said that Mr Obama’s surprise decision to seek congressional approval for strikes showed that he had not thought through all the “consequences”.
But he added: “This did not change anything, since he (President Obama) is determined to launch an attack”.
As for a vote in Congress, Mr Mekdad said it would base its decision on whether attacking Syria was in the interests of Israel.
‘Case is building’
US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday that Washington had evidence that sarin was used in the 21 August attacks.
He said samples from hair and blood gathered afterwards had “tested positive for signatures of sarin”.
Mr Kerry implied that the US evidence was supplied by its own sources, rather than via the UN inspectors.
“In the last 24 hours, we have learned through samples that were provided to the United States that have now been tested from first responders in east Damascus and hair samples and blood samples have tested positive for signatures of Sarin,” Mr Kerry said on NBC’s Meet The Press. The US has previously said it had similar evidence of sarin use in other attacks.
Mr Kerry also said he was confident Congress would give its approval for the US to launch strikes against Syria. Congressmen “will do what is right because they understand the stakes”, he said, declining to explain whether Mr Obama would press ahead even if Congress voted against.
However, some lawmakers have expressed doubts about Mr Obama’s plan for a “limited, narrow” operation.
“I’m still very sceptical. It is not clear to me that we know what the results of this attack will be, meaning, will it be effective?” said Jim Himes, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives.
“It’s not clear to me what response might be undertaken by Iran, by the Syrians, against Israel, against us, in the realm of terrorism. It is also not at all clear that we’ve got any really, international, support,” he added.
Syria is known to have extensive supplies of chemical weapons.
Mr Obama has often said that using them would cross a “red line”, prompting US intervention.
Damascus has been fighting rebel forces since March 2011.
More than 100,000 people are estimated to have died in the conflict, and at least 1.7 million have become refugees.
By BBC news
August 29, 2013
Newspapers in the Middle East are growing increasingly convinced that a foreign attack on Syria is imminent.
Military action is largely supported by pan-Arab dailies, as well as papers in countries opposed to President Assad’s government such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. But other regional commentators question the West’s motives, saying that it is concerned about oil reserves more than human rights.
Several Pan-Arab dailies are calling for foreign military action. “The chemical violation is enough justification to punish the regime” without a UN mandate, says Al-Hayat, a Saudi-owned newspaper.
An editorial in pan-Arab nationalist daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi disagrees with critics of possible foreign intervention in Syria. It ridicules Russia’s and Iran’s warnings of “destabilisation” in case of an attack: “Where is the stability and security? Are Syria, Lebanon or Iraq enjoying them?”
In Syria itself, state-owned newspaper Tishrin agrees that the region “has become like a barrel of gunpowder”. But, it argues, foreign military intervention could make the crisis even worse and undermine global peace and security. The editorial in Tishrin hopes that the Americans will “go back to the language of reason before getting embroiled in aggression”.
Another government-run newspaper in Damascus, Al-Thawrah, is concerned that the truth may be overlooked in “the feverish excitement” of the situation around Syria. It asks rhetorically: “What if there was solid evidence that terrorist-armed organisations were the ones who used chemical weapons?”
An editorial in leading Saudi daily Al-Watan argues that a foreign military strike against Syria is imminent, even though it is not clear what form it will take. “The worry is how to contain damage from this intervention, limit it to specific goals and prevent it from affecting the life of civilians,” says the paper. Another concern, it adds, is that “armed groups” are likely to dominate Syria’s political landscape if and when President Assad is toppled.
Qatar’s independent daily Al-Rayah says that the prospect of a US-led attack on Damascus is nothing to rejoice about, just as missiles falling on Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad were no cause for celebration. But, it goes on, “the murderous regime in Syria” has left its opponents no choice. “Because of its sheer stupidity, the useless regime, which did not learn from the fate of an identical regime in Baghdad, has triggered foreign intervention,” Al-Rayah says.
Kuwait’s leading daily Al-Siyassah writes of apprehension: “Decisive days await the region. Everybody awaits the grand and tragic scene of the downfall of the oldest and the most terrorist of regimes in the region.”
Lebanon’s centrist newspaper Al-Anwar is among those critical of the military scenario being considered by Barack Obama. An article in the paper compares it to “Hollywood’s action and horror movies”. After promising to wrap up America’s “costly and unsuccessful” military campaigns, the paper says, President Obama is “back to the policy of military immorality and aggressive power with all the associated rudeness, injustice and hegemonic and arrogant aggression”. The reason, al-Anwar goes on, is not only because Syria is rich in oil, but also because it is “steaming with the deepest sense of hatred towards the unjust US policy”.
Several other commentators in the Middle East also have doubts about the Western leaders’ motives. “It is oil that speaks to the imagination of the West, which keeps on talking about human rights, justice and freedom,” says Egypt’s largest-circulation daily Al-Ahram, which is controlled by the government. “What is happening in Syria is part of a new episode of colonialism, even if it is hidden under the guise of human rights,” it says.
In Oman, a commentator in private, pro-government paper Al-Watan does not mince his words while criticising opponents of the Syrian government. “The real goal of this strike, if does go ahead, would be to help mobs of murderers and terrorists achieve military gains,” he says.
In Iran, which is a stalwart Assad ally, front-page headlines carry a sense of foreboding: “Countdown begins for attacking Syria”; “Syria’s day of reckoning”; and “Ominous war cry of Syrian war”.
Several Iranian newspapers argue that allegations of chemical weapons use by government troops in Syria are nothing but lies and propaganda. An editorial in conservative Siyasat-e Ruz accuses the West of “making false allegations over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, which have created an atmosphere of war in the region.” Another hard-line newspaper, Qods, writes of “fake video clips of children allegedly killed or wounded in chemical attacks” circulated by Western media to prepare public opinion for an attack on Syria.
Israeli newspapers are also in no doubt that an attack on Syria is looming. “At any moment”, says a headline in second-largest circulation daily Yediot Aharonot. There are also concerns over the possibility of a retaliatory Syrian strike targeting Israel. Even though military officials say chances of this are low, centre-right Ma’ariv says it is “impossible to know for certain how things will develop, and no risks should be taken”.