INTERNATIONAL RESPONSES TO THE EVENTS OF THE PAST WEEK:
TURKEY ON SYRIA
Turkey has committed more troops to the Syrian border. Turkey sees itself as having been consistently provoked many times: the shooting down of the Turkish aeroplane, the open help for the PKK (the PKK have more control over the north and this worries the Turks as if the PKK have Syria's northern border under control they can launch attacks into Turkey), and the rumours of Syrian chemical weapons on the Turkish border. But despite having a powerful army Turkey will not act nor agree to improve the situation of refugees. The NCF’s volunteer observer in Turkey is just back from the border. He comments: “Turkey has a large Arabic population in the south and this has probably caused concern amongst Turkish officials. As far as the refugee camps are concerned, some of the camps on the border are well run and others have appalling terrible conditions. There is not much information on the situation in the camps, as the Turkish government allows very limited access to them. I was sent away as I did not have a pass and when William Hague visited he was only shown very specifically prepared areas. Turkish authorities do not want the outside world to know what’s going on in the camps.”
Meanwhile Turkey is becoming frustrated at the Arbil Pact negotiated between the PKK’s Syria arm and the pro Barzani Syria faction, the Kurdish National Council. They have carved up the Kurdish areas of Syria, the KNC getting the area close to the Iraq border centred on Qamishli, the largest city in Kurdish-majority areas in Syria, and the armed PKK getting the rest. Mr Barzani's gamble may be paying off. Syrian security forces have already withdrawn from a number of Syrian Kurdish towns and a military unit trained by Mr Barzani's security forces, numbering close to 700 fighters, is expected to move into Qamishli.
The Turkish government now has a choice as to whether to engage in bombing campaigns like those they have carried out in northern Iraq against the PKK. Another reason for Turkish reluctance to commit troops on the ground in northern Syria (which Prime Minister Erdogan has not ruled out) is that this would provoke reaction from Iran and Russia.
The Turkish economy minister Zafer Caglayan has said the border points will be sealed because of deteriorating security. The sealing includes stopping Turkish trucks going into Syria however trucks leaving Syria will not be stopped but will be checked thoroughly. He says all routes for refugees will remain open and adds that Turkey has taken in over 40,000 refugees already.
USA ON SYRIA
The White House is working on its Syria policy, and thus far remains schizophrenic. Policy decisions are being led by National Security Council Advisor, Tom Donilon.
US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford argues for more direct aid to the Free Syrian Army. Whereas Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Senior Advisor Fred Hof argue for diplomatic strategies alongside closer liaison with the Islamist factions of the opposition under the Syrian National Council and at the same time adopting Turkish backed strategies.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta commented on Monday, July 30 that the Syrian army’s shattering assault on Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub, “will ultimately be another nail in Assad’s coffin.” This was an expression of the frustration generated by the failure of the bid to establish a safe haven in Aleppo which was thwarted by the Syria army’s 18th and 11th Divisions and parts of the 14th with massive air and artillery support.
The USG is interested primarily in "regime change" as part of its policy, in coordination or not with Israel, to disrupt Iran's strategic in-roads in the region. It is a dangerous policy. The war will continue in Syria, and in the end, it will be the minorities and moderate Sunnis who will be the greater victims.
The US has been unofficially engaged in overt 'covert' action for a few months since the President signed a secret order authorizing U.S. support for rebels seeking to depose Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and his government.
Obama's order, which is euphemistically called an intelligence 'finding,' broadly permits the CIA and other U.S. agencies to provide support that could help the rebels oust Asad.
This decision is in line with the US propensity to involve itself with almost every armed conflict in the world. Appropriate Congressional committee leaders have been "consulted" in private as required by law, but no war authorization bill will be forthcoming as the expenditures involved will be covered within current appropriations.
One would presume that the US has a game plan for Syria once Bashar is gone. The short and sure answer for that very critical point is, as one US diplomat privately told the NCF: "We don't."
THE UNITED NATIONS
Kofi Annan announces he will be leaving his post as UN-Arab League joint special envoy to Syria. That is to say that he will not be renewing his mandate when it expires at the end of August. Mr Annan blamed the in-fighting in the Security Council as well as the increasing militarisation of the conflict. Syrian opposition reaction was mixed with some welcoming and others lamenting his decision.
In a poignant article in the Financial Times, Kofi Annan explains why his mission failed. He writes of his frustration and says, “Transition means a managed but full change of government – a change in who leads Syria and how. We left the meeting (of the International Action Group on Syria) believing a Security Council resolution endorsing the group’s decision (to establish a transitional governing body for Syria) was assured – as the first in a series of measures that would signal a turning point.
“But since then, there has been no follow-through. Instead, there has been finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council.”
It's a pity that the UNSC never gave him the backing to follow-up on his April 12 cease-fire. We might have seen an entirely different scenario unfolding if the US and Russia could have found a way to coordinate their efforts rather than engage in the brick bats of verbal outrage which Susan Rice, in particular, is fond of tossing about.
France will take over presidency of the Security Council this week. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius says “We must try everything, even though Russia and China have blocked resolutions on three separate occasions."
On the humanitarian side, the UN has intensified its calls for restraint in an attempt to save the lives of the Syrian population. Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has strongly urged both sides to spare the lives of civilians. She expressed concern for “as yet unconfirmed reports of atrocities, including extra-judicial killings and shooting of civilians by snipers.” She has also issued a strong warning that those found guilty of such crimes will be held accountable, “Those who are committing them should not believe that they will escape justice. The world does not forget or forgive crimes like these... this applies to opposition forces committing crimes as well as to Government forces and their allies.” Valerie Amos, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, echoed these views, saying in a news release: “I call on all parties to the fighting to ensure that they do not target civilians and that they allow humanitarian organizations safe access to bring urgent and life-saving help to people caught up in the fighting.”
More recently, the UN has expressed serious concern that a convoy carrying the head of the UN observer mission, Lieutenant General Gaye, was attacked by Syrian tanks. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the situation as unacceptable. He also argued that a continuation of the fighting would lead to serious consequences for the wider region. Before this (Sunday) Lieutenant General Gaye had been taking part in his first field visit to Homs, where he observed the use of heavy weapons such as artillery and mortars.
The conflict in Aleppo has also raised concerns because of the city’s protected status as a World Heritage site. Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, this week released a statement urging all parties to “respect and protect Syria’s great cultural legacy, which constitutes a source of identity and fulfilment for its people, and to abide by their international obligations in the area of culture.” The UN also reacted to the issue of Syrian possession of chemical weapons. Ban Ki-moon voiced concern over the possible use of chemical weapons and said he hoped the international community would keep an eye on the situation. He also highlighted the worry that Syria is not a member of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Regrettably however the same is true of almost all nations of the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the former head of the UN observer mission, Maj Gen Robert Mood has predicted “It is only a matter of time before a regime that is using such heavy military power and disproportional violence against the civilian population is going to fall." However, he added that Bashar al Assad’s fall would not necessarily lead to an end in the conflict.
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has remained focused on the Syrian National Council (SNC), the Turkish based faction of the external opposition and would now like them to cooperate with the internal opposition, especially the LCC (Local Coordination Committees). The main goal is to make the SNC seem relevant to Syrians and facilitate dialogue between the parties. The UK Foreign Office faces two main challenges: to get those elements of the opposition that are FCO backed and approved to communicate and cooperate with each other and to work on a political transition. The Foreign Office runs “Arab Partnership”, a funding stream for the whole of the Middle East. They are currently focusing on the human rights and civil society dimension. They also have a media training initiative where they take activists out of Syria and train them in workshops hosted in countries like Lebanon or Turkey.
The Foreign Office still claims to believe that a political process (i.e. negotiation with the Syrian government) is the best solution but does little to support that process (and still claims the UK only provides “non-lethal” support for the rebels).
The FCO recognises Iran is a key regional player. Unfortunately however, the Foreign Office continues not to have any contacts with Iran.
Press TV sourced rumours that Saudi Arabia’s newly appointed intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was killed in a revenge attack by a Syrian intelligence death squad just won’t go away. The prince, son of the late crown prince Sultan, is alleged to have been killed in retaliation for the killing of four senior Syrians by a Saudi backed Salafist group, and has not been seen in public since Saudi General Intelligence headquarters in Riyadh was hit by a bomb blast Monday, July 23 killing his deputy, Mashaal al-Qarni.
However, the NCF’s own Saudi sources respond by saying, “Press TV – Give me a break” and then chuckle.
Spain, as a member of the EU, feels it must follow EU foreign policy. Spain recognises that credible negotiations are needed, but at the moment Spain does not think they seem possible. Spain would like to see the key international powers (i.e. USA and Russia) adopting a united front on Syria.
France took over the rotating presidency of the UNSC on Wednesday 1st of August. French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius condemned the Syrian government for its actions and asked the international community to act as soon as possible to halt the violence and prepare a transitional government. He called Bashar al-Assad the butcher of Syria. He openly denied any involvement in arming the rebels. “The Syrian army is making the most of his huge resources to commit the massacres,” he said.
Fabius made it clear that in spite of their scepticism, the international community must keep trying to resolve the conflict. According to him, France has taken the lead so far with humanitarian aid and the organisation earlier this month of the “Friends of Syria” meeting. Despite these initiatives, there is much more that needs to be done.
Fabious was worried about the involvement of extremist groups in the opposition. He said that while Russia and China seem very concerned about the “messy” future in a post-Assad era, there is no bigger mess than the current situation. He referred to the danger of not being active on the ground and letting extremist grow within the opposition. He was worried that the Syrian opposition could become a confessional movement and this could have terrible consequences for the country and the region. With a confessional opposition it will be very difficult to stop or diffuse the violence. Neighbouring countries like Lebanon, Jordan and even Turkey would suffer the spill-over effects of the Syrian conflict. In his view, this is not an internal conflict anymore hence the duty of the international community and especially of France to get involved.
He believes in a transitional government composed of members of both the internal and external opposition as well as members of the current government that have not been directly “involved” in the conflict.
With the heightened tensions between Syria and Turkey, and Turkish troops massing on the border, calls from Ankara to stop the PKK taking control in northern Syria have led to Iran issuing a warning that any intrusions into Syrian territory will be met with a harsh response.
The Iranians continue to claim the rebels are backed by a western, “Zionist” agenda. Energy Minister Nasser Soudani said that “a Zionist involvement in the war in Syria would mean that war would also cover the occupied territories”.
Top Iranian military general Brigadier General Masoud Jazeyeri has been quoted in several reports saying that although Iran has “resisted intervention in Syria but is keeping its options open”. Jazeyeri added that Iran cannot allow the enemy to advance.
In other reports a senior commander in the Iranian revolutionary guard has already said some Iranian fighters have gone to assist the Syrian army against the rebels.
The Israeli government has expressed concern over the biological weapons that Syria is believed to posses. The Israeli government has already started issuing citizens who live close to the Syrian border with gas masks. Ehud Barack Israeli defence minister has however played down a potential attack on Israel with chemical weapons claiming "no country would dare attack Israel with chemical weapons". Barack himself though has not ruled out an attack on Syrian forces if the chemical weapons were to fall into the hands of Hezbollah. But the Israel Defence Force chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz has cooled talk of a strike. Speaking to the Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee, Gantz claimed a strike would lead to a regional war and that Israel should act with caution and constraint.
Another concern for the Israeli government is the defence of the Golan Heights. The relatively quiet border under Assad may become a “base for radical extremists to flourish and launch attacks into northern Israel”.
On the other hand, with Assad gone the relationship between Iran and Syria could collapse and this would benefit Israel as weapons could not be transferred so easily to Hezbollah from Iran.