Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What the World is Thinking

NCF daily Report on Syrian Issue – External Players – Report dated 19 June 2012 (evening)

           International calls for military intervention in Syria are waxing and waning with confusing rapidity. The international community has stepped up its support for the insurgency and, for the moment, that will be as far as it goes until we see how the civil war develops and allow the Annan initiative to play out.
The NCF Syria research team identified the following developments as regards key international players:

Obama and Putin G20 in Mexico
Assad and Putin


Yesterday, Monday 18th June, the two presidents of the former Cold War superpowers issued a joint statement that there should be a ‘cessation of hostilities’, and said almost nothing more. No progress at all was made in the talks and discussion between the two leaders did not get past the shared desire for an end to the violence. They expressed support for the UN peace plan and little more. Their respective (and in the US case covert) arming of different factions in Syria seems to contradict the proclaimed shared goal of peace.

NCF sources tell us that the only other thing that was agreed was to intensify communication between their two governments. Obama could not get Putin to agree that a change of government was necessary in Syria, with Putin firmly standing by Russia’s former cold war ally.
The meeting concluded with a statement by both Russia and the US that the Syrian people should have the democratic right to choose the direction of their country, not, as the US had wanted, a statement urging the Syrian president, Bashar Al-Assad to step down. In fact, Bashar Al Assad was not referred to by name at all in the statement, neither were tougher trade sanctions nor an arms embargo that the US had been pushing for. 
Relations between Russia and the US have been strained over the past few months. Russia is wary of US motives in the Middle East ever since the military intervention in Libya. Republican hopeful Mitt Romney denouncing Russia as ‘America’s biggest threat’ is exacerbating those tensions. At the G20 summit, body language between the two presidents was unfriendly and awkward. 
None the less, there has been a slight change in the Russian position in the past month. Russia has started condemning violence in Syria; a month ago, Russia refused to even denounce the violence.

Hillary Clinton had declared that the US would practice a policy of non intervention, (reiterated on 20th May to a group of Danish students). Clinton had cited Russia and China’s refusal to allow military intervention as a main factor as to why US intervention in Syria was not possible. She concluded that the United States was not prepared for intervention other than to “alleviate suffering”. The latest US commitment to non intervention came one week after the Houla massacre where more than 100 Syrian civilians were killed.
Then almost overnight there was a shift. The US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey declared there to be a possibility of US military intervention if it were “asked by Syria”. This declaration came as Hillary Clinton insisted upon increased necessity for military intervention outside the UN sphere. In addition, James Rubin, Assistant Secretary of State declared intervention in Syria would be a “risk worth taking”, as it would dislodge Iran, who he claimed destabilized the region.

Meanwhile, there are seismic shifts in the US diplomatic service. We are all well aware that Hilary Clinton will soon be on her way out (she will step down after the US presidential elections later this year). Now the seasoned diplomat in charge of Mid East policy, Jeffrey Feltman, has stepped down as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, and has been appointed as the new UN political chief, replacing B. Lynn Pascoe who served in the post for five years.  Feltman has himself been replaced by US diplomat, Elizabeth Jones as Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.

The supply of arms to either side of the Syrian conflict had been condemned by the US government. Republican Mitt Romney, however, declares that the Syrian opposition should be armed, in contrast to the Obama administration’s official take on the conflict. Hillary Clinton accused Russia of supplying attack helicopters to the Assad government, provoking Russia to call the US hypocritical (though contrary to press reports, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, did not actually declare the US to be supplying arms to Syria, but to the surrounding region, possibly in  reference to Bahrain).


Despite apparently being ‘tiny’ and ‘frayed’, the Russian naval base of Tartus has become a focus for international attention.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has stated that “external factors should do their best to stop the bloodshed and support a compromise involving all parties to the conflict”. What he and Russia seem against is a UN resolution that effectively allows western support for one party in the conflict to prevail, as was the case in Libya.

As of 13.00 BST today, a Russian vessel off the coast of Scotland has been stopped on its way to Syria. It is reported to be carrying ‘attack helicopters’, and has been halted by the British who called the vessel’s insurance into question. As of 16.30 BST, Russia has confirmed that it is sending marines to Syria, and various sources have told Interfax that the warship, Kaliningrad, will also be deployed in the coming days. The timing of announcements regarding this Russian increase in support for Syria is in major part a response to the clumsy action by its cold war enemy, the UK.


Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan held talks with both Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin at the two-day G20 conference in Mexico. This as Turkey becomes increasingly concerned with the escalation of violence in Syria, and more specifically the numbers of refugees coming across the border to Turkey, with some 30,000 having entered the country so far. A policy being investigated by the Turkish government is the establishment of a ‘safe-zone’ on the border with Syria. But it is unlikely. As Jody Sabral writes in the Huffington Post, “Turkey is already fighting a civil war, the last thing it needs is to go to war with its neighbour”.


Lebanon’s conflicts have always been influenced by Syria. In Northern Lebanon, in the seaside town of Tripoli, tensions between fundamentalists, civilians and the Lebanese State have turned bloody. The Salafists in that region of Lebanon hate the Syrian Government. The primary aim of this small Islamist group is to set up a new Caliphate (religious Kingdom) in Greater Syria, as advocated by Osama bin-Laden. So now that the Syrian uprising has gathered steam, Salafists have used the opportunity to take up arms and put pressure on the Alawites in Tripoli. The Salafists are based in the neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the pro-Assad Alawites in the adjacent neighborhood of Jebel Mohsen. Both neighborhoods are separated by a street they call Syria Street.
Free Syrian Army forces in Syria and their sympathisers in Saudi Arabia aid the Salafists and vice versa. Weapons are smuggled from Lebanon to Syria via this group and an arsenal of semi-automatic sniper rifles were smuggled back into Lebanon by the Free Syrian Army to the Salafists. This has caused violence to escalate between Salafists and Alawites, as snipers monitor the streets of Tripoli from rooftops. A Lebanese Government intervention was mobilized in Tripoli on May 12th as fighting between both groups caused a dozen deaths and hundreds more injured. Two other notable deaths occurred on May 21st during an anti-Assad protest in Beirut. Ahmed Mohammad Abdel Wahed, a Sunni cleric and Mohamed Mraib, another activist caught up in the incident were subject to ‘intentional assassination’ by Lebanese forces loyal to the Assad Government. The protests and fighting closely mimic that in Syria as a political war turns into a sectarian conflict.
Meanwhile tension between Sunnis and Shias in the rest of the country is increasing. Hezbollah being Shia, and supported by the Assad family, is pro-Syrian Government while much of the Sunni population in Lebanon are pro-opposition (the Syrian opposition in Syria being predominantly Sunni). This has created tensions between both sects. Fortunately, there has not been much blood spilt in the capital Beirut (two deaths) since the beginning of the conflict, which is surprising knowing how tensions in Lebanon can rapidly escalade into an armed conflict.
Though protests in Lebanon mirror the inherent fear that the Sunnis have of the Shias, on a micro level they also feed on worries about the cooperation between Hezbollah and the Syrian Government. Hezbollah is undertaking a massive military coordination with Syria and Iran as a precaution against the spread of the Syrian uprising throughout the Middle East. The Lebanese Government itself is caught in the middle between the Syrian uprising and the growing tensions in Lebanon. It remains reluctant to interfere. However, some major Lebanese political figures such as Walid Jumblatt (head of the Progressive Socialist Party in Lebanon) are strongly anti-Assad.
Regarding the Shiite pilgrims taken hostage by Syrian opposition, it has been clear that this act was meant as a warning to Hezbollah. Negotiations are still ongoing between the Lebanese Government, the Turkish Government (who have now weighed in heavily) and those elements of the Syrian opposition responsible. The negotiations have remained secret so far. Meanwhile in Lebanon, families of the pilgrims are conducting peaceful protests at Beirut International Airport waiting for the outcome and urging the Lebanese Government for more transparency in regard to the affair.


Iran has proved the Syrian Government’s second biggest ally after Russia. Russia seems more willing to acquiesce to work with the UN and the Western powers whereas Iran refuses to ally itself with the United States (a source of comfort to the United States who considers Iran one of its greatest enemies).
Syria is pivotal to the supply of arms from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Loosing this pathway because of the fall of the Government would be a major setback for Iran and would in turn be to the advantage of Israel.
Iran has not stopped supporting Assad and has left its mark on the Syrian uprising with the flow of arms, money and men bound for Syria each day. An Iranian drone has even been used for Syrian Government surveillance missions to target the opposition in the city of Homs.
Meanwhile, as long as Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar continue to back the rebels, Iran will continue to fight its proxy war with Saudi Arabia and her allies by arming the Syrian establishment.


Both Germany and France agree that violence in Syria should end and that a new government should be formed. According to German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, the international community must back the UN plan and put more political pressure on Assad in order to make him step down and allow more humanitarian aid in the country. The German Foreign Minister made clear in an interview with Interfax on the 20th May that Germany is against military intervention in Syria.
 “From Germany‘s point of view, discussions of a military option are counterproductive. As a matter of fact, such options are not being discussed by NATO either," he said.
However, France’s new President’s remarks on the 29th of May on French Television clearly surprised and irritated her German neighbours. François Hollande stated that due to the escalation of violence in Syria “foreign intervention under the auspices of the UN could not be ruled out”. He gave the example of Libya by way of justification for his remarks. This came during a week when many European countries, including France, were expelling their Syrian ambassadors after the massacre in Houla.
François Hollande appears to want to take the initiative in European policy on Syria and enhance France’s role the international arena.
French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, has been less explicit and has not implied that France was supporting intervention in Syria. He has called for the Syrian government and the opposition forces to put an end to the violence and respect Annan’s plan and asked together with other European countries and the US, to see sanctions hardened against the country.


Two Saudi trade bodies have refused to meet with a visiting Russian business delegation in protest against Russian support for the Syrian government. There has been a growing campaign on Saudi social media against the Saudi Russian meeting. Abdul Rahman Al Jaraisi, the head of the chamber of commerce in Riyadh, said,
“We refused to meet because we wanted to convey the message from the Saudi business community and from Saudi Arabia that we have reservations about the unfair and unjust way they have been dealing with Syria [...] Russia will be the greatest loser and if they stop exporting iron or wheat, we will not lose anything. There are Saudi substitutes for the iron and several other countries are ready to export to us iron and wheat.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, Saudi Arabia continues to work with the CIA and Qatar to provide logistical routes for supply, communications training and movement of arms for the FSA. King Abdullah has been in contact with President Obama to talk about the Syrian crisis.


Israeli Arabs have shown their opposition to Assad by erecting billboards in Nazareth. The prominent signs read, "Al-Assad Hiyuwan", meaning the "The Lion is an Animal". One of the campaigners stated, "We thought that the silence or the half-hearted condemnations being heard from the Arab community in Israel are grave and unforgivable.”
The Islamic Movement in Israel supports the revolution and an overthrow of Assad's government. Balad and Ra'am-Ta'al (Israel’s two main Arab political parties) oppose the Syrian government, but have held few demonstrations against it. Hadash sympathizers and activists (Hadash is the Jewish / Arab socialist front) who have a secular, nationalist and liberal outlook, oppose external intervention in Syria. They feel change must come from within, through reform and elections.
The Israeli Arab campaign follows vocal criticism of the international effort in Syria from Prime Minister Netanyahu and Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh. Both stated last week that the international community must do more to end the violence amid Israeli concerns that the Syrian government may have built a stockpile of chemical weapons.

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