A long hot summer in Syria

The Syrian insurrection is now officially a civil war.

Via Robert Farley at LGM:

The International Committee of the Red Cross has determined that the Syrian Civil War is a internal war, which has a variety of implications for military targeting and legal responsibility.

The Syrian rebellion is getting very different treatment from the western media than the Libyan one. In good part this must be a conscious choice by the players. Gaddafi was the exhibitionist type of dictator, like Hitler and Mao and unlike Stalin and Franco: he would rather have a bad press to play to than none at all. So the rebels had to compete, needed Western public opinion to support intervention, and welcomed foreign reporters. Assad is the modest First Citizen type of autocrat like his father and has written off Western public opinion anyway, so all we get are token justifications of police operations against “terrorists”. The rebels are content for the press and Western diplomats to frame the civil war in terms of massacres of helpless civilians; true enough, but very incomplete. So we are getting most reports on events in Syria from correspondents ensconced in bars in Beirut.

But consider these developments.

GlobalPost, 5 July:

Traveling to towns and villages north and southwest of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, GlobalPost saw dozens of burned out tanks, armored vehicles and jeeps littering the roads. Many villages were devoid of any active police or government presence. Instead, armed rebels patrol in pick-up trucks, some with mounted machine guns, ….. Syrian rebels now control large swathes of territory along Syria’s northwest border with Turkey and are acquiring heavier weapons.

Reuters, June 22:

U.S. and allied officials acknowledge Syrian rebels have been receiving arms supplies from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirate of Qatar. But they said that the sophistication of the weapons being delivered had until recently been low…
The Saudis are on record calling for Assad’s ouster. … In January, Qatar went even further when its ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, told the CBS TV program 60 Minutes that Arab troops should be sent in to “stop the killing” by Assad’s forces. A U.S. official who recently discussed the issue with Saudi and Qatari representatives said the weaponry now being shipped to Syrian rebels consists largely of small arms that would enable regime opponents to “protect their children.”

On Tuesday, rebels claimed to have shot down an army helicopter in Damascus. It’s not clear how; with small arms like RPGs, or a proper anti-aircraft missile.

CNN, yesterday:
Last Wednesday rebels set off a bomb in a presumably heavily guarded government building in central Damascus, targeting a meeting of high security officials. They had better luck or skill than Stauffenberg:

The officials killed were Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha; Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat — al-Assad’s brother-in-law; Hasan Turkmani, al-Assad’s security adviser and assistant vice president; and Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar, state TV reported.

[Update 20 July: The Syrian intelligence chief, Hisham Bekhtyar, has died of wounds suffered in the same bombing.]
In the same CNN report:

Two more brigadier generals fled overnight to Turkey, bringing the number of Syrian generals in Turkey to 20, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official said.

Two days ago, HuffPost:
Poster boy General Manaf Tlass, a former Defence Minister, defected to Paris. He’s a Sunni; perhaps the Alawites are still sticking together, reasonably fearing the consequences under Muslim rule. But there aren’t enough of them (10% of the population, but dominating the leadership)  to hold down the country against everybody else.

General Manaf Tlass, defector

It’s too early to say that Bashir Assad is doomed. But it’s certainly not looking good for him. The bloody crackdowns have plainly not intimidated the rebels; and time is on their side. The macabre Intrade contract  for Assad’s “departure” by year’s-end (perhaps to a villa in Sochi, if he survives) is at 63%, which looks about right.

Are the rebels also getting covert help from spooks and special forces from the USA, Britain, France. or Turkey? These governments have burnt their boats with Assad and are calling for his ouster. They are also worried about who gets to replace him, and reasonably fear another Old Man of the Mountains. There’s a very long and permeable desert border with Iraq, with its own fish to fry and a good supply of frying-pans. Israel is in the kitchen too. It would make sense for any or all of these to be arming or “advising” the more congenial elements in the insurrection and lying about it.

The Turkish border near Aleppo must be an interesting place just now.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

8 thoughts on “A long hot summer in Syria”

  1. I have no idea who or what will replace this despot but to me it’s a no-brainer, like Qaddafi. This regime is despotic, cruel, hated by its people, an enemy of peace, an ally of an enemy, a key conduit and connection between that enemy and its puppets in Lebanon, a key supporter of same. A nuclear proliferation wannabe itself.

    It’s bound to fall. It’s fall will weaken Russia, a pain in the ass, and Iran, a self-avowed enemy. If we help it to fall, we may have some influence in what comes next. The recent elections in Libya were a little encouraging in this regard.

    I only hope we can do something to prevent mass slaughter either by this regime or its opponents.

    A nice corner of the world. Fortunately, we have Gunter Grass as a moral guide to what’s right.

    1. I did leave out my assessment of the Assad régime, which is pretty close to yours. The only thing in its favour from the perspective of outside interests is that its style has always been sober and calculating realpolitik, without Saddam’s or Gaddafi’s flights of fantasy. So there is a genuine downside risk of somebody even worse. How big is the risk? The rebels do not seem to have a personality cult, and their media claims have SFIK been reasonably modest and credible, like those of the Libyan rebels. They are backed by people (Turks, Qataris) who have no time for Islamist fanatics. Hillary Clinton and Douglas Hague, also level-headed operators, have evidently decided that the Islamist risk is less than that of backing Assad. I reckon we should go along with their assessment.

  2. It’s only recently that it’s been covered as a civil war. For a long time the media narrative was essentially “Arab Spring being repressed by machine guns and light armor.”

  3. “The Syrian rebellion is getting very different treatment from the western media than the Libyan one. In good part this must be a conscious choice by the players”

    I’m no expert but I have listened to talks by those who are. The reason the dynamics have been different is that the situation is different. In particular Syria is an extremely synthetic country, one consisting of a variety of parties each of whom have their own military in waiting. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should — it’s basically Lebanon just before 1975. Those who have to live in Syria and to live with the consequences have been weighing the unpleasantness of Assad against the likely consequences if he goes and the system collapses, and have frequently concluded that they’d rather live in a society that basically functions than in fifteen years of civil war.

    So now things are changing? Let’s not be so quick to jump up and cheer. It’s still not clear the extent to which the change reflects a genuine cross-national belief in what the best way forward is, as opposed to the Chalabi-like whisperings of a few specific individuals.
    It’s not like America has such a great history of regime change in the recent past. And a place like Syria is, let’s be quite honest, likely to suffer even more than Iraq from the gentle love of the US.
    – the greater the extent to which US involvement is covert, the greater the extent the US can just walk away when it feels like it
    – there’s no oil there, so who really cares what happens once the newspapers get sick of the war and we’re used to the idea that “oh, those syrians, they’ve been killing each other for years with no respite — why waste time trying to help them?”
    – Israel is probably thrilled with the idea of a permanently dysfunctional Arab state on its border. The more chaos goes on there, the more they can try to influence things their way. Heck here’s one solution to the Palestinian problem — ship them all off to Syria during their civil war.

    1. Syria is certainly a much more complex society than Libya. Older too; Damascus was a city a thousand years before London was more than a collection of huts.
      The civil war deserves much more attention than it’s been getting, whether on humanitarian of foreign policy grounds.

    2. Israel clearly isn’t thrilled. Yes, this distracts and may ultimately remove an implacable enemy. On the other hand, an enemy who could be held responsible for law and order at the border. As the Egyptian government, for example, increasingly isn’t capable of exercising responsibility for law and order in Sinai.

      By the way, luv that little projective ethnic cleansing fantasy at the end there. Yup, the Israelis are looking for a “solution” to the “Palestinian problem.” What’s next, a “final” solution? This is like Mearsheimer’s grotesque fantasy (and not only his) that Israel would use the Iraq war as a cover to expel all the Palestinian Arabs from the West Bank. Or Grass’s that it’s planning a nuclear first strike on Iran aimed at the annihilation of its people. The winking “heck” is aimed at excusing the content of this charge. Just a joke, or an offhand remark, you see. But it doesn’t Sad to say, I’m no longer surprised to hear this kind of drearily predictable evil from the mouths of people who should know better.

      1. Oh, Larry. I’m projecting, am I?

        “We walked outside, Ben-Gurion accompanying us. Allon repeated his question, What is to be done with the Palestinian population?’ Ben-Gurion waved his hand in a gesture which said ‘Drive them out!”
        — Yitzhak Rabin, leaked censored version of Rabin memoirs, published in the New York Times, 23 October 1979.

        “[Israel will] create in the course of the next 10 or 20 years conditions which would attract natural and voluntary migration of the refugees from the Gaza Strip and the west Bank to Jordan. To achieve this we have to come to agreement with King Hussein and not with Yasser Arafat.”
        — Yitzhak Rabin (a “Prince of Peace” by Clinton’s standards), explaining his method of ethnically cleansing the occupied land without stirring a world outcry. (Quoted in David Shipler in the New York Times, 04/04/1983 citing Meir Cohen’s remarks to the Knesset’s foreign affairs and defense committee on March 16.)

        “[The Palestinians] are beasts walking on two legs.”
        — Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, speech to the Knesset, quoted in Amnon Kapeliouk, “Begin and the ‘Beasts,”‘ New Statesman, June 25, 1982.

        “The past leaders of our movement left us a clear message to keep Eretz Israel from the Sea to the River Jordan for future generations, for the mass aliya (=Jewish immigration), and for the Jewish people, all of whom will be gathered into this country.”
        — Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir declares at a Tel Aviv memorial service for former Likud leaders, November 1990. Jerusalem Domestic Radio Service.

        “(The Palestinians) would be crushed like grasshoppers … heads smashed against the boulders and walls.”
        — Isreali Prime Minister (at the time) Yitzhak Shamir in a speech to Jewish settlers New York Times April 1, 1988

        “Israel should have exploited the repression of the demonstrations in China, when world attention focused on that country, to carry out mass expulsions among the Arabs of the territories.”
        — Benyamin Netanyahu, then Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister, former Prime Minister of Israel, speaking to students at Bar Ilan University, from the Israeli journal Hotam, November 24, 1989.

        “It is the duty of Israeli leaders to explain to public opinion, clearly and courageously, a certain number of facts that are forgotten with time. The first of these is that there is no Zionism, colonialization, or Jewish State without the eviction of the Arabs and the expropriation of their lands.”
        — Ariel Sharon, Israeli Foreign Minister, addressing a meeting of militants from the extreme right-wing Tsomet Party, Agence France Presse, November 15, 1998.

        “Everybody has to move, run and grab as many (Palestinian) hilltops as they can to enlarge the (Jewish) settlements because everything we take now will stay ours…Everything we don’t grab will go to them.”
        — Ariel Sharon, Israeli Foreign Minister, addressing a meeting of the Tsomet Party, Agence France Presse, Nov. 15, 1998.

        Really. Against this sort of history, I am saying something outrageous?

        1. Needless to say there is a great deal of controversy over whether Netanyahu, for example, actually called in his 1989 speech for ethnic cleansing as you’ve alleged (or implied) here.

          In any case: Notwithstanding the fact that over the 45 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza there haven’t actually been any mass expulsions of the Palestinian Arabs, according to you, is the plan. And it will be carried out any second now. Just as soon as the Russians or the Chinese or we Americans or the Syrians or whomever do something that will provide sufficient distraction.

          At some point — let’s say after 45 years — the fact that something you believe some agent is champing at the bit to do, hasn’t actually happened, has to count as empirical evidence against the notion that it’s going to happen, or even that the agent in question is actually champing at the bit to do it. So for example if you allege that your friend has been plotting to kill you for the past 45 years, but in all that time and with many opportunities, in fact your friend hasn’t killed you — at some point we’d have to say that you’re probably wrong, that you’re friend isn’t in fact plotting to kill you. And we might reasonably start thinking that your reasons for believing that he’s plotting to kill you have more to do with you than with him.

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