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March 27, 2013

Syria and the Dogs of War

September 28, 2012 by

Free Syrian Army fighter in central Aleppo, Syria. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

“Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war, That this foul deed shall smell above the earth, With carrion men, groaning for burial”

– William Shakespeare

“Blood and destruction,” “dreadful objects,” and “pity choked” was the Bard’s searing characterization of what war visits upon the living. It is a description that increasingly parallels the ongoing war in Syria, and one that is likely to worsen unless the protagonists step back and search for a diplomatic solution to the 17-month old civil war. From an initial clash over a monopoly of power by Syria’s Baathist Party, the war has spread to Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq, ignited regional sectarianism, drawn in nations around the globe, and damaged the reputation of regional and international organizations.

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Post-Assad Syria: A Region in Turmoil

August 21, 2012 by

Syrian fighter during fighting in Aleppo, Syria. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Syria is in dire straits. The once regal and prosperous cities of Damascus and Aleppo have now become the primary battlefields of the Syrian Army against opposition forces. Since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, the calm and serenity of both Damascus and Aleppo were often touted by the Syrian regime to the world as indicators of Syrian stability.  The swift change from peace to turmoil however, has happened almost overnight, with President Assad describing the current battle in Aleppo as decisive of Syria’s fate.

The massive explosion which occurred on July 18 in the heart of the Syrian regime’s security organization in Damascus killed a number of people within Assad’s security and military inner circle, shocking the Syrian government and severely shaking the stability of the regime’s pillars.

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Barack Obama’s ‘Intelligence Finding’ and the Syrian Civil War

August 12, 2012 by

President Obama with senior advisors in the Oval Office. Pete Souza/White House

The revelation about President Barack Obama’s decision to provide secret American aid to Syria’s rebel forces is a game changer. The presidential order, known as an “intelligence finding” in the world of espionage, authorizes the CIA to support armed groups fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s government. But it threatens far more than the regime in Damascus.

The disclosure took its first casualty immediately. Kofi Annan, the special envoy to Syria, promptly announced his resignation, bitterly protesting that the UN Security Council had become a forum for “finger-pointing and name-calling.” Annan blamed all sides directly involved in the Syrian conflict, including local combatants and their foreign backers. But the timing of his resignation was striking. For he knew that with the CIA helping Syria’s armed groups, America’s Arab allies joining in and the Security Council deadlocked, he was redundant.

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Arab’s “Spring” or Turkey’s “Rise”?

August 10, 2012 by

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Kuwaiti Prime Minister Nasir al-Muhammad al-Ahmad al-Sabah attend a Turkish-Arab Relations Conference in Kuwait in 2011. Image via Kuwait-Ra’ed Qutena

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement that Turkey is changing the rules of engagement regarding Syria is more than a simple escalation of rhetoric: it reveals the extent to which the Turkish foreign policy has radically changed. From Turkey’s famous “zero problems” policy and “transformative diplomacy”, Turkey under the Justice and Development Party is resorting to active engagement.

With the sharp deterioration of Turkish-Syrian relations, Ankara is trying to seize the opportunity of the strategic vacuum and the weakness of its Arab rival, Syria, not only to take part in shaping the future of a “new” Middle East, but also to enhance Ankara’s influence in its historical Ottoman territory and impose itself as a regional power with global ambitions.

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Syria: Has the United States Abandoned the Rebels?

August 10, 2012 by

A Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover during clashes in Aleppo, Syria. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

At the start of the Syrian uprising the Obama administration had lauded the uprising as a positive step and emphasized the need for Assad to step down. While still insisting that Assad must go, there is every indication that the United States is weary of throwing its full weight behind the rebel movement to unseat Assad and the administration is now being accused of throwing the Free Syrian Army and the rebels under a bus.  

Since the onset of the Arab Spring, with Syrians clamouring for democracy and democratic institutions in the region, and eventually taking up arms against the Assad regime, the nearly 17-month-old uprising against the Assad government has turned into an all-out conflict with no end in sight.

As the US support behind revolutions in North Africa proved very decisive, particularly in Libya, the Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad’s government were initially optimistic that the United States would intervene.

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In the Event of an All-Out Conflict in Syria who stands to Gain?

August 8, 2012 by

Syrian Independence Flag behind a Free Syrian Army fighter. Image via Freedom House

Is the Syrian civil war going to spiral into an all-out conflict? If the West decides to become involved beyond offering tertiary support as it is doing now, and if war envelopes Syria with the government on one side and Western backed rebels on the other, who will fill the vacuum? If the Assad government falls, will radical Islamists take centre-stage thereby worsening Syria’s predicament and forestalling democracy? Will the United States use the insuing vacuum to pressure the Iranians even further into making concessions on the nuclear program?  What is unclear is how far the West is prepared to go to insure Assad’s downfall.

Many within the rebel movement are increasingly frustrated by what they see as a lack of resolve by the United States other than offering more than just words of encouragement. While the United States eventually pushed for and was successful in having a no-fly zone over Libya implemented months after that conflict started, the United States has been noticeably absent in the Syrian conflict.  A spokesman with a Free Syrian Army battalion told the Washington Post, “America will pay a price for this,” Yasser Abu Ali said.

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Syria’s Descent Raises Disturbing Questions

August 2, 2012 by

Rebel fighter in the Jedida district of Aleppo, Syria. Image via Freedom House

While roundly condemned by human rights groups including Human Rights Watch, the apparent extra-judicial shooting of four Assad loyalists in Aleppo places the international community in a bind.

For months, several Middle Eastern states, the United States and others have funneled weapons, money and equipment to the rebels without knowing the full details of who exactly they dealing with. As the recipient of the aid, the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) members straddle the ideological spectrum, and include former Al Qaeda (AQ) fighters from Iraq. Not wanting to repeat its mistake in Libya last year, the US had been careful not to commit lethal assistance until it had a better idea who the FSA actually was.

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After Libya, the Focus turns to Syria

July 29, 2012 by

Syrian rebels with a captured Army tank. Image via Freedom House

In 1995, I had a rare opportunity to spend some time in Syria, where the Damascus Trade Fair was taking place. A normally secretive Arab country had opened its doors to a select group of Western journalists, businessmen and officials. The event was aimed at showing glimpses of a rich mix of civilizations going as far back as between 9000 and 11000 B.C., described as a Hidden Pearl of the Orient. Syria today has Muslims, Shia and Sunni; Assyrian-Syriac Christians, ethnic Kurds and Turkmen in the north; Druze in the south.

People of all ethnic and religious groups live in Aleppo, the country’s most populated city. For centuries, Aleppo was the largest urban center in Greater Syria and the third largest in the Ottoman empire, after Constantinople and Cairo.

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Backing Horses: The Syrian Civil War

July 18, 2012 by

Syrian rebel fighter in Damascus, Syria. Image via Freedom House

While the Russians are being painted as international law’s bogeymen, indifferent to choosing sides in a conflict when the only side to pick can only ever be that of peace, the Syrian opposition forces are nibbling, if not slaughtering their way, into view with their recent killings in Damascus. President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle has received a series of lethal blows in the National Security Building – four of them, according to rumour mill of press reports.

On Wednesday, Assad found himself one minister of defence and brother-in-law short. The latter was the infamous intelligence chief Assef Shawkat, though that itself has been disputed.

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Turkish-Syrian Relations Amid the Syrian Uprising

July 9, 2012 by

As turmoil continues in Syria, the international community continues to press for an intervention to stabilize the situation. As President of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party Bashar al-Assad refuses to relinquish his iron grip over Damascus’ government, more prominent world leaders are calling for him to resign. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has gone far enough to classify the Syrian Uprising as a full-blown civil war.  However, calls by the United States, European Union, and Arab League for any possible UN backed resolutions are being blocked by Russia and China.

With last year’s military intervention in Libya fresh in mind, Russia and China are cautious about any NATO activity in the region especially when their national interests are concerned.

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Obama’s Dwindling Options in Syria

June 14, 2012 by

As the Syrian conflict deepens, the Obama Administration is facing renewed calls to act before full-scale civil war erupts, with neo-conservatives in Washington pressing the administration to support anti-government rebels with military hardware.  The President has been unwilling to do so, he has every reason to be wary of engaging in yet another Middle East conflict with no end in sight, and no exit strategy.

Moreover, the President knows that such support would in the end likely prove futile, given China, Iran and Russia’s ongoing support for the Assad regime, the absence of unity among opposition groups, and the failure of the opposition to control any significant Syrian territory.

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Syrian Regime Change and the Kurdish Problem

May 30, 2012 by

Kofi Annan meets with President of Syria Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus. SANA/Reuters/UN

If Assad loses control of his armed forces and the regime loses its legitimacy as the expression of Syrian nationalism, the ingredients don’t seem there for a Lebanon-style civil war with local proxies armed by regional or global actors.

That’s because I don’t think that Russia, China, or even Iran see any upside in arming some Ba’ath regime generals of primarily Alawite backgrounds trying to beat back an insurrection powered largely by Syria’s dominant Sunni majority.  Alawites are estimated at 12% of Syria’s largely Sunni population and don’t look to do well if the Syrian uprising transforms into an explicitly sectarian confrontation.

Lebanon, on the other hand, is split between Christians, Sunnis, and Shi’ites with no one group holding a clear demographic advantage (especially since there hasn’t been an official census in Lebanon for decades), providing multiple opportunities for regional and global patrons to make mischief through their durable local proxies.

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In Response to Houla Massacre Australia Expels Syrian Diplomats

May 29, 2012 by

Children killed in the Houla massacre. Image via Freedom House

Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr has expelled the Syrian Charge d’Affairs Jawdat Ali Syrian in the wake of the Houla massacre that have reportedly seen 32 children massacred in Syria in recent days.  He has said that Australians are “appalled at a regime that could connive in or organise the execution, the killing of men women and children.” Jawdat Ali has 72 hours to leave Australia.

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What Syria is Teaching the West

April 22, 2012 by

It should come as little surprise to anyone that the fragile cease-fire in Syria has failed and is evidence that - contrary to what many pundits contend - the tide continues to be on Mr. Assad’s side, given the time that has passed, the fractured nature of the opposition, and the bungled manner in which the West has addressed the subject. As Syria demonstrates, with each passing month the Arab Awakening evolves in new and unexpected ways. The question is whether the West is evolving along with the Awakening, or will remain stuck in a unidimensional view of MENA.

As pressure mounts on foreign powers to consider intervening militarily in Syria, analogies are naturally being drawn between what NATO accomplished in Libya and whether something comparable may be possible in Syria. Military intervention would perhaps make the West feel better — knowing that it attempted to do something concrete to end the bloodshed — but it is unlikely to be successful for several reasons.

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An Unlikely Peace: Iran’s Quest for Nuclear Weapons is Likely to Lead to War

April 21, 2012 by

Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressing the Security Council. Rick Bajornas/UN

“It is not in our hands to prevent the murder of workers…and families…but it is in our hands to fix a high price for our blood, so high that the Arab community and the Arab military forces will not be willing to pay it.”

– Moshe Dayan as quoted in “Warrior: the autobiography of Ariel Sharon”

As Israel has faced the threat of Arab armies and Islamic terrorism throughout its history, it has struggled to maintain a strong deterrence in the Middle East, one that will prevent other countries in the region from continuing to attack and to kill Israeli citizens.

One of today’s most important issues in foreign affairs is Iran’s quest to obtain nuclear weapons and how their journey towards nuclear dominance in the Middle East might bring America and Israel into the conflict.

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