Syria Still a Killing field and Diplomacy Fragile: New Developments

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss issues related to Syria in Paris.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss issues related to Syria in Paris.

Secretary Kerry: “[It] is our hope that we will come out of here with greater clarity about some of the issues that need to be worked on in the days ahead. We agreed that representatives of both of our governments, from the foreign ministry in Russia and the State Department in the United States, will meet as soon as possible in order to work through a number of these issues regarding how this conference could best be prepared for the possibility of success, not failure.”

Foreign Minister Lavrov: “I would like to express my gratitude to John Kerry for suggesting that we meet on this occasion, because the situation is not getting better on the ground and we all want to do everything in our efforts to stop the bloodshed and to reduce the sufferings of the Syrian people. And therefore we took stock today of where we are with the implementation of the Russian-American initiative which was launched when John visited Moscow on the 7th of May.”

-Remarks from Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov after their meeting in Paris on May 27

We are approaching a moment of truth with the Syrian civil war.  The battles are becoming more ferocious, in a conflict more dangerous and diverse that already extends the fighting beyond Syria’s borders.

The involvement of Russian support and arms, Iranian arms and fighters, and not least Hezbollah, all bode badly for a peaceful solution. Yet the diplomatic path is still the best option of all the other bad options. Secretary John Kerry is working on both a Syrian peace and also a Middle East peace process at the same time. The two are interconnected as the region will not find a solid measure of security and prosperity until both Syrian conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian problems are solved.

Secretary Kerry has been bolder, more determined, and more focused than any Secretary of State in the last decade or more. He is also playing the long odds in an area filled with failure and risks.  But, here the U.S. is doing the right things rather than the wrong ones despite carping from the right wing Republicans and neo-cons.  In this connection Senator McCain visited Syria and talked to various factions of the Syrian opposition and in particular General Idris, the leader of a more “moderate” fighting group who asked for lethal weapons, no fly zones, and airstrikes to degrade Syria’s air force.  Sen. McCain continued his crusade for American armed intervention but still says it will not be our “boots on the ground.” He would do well to support Kerry’s diplomacy.

Russia seems to be playing more and more a double game of helping intensify the conflict and possibly arming Assad with S-300s and other weapons while opposing the EU action to let the ban on sending weapons to Syrian opposition groups end. The duplicitous strategy and statements are not the first time Russia has taken “both sides,” as its relations with Iran show. Yet there seems growing recognition that a continued war in Syria may not be to Russia’s advantage, and without America, the cooperation of NATO powers, and the Arab League, there will be no peace. Yet here Russia may have to make a decision to either seek real peace or further its isolation from a productive long-term partnership with the West.

The key to success is not only the Geneva Conference scheduled in mid-June but back-up options should that fail. These by definition would be more risky and costly but it is becoming clearer and clearer that some added intervention will be required to rid Syria of Assad and also ensure a new broad based government and peace.

I am happy to report that Tom Friedman of the New York Times has finally come out in support of the intervention of an international peacekeeping force in Syria – I assume after some kind of agreement has been reached either in Geneva or through alternative “solutions” and a “Friends of Syria” consensus that this is the best post-Assad mechanism for stability in Syria and will help in preventing further communal killing.

Now is the time for not only the Geneva Conference but also a decision by the “Friends of Syria” to act to form a multilateral peacekeeping force with a robust mandate to keep the peace and help with reconciliation of the groups in Syria.

Strange New Turns. Where are We Going Now on Syria? The Russian Connection, Other Options or Dead-end?

Meeting in MoscowQuotes:

Secretary Kerry with President Putin in Moscow May 7, 2013:

“And Mr. President, as you know better than anybody, there are enormous challenges today that require the same level of cooperation, and I’m very happy that our professionals are working together now to work to deal with some of the issues of the bombing that took place in Boston, and we thank you for that cooperation.

And Mr. President, I bring you President Obama’s greetings. He related to me the substance of his conversations with you, for which he was very grateful, and he is looking forward to seeing you on the side of the G-8 in Ireland and would reiterate that there are many issues – economic, economic cooperation, the challenges of North Korea, Iran, Syria, and many other issues – of which he believes that we could cooperate very significantly.

And finally, Mr. President, I know that we’ll have a chance to talk about it seriously in a few moments, but we really believe, the United States believes, that we share some very significant common interests with respect to Syria – stability in the region, not having extremists creating problems throughout the region and elsewhere – and I think we have both embraced in the Geneva communique a common approach. So it’s my hope that today we’ll be able to dig into that a little bit and see if we can find the common ground. And the President – President Obama particularly feels that cooperation between Russia and the United States with respect to economic issues is something that would be of enormous benefit to both, and Russia’s leadership is so key on so many of those issues. We look forward to working with you.”

There has been a heightened debate among American pundits, foreign policy experts, and security experts with a flood of editorials and op-ed pages over intervention in Syria. Quite a few of those who urged for our entry into Iraq with disastrous results seem to be in the same channel again urging our military intervention. Some call for “boots on the ground” while others support supplying weapons, targeted bombings, creating a “no-fly zone” and other more robust military assistance.

Others for good and bad reasons seek a “do nothing” stance by America. Many of these remember only too well past costly American wars most notably Vietnam and Iraq. Some are simply right wing isolationists, and hope for a failure by Obama; while others believe the U.S. will do more damage and more harm would result from any engagement.

Still others seek various kinds of direct intervention short of “boots on the ground” for laudable humanitarian reasons and for larger regional strategic reasons. They especially desire to establish a multilateral coalition acting with enhanced support and involvement with the rebel umbrella National Coalition in ensuring a peaceful outcome for Syria. In my opinion this will require at the very least, efforts to maintain security for the civilian population in post Assad Syria and a measure of economic progress. This clearly requires difficult and major diplomatic efforts.

I do not share the views of the isolationists nor those who would simply put “boots on the ground” and urge kinetic efforts without any thought of the “end game,” costs, or willingness to put the resources into an effective effort to shape a truly peaceful and stable outcome.  Again my view is for a peacekeeping/peacemaking multilateral intervention with real robust powers and mediation elements that include a rebuilding of the devastation and putting young males to work at once and getting rid of the outside “warriors.”     

There seems now to be a growing consensus among decision makers that more needs to be done in the face of the 70,000 deaths and the real possible danger of a regional conflagration with widespread sectarian killings and upheavals. The added element is that the view that “doing nothing” will exacerbate the likely outcome of further mass killings when Assad falls.    

In this context the Obama administration seems to now have a dual approach of utilizing the diplomacy tool as exemplified by the effort of Secretary Kerry to draw Russia and others into a conference on Syria and to seek cooperation rather than mindless intransigence and opposition on the part of the Kremlin. This initiative and conference was announced on May 7th and the hope now is for a meeting this month.  (See press statement)

Along with this diplomatic tract, the U.S. in my view has now also decided to add new sticks as well as carrots and certain military tools into the mix with some of our key allies in the “friends of Syria” group and NATO. 

The outreach to Russia is based upon the argument that Russia and the West have common interests in not letting the upheavals and conflict in Syria spread in an arc from Iran to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Israel and further along the coast of the Mediterranean.  Another common interest would be that neither Obama nor Putin would want an ascendant and dominant al Qaeda element controlling Syria after Assad. Nor for that matter having Hezbollah or even Iran be enmeshed in a stronger position to play a destabilizing role.

The outreach to Russia could still prove elusive and the Russians could be playing a dishonest game of delay and continue to send support to Assad as Iran is also doing. We all hope this is not the case as there are larger interests at stake between Russia and America.   

Secretary Kerry seems to be making just such a diplomatic effort and seeking a meeting of interested states to establish peace finally. But, I suspect he is also working on other options should it not succeed. Yes, there are no “good” options, nor those that have no costs, but we must acknowledge that “doing nothing” may now bring the worst outcome. No action can only lead to added tragedy and conflict throughout the region and perhaps beyond.

On the Ground in Syria: Looking at Human Rights Abuses

On Friday, July 13th, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) held an event titled, “Views from the Ground in Syria”. The main speaker of this event was Donatella Rovera, a senior investigator for Amnesty International, who spent months in Syria documenting the deteriorating situation. News and commentary on the struggle between the armed opposition and the Assad regime has focused mostly on the politics and the generalized bloodshed that is occurring across this nation. What seems to be missing from these conversations is the horrendous human rights violations that are still  happening as we speak. The death toll has reached 18,000 people and still the international community appears at a stalemate, as we await a UN Security Council vote on the next steps in Syria. How many more deaths need to occur in order for the international community to take concrete action. In 10-20 years we do not want to look back and say, we should have done more – as has been the case with other mass killings and genocides in Rwanda, Armenia, and Germany. Ms. Rovera’s comments were important as they humanize the situation and bring to light the atrocities that are being committed. The key remains for the international community in one form or another to act effectively. Increasingly it seems that the outcome will be decided by brute force.

Donatella Rovera’s Comments:

Having viewed the crisis in Syria first hand, it is apparent that the killings have crossed the threshold and are now crimes against humanity. While in Syria, Ms. Rovera  visited 23 different towns in the North.

Aleppo – Syria’s economic capital had not been affected by the armed conflict until recently, unlike other towns where demonstrations started 17 months ago. The actions by the Assad government against the people of Aleppo was the same as it was 17 months ago however. Small demonstrations were broken up by security forces who would fire live rounds those who were injured in the fire could not go to hospitals. 2 medical students in Aleppo tried to secretly help the injured. They were imprisoned by the military, tortured, shot, and then burned.

In the other 22 towns visited, the situation was quite different than that of Aleppo. The violence and armed conflict had been prevalent in those countries since the beginning of the revolution. Within these 22 villages, there were similar patterns of military dissent, demonstrating a calculated effort by the Assad regime to suppress the Syrian people. Typically, security forces would go into houses – take mostly young men/boys where they would commit brutal executions and then would burn down houses and villages.

Case Examples: Security Forces barged into a house at night, took the three sons who had not been involved in any armed conflict of the opposition, took them outside and shot them and then burned their bodies. In another town, a young man (who was not armed) went to pick up his 3 young cousins (all under the age of 11) – the army caught up to him and killed him along with the three children.

In these cases, the same modus operandi exists – quite clearly these actions of the security forces are state policy and are done with a level of premeditation.

The armed opposition was formed because peaceful demonstrators were being shot at by the Assad government. The opposition is becoming stronger, more organized, and gaining more ground. However, they too have begun to commit human rights abuses.

While there is obvious danger of a civil war – it has not come to that point yet because a monopoly of the violence has come from the arms of government forces.

The Role of the International Community: The question that was heard from the citizens of Syria was “why is the world doing nothing?”

The international community is paralyzed on the question of Syria. The key problem is that the only option discussed by the international community was whether or not to intervene militarily. In the case of Libya, the case was referred to the International Criminal Court right away. But in Syria, after 17 months of violence, the case has yet to be referred to the ICC. While the Kofi Annan’s UN Mission had the right idea, the plan was not at the right time, and was ultimately too little, too late. The Annan mission went in with the wrong mandate – as the end to cease fire was not an achievable or realistic goal.

Two useful things that should be done:

  •  The mandate of the UN Mission should be expanded to be given authority, human skills and capacity to look at war crimes.
  • The Syrian case should be referred to the International Criminal Court – in order to send a signal to the Assad regime that time for impunity is over.

Syria: More Debate on How to Stop the Violence, Little on How to End the Civil War and Create Peace

I ask you to reach out to Russia and China and to not only urge, but demand that they get off the sidelines and begin to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. It is frankly not enough just to come to the Friends of the Syrian People, because I will tell you very frankly, I don’t think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all – nothing at all – for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime. The only way that will change is if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia and China will pay a price, because they are holding up progress – blockading it – that is no longer tolerable.”

– Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, at the Friends of the Syrian People Ministerial Meeting

 There has been a lot of anxious hand wringing about the need to stop the violence in Syria. Thursday July 4th, there was an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “Will Syria be Kofi Annan’s Tragedy Redux?” by Paul Wolfowitz and Mark Palmer. You will remember Amb. Wolfowitz as a super hawk on Iraq who was in the high levels of the Bush II administration and now he is with the right ring American Enterprise Institute.  

Their take, in a nutshell, is to intervene by providing arms to the opposition, not necessarily sending US troops, but still “playing an overt forceful role in organizing and arming the Syrian opposition…” They also advocate creating “sanctuaries” via Turkey. They cite the Libya intervention as a model. They point to the problem of Syria falling into the hands of extremists. Yet they do not provide any roadmap on how to prevent that.

The latest news is that Syrian artillery forces are pounding the areas around the northern city of Douma.  It has reportedly been overrun by pro-Assad militiamen. The Syrian opposition reports that at least 11 people, including a six-year-old girl, were killed in the assault. The United Nations observer mission in Syria is inoperative with its “observers” not able to continue their work surrounded by “unprecedented” levels of violence in the country and its head is calling for the mission to be restructured. The U.N. Security Council is due to make a decision on the future of the mission. But with a Russian veto one can’t expect much to come of this and even with an agreement such as a small force would still be at the mercy of Assad’s forces.

I am sympathetic with the idea of multilateral intervention, as readers of this blog know, and some elements in the op-ed follow a few of my earlier suggestions, but there is little in the article on how this might work and even less on how to get the other still reluctant partners to agree to work together to stop the killing and work towards an end that will not only bring peace but also an effective government of national unity without revenge or continued sectarian killings.

As the days go by, I continue to believe that some form of action will be taken; activities on the ground point to a spread of opposition fighting as the escalation of the use of massive force and “dark” killings of civilians by the Assad regime is becoming their primary tool to remain in power. Annan’s plan is indeed faulty due to Russian intransigence, but a tipping point is coming and I hope a new strategy is forming where thought is given not only to the start of intervention but to the creation of a structure and context for long-term stability in Syria. This outcome, in my opinion, will require on-the-ground peacekeeping troops for a long period.


**Note** Most recent information confirms that Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, a commander in the elite Republican Guard, close friend of the president and a member of the Damascus aristocracy, has defected and fled the country. The situation in Syria continues to be a quickly changing landscape. For more information on the developing situation, click here!

For information on the outcome of the Friends of Syria Meeting in Paris, click here!

In Search of a Serious Strategy for Syria by Harry C. Blaney III

In Search of a Serious Strategy for Syria

Harry C. Blaney III 

The G-8 and NATO summits are over and one conclusion that can be made is that at least in public there was no specific or concrete action taken to deal with the serious conflict and civil war (there can be no other word for it) in Syria. Further, this unrest and strife in Syria has already had trans-border impacts on Turkey (conflict on its border with Syria), and Lebanon demonstrated by the domestic violence between supporters of the opposition and those of Assad.  The roles of Iran, Russia and China have also complicated the options for stopping the killing.

Sadly, the Washington Post editorial “NATO’s Blind Spot on Intervention in Syria” (May 22, 2012), that was decidedly superficial, argued that NATO should act militarily in Syria. The odd and contradictory Washington Post editorial stated that “NATO could support the Syrian opposition without putting its own troops at risk.”

This editorial gave no real analysis of the consequences of such a military strategy or the viability and direction of the Syrian opposition. Furthermore, the editorial did not address whether such an effort is viable or likely to succeed and did not consider the possible cost in human lives from such a strategy. The editorial board failed to indicate who exactly would act, what kind of military support would be given, how to deal with the Syrian army, and how long the military intervention would last. Nor did they address the cost of such a strategy to NATO allies or who exactly would bear the burden.  Further possible risks of NATO military action include opposition and intervention against such an act on the part of Iran and other state actors including Russia.  In dealing with the question of post-conflict peacekeeping, it is of great importance to implement a plan that would keep the warring parties apart and prevent reprisals and domestic revenge. In doing so, it is necessary to identify for just how long this process would be needed, and finally, how a truly democratic governance authority would be established that would protect human rights and civil liberties of the entire population in this post conflict period.

The most recent UN report on human rights violations accused both the Syrian regime and the opposition of unlawful and violent action including killings of civilians. This report underscores the need to look at the whole landscape and prepare a comprehensive approach with needed forces and resources and a strategy that does more good than harm in the long run.

Now let me be clear, I have in this forum urged action by the international community. We should not stand by and do nothing while large numbers of people are being killed.  It seems, sadly, that neither the UN Security Council nor NATO is prepared, given the need of both for unanimity, to take on the difficult and complex Syria horror.  As I noted in a previous post, the NATO Summit ended without taking a stand on Syria.  NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen said that the alliance has “no intention whatsoever to intervene.”  Don’t blame NATO for failing to act, blame those unnamed members who opposed any serious Syrian action. The same goes for the UN.

The only other forum for action is the “Friends of Syria” in which we participate and help lead but which so far has remained in a state of inaction. Yet this is the most likely path to follow since it includes both the Arab League and Arab and Islamic states that are not only the best forces to act on the ground but also have the resources to pay for intervention efforts and the rebuilding of Syria post-conflict. But they lack certain capabilities as demonstrated in the case of Libya. Here, NATO and other advanced nations can help with specialized tasks to support this forum.  Will they even agree on this?

What still lacks is the political will. America, the European nations, and the key Arab states must join in a “coalition of the willing” to support a reconstructed opposition that needs to be prodded into a unified, responsible, and fully representative alliance. The Syrian opposition must be clearly committed to a peaceful and broad national government with democratic aims and human rights guarantees – something that can only be achieved with the support of this “coalition of the willing”. This is a task for diplomacy and for a bit of carrots and not a few sticks too.

The Syrian Conundrum Continues

Reports out of Syria have confirmed that Bashar al-Assad, in anticipation of the April 12th date for a cease-fire, launched a series of voracious attacks across the country in several key towns including Homs, Deraa, and a suburb of Damascus, Douma. There are other reports of fighting in other towns and regions. This is a clear violation of the spirit of the understanding that Kofi Annan had obtained from Assad. The UN Security Council resolution urged Syria to carry out the plan “urgently and visibly,” with a ceasefire by April 10th. The UN Council called on Damascus to pull back its troops and heavy weapons from city centers by that date. It further requested all parties, including the opposition, to cease armed violence within 48 hours of this pull-back.

But by that time President Bashar al-Assad is likely to have decimated much of the cities being attacked and the butchery of civilians will have mounted perhaps beyond the 10,000 that were killed in a similar attack decades ago on civilians by Assad’s father. 

The question that must be raised is whether he will get away with this slaughtering of so many citizens, including women and children. The international community’s response has been timid, including the UN (hampered by the vetoes of China and Russia who clearly think mass killing of civilians is just fine), the Arab League, and sadly the “Friends of Syria,” whose name is now one of shame rather than of pride on the part of the nations participating who have done little to stop the killing. 

It is at least clear that the killing will continue until the promised April 10th or even the 12th agreed fullback and later cease-fire, but by that time thousands might be dead or injured and there is no guarantee that the killing will not go on since Assad has a long history of promises not kept. 

Clearly, the conflict is getting worse despite Syria’s assurance to the UN that it was complying with the cease fire plan according to a report of the New York Times.  At this rate, any cease fire is likely to leave Assad still in power and have eviscerated the opposition. It will likely permit the Assad regime to quietly and comprehensively carry out a persecution of all groups who were opposed to him away from the glare of foreign observers. The team that the UN has marshaled to observe the cease fire will have little capacity to monitor such actions, which can include murder and torture. Even the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said to the General Assembly that “the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate.” The sad part is that Assad has looked into the eyes of the international community and sees only words and cowardice. 

Frankly, as we have noted in earlier posts, there seems no alternative other than either to arm the opposition, create a no fly zone, and impose more severe sanctions, or to make an effort to inject into Syria an armed multilateral peacemaking force which can ensure the safety of the civilian population and can take on successfully, if necessary, the Syrian forces. Their aim would be to enforce a true cease-fire, protect the population against reprisals from any side, ensure general security, and enable and protect humanitarian assistance being delivered. Whether that will take place remains highly doubtful, but then the alternative is that the mass butcher of his people will remain in power and slowly continue his massacre and the UN’s “obligation to protect” will be in shatters.

By Harry C. Blaney III.

Syrian Sad Update

As sadly predicted, Assad’s Syrian forces have carried out killings of civilians in the district of Baba Amr in nearby Homs and directed shelling of several towns in Syria including the central town of Rastan.  International relief has been prevented from entering Baba Amr where there are reports of mass killings and arrests.

China issued a self-serving and hypocritical statement which called to an end of “all acts of violence against innocent civilians,” but made it clear they would not approve anyone interfering in Syrian affairs “under the pretext of humanitarian issues.”

The Assad regime forces are going from district in a number of cities and carrying out mass murders of civilians. In the meantime, the Arab League, Turkey, and EU/NATO are divided on actions and are doing nothing to stop immediately the mass killings and butchery.  The Syrian opposition still is fighting among themselves, and the international community is equally divided and in disarray.

In short, we are facing another Rwanda or Srebrenica, as characterized by Paul Conway, the wounded journalist who was smuggled out of Baba Amr. In very short order other towns and areas will experience the same “killing fields” from the Assad army.

There appears to be no clear action by external international powers, nor united leadership by the opposition groups, and finally we see continued support for the butchery by China and Russia.  America is trying to deal with these issues through diplomacy and sanctions but these are not effective against the immediacy of killing hour after hour and soon any action against the regime will be superfluous.  Are there any lessons to be learned and how many times will these disasters and inaction be repeated?

By Harry C. Blaney III.