By Col. Robert Killebrew (U.S. Army, ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist
Few in the West understand the stakes in the Syrian rebellion.
For Iran, maintaining the Assad regime is a vital interest in its attempt to break out of its Persian Gulf isolation. For that reason, the Iranian mullahs have put skin in the game -- troops of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as well as Hezbollah fighters that are deployed alongside units of the Syrian regular army and irregular police forces -- and Iran shows every sign of being willing to do more. Barring any dramatic action by NATO or the United States, it is difficult to see how the Syrian opposition can prevail. The next two years may well see an emboldened Iran astride the Levant, a complaisant Assad regime propped up in power, Turkey and Jordan swamped with Syrian refugees, and Turkey and Israel confronted with a strengthened, hostile Iranian presence on their borders -- in Turkey's case, flanking a vulnerable Turkish salient extending across Syria and turning north along the current eastern border with Iran.
For Iran, propping up an Assad government in Damascus gives the mullahs access to an unmatched, dominating presence in the Levant -- that stretch of geography from Israel's southern border to eastern Turkey -- that touches every frontline Mideast country. As well, a Syrian-Iranian victory offers Iran an outlet to the Mediterranean and access to the near-obsolete Russian naval facility at Tartus, a base that has begun to figure again in Russian plans for its navy. Wars never really return to the status quo ante, and a victory for the Assad regime, and a concomitant rise in influence and access for Iran to this strategic geography, changes for the foreseeable future the power balances and political relationships in the region and perhaps the world.
The consequences of a Levant dominated by Iran and Iranian aggressiveness should be carefully considered. Any hope for Lebanese independence will be lost, and supply lines through Syria and the Bekaa Valley -- and possibly from Tartus -- to Hezbollah will be fortified by Syrian and Iranian air defenses to make Israeli strikes more difficult. Israel will be under more pressure than ever, and Jordan more vulnerable.
One of the more consequential results of an Assad victory, though, will be rising tensions between Sunni Turkey and Shia Iran, with an exhausted Syria playing a passive, pass-through role. (It is interesting that, as Iranian attention shifts northwestward, the Saudis and other Gulf states will likely become bystanders to Sunni-Shia competition, instead of their accustomed role at the center of regional politics.)
As recent events in Turkey show, the pro-Islamist policies of current Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan have caused an unusual tide of domestic dissent. In the face of an external threat, however, there is every reason to believe the nation Ataturk founded will unite, and the (majority Sunni) Turkish people will stand behind their ubiquitous flag. Turkey through Erdogan has been outspoken that Assad should go; the Turks have sheltered refugees and assisted rebel forces. They have earned Iranian enmity. In a post-rebellion Levant with Assad still in power, there can be little doubt what Iran's attitude will be toward Turkey. Even aside from the current proxy hostilities, the particular brand of Shia Islam that Ayatollah Khomeini installed after the Iranian Revolution makes mandatory Iran's enmity to the West, and to the Sunni sect. Iran's previous and more recent record of hostility to other governments, including aggression against States even outside the Mideast, is a good indication that it will be actively hostile to Turkey as well. Given free use of the interior of the Levant, with access to Russian arms and the resources of the Syrian state, Iran will be in an exceptionally strong geopolitical position to follow up its inclinations.
Competition between Sunni Turkey and Shia Iran can take many forms other than outright war, though that possibility cannot be discounted if the two states find themselves directly at odds, the Turks feel themselves at a geographical disadvantage, and Iranian hostility to Sunni Islam takes a more violent form. However, Iran has other options than all-out war. It is the world's leading sponsor of modern terrorism, that strange mixture of murder and crime, and it has become adept at mobilizing and directing global networks of terrorist organizations and criminal mafias (which are often one and the same). An Iranian campaign against Turkey could well take place in Turkish cities, mosques, schools, and market squares, while marshaling strong conventional forces to dissuade a Turkish response. At the same time, the IRGC will most probably conduct terrorist attacks in Western countries and the United States as a demonstration and a warning of the cost of supporting Turkey, which has been a stalwart and supportive member of NATO since the alliance's beginning.
How the West -- and Europe in particular -- comes to Turkey's defense will be the most severe test of the alliance in its history. Today, Turkey balances between both sides of the Bosphorus. A Turkish intellectual once said to me, "Our generation thought the way for Turkey was toward Europe and the EU. But the younger generation (of which Erdogan is a member) has figured out that the EU is a white, Christian club. They will face east." The loss of the Turkish "bridge" to the Mideast, with all the explosive energy and industry of this growing, modern country, would be a disaster for the West. European policymakers may be tested to support an ally or give in to Iranian terrorist blackmail; if the choice is the latter, Europe will effectively have confirmed the "white, Christian club" and will have withdrawn from the Mideast. The choice for American policymakers will be as stark: The IRGC has already attempted at least one terror attack inside the United States, and there is every reason to believe it would be tried again in the case of U.S. support for its Turkish ally and, indirectly, Israel as well. As the Iranian nuclear program progresses, the long-term potential of Iranian short- or medium-range nuclear missiles should not be discounted.
Whether Assad falls or stays in office will result in historic realignments in the Middle East and the Mediterranean littoral -- the Levant, from which the state of Syria was carved. As Iran ups the ante and the West fumbles for a response, chances increasingly favor Assad's survival as an Iranian puppet. Iranian suzerainty over Syria and a breakout into the Levant will give it an enormous geographical advantage from which to attack both Israel and Sunni Turkey, already a foe in all but name. The confluence of these political, cultural, and military events presages not only an uncomfortable near-term future, but also the potential for prolonged and bitter religious war through this century. American policymakers should consider carefully future U.S. options as events unroll in Syria.
Ricardo Garcia Vilanova/AFP/Getty Images
My CNAS colleague Phil Carter, reacting to yesterday's item about how the experience of Iraq is affecting the Obama administration's consideration of intervening in Syria, sent me this thoughtful note:
Iraq has replaced Vietnam as the lens through which we see foreign policy decisions. However, I don't like the term "Iraq syndrome" -- in large part because it suggests there's something wrong, and that this is a condition to be ameliorated or recovered from. Instead, I prefer to think of our national sense of the Iraq war as "Iraq experience" or "Iraq wisdom." We gathered this experience and wisdom the hard way, acquiring it at a cost of trillions of dollars, and tens of thousands of killed or wounded, to say nothing of the cost to the Iraqis. We ought not casually discard this wisdom and experience, or set it aside so that we can once again go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, to use John Quincy Adams' memorable phrase.
Tom again: I think he is right, but I think there also is a generational aspect to this. I think younger people -- and to me, that means anyone under 40 -- are more affected by this than are older people.
One of the great things about CNAS is that we actually have conversations like this. In my experience, not all think tanks do. You can find out more by coming to the annual hoedown on June 12. It is, as we have noted, the Woodstock of wonkery. But with better refreshments.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Quote of the day: Benjamin Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, tells Dexter Filkins in this week's edition of the New Yorker that in considering intervening in Syria, "Here's what we wrestle with: there are huge costs and unintended consequences that go with a military intervention that could last for many years."
Another White House official tells Filkins, "The country is exhausted." I don't think that second comment is quite accurate. It is more that the country is tired of being involved on the ground in the Middle East and deeply skeptical of the efficacy of another try.
Filkins also quotes an academic expert who predicts that eventually all of Syria's Alawites will be pushed into Lebanon, with the eventual refugee flow doubling that nationette's population.
The vibe of the article is that the Obama administration increasingly is leaning toward intervention -- from the air, in aid and intelligence, but not with ground troops.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
The deputy foreign minister for Russia may be reading Best Defense: "We must look squarely at the facts and the trend now suggests that the regime and the government in Syria are losing more and more control and more and more territory."
Speaking of crummy things, several of you have written to me protesting the latest changes in this blog's commenting system. I agree: This morning the system wouldn't even allow me to read the comments. It seems like every time the LiveFyre system settles down, some genius comes up with a new fillip to screw things up again. I have complained to the authorities.
By Irving Lachow
Best Defense cyberwar correspondent
Last week, a front page story in the Washington Post began: "Syria's civil war went offline Thursday as millions of people tracking the conflict over YouTube, Facebook and other high-tech services found themselves struggling against an unnerving national shutdown of the Internet." Despite denials from the Syrian government, there is strong evidence that they were in fact responsible for this attempt at isolating the country from the global information commons. This was most likely accomplished by the state-run Syrian Internet service provider called Telecommunications Establishment, which appeared to have altered its routing tables to prevent both incoming and outgoing traffic from reaching its desired destinations. Although the timing of this action may have been sudden, the fact that the Syrian government would attempt to control rebel access to the Internet is not surprising. Egypt and Libya took similar actions during recent conflicts and Syria has been controlling access to the Internet on and off for many months.
Much like traditional warfare, the kind of cyberwarfare being promulgated by Syria is being driven by attempts to dominate the information sphere. For example, one of the first actions taken by the United States in its wars with Iraq was to dismantle their command and control systems. This provided the United States with freedom of action and reduced the ability of Iraqi forces to obtain accurate and timely situation awareness of the battlefield. Syria is trying to accomplish similar objectives. Limiting the rebels' access to the Internet and mobile communications is akin to blinding their command and control systems. By forcing rebels to rely on local Internet services provided by Syrian companies, the Syrian government can closely monitor rebel communications to obtain intelligence and situation awareness. In addition, the Syrian government can use the Internet to plant false information and undermine trust within the ranks of rebel leadership -- a classic psychological operations tactic for creating fear, uncertainty, and distrust within enemy ranks.
In response to the Syrian government's actions, the Syrian rebels have been using satellite phones -- equipment supplied to them by supporters that include the United States -- to maintain their lines of communication and connectivity to the Internet. The rebels may also be able to tap into the wireless networks of neighboring countries when they operate close to the border -- a fact which shows how difficult it is to implement a full Internet blackout in a country, even one as small and centrally-controlled as Syria. They are also continuing their efforts to influence outside parties by using videos, pictures, and other social media tools to tell their side of the story. As in many conflicts, the battle here is not just over territory but over who controls the narrative.
Events in Syria, Libya, and Egypt have demonstrated that the Internet has become a critical tool for combatants engaged in civil wars and uprisings. It provides command and control, surveillance and reconnaissance, and serves as a means of influencing supporters, opponents, and neutral third parties alike. At the same time, the fact that the Syrian government reestablished Internet connectivity just a few days after implementing a nation-wide blackout makes it clear that national leaders cannot simply shut off access to the Internet without repercussions. The Internet has become a tool of influence and warfare, but it is also a driver of commerce and social connectivity. Internet service providers can function as businesses that enable economic and personal freedom and they can chose (or be forced to) repress free speech, monitor "enemies of the state," and disconnect an entire country from the global communications grid. The Internet may be the ultimate dual-use technology. We will be dealing with that fact for decades to come.
Dr. Irving Lachow is a senior fellow and director of the Program on Technology and National Security at the Center for a New American Security.
The fellas over at the Foreign Policy Initiative seem eager to intervene in Syria. They're proposing establishing "a safe zone" that would be protected by a "no fly zone."
They don't go into details of whether there would be boots on the ground.
The board of directors are Eric Edelman, Robert Kagan, William Kristol, and Dan Senor. I know some of youse will get upset by those names, but I think the first three are some of the most thoughtful conservative interventionists around. (I don't know Senor well. I think I have only met him once or twice and have never read much of what he has written.)
Personally, I am sick of Americans being involved in wars in the Middle East. I don't like this plan of keeping on trying 'til we find we all like. That said, I find it a bit awkward to explain why I thought it was the right thing to help intervene in Libya but not in Syria. I find David Ignatius persuasive (as usual) on why we should do more than we are doing, but less than Foreign Policy Initiative recommends.
Adam Dean/Panos Pictures
By Butch Bracknell
Best Defense office of Syrian intervention
The Syrian regime is struggling to contain yet another manifestation of the Arab Spring with brutality and inhumanity unparalleled since the freedom phenomenon began in Tunisia last April. The international media has documented the slaughter of thousands of rebels and protected civilians, waging war indiscriminately and through inhumane and unlawful means against internal populations whose crime against the regime is a desire for freedom from authoritarianism. Tens of thousands of refugees and displaced persons have streamed across the borders into Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, and humanitarian catastrophe lurks, with a threat to victimize tens of thousands and spill across Syria's borders regionally. America's NATO ally Turkey has, of course, shouldered the brunt of the load because it represents a safe haven with the most regional capacity to absorb the huddled masses escaping the fire of war.
America, of course, will not occasion the possibility of armed intervention at this stage of the presidential and congressional election cycle. Moreover, even after November, the U.N. Security Council assuredly will not authorize action in Syria after the Libyan debacle. The Russians believe they were duped into authorizing intervention into Libya, and subscribe to the "Fool me once..." school of international affairs. Absent an American or NATO embracing of the controversial Responsibility to Protect doctrine to authorize an armed intervention in Syria, the alliance's hands are tied at present.
Even so, inaction is not justified in light of the suffering. The current state of western unpopularity in the Arab world, manifesting itself in worldwide protests, is not likely to improve if America and her allies are seen to stand idly by and do nothing as Arab innocents die in the streets of Aleppo, even if their deaths are at the hands of other Arabs. So what can the alliance do? Find a middle way.
One possible first step toward NATO taking decisive action in this crisis is to ask Turkey for permission to set up a command and control structure in Turkey aboard an American or Turkish airbase. The task force's initial mission set should extend to intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance of the conflict in Syria, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief. Bringing NATO resources to bear by constructing and maintaining refugee camps in Turkey and protecting the refugees for the duration of the Syrian conflict will be seen as a signal of the alliance's resolve and usefulness, and will refocus the world's attention on the atrocities in Syria, heightening pressure on Assad to resolve the conflict and seek reconciliation, or to resign in disgrace.
Second, providing humanitarian relief will speak volumes to the Arab world about Western values of compassion and our collective obligation to humanity. Moreover, standing up NATO capabilities at Turkey's request would reinforce NATO's resolve to act collectively and to support a member state that doubtless would be receptive to the alliance's help.
Finally, having a command and control structure in place would be useful if conditions in Syria evolve to the point that armed intervention to stop the slaughter becomes viable and unavoidable. Eventually, Russia may feel the pressure to abstain from a Security Council vote authorizing intervention, rather than risk cementing its reputation as an obstructionist state to the international order or appearing impotent and irrelevant. Even absent an explicit Security Council authorization, Western allies may, in fact, embrace the moral obligation to intervene summarized by the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.
Armed intervention in Syria is not unavoidable, but inaction by NATO should be. There are many competencies the alliance can operationalize to mitigate human suffering in the region which could provide a foothold capability as mission sets evolve. Finally, NATO's action to mitigate Arab suffering in Syria could help tamp down the fury against the West and send productive communicative ripples through the Arab world. As many commentators have observed, NATO's future relies on its ability to actually accomplish missions that add value to the sum total of international security. Skeptical voters in cash-strapped Western democracies rightly should require return on their investment. If the alliance neglects to act in circumstances where turning a blind eye constitutes organizational failure, eventually it may fail to exist.
Butch Bracknell is a Marine lieutenant colonel on active duty and former international security fellow at the Atlantic Council of the United States. The opinions expressed herein are personal to the author and do not represent the position of the United States government or of Red Sox ownership.
Adam Dean/Panos Pictures
By Gary Anderson
Best Defense office of Syrian non-intervention
Syria's situation today is essentially the same as the one in El Salvador in 1991 -- and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
In El Salvador, the rebels had gained control of significant portion of the country, and were even operating openly in the major cities. As in Syria today, both sides in El Salvador had committed atrocities among noncombatants, although in both cases the government had created the most by using paramilitary death squads. In both cases, the opposing sides had reached a stalemate with only bloody attrition on the horizon. Why do I say that this is not necessarily a bad thing? Because the civil war in El Salvador turned out all right. An American brokered series of negotiations led to a coalition government which in turn resulted in fair elections. El Salvador today is a democracy, albeit an imperfect one. Contrast that with the carnage of Lebanon or even Iraq where America intervened militarily. Regime modification, rather than the carnage and anarchy of regime change, is still possible if we give diplomacy a chance.
In the case of El Salvador, the United States had backed the repressive government for a decade during the Cold War in fear of losing El Salvador to the communist bloc because the government seemed like the lesser of two evils. That changed with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold war. At that point, the Salvadorian Junta decided to take American diplomatic advice and negotiate with the rebels. The window of opportunity opened in briefly, and both sides took it in hopes of avoiding more meaningless bloodshed. That fleeting window may be open in Syria today; but unlike 1991, we are not diplomatically engaged to be able to exploit it. By insisting on the total destruction of the Assad regime, we have abrogated any chance that we could take a meaningful role in encouraging a negotiated settlement of the conflict due to humanitarian concerns.
The real humanitarian disaster would come with a total government collapse and rebel victory because there are "at risk" minorities in the path of the mostly Sunni revolution. The Christians and the Shiite Alawites risk the fate of Iraq's Sunnis and Christians in the wake of the decapitation of the Sunni dominated Saddam Hussein regime. Like Iraq's Sunni minority, the Alawite minority in Syria will likely be targets of a revenge seeking Sunni majority. Realists in the Assad government, such as the recently departed Prime Minister, are probably now looking for an emergency landing and negotiations may be their only alternate runway.
As much as I hate to admit it, the Russians are probably right in trying to prevent an outright rebel victory. They see the unintended consequences more clearly than our neo-hawks who are urging military intervention. As always, the Russian reasoning is cold blooded and cynical, but those of us who are veterans of Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan know the horror that can ensue when governance breaks down completely. The best chance for a negotiated end to the civil war would be an American-Russian-Turkish sponsored cease fire and peace conference. The Russians have leverage with the Assad government, but the rebels know that American and Turkish economic and diplomatic support is needed for any reasonable attempt to build a post-Assad government that has real legitimacy beyond the Sunni neighbors in the region.
What might a Salvador-like solution look like? First, it would require a cease fire that would freeze the opponents in place. Second, it would call for an eventual reorganization of the security forces with rebel units integrated into the army and paramilitaries disbanded; it would avoid the total disintegration of the security forces that led to the ethnic cleansing and near genocide that plagued post Saddam Iraq. Third, it would require internationally monitored elections. Assad himself would undoubtedly have to go, but the remaining leadership of the Alawite faction could throw him under the bus gently with an exile in Iran or South Lebanon. The realists in the Assad regime might make that sacrifice to avoid the kind of anarchy that would come with a breakdown of governance.
There is an argument that we should do something in Syria, if only to have some leverage in what comes after; there is a certain amount of sense in that argument. However, before that something becomes drone strikes or a no fly zone, we ought to give diplomacy one more chance. El Salvador avoided the kind of bloodletting that we saw in Afghanistan and Iraq after regime decapitation. If the United States backs off on the demand for total regime change, we open our nation can have a critical role in a negotiated settlement. The only thing that gets wasted in trying diplomacy is words.
Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel. He has served as a U.N. Observer in Lebanon and as a liaison officer in Somalia. Most recently, he has been a governance advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I've long thought there was a good study to be done of Iranian advisory efforts in Iraq. They seemed to me a model of long-term, low-key influence. No big bases, but lots of effects.
Now maybe it seems that study should be expanded to Syria. An Iranian official, speaking about the Qods Force (AKA the foreign operations wing of the Revolutionary Guard) said over the weekend that, "A number of members of the Qods force are present in Syria but this does not constitute a military presence."
An Iranian foundation also has reportedly upped the amount of the bounty it has placed on the head of Salman Rushdie. Can you imagine if American foundations did stuff like that?
Meanwhile, someone blew up a bomb on the July 14 bridge into the Green Zone and killed a bunch of people at the checkpoint. I've walked across that bridge a lot. It was my point of maximum vulnerability, when I was outside the Green Zone yet not back in the able hands of the Washington Post security guys.
I keep on seeing talk about how the Obama administration should do more to oust Assad.
I actually think the best way to get rid of Assad would be to remove the roadblock posed by the possibility that the ouster would be followed by a punitive repression of minorities (Christians, Armenians, and such) who supported the regime. But I don't know if such a removal is possible. Overall, to my surprise, I tend to agree with this Washington Times column by Daniel Pipes.
I wonder if eventually the borders of the Middle East will be re-drawn. I could see it, Iraq and Lebanon all being reconfigured. I am not sure what that would mean for the Kurds. It will be interesting to watch the role Turkey plays in all this -- as a relatively stable, prosperous member of NATO whose interests extend deep into the affected states.
By Nora Bensahel
Best Defense director of wargames
On June 27, I participated in a day-long crisis simulation about the regional effects of the conflict in Syria, which was co-sponsored by AEI, the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, and the Institute for the Study of War. Although such simulations are necessarily artificial and simplified (the only teams in the simulation were the Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States, for example), they nevertheless provide valuable insights about the issues involved and the national interests at stake. Four key themes emerged from the game.
1. The road to Damascus leads through Ankara. Turkey emerged as the most critical regional state. In each of the game’s three moves, the United States, and by extension NATO, chose to reflect Turkish preferences rather than take more initiative on its own. Unless Turkey actively supports more direct action in Syria, the United States and NATO will not do so -- and, unlike Libya, no NATO member states are going to push Turkey to support direct action. This suggests that more forceful efforts to remove Assad from power will only happen if and when Turkey decides that would be the best way to secure its own national interests.
2. Military force against Assad will only be a very last resort. Turkey only supported military action to remove Assad in the game’s last move, where the game designers made the situation so dire that Turkey essentially had no other alternatives. The U.S. team quickly rejected all military options in the earlier moves, and even in the last move, would have chosen to maintain the (terrible) status quo if the Turkish team had not decided to enter Syrian territory.
3. The Arab states don’t have a whole lot of diplomatic leverage over developments in Syria. The game was designed so that Saudi Arabia was the key Arab player, but as the Saudi team admitted during the debrief at the end of the day, it didn’t have a whole lot to do. The Saudi team did continue funneling arms and support to the Syrian opposition throughout the game, so it did affect the course of the conflict in that way. Yet its only source of diplomatic leverage was offering money, and the Turkish team rejected every such Saudi offer. If Saudi Arabia can’t influence regional diplomacy, it’s unlikely that many other Arab states will be able to do so.
4. No one wants to own Syria after the fall of Assad. This did not surprise anyone, but it is worth emphasizing since it is so critically important. None of the participants believed that the Syrian opposition would be strong enough to maintain some amount of civil order throughout the country after the fall of Assad, and none of the teams supported strong international intervention to play that role. This means that whenever and however Assad falls, civil strife could well escalate into violence and possibly into a continued civil war.
Taken together, these themes suggest that the status quo in Syria could persist for quite a long time, with the opposition and regime continuing to fight throughout the country while the humanitarian situation worsens. Then again, if there were any easy solutions to the Syrian crisis, Assad would already be gone.
Dr. Nora Bensahel is the Deputy Director of Studies and a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
RABIH MOGHRABI/AFP/Getty Images
My first thought was that Syria shot down the Turkish F-4 because the Turks were probing Syrian air defenses. But then I remembered that the U.S. aircraft patrolling the northern Iraq no-fly zone flew out of Incirlik, Turkey, which meant that they zoomed along the northern Syrian border for years. We must have learned an awful lot about Syrian operations, and shared almost all of it with our Turkish friends, and other members of NATO.
So what more might there be to learn? Probably a probe to see how much deterioration there has been in Syrian defenses in the last year. But that would be a good use of a drone, no? (And are we sure there was a pilot in that F-4?)
The Israelis clearly also know a lot about Syrian defenses.
Meanwhile, Turkish jets conducted air strikes in northern Iraq. Interesting neighborhood.
Who ever thought the 21st century would see us monitoring the tribal politics of the Levant? David Ignatius writes, "Two big Sunni tribes, the Shammar and the Dulaim, stretch from northern Saudi Arabia through western Iraq and Jordan and up into Syria. Some observers say these tribes have sworn a blood oath against Assad. If so, a decisive phase of the Syrian war may have begun."
By "A Syrian-American"
Best Defense guest column
The Bashar al-Assad regime now faces itself with the dilemma of quelling a quickly proliferating armed insurgency that has fused with a popular uprising. Cities like Homs, Zabadani, Rastan, and Idlib have become modern day ghettos, sealed off by special task forces of elite units and paramilitary squads specifically recruited to cleanse neighborhoods and towns of those who dare to resist the Baathist diktat.
By many definitions, Syria has become ensnared in a full-fledged civil war. But beyond the narrative of internal strife, when one takes a careful look at a map of where the uprisings are taking place and the towns that have effectively ceased to recognize the government, a competing narrative emerges not of internecine conflict but one of national unity -- a whole country that has been brought together in opposition to the Assad family's self-declared right to rule.
The people in this archipelago of resistance cling to a hope -- perhaps foolishly -- that their cause will win the day. Like any illegitimate occupational force, the Assad loyalist army can only control the ground occupied by its Soviet-era tanks. Take out the saturation of paramilitary, heavy artillery, and special forces units in the cities, and the popular rebellion will reach critical mass.
For Syrians attempting to survive, there is no illusion of life under the Assad tyranny. The executions of captured defectors, and the past executions of leading non-violent activist heroes like Ghaith Mattar speak to the reality that there can be no reconciliation with the mass murderers of the Baath Party.
The delusions of dialogue and a negotiated settlement with the Assad apparatus have long faded. One cannot negotiate, let alone reason, with a government that makes mass killings its domestic policy. In every way, the ideology and the solution being employed by Bashar al-Assad and his confidants are neo-fascist in function and form.
Reaching the tipping point to this conflict will require a determined shove by the international community. There are broader regional interests in play, and a rebel victory can prove to be a damning blow to Iranian hegemonic aspirations that have claimed the lives of freedom-seeking Syrians in addition to the Americans who have fallen victim to Iranian-supplied weaponry throughout the region. The rebels now claim that they are fighting the same Hizballah and Iranian revolutionary guard forces in Syria that have wrought so much havoc across the world for the West.
Hundreds of civilians have needlessly died since U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay's presciently warned the U.N. General Assembly that the ongoing assault and shelling by Bashar al-Assad's forces against the city of Homs presented a "harbinger of worse to come." Among the dead are journalists who perished attempting to show the world just how real, and how tragically correct, Pillay had been -- and just how wrong the assembly of global leadership have proved in their stupor.
To further punctuate the consequences of paralysis, Pillay rightly cautioned the General Assembly that the failure of the U.N. to enact "collective action" was actually "emboldening" the Assad regime to escalate the violence against his own people. Since the U.N. human rights report presented by Pillay was published, the regime, sadly, has launched a second concerted campaign to retake rebel-held territory in the north while simultaneously pouring hundreds of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles into the strategic mountain town of Zabadani on the Lebanese border.
By the time you read these words, more cities will have come under siege. Hoping that the world will see them, the residents of the town of Ar Rastan, an essentially liberated town, have written in large rock formations the words "S.O.S," hoping that they would be seen from the sky. Their eyes turn upwards not just in the hope of salvation from the nightmare that many are now living, but in the desire for a lifeline that provides support beyond tired platitudes.
The U.S. State Department even published satellite imagery of the formations of artillery batteries and tanks that are pummeling cities en masse. Perhaps it was done to shame the regime and its allies. The real shame is now borne by those who watched those armor columns and the screaming 120 mm shells slam into the homes of the innocent -- and did nothing.
The imperative for bold American action has never been stronger. While the Qataris and the Saudis have openly called for the funding and material aid of the rebels, the Turks have made it clear that they are not willing to go all in without some degree of U.S. backing. As uncomfortable as it may be, an end-game in Syria will require a level of U.S. involvement, whether be it direct or through an indirect approach.
Moral clarity can be best guided by this realization: this regime has concluded that in order to control the ghettos that have risen against it, they must be razed. The late Hafez al-Assad did this to one city in the past, Hama, that rebelled against his authority in 1982. Today, the younger Assad faces many more situations, and is displaying an equal determination to destroy them all.
And so the world now has a front-row seat to the play-by-play gradual demolition of homes, neighborhoods, and of whole families -- their liberation cut short by a vengeful, cruel, and cynical regime. The aftermath, as it were, is already visible for all to see in horrid detail. Yet western leaders continue to balk at taking a bold position, fearing that supporting the rebels in any form could somehow enable religious extremists and Al Qaeda.
Secretary Clinton was wrong when she suggested that supporting rebel forces could benefit al Qaeda. Yes, it is true that al Qaeda's leader Ayman Zawhiri declared his solidarity with the rebels and called on jihadis to support their cause. But in his distant Waziristan cave, the disconnected Zawhiri is a feckless general commanding phantom legions. There is no room for an Islamic Emirate in Syria. Liberation is not a slippery slope to rule by the clerics. The fighters are not looking to replace a mustached dictator with a bearded one. The Muslim Brotherhood is widely viewed in suspicion by the revolutionary councils and rebel fighters alike. It makes little sense to cede the ground to the jihadis in Syria when their program carries little credibility among the rebels and the majority Sunni Arab populace. It will be municipal elections and the desire to reawaken a civic involvement that is truly invested in their country's future that will occupy the daily concerns of Free Syrians -- not the resurrection of the caliphate.
The end of the Assad regime will not immediately usher in a grand new era of democracy and functioning governance, but the sooner the first steps are taken towards this transition, the more any negative fallout can be mitigated and safely contained. This will be good for Syria, the region, and more broadly Western interests.
To achieve their vision for victory, from Homs to Deraa, the revolutionary councils that guide the day-to-day insurrectionist activity and the rebel networks they support are looking to the U.S., EU, and the Gulf countries for aid. There is growing disillusionment of the timid international response and of the apparent lack of willingness by the West to support the revolution. According to rebel reports, even those Syrians who volunteered to fight U.S. forces in Iraq have expressed their support for receiving American aid to fight the regime.
Some Western commentators have opined that opposition groups on the ground are disorganized and incapable of overthrowing the regime. They are wrong. The capability to take on Assad forces exists and the possibility of a rebel victory is real, but this outcome becomes more realistic in the near future if enabled and supported with material aid.
The rebels have proven their bona fides; regime security forces even with overwhelming firepower took weeks before they could enter the Baba Amr neighborhood in Homs -- and that's just one neighborhood. As any rebel force does, the one in Syria fights and retreats and fights again as it gathers additional strength from its popular support. But there are no Benghazis here. Alone they can at best put forth a heroic stand that will lead to a prolonged stalemate. With aid, they can end the violence, and the Assad-sponsored killing fields, by ending the regime.
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
Nir Rosen emerges from two months in Syria with some sobering conclusions:
Security officials I have spoken to do not seem particularly distressed by the fact that half the country has risen up against them.
Early on, the administration hesitated at the crucial moment and didn't kill enough people to crush the uprising in a single blow. Now there is no turning back.
... this struggle can drag on for years. The regime knows that Russia, Iran and Iraq will back it to the end."
LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images
Meanwhile, Jeffrey White calls for an indirect campaign, including arming the opposition.
These seem to be the two basic options being discussed.
Meanwhile, it has been a lousy week for journalists in Syria.
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
This is a sad day for me. I've lost friends in the post-9/11 wars, but the death of Anthony Shadid in Syria yesterday hits particularly hard. He was a terrific reporter. He also was one of the kindest people I've ever met. He was one of my heroes.
Back in 2003, even into early 2004, Anthony used to take taxis all over Baghdad. For fun he would drive down for lunch in Karbala, a town he enjoyed. When I was embedding with American troops, he would kind of embed with Sadr's people, going over to the eastern part of the city on Fridays to listen to the sermons. We'd sit at night and compare notes over Turkish beers. My favorite article that I ever did in Iraq was co-written with him, on June 2, 2003. It was the simplest of concepts: I walked with an American foot patrol in west Baghdad, and he (with the knowledge of the patrol) trailed us, talking to Iraqis about the American presence.
Unlike many reporters, Anthony also had humility. In 2004 I asked him a question about Iraqi politics. Anthony spoke Arabic fluently, and had knocked around Iraq before the invasion as well as after it. (His book Night Draws Near is for my money the best study of what the American occupation felt like to Iraqis.) He looked at me and said, "Actually, the more I know about Iraq, the less I understand it." Wise words. Wise man. A big loss for us all.
Julia Ewan / The Washington Post
I've been wondering why I advocated NATO intervention in Libya but don't feel the same way about Syria. I had thought it was because I thought all Qaddafi needed was a good shove, while Syria is more complex.
But I got this note from Billy Birdzell, who was a Marine officer with Special Ops experience and two tours in Iraq who went off and got an MBA (and if you know someone in the DC area who could use that sort of background, let me know and I will forward the note to him). He wrote that, "Killing several thousand Syrians so they don't kill several thousand other Syrians only to leave the nation knowing that several thousand more will die is not protecting anyone."
That strikes me as pretty succinct. It's one thing to provide the means to help finish off a reeling dictator. It is another to wade into a civil war.
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
But don't be counting your chickens quite yet. John McCreary writes in NightWatch that, "Expect more Iranian support for Damascus and more Iranian Islamic Republican Guard Corps personnel to show up in Syria and in southern Lebanon. The Iranians do not appear ready to abandon Syria yet."
Meanwhile, Egypt looks like it might be moving into Phase II of its revolution.
What he said. Thas a bold statement.
By Emma Sky
Best Defense roving Middle East correspondent
Is this your first visit to Syria, the passport-control man asks me. No, I tell him, I came here once before over a decade ago. He stamps my passport. I had been very lucky to get a Syrian visa this time. The travel advice was not to visit. The Syrian regime is very wary of foreigners, fearing that journalists and spies are inflaming the situation further. I collect my bag and walk through customs, passing a poster, of modest size, of President Bashar al-Assad with the words in Arabic proclaiming: "Leader of the youth, hope of the youth."
I jump in a taxi. I ask the driver how are things in Syria. Things are fine, he assures me. There has been some trouble around the country, but things are OK in Damascus. As we drive, we chat. He points out the area where Druze live. With his hand, he waves in another direction to where Palestinian refugees live, and then again to where Iraqi refugees live. Alawites are over there and in villages. Christians this way and in villages. Sunnis are around 65 percent of the population. Kurds live in the north. Many different peoples live in Syria. I ask him how he knows who someone is or whether they are Sunni or Shiite. He tells me that he does not know and it does not interest him to know: There is no sectarianism here in Syria. We pass Damascus University. Outside there are lots of flags and pictures of Assad and his deceased father. Across the city, the Syrian flag is flying strong and photos of the president are omnipresent. As I ride through al-Umawiyeen Square, I see lots of young men and women gathering, holding Syrian flags. It is not a demonstration, a Syrian tells me; it is a celebration -- a celebration of the regime. Later, I watch the event on television. It has made the international news. Tens of thousands of Syrians have come out to al-Umawiyeen Square to show their support for President Bashar al-Assad in a lively celebration that includes pop singers and fireworks.
When I had visited previously, the city had been filled with huge pictures of Hafez al-Assad; and Bashar, his son, had been studying ophthalmology in London. The death of Bashar's elder brother, Basil, in a car crash, propelled him back into the family business of ruling Syria.
In the evening, I stroll down the street to a restaurant. It is very modern and Western. All-you-can-eat sushi for $20. I try to read my emails on my BlackBerry. I switch between two different networks, but can only receive GPS, not GPRS. The restaurant claims to have Wi-Fi. I ask the waiter. There is Wi-Fi, he tells me, but it is not working at the moment. Nor is Facebook. Internet access is limited.
I walk through Souq al-Hamidiyah in the old city of Damascus. It is a wide, pedestrianized street, two-stories high, and covered. It is buzzing with life. Store owners sit outside their shops, trying to entice potential customers. Traders sell their wares down the middle of the street. Walking with the flow of people, I emerge to find the Umayyad Mosque directly in front of me.
I go to the ticket office, pay the entrance fee for foreigners, and collect a hooded gray cloak to cover myself. The cloaks come in three sizes. A woman sitting there directs me toward the smallest size. The cloak stinks, and I wonder when it was last washed and how many women have had to wear it in the sweltering summer heat. I put the cloak on over my clothes, pulling up the pointed hood to ensure my hair is covered. I enter the Umayyad Mosque -- built on the site of a shrine dedicated to John the Baptist -- looking like a member of the Ku Klux Klan except dressed in gray, and carrying my shoes in my hand. I wander into the covered area where hundreds of people are praying, men in one area, women in another. I walk out to the courtyard. In one area, a group is seated on the ground. One man is kneeling, raising his arms, weeping "ya Hussein." The others follow suit, tears flowing, looking quite distraught.
The rest of this article can be read in its entirety: here.
Proven provider John McCreary observes that the U.S. government and al Qaeda apparently are on the same side in calling for change in Syria:
Syria-al Qaida: Al-Qaida's new leader Ayman al-Zawahiri praised anti-regime protestors in Syria in a video released Wednesday claiming the United States is seeking regime change in Damascus, U.S.-based monitors said. Calling the pro-democracy activists 'mujahideen,' or holy warriors, Zawahiri hailed their efforts in "teaching lessons to the aggressor, the oppressor, the traitor, the disloyal, and standing up against his oppression" in a video the SITE Intelligence Group said was posted on extremist online forums.
Comment: For perhaps the only time on record, The US and al Qaida apparently are supporting the same policy end state for Syria: regime change. That bizarre coincidence cannot be good for Israeli security or regional stability.
Zawahari sees the conflict as a Sunni fundamentalist vs. Alawite struggle, not as a movement for plural political rights, women's rights and liberal freedoms against a repressive regime."
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
But there may be even more to this story. "I wouldn't give up on her yet," cautions Jim Gourley, our chief correspondent for physical and mental fitness. "I've dealt with people like this before. She's obviously in Damascus, and pretty apparently homosexual. Given that, I'd say the real story may still be a sympathetic one. What I've found in my experience is that people like this craft these kinds of elaborate personalities for themselves as an escape. I would hypothesize that the incident with her father facing down the security goons is half-true, with the heroic father being the creation of an imagination that wishes her real father was like that. Probably more likely is that she was rejected by her family in the beginning and feels horrible about it."
"The young man was dangling upside down, white, foaming saliva dripping from his mouth. His groans sounded more bestial than human." So begins an account by a Reuters reporter of being held for four days by Syria's secret police. He continues:
The questioning lasted eight hours until midnight on my first day of detention. Mostly I was blindfolded, but the blindfold was removed for a few minutes.
That allowed me -- despite orders to keep my head down so that my interrogators should remain out of view -- to see a hooded man screaming in pain in front of me.
When they told him to take down his pants, I could see his swollen genitals, tied tight with a plastic cable.
"I have nothing to tell, but I am neither a traitor and activist. I am just a trader," said the man, who said he was from Idlib province in the north west of Syria.
To my horror, a masked man took a pair of wires from a household power socket and gave him electric shocks to the head.
At other moments, my questioners could be charming, but would quickly switch to ruthless mode in what looked like an orchestrated performance to wear me down.
"We will make you forget who you are," one of them threatened as I was beaten for the sixth time on my face.
JOSEPH BARRAK/AFP/Getty Images
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.