Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Syria - the External Players

NCF daily Report on Syrian Issue – External Players – Report dated 12 June 2012 (evening)

  • International calls for military intervention in Syria are growing.
The NCF Syria research team identified the following developments as regards key international players:


Since Francois Hollande’s election victory, the French government’s stance on Syria has not changed particularly. As Asad Hashim wrote before his ascendancy, “it is difficult to see the Socialist challenger making any major substantive changes” in terms of foreign policy, and this prediction seems to be accurate. It has, however, engaged with Russia in an attempt to further the progress of Kofi Annan’s ‘Six-point plan’ and seems to be in favour of allowing Iran to be present in any talks that occur. It has publically committed itself to the UN/Annan plan and continues to engage with a large range of Syrian opposition groups (more so than the US/UK which engage with a comparatively narrow spectrum of groups) and states in an attempt to seek a resolution to the conflict.


Despite conflicting ideological values, Iran and Syria’s strategic aims have resulted in their becoming close partners. Their relationship is one based on an “alliance of shared enemies and goals”. Kofi Annan’s proposals to create a ‘contact group’ will necessitate Iran’s inclusion. This has and will lead to problems in terms of the USA’s willingness to sit at the same table as Iran, with American representative Susan Rice describing the Islamic Republic as “part of the problem” rather than the solution.

Iran has provided riot and military equipment, and the well-publicised reports of a drone being used by the Syrian government in its attacks on June 11 may refer to a ‘Mohajer 4’ device that was acquired from Iran in 2006. Iran has been very supportive of the Syrian government, and is opposed to any western intervention in the country, with Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, commenting how any ‘interference’ could “endanger serenity and security in that country”.

Iran has provided direct assistance to the government and the security and intelligence services. Ismail Gha'ani, the deputy head of Iran's Quds force told Iran's semi-official Isna news agency on 27 May 2012: "If the Islamic republic was not present in Syria, the massacre of people would have happened on a much larger scale . . . Before our presence in Syria, too many people were killed by the opposition but with the physical and non-physical presence of the Islamic Republic, big massacres in Syria were prevented." The interview was quickly removed from the website.


Constituting 1.5 million people, the Iraqi refugees are an important, possibly pro-regime group. They are worried as to how the situation in Syria will evolve, fearing that a non-Baathist Syria would force them to unwillingly turn home.

However a new trend has seen Kurdish Syrians fleeing the violence back the other way into Iraq. The International Organisation for Migration has reported that more than 5,000 Syrian refugees have crossed into Northern Iraq, with numbers growing daily. The aid agency stated that most of the refugees are Syrian Kurds, who have paid as much as $300 to be smuggled into Iraq.

Internally, Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki survived a vote of confidence this week and the result will impact on Syria because Premier Malaki has strong personal ties with Syria’s Assad government which helped him during his years in exile. Iraq has been allowing Iranian weapons to transit through to Syria.


Israel’s ministers have started to adopt a less cautious stance and call for military intervention. The deputy head of Israel’s military, Maj Gen Yan Naveh claims that Syria has built up the biggest stockpile of chemical weapons in the world. The statement is a further effort to pressure the West to take more action in Syria.

Several members of the government have spoken out against the violence, condemning the ‘genocide’ being carried out by the Assad government. Deputy Prime Minister, Saul Mofaz, also criticised Russia for being irresponsible in continuing to arm the Syrian government.

Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said during his cabinet meeting that while Israel cannot be directly involved in Syria, it would look to the West and the United States to step up their efforts. Netanyahu also accused Iran and Hezbollah of “aiding the perpetrators” of the recent massacres in Syria.


Dozens of volunteer fighters from Kuwait have crossed the Turkish-Syrian border to fight alongside the FSA and foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Tunisia and Pakistan. The foreign volunteers are met at the border by the FSA, provided with weapons, Syrian identity cards in case of arrest and assigned to a rebel unit.


On Monday, at the first National Dialogue meeting in over 18 months, rival Lebanese politicians overcame divisions to agree to supply the Lebanese army with resources in an attempt to prevent the violence in Syria from spilling over the border into Lebanon. A statement said that there was agreement to "control the situation along the Lebanese-Syrian border and prevent the creation of a buffer zone in Lebanon or the use of Lebanon as a route, headquarters, or an area of smuggling arms or armed men". This is the first such national agreement on the Syria situation as Hezbollah stand in support of the Al-Assad government and other Lebanese factions against. The National dialogue meeting had the notable absences of both the former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea. Hariri was represented by Future Movement leader Fouad Siniora but Geagea said that the Lebanese Forces refuses to attend the dialogue. The next National Dialogue meeting has been scheduled for June 25.

Kidnappings continued to remain an issue with at least seven Lebanese and Syrian citizens kidnapped in northern Lebanon over the weekend. These retaliatory kidnappings occurred in the Wadi Khaled border region, where tensions have run high between supporters and opponents of the government in Syria. This comes as negotiations for the release of 11 Shia'a pilgrims kidnapped in Syria continue. The Syrian National Council had been involved in the negotiations, however in a

recent speech, Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah commented that former SNC Head Burhan Ghalioun had “complicated the issue” and the body would be withdrawing itself from negotiations. Despite this the release of both the Shia'a pilgrims and those kidnapped in Wadi Khaled looks close.


Like Saudi Arabia, Qatar is continuing to fund the Free Syrian Army. The US provides covert help in this process.

Meanwhile, Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamid bin Jassem al-Thani urged the international community to find a solution to the Syrian crises quickly. He stated that a ‘peaceful transfer of power [was] the preferred solution although other options exist’. He favours greater backing from Russia and China for Kofi Annan’s six-point plan, and a ‘Chapter VII’ UN Security Council resolution that would allow the international community to coerce compliance, through force if necessary.


Russia celebrated its ‘national day’ today (June 12), giving the Syrian press agency, SANA, an opportunity to state that, “Russia has always announced its support to Syria (sic) in the face of Western and regional bids that use terror as a way to interfere in its internal affairs in order to impose political agendas that oppose the Syrian people’s interests”.

Igor Sevastyanov, Deputy CEO of Rosobornexpert, Russia’s state-controlled arms trader, described how there could “not be talk about any violations by Russia or Rosoborn” over the sale of Pantsyr mobile guns and missile air defence systems, as they are “self-defence rather than attack weapons”. Moscow seems intent on continuing to export arms to Syria, which is its seventh-largest military client. Russia’s only naval base on the Mediterranean Sea is situated in the city of Tartus. The Russians are providing Syrian government forces with intelligence.

In addition to this, SANA explains on its website that Russia also provides Syria with “oil products, chemical and organic materials, minerals, woods, fertilizers, trucks and corn”, as well as invaluable support at the United Nations.

Russia keeps arguing against a military intervention or the implementation of tougher sanctions. Though Sergey Lavrov has said that Russia is 'not wedded to Assad' but that is up to the Syrians to decide what they want.

Last Thursday Russia called for a UN conference to help resolve the conflict. Russia wants Iran to be part of the conference. But Susan Rice, US Permanent Representative to the UN, has said that Iran cannot be part of the solution because “Iran is part of the problem”. Lavrov travels to Teheran tomorrow to talk about his proposal.
A third “Friends of Syria” meeting will take place in Paris on 6 July, and will include 50 countries but not Iran. France's foreign ministry claimed that “The Iranian regime until now has without fail supported Bashar al-Assad and the bloody repression of his people . . . It is not possible to have it associated with resolving the Syrian crisis." Russia has said that meetings like these one won't help resolve the situation as the only goal of this group is to remove Assad from power and exclude Iran from any conversations. Hence the call for a UN conference. Even Kofi Annan 'hopes Iran can be part of the solution'.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has been paying the salaries of members of the Free Syrian Army. Some ultraconservative Salafi Sheikhs in the kingdom are running their own military network. Volunteer fighters from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Algeria, Tunisia and Pakistan have arrived in Syria to fight alongside the FSA. Money from the kingdom is being used to buy weapons on the black market. Saudis are providing light weaponry, but some anti-tank weapons are also starting to arrive. Calls for an increase in volunteers to fight against the Assad government have been gaining momentum on Saudi social media.

However, some of the Saudi establishment fear the radicalisation of young men from the cross border tribes. This has prompted Sheikh Ali al-Hakimi, member of the Council of Senior Saudi Ulema, to issue a fatwa banning Saudis from entering Syria to fight without prior approval from the government.


Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD) said that there were now 28,139 Syrians refugees in Turkey after fleeing clashes in their country. Currently, 6,949 Syrians are staying in Hatay, 5,649 in Gaziantep province (Nurdagi-Islahiye), 10,445 in Kilis and 4,946 in Sanliurfa province (Ceylanpinar), AFAD said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called for Turkey and Iran to be included in a ‘Friends of Syria’ summit to be hosted by France in July. The call for Turkey to be included is a clear recognition by Russia of Ankara’s importance in the crisis. Previously, Turkey has called for humanitarian zones to be created along its borders to protect its population and the Syrian refugees. However, no such rhetoric has been heard from Ankara recently, with many believing the reason to be pressure from the US. The US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone, has reiterated the importance of Turkey in working with the US to reach a solution in Syria.

Some Syrian rebels have been trained and armed by Turkey.

The stretch of border near the Turkish village of Guvecci is used as a route into Turkey by Syrian rebels to smuggle refugees, wounded civilians and fighters and has been torched by Syrian forces this week.

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom again ruled out military intervention in Syria. William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, stated on June 12 (today) that "we are not looking for any foreign military intervention. I think we should not think about it in terms of another Libya.” There seems, however, to be little faith in the success of Kofi Annan’s UN-sponsored plan for Syria, and so quiet planning about strategy after its potential failure seems to be one of the primary concerns of British policymakers.

At the beginning of May Britain started to replace its entire Syria team. The new team is led by Jon Wilkes (formerly UK ambassador to Yemen) assisted by Christian Margets. The new team has remained largely silent so far, liaising with none of the Syrian opposition, nor anyone else. Presumably they have been tasked with looking at options should the Annan mission fail.
William Hague compares the situation in Syria to Bosnia in the 1990s. Hague wants Russia to put more leverage on Syria. While he supports the idea of an international conference that can guarantee political transition, he is not entirely sure about Iran's involvement in this conference. “Iran is a country that has actively supported the Assad regime, we know they’ve given them technical support, they’ve given them advice on how to suppress protest and they probably support them in many other ways that we can’t see. So a country there at the table that is there just to preserve the Assad regime and thereby continue the killing wouldn’t be a very good basis for such a conference. But of course we will keep talking to the Russians about how we can do this because international unity behind a plan, behind an actual plan of action and a transition in Syria is, as I say, the, the only way to actually bring the killings to an end.”


The USA has again claimed that it favours a UN-backed diplomatic settlement to the situation in Syria rather than military intervention. Jay Carney, Whitehouse Spokesman, stated how any direct military action by the international community would lead to "greater chaos, greater carnage." So, it seems that funding rebel groups and a more ‘covert’ strategy is favoured by the Obama administration, with American drones purportedly providing intelligence for the ‘rebels’. The US has repeatedly called for wider sanctions to be put in place, but reluctance on the part of key players such as Russia to abide by these make their imposition complicated.

The USA is seeking help from allies in the region such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to help distribute funds and military equipment to the ‘Free Syria Army’, who have been increasingly effective, and control a considerable amount of territory, but are also loosely organised and with little ideological cohesion. In summary, the USA is publically pursuing a policy of diplomacy, whilst also engaging in a ‘covert war’ by providing opposition groups with military equipment and intelligence.

The Henry Kissinger line runs strong in the USA which goes: “While the United States accelerates withdrawal from military interventions in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan, how can a new military commitment in the same region be justified, particularly one likely to face similar challenges?”


The Russians are attempting to construct “a pro-Assad diplomatic bloc”, of which Venezuela is a key member. The South American state, led by Hugo Chavez, provides backing for the Assad government with resources (notably fuel and oil supplies) and banking facilities. Fuel shipments, logistical support and public statements of support are the full extent of Venezuela’s involvement in Syria at the moment.

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