Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The External Players

 International training and arming of the rebels is bearing fruit more rapidly than anticipated. For the first time, today the fighting has come near to the capital reaching as close as Qadsaya and al-Hama, about five miles from the centre of Damascus and the Syrian government has acknowledged that they face a full scale civil war. 

The NCF Syria research team identified the following developments as regards key international players:

The impact of the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi as President of Egypt cannot be overstated. There is an old saying in the Syrian street that runs, “What happens in Egypt happens in Syria”. And however irrational it may seem, because there is little direct parallel, the government of Syria is stunned. They look around and see the unrestrained glee on the face of Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, They assume the Islamist government in Turkey must be elated. They view, rightly or wrongly, their enemies the insurgents as Islamists and assume, with some justification, that the insurgents will be encouraged by the Morsi victory in Egypt. The Syrian government is very worried.

The United States, United Kingdom and France have continued to publicly condemn the Syrian government’s actions. Despite this, few concrete steps have been taken in formulating a response.  As members of NATO, these three states have been more directly affected by the situation in Syria since a Turkish military jet was shot-down by Syrian forces. Threats of a UN resolution have been made, but any attempt at action in the United Nations Security Council now seems irrelevant due to Russia and China’s commitment to the Assad government. Despite the public posturing, a genuinely effective response to Syria’s actions seems to have completely eluded the western powers. 
William Hague has called on the European Union to come together to look for a solution in Syria, perhaps tacitly acknowledging that any action through the United Nations seems difficult.
Susan Rice, the US envoy to the United Nations, described how the Security Council, “Continues to stand by, rather than to stand up to Syria”. She added that its inability to act decisively on the Syrian issue represented a “colossal failure” on the part of the UN. The Council will be briefed today (Tuesday, 26 June 2012) on the situation, and a new resolution is being drafted by western powers. In response to the downing of the Turkish jet, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton said in a written statement, “We will be consulting in New York with the Security Council, in Brussels with NATO and the EU, and in Geneva with special envoy Kofi Annan on next steps."
Recent polls conducted in European states show that support for military intervention is declining. This is especially the case in France, which is continuing to support the statements made by the USA and United Kingdom, and is ready to support any motion in the Security Council or at the European Union.
The United Kingdom’s insistence that the head of the Syrian Olympic Committee is banned from attending the 2012 Olympic Games is perhaps an example of how UK, if not western policy more generally towards Syria, is full of symbolism rather than substance.
The one issue of substance is that of the use of British Special Forces to train the rebels. Libyan volunteers alongside Syrian rebel fighters are receiving training from British and French special forces along the Turkish border. Presumably these are the ones training the rebels in the use of IEDs (improvised explosive devices). If so it is a practice that will cost regional allies like Turkey dear in forthcoming years as instability spreads in the region and they reap the whirlwind.

 The Turkish military overstepped the mark when they sent an air force jet into Syrian airspace on a reconnaissance mission. The Syrians shot the jet down. The jet was in Syrian airspace. Russia has made it abundantly clear that the future status of the world geopolitical order depends on how the Syrian issue is handled – and has said so in public and on the record. Russia is sending its crack Special Forces to Syria direct from Chechnya. Turkey’s Nato allies are in a fervour making sure that Turkey does nothing to escalate a nice proxy civil war into a full on international conflict. The West need not worry. Turkey itself is terrified of a war with Syria. Not that it could not win it but it would pay a considerable price in so doing and might end up being painted, in Syrian eyes at least, as the bad guy. Plus it would give the Kurds an opportunity to cause internal trouble in multi-ethnic Turkey. Turkey is walking on eggshells at the moment.

Russia is readying itself to resend the ship carrying three attack helicopters to Syria. The initial attempt was blocked by the UK after a British insurance company, Standard Club, refused to insure the MV Alaed after pressure on the company from the UK government who suggested they would be breaking international sanctions on Syria. The ship is being reflagged to sail on Sunday under escort.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russiya-1 TV that the consignment is part of a long-standing contract dating from 2008 for the “overhaul of Soviet-era helicopters, which were delivered to Russia and repaired and these helicopters were transported to Syria in knock-down condition.”
Lavrov said that the ship was also “Carrying air defence systems, which can only be used for repelling foreign aggression and not against peaceful demonstrators”. He added that Russia had not violated any international law in exporting arms to Syria.
The Foreign Minister also rebuked David Cameron for claims that Russia had changed its stance to accommodate the possibility of Assad leaving power. He reiterated the Russian public view that the international community “should not interfere in Syrian affairs from the outside, should not prejudge the agreements that have to be met by the Syrians, but try to bring them to the negotiating table”.
Russia will push for an international conference on Syria and has already discussed the subject with the EU, Jordan, Iraq and Iran.

 Israel welcomed Vladimir Putin on a state visit this week; Tel Aviv will look to use its strong relations with Russia to place diplomatic pressure on two fronts – Iran and Syria.
Publically, Israel has shown support to the people of Syria and condemned the ‘genocide’ committed by Bashar al-Assad. President Peres stated that “Assad stopped being an alternative when he started firing at his children”. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has urged the international community to stop the violence.
Privately, given the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in Egypt, Israel is worried at the prospect of similar developments in Syria. It fears that a power vacuum will allow extremist elements (such as Al-Qaeda), or at the very least a Sunni majority, to rule Syria. Israel claims also to be worried by the “possible stockpile of chemical weapons” in Syria falling into extremist hands. A NCF Israeli source told us that Tel Aviv is closely watching the developments in Syria, but given the current relative calm along its borders, Israel will not support attempts to force the departure of Assad without Russian backing for fear of destabilising the country and the region.
Israel is using Putin’s current trip to pressure Russia to stop the sale of arms to Syria. Haaretz reported that President Peres presented Putin with a proposal to put Syria under the control of the UN and Arab League for two years until democratic elections can be held.
Putin has told Israeli officials that he is not obligated to Assad but that Russia has strategic ties with Syria which it wants to preserve. Putin also warned the West on gambling on a post-Assad government: “With regard to Syria, one must think carefully whether the opposition that will rise to power will be what the West wants it to be, or whether it will end up being totally the opposite."
Israel is also opposed to Russia’s insistence on including Iran in any international talks on Syria.

Libya was one of the first countries to recognize the Syrian National Council as the country's legitimate authority and support the Syrian cause. Libyan volunteers have joined the Free Syrian Army and some have been killed.
Libyan volunteers receive training alongside Syrian fighters from British and French Special Forces along the Turkish border.
Last march Russia also accused Libya of not only sending fighters but arming the rebels and running training centres in the country.  "We have received information that in Libya, with the support of the authorities, there is a special training centre for the Syrian revolutionaries and people are sent to Syria to attack the legal government," Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, told the UN Security Council. Libya denied this accusation and said that if there were any training centres in the country it was without the authorities’ knowledge. Although Libya denied this fact, it has always publicly supported the Syrian cause and has said that it would donate money (US$100 million) to support the opposition.
But Libya has not only provided the Syrian opposition with money and fighters to overthrow Assad, it has also welcome thousands of Syrian refugees into Libya and has sent humanitarian aid to Jordan where the number of registered refugees is increasing.

Lebanese concern is on the increase as tensions within Syria continue to spill across the border, and threaten to reignite sectarian conflict between Salafis and Alawites in Lebanon. Problems have also been caused by the huge influx of Syrian refugees, but Hezbollah’s strong support for Assad’s government continues.
Hezbollah is playing a difficult balancing act. Hezbollah realises that a post-Assad Sunni government in Syria may lead to confrontation, a likely outcome since Sunni rebels have denounced Hezbollah as an enemy. None the less, their leader Hassan Nasrallah has called for the violence in Syria to stop. Hamas, Hezbollah’s ally, has distanced itself from the Assad government, closing their office in Damascus, and announcing their neutrality.
Meanwhile, the Alawites in Northern Lebanon call for the Syrian army to stem the flow of arms to Syria. These calls enrage the Salafis, who help with the arms supplies. Tension between the two groups has been further exacerbated by assorted acts of violence. 
Most of the violence is centred on Tripoli, where the Alawite population is pro Syrian government and the opposition have set up bases. It is also where a series of murders and abductions have been reported, which people accuse the Lebanese government of assisting with. Residents of Tripoli and Northern Lebanon tell horror stories of the arbitrary power exhibited by the Lebanese government in collaboration with the Syrian Security forces. In fact, many Syrians declare the North of Lebanon to be as dangerous as Syria itself, because of the sectarian tensions.
Another cause of the increased tension in Lebanon is the huge number of Syrian refugees who have crossed into Northern Lebanon. They remain unemployed, and poorly treated, without a refugee camp as in Jordan and Turkey.

 Relations between Syria and Jordan soured slightly this week after Jordan granted asylum to an air force Colonel, who flew his plane to Jordan. Since the start of the Syrian conflict, Jordan has tried hard to stay clear of either side, since Syria is an important trading partner.
In the past, Syria has accused largely Sunni Jordan of stirring up unrest with Sunnis within Syria. The defection of the pilot to Jordan is regarded as highly embarrassing by the Assad government. The Syrian Defence Ministry has ordered the return of the plane. Jordanian officials have issued statements saying Col Hassan Mirei al-Hamadeh was given asylum on humanitarian grounds, a small dig at the Syrian government and an indication that the Jordanians may be quietly sympathetic towards the Syrian majority.
Jordanians worry that the Syrian refugees (estimated at around 150,000 to date), when combined with existing Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, mean that refugees way outnumber the native Jordanians. Furthermore, by accepting such a huge influx of Syrian refugees, Jordan runs the risk of embarrassing the Assad government, which Jordan depends on for most of its wealth. For the first six months of the conflict, the Jordanian government referred to the Syrian refugees as ‘guests’, and still refuses to recognize a UNHCR refugee camp set up at the Syrian border.
This stance is influenced by many in Jordan’s northern governorates, who are mostly pro- Assad, and are strongly against allowing more Syrian refugees into the country.

 As reported above, Syrians are not the only ones fighting against Assad. Some Spanish citizens have also gone to fight and one has already died. The motivation behind this is to support their “Muslim brothers” against the atrocities committed by the government, as others did before in Bosnia, Iraq or Afghanistan. Rachid Hussain Mohamed, from Ceuta, was one of them. He died a week ago in Syria. He left Ceuta last April together with Mustafá Mohamed Layachi and Mustafá Mohamed to join the Syrian resistance. The Spanish police are now investigating the cases of other citizens who also left and may have died in the jihad.
Rachid left without giving any explanations about his trip and when he spoke to his family through msn messenger, he never gave any information about what was happening. All they knew was that he had to spend a month in Turkey before arriving in Damascus.
According to the CNI, the Spanish Intelligence Service, the Spanish volunteers had very clear instructions on what to do and who to contact on their arrival. The intelligence services are now investigating whether Rachid and his friends attended regular meetings with members of the extremist sect Takfir Wal Hijra, one of the most violent Islamic groups; and whether it was they who organised their trip and arranged their contacts in Syria.
Although his family denies any link with Islamic jihad or any terrorist groups, he used to go to a mosque linked to the Jamaat Tablighl group.  According to El Pais, one of the Talibans who trained in Afghanistan under Bin Laden and who was imprisoned in Guantanamo lives close to Rachid’s home. Salafism is spreading in poor areas of Ceuta and Melilla, where unemployment and school abandonment rates are high. This encourages radicalism amongst the young population. Rachid and his friends were between 24 and 30 years old.
The CNI is now trying to get as much information as possible regarding the organisation of the trip and connections with other jihadists from Morocco. It seems like they all got into Syria from the Western provinces of Turkey where the Free Syrian Army has freedom of movement. However Colonel Ryad el Asad (FSA) has denied any presence of foreigners in his forces and claims that the presence of jihadists can only damage the uprising.

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