JFP 5/28: Aid to Syrian rebels challenged; how did Obama change drone policy?
Just Foreign Policy News, May 28, 2013
Aid to Syrian rebels challenged; how did Obama change drone policy?
Go Straight to the News Summary
Help your friends sign up to receive the Just Foreign Policy News
Do you know someone who might want to receive the Just Foreign Policy News? You can send them this link:
Support the Work of Just Foreign Policy
Your support helps us to educate Americans about U.S. foreign policy and create opportunities for Americans to advocate for a foreign policy that is more just.
I) Actions and Featured Articles
*Action: Cessez le Feu! Don't Let France Kill the Syria Peace Talks
France said it will oppose the Syria peace conference if Iran is invited. But for peace talks to have a chance to end the war, all the parties involved in the conflict have to be there. Excluding Iran would likely condemn the peace talks to failure. Tell Washington: for peace talks to work, everyone has to be there.
May 30: Urge Compassionate Release for Detainee Attorney Lynne Stewart
Call the numbers listed below on Thursday, May 30 and request immediate action to grant Lynne Stewart Compassionate Release, as recommended by the warden at Carswell Federal Prison where Lynne is being held. Lynne has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Attorney General Eric Holder - 1 202 514-2001
Bureau of Prisons – Director Charles Samuels – 1 202 307-3198 ext 3
1) There ought to be agreement that the United States, a would-be benefactor, shouldn't get pushed around or have its diplomacy subverted by Syrian rebels, who are the supplicants for U.S. aid, writes CIA veteran Paul Pillar at The National Interest. Yet that becomes a possibility when we hear the head of the rebel Syrian National Coalition throw cold water on the peace conference that Secretary of State Kerry and his Russian counterpart agreed to arrange and say that his group will withhold agreement to attend until it sees who from the Assad regime might be coming. It would be hard to label as peace talks any process in which that regime was not fully at the table in the form of representatives of its own choice, Pillar says. U.S. aid to the rebels should be contingent on the willingness of the rebels to negotiate seriously.
2) President Obama says he will place new restrictions on the targeting of terrorists with missiles fired from drones, the Los Angeles Times reports. Before any strike is undertaken, "there must be a near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured," said a senior administration official. Strikes against foreign militants will be conducted under the same standard as those against U.S. citizens who have joined forces with Al Qaeda, the official said.
3) One of the big outstanding questions is just how transparent the Obama administration will be about drone strikes in the future, writes Mark Mazzetti for the New York Times. Will administration officials begin to publicly confirm strikes after they happen? It seems quite certain that past operations in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere are not going to be declassified anytime soon, Mazzetti writes. Moving operations from the C.I.A. to the Pentagon does not automatically mean that the strikes will be publicly discussed, Mazzetti says. The Pentagon is carrying out a secret drone program in Yemen right now, and it is very difficult to get information about those operations.
4) A presidential directive in advance of Obama's speech says the Pentagon, rather than the CIA, should "have the lead for the use of force" – not just in Afghanistan, but also in other countries where the US is fighting against Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks, the Christian Science Monitor reports. The hope among NGOs is that this move will result in greater transparency.
The public has every reason to expect that the Pentagon will shed more light on America's secret wars than has the CIA, says Sarah Holewinski of the Center for Civilians in Conflict. But as the Pentagon takes over greater responsibilities for drone operations, "there is no obligation of the military to report before or after any drone strikes," says Bruce Fein, deputy attorney general under President Reagan.
5) President Obama stated clearly and unequivocally that the state of perpetual warfare that began nearly 12 years ago is unsustainable for a democracy and must come to an end in the not-too-distant future, writes the New York Times in an editorial. Obama said the 2001 AUMF must be must be replaced to avoid keeping "America on a perpetual wartime footing." The editorial celebrates that "from now on" the CIA and the military will no longer engage in "signature strikes" [this seems to overstate the case; it seems that signature strikes may continue in Pakistan while there are U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan - JFP.]
Obama should pledge an accounting for the civilian deaths caused by drone strikes, and some form of reparations, the Times says; and an unclassified version of the targeting rules should be published.
6) UN rapporteur Ben Emmerson, the lawyer leading a UN drone inquiry, has praised Obama's speech as a "significant step towards increased transparency," the BBC reports. Emmerson said Obama's speech had broken new ground on a number of issues. "It sets out more clearly and more authoritatively than ever before the administration's legal justifications for targeted killing, and the constraints that it operates under," he said. "The publication of the procedural guidelines for the use of force in counter-terrorism operations is a significant step towards increased transparency and accountability."
A senior official from Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League told the BBC the party is disappointed that Obama gave no indication he would consult the Pakistan government about the continued use of drone attacks. He said the question of the Americans bombing Pakistani territory without permission is the biggest foreign policy issue facing the new administration.
7) Analysts said the U.S. call for peace talks in Syria represents a change in U.S. policy by not insisting that Assad agree to vacate his position immediately, USA Today reports. "The U.S. is acting now because it's afraid that war could expand into regional war," said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.
8) No one is winning the war in Syria, reports Patrick Cockburn in the London Review of Books. Over the last year a military stalemate has prevailed, with each side launching offensives in the areas where they are strongest. A justification for the British and French argument that the EU embargo on arms deliveries to the rebels should be lifted is that these extra weapons will finally tip the balance decisively against Assad. The evidence from Syria itself is that more weapons will simply mean more dead and wounded.
From an early stage in the Syrian uprising the US, NATO, Israel and the Sunni Arab states openly exulted at the blow that would soon be dealt to Iran and to Hezbollah in Lebanon: Assad's imminent fall would deprive them of their most important ally in the Arab world, Cockburn writes. Sunni leaders saw the uprising not as a triumph of democracy but as the beginning of a campaign directed at Shia or Shia-dominated states. Hezbollah and Iran believe they have no alternative but to fight and that it's better to get on with it while they still have friends in power in Damascus.
'If the enemy attacks us,' Hossein Taeb, a high-ranking intelligence officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, recently said, 'and seeks to take over Syria or Khuzestan' – an Iranian province – 'the priority is to maintain Syria, because if we maintain Syria we can take back Khuzestan. But if we lose Syria we won't be able to hold Tehran.'
'It probably is unrealistic to expect Lebanese actors to take a step back,' a study by the International Crisis Group concludes. 'Syria's fate, they feel, is their own, and the stakes are too high for them to keep to the sideline.'
9) According to UN figures, Gaza's exports dropped 97 percent from 2007-12 under the Israeli blockade, the Christian Science Monitor reports. Gazans need "trade not aid," says Mahfouz Kabariti, part of the "Gaza's Ark" international steering committee. The blockade has put the kibosh on exporting anything from Gaza by sea, and only very limited exports are allowed by land through the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing, stymieing Gaza's manufacturing potential. Kabariti and others argue that the restrictions on exports not only deprive Gazan entrepreneurs of their livelihoods, but also deprive them of the basic dignity of providing for oneself and one's family.
10) The Colombian government and FARC rebels have announced a major breakthrough in peace talks aimed at ending nearly half a century of conflict, heralding a "radical transformation" of the war-ravaged countryside, the Guardian reports. The two sides said in a joint communiqué that they had reached an agreement on land and rural development issues. Today 52% of farms are in the hands of just over 1% of landowners, according to the UN Development Program, giving Colombia one of the most unequal land distributions in the world. As part of the deal, Colombia would create a land bank through which farmland would be redistributed. Farmers would receive loans, technical assistance and marketing advice as well as legal and police protection.
1) Balky Syrian Rebels
Paul Pillar, The National Interest, May 22, 2013
[Pillar is a 28-year veteran of the CIA and visiting professor at Georgetown for security studies.]
Reasonable people can disagree on what to do about Syria, a problem with no good solutions, and particularly about what to do regarding aid to Syrian rebels. There ought not to be disagreement, however, on not letting the United States, a would-be benefactor, get pushed around or have its diplomacy subverted by the rebels, who are the supplicants. Yet that becomes a possibility when we hear the head of the rebel Syrian National Coalition throw cold water on the peace conference that Secretary of State Kerry and his Russian counterpart agreed to arrange and say that his group will withhold agreement to attend until it sees who from the Assad regime might be coming.
In a public statement at this week's "Friends of Syria" meeting, Kerry linked the concept of increased aid to the rebels to any unwillingness by the Assad regime to participate in peace talks. One hopes he has conveyed a converse message in private to rebel representatives. There would be nothing wrong with also making such a message public. It would be part of a consistent policy whereby U.S. decisions about aid to rebels would be governed by the willingness or unwillingness of each side to negotiate and to negotiate seriously.
Amid all the talk about Assad having to go, there is no reason from the standpoint of U.S. interests to consider his departure an end in itself. It is at most a means to achieve other ends, having to do with instability or extremism in Syria. An even more fundamental distinction is between objectives, either ultimate or intermediate, and diplomatic modalities such as who exactly will be sitting at a negotiating table. In general, regardless of the objectives, including parties is better excluding them, which only makes them more likely to be spoilers. This principle goes for outsiders, including Iran.
As for the insiders and specifically the Assad regime, it would be hard to label as peace talks any process in which that regime was not fully at the table in the form of representatives of its own choice. Moreover, think of the incentives—to talk or to fight, to cooperate or to spoil—of the regime's supporters. A wide range of possibilities for a new Syria would share the common feature of not having Bashar Assad in charge. But those possibilities can be very different from each other in terms of the ability of those currently supporting the regime to live useful lives in the new Syria, or to live at all. If they do not believe their interests will be fairly represented in creation of a new order, they are more likely to see the only course as a fight to the death. Anyone who does not acknowledge that reality does not deserve assistance.
2) Obama restricts drone strikes overseas
Ken Dilanian, Los Angeles Times, May 23, 2013, 11:24 a.m.
Washington - Under pressure from Congress and international allies, President Obama announced a change in what has been a central piece of his counter-terrorism strategy, saying he will place new restrictions on the targeting of terrorists with missiles fired from drones.
In a speech that took stock of America's long battle with Al Qaeda, the president said he would continue ordering lethal drone strikes to stop potential terrorist attacks because the relative precision of drone warfare is preferable to major troop deployments or traditional bombing.
But a newly codified rule book, administration officials said, would hold U.S. authorities to a tougher standard when deciding whom to kill, where, and under what circumstances.
Under the new policy, strikes will be authorized only against militants who pose "a continuing, imminent threat," aides said, instead of "a significant threat," which had been the previous standard.
Before any strike is undertaken, "there must be a near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured," said a senior administration official who spoke under ground rules that did not allow him to be named.
Strikes against foreign militants will be conducted under the same standard as those against U.S. citizens who have joined forces with Al Qaeda, the official said.
The result, aides said, will be a curtailing of the frequent, secret drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen that have marked much of Obama's presidency. At the same time, Obama reserved the right to order covert lethal action anywhere the administration finds a threat from Al Qaeda.
His administration has faced skepticism from Congress, which has held a series of hearings on targeted killings. None of America's major allies have fully embraced the U.S. legal theory of why the strikes are justified.
The policy reasons driving the change, aides said, are that the core group of Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan is all but defeated and the war in Afghanistan is winding down. That means there is less reason to hit massed groups in Pakistan under a tactic known as "signature strikes," in which the CIA fired missiles at groups of suspected militants whose identities were unknown.
Obama spoke to that issue obliquely, saying, "In the Afghan war theater, we must support our troops until the transition is complete at the end of 2014. That means we will continue to take strikes against high-value Al Qaeda targets, but also against forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces. However, by the end of 2014, we will no longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we have made against core Al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes."
In Yemen, where the CIA and the military have launched numerous drone strikes, a new pro-American government is making progress against the Al Qaeda affiliate there, U.S. officials said, and that is making U.S. drone strikes less crucial.
3) What Next for Drone Program?
Mark Mazzetti, New York Times, May 23, 3:06 P.M.
Now that the speech is over, one of the big outstanding questions is just how transparent the Obama administration will be about drone strikes in the future. Will administration officials begin to publicly confirm strikes after they happen?
There was no mention of this in the speech, and it is telling that the president did not mention the C.I.A. at all. It seems quite certain that past operations in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere are not going to be declassified anytime soon.
Also, moving operations from the C.I.A. to the Pentagon does not automatically mean that the strikes will be publicly discussed. The Pentagon is carrying out a secret drone program in Yemen right now, and it is very difficult to get information about those operations.
4) Obama talks drones: Will it increase transparency for Pentagon to take lead?
In a speech Thursday, President Obama acknowledged some of the complexities involved in the drone war. A new presidential directive released this week says that the Pentagon, rather than the CIA, should 'have the lead for the use of force.'
Anna Mulrine, Christian Science Monitor, May 23, 2013
Washington - In his widely anticipated foreign-policy speech Thursday, President Obama rejected the wisdom of a global "war on terror" and warned, in the words of President James Madison, that "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
To that end, a new presidential directive released this week in advance of Mr. Obama's speech says that the Pentagon, rather than the CIA, should "have the lead for the use of force" – not just in Afghanistan, but also in other countries where the US is fighting against Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The hope among nongovernmental organizations that have long endeavored to raise awareness about America's secret drone war is that this move will result in greater transparency.
"This is a big deal. It's something that we've been pushing for for quite a long time – to have it moved over to the DOD," says Sarah Holewinski, executive director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict. "The military is actually quite accountable not only to Congress but also to the American people."
During the years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military went to great lengths to explain "how they handle and avoid civilian casualties," Ms. Holewinski says. "They've wanted to be transparent, to prove, 'Here's how we avoid casualties.' They wanted people to see how they tried to avoid civilian harm."
For this reason, the public has every reason to expect that the Pentagon will shed more light on America's secret wars than has the CIA, which does not directly answer to the American people, Holewinski says.
Others argue, however, that the move could actually decrease transparency. Currently, the CIA is required to report anticipated covert activities to the "Gang of Eight," which is made up of the top intelligence leaders in Congress.
But as the Pentagon takes over greater responsibilities for drone operations, "there is no obligation of the military to report before or after any drone strikes," says Bruce Fein, deputy attorney general under President Reagan and author of Constitutional Peril: the Life and Death Struggle for Our Constitution and Democracy."
5) The End of the Perpetual War
Editorial, New York Times, May 23, 2013
President Obama's speech on Thursday was the most important statement on counterterrorism policy since the 2001 attacks, a momentous turning point in post-9/11 America. For the first time, a president stated clearly and unequivocally that the state of perpetual warfare that began nearly 12 years ago is unsustainable for a democracy and must come to an end in the not-too-distant future. "Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue," Mr. Obama said in the speech at the National Defense University. "But this war, like all wars, must end. That's what history advises. It's what our democracy demands."
While there are some, particularly the more hawkish Congressional Republicans, who say this war should essentially last forever, Mr. Obama told the world that the United States must return to a state in which counterterrorism is handled, as it always was before 2001, primarily by law enforcement and the intelligence agencies. That shift is essential to preserving the democratic system and rule of law for which the United States is fighting, and for repairing its badly damaged global image.
Mr. Obama said the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which was passed after Sept. 11, 2001, must be replaced to avoid keeping "America on a perpetual wartime footing." He added: "Unless we discipline our thinking and our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don't need to fight, or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states."
He did not say what should replace that law, but he vowed: "I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further." Mr. Obama's speech covered the range of national security, counterterrorism and civil liberties issues facing the United States since 2001.
Mr. Obama announced important shifts in the policy of using unmanned drones to kill citizens of other countries, in the territory of sovereign nations, without any public, judicial or meaningful Congressional oversight. From now on, the Central Intelligence Agency and the military will no longer target individuals or groups of people in countries like Pakistan based merely on the suspicion that their location or actions link them to Al Qaeda or other groups allied with the terrorist network. Those attacks, referred to as "signature strikes," have slaughtered an untold number of civilians and have become as damaging a symbol of American overreach as the prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
[The NYT's "from now on" is an optimistic take on the state of play. The Administration has indicated that "signature strikes" could continue for some time in Pakistan but will end as U.S. troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan - JFP.]
The targeting of citizens of other countries will now be subjected to the same conditions the administration uses to kill American citizens abroad. They must be shown to pose "a continuing, imminent threat to Americans," as Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. wrote in a letter to Congress that was made public on Wednesday.
[Previously, the Administration manipulated the word "imminent," but it appears that they now wish it to have its usual meaning - JFP]
We wish Mr. Obama had pledged an accounting for the civilian deaths caused by drone strikes, and some form of reparations, but he did not. He should do so.
He also said that he had informed Congress about every planned drone strike outside of Iraq and Afghanistan and that he had ordered his administration to prepare a strict, written set of rules for targeted killings in the future. (Still, it was disturbing to hear that the rules would be in a classified document, not be shared with the public. It's hard to believe that some version could not be declassified.)
6) UN rapporteur Emmerson hails 'historic' Obama drone vow
BBC, 24 May 2013
The lawyer leading a UN drone inquiry has praised a speech by US President Barack Obama as a "significant step towards increased transparency". Ben Emmerson said Mr Obama had set out more clearly than ever before the legal justifications for targeted killing.
Pakistan, the main focus of the strikes, has reiterated its view that drones are "counter-productive".
Mr Obama pledged to continue strikes, but with tighter oversight of the programme and stricter targeting rules.
Mr Emmerson, a United Nations human rights special rapporteur, launched an inquiry into drones in January, saying their use "represents a real challenge to the framework of international law". The inquiry is examining 25 attacks, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, the Palestinian territories and Somalia.
He said in a statement that Mr Obama's speech had broken new ground on a number of issues. "It sets out more clearly and more authoritatively than ever before the administration's legal justifications for targeted killing, and the constraints that it operates under," he said. "The publication of the procedural guidelines for the use of force in counter-terrorism operations is a significant step towards increased transparency and accountability."
The Pakistani foreign ministry said it appreciated that Mr Obama had acknowledged "force alone cannot make us safe" and welcomed his resolve to rebuild ties between the nations. But the ministry added: "The government of Pakistan has consistently maintained that the drone strikes are counter-productive, entail loss of innocent civilian lives, have human rights and humanitarian implications and violate the principles of national sovereignty."
A senior official from Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League has told the BBC the party is disappointed that President Obama gave no indication he would consult the Pakistan government about the continued use of drone attacks. He said the question of the Americans bombing Pakistani territory without permission is the biggest foreign policy issue facing the new administration, which is preparing to take power after its recent election win.
7) Syrian rebels, U.S. disagree on peace talks
Stephen Starr, USA Today, 7:06 p.m. EDT May 22, 2013
Istanbul - The Syrian opposition said Wednesday it welcomes the promise of increased U.S. involvement in finding a solution to two years of war, but that it would not accept peace talks if top members of the regime of Bashar Assad are involved.
The stand of the country's leading opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, is in direct conflict with the peace talks that the Obama administration are seeking to help organize next month in Geneva.
Analysts said the call for talks represents a change in U.S. policy by not insisting that Assad agree to vacate his position immediately. "The goal of the U.S. is to help bring about a solution by bringing the regime and the opposition together," said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. "This is a major shift - the U.S. no longer insisting on Assad's departure as a precondition to talks."
"It's important because what John Kerry is trying to do now is to convince America's regional allies and the allies of the opposition, in particular Turkey and Qatar, to at least convene in Geneva and to convince the political opposition to take it seriously and form a negotiating team to go to Geneva," he said. "The U.S. is acting now because it's afraid that war could expand into regional war."
8) Is it the end of Sykes-Picot?
Patrick Cockburn on the war in Syria and the threat to the Middle East
Patrick Cockburn, London Review of Books, 23 May
For the first two years of the Syrian civil war foreign leaders regularly predicted that Bashar al-Assad's government would fall any day. In November 2011, King Abdullah of Jordan said that the chances of Assad's surviving were so slim he ought to step down. In December last year, Anders Rasmussen, the Nato secretary general, said: 'I think the regime in Damascus is approaching collapse.' Even the Russian Foreign Ministry – which generally defends Assad – has at times made similar claims. Some of these statements were designed to demoralise Assad's supporters by making his overthrow seem inevitable. But in many cases outsiders genuinely believed that the end was just round the corner. The rebels kept claiming successes, and the claims were undiscriminatingly accepted.
That Assad's government is on its last legs has always been something of a myth. YouTube videos of victorious rebel fighters capturing military outposts and seizing government munitions distract attention from the fact that the war is entering its third year and the insurgents have succeeded in capturing just one of the 14 provincial capitals. (In Libya the insurgents held Benghazi and the whole of the east as well as Misrata and smaller towns in the west from the beginning of the revolt.) The Syrian rebels were never as strong militarily as the outside world supposes. But they have always been way ahead of the government in their access to the international media. Whatever the uprising has since become it began in March 2011 as a mass revolt against a cruel and corrupt police state. The regime at first refused to say much in response, then sounded aggrieved and befuddled as it saw the vacuum it had created being filled with information put out by its enemies. Defecting Syrian soldiers were on television denouncing their former masters while government units that had stayed loyal remained unreported and invisible. And so it has largely continued. The ubiquitous YouTube videos of minor, and in some cases illusory, victories by the rebels are put about in large part to persuade the world that, given more money and arms, they can quickly win a decisive victory and end the war.
There is a striking divergence between the way the Syrian war is seen in Beirut – just a few hours' drive from Damascus, even now – and what actually appears to be happening on the ground inside Syria. On recent trips I would drive to Damascus, having listened to Syrians and non-Syrians in Beirut who sincerely believed that rebel victory was close, only to find the government still very much in control. Around the capital, the rebels held some suburbs and nearby towns, but in December I was able to travel the ninety miles between Damascus and Homs, Syria's third largest city, without any guards and with ordinary heavy traffic on the road. Friends back in Beirut would shake their heads in disbelief when I spoke about this and politely suggest that I'd been hoodwinked by the regime.
Some of the difficulties in reporting the war in Syria aren't new. Television has a great appetite for the drama of war, for pictures of missiles exploding over Middle Eastern cities amid the sparkle of anti-aircraft fire. Print journalism can't compete with these images, but they are rarely typical of what is happening. Despite the iconic images Baghdad wasn't, in fact, heavily bombarded in either 1991 or 2003. The problem is much worse in Syria than it used to be in Iraq or Afghanistan (in 2001) because the most arresting pictures out of Syria appear first on YouTube and are, for the most part, provided by political activists. They are then run on TV news with health warnings to the effect that the station can't vouch for their veracity, but viewers assume that the station wouldn't be running the film if it didn't believe it was real. Actual eyewitnesses are becoming hard to find, since even people living a few streets from the fighting in Damascus now get most of their information from the internet or TV.
Not all YouTube evidence is suspect. Though easily fabricated, it performs certain tasks well. It can show that atrocities have taken place, and even authenticate them: in the case of a pro-government militia massacring rebel villagers, for instance, or rebel commanders mutilating and executing government soldiers. Without a video of him doing so, who would have believed that a rebel commander had cut open a dead government soldier and eaten his heart? Pictures of physical destruction are less reliable because they focus on the worst damage, giving the impression – which may or may not be true – that a whole district is in ruins. What YouTube can't tell you is who is winning the war.
The reality is that no one is. Over the last year a military stalemate has prevailed, with each side launching offensives in the areas where they are strongest. Both sides have had definite but limited successes. In recent weeks government forces have opened up the road that leads west from Homs to the Mediterranean coast and the road from Damascus south to the Jordanian border. They have expanded the territory they hold around the capital and trained a militia of sixty thousand, the National Defence Force, to guard positions once held by the Syrian army. This strategy of retrenchment and consolidation isn't new. About six months ago the army stopped trying to keep control of outlying positions and focused instead on defending the main population centres and the routes linking them. These pre-planned withdrawals took place at the same time as real losses on the battlefield, and were misinterpreted outside Syria as a sign that the regime was imploding. The strategy was indeed a sign of military weakness, but by concentrating its forces in certain areas the government was able to launch counterattacks at vital points. Assad isn't going to win a total victory, but the opposition isn't anywhere close to overthrowing him either. This is worth stressing because Western politicians and journalists so frequently take it for granted that the regime is entering its last days. A justification for the British and French argument that the EU embargo on arms deliveries to the rebels should be lifted – a plan first mooted in March but strongly opposed by other EU members – is that these extra weapons will finally tip the balance decisively against Assad. The evidence from Syria itself is that more weapons will simply mean more dead and wounded.
The protracted conflict that is now underway in Syria has more in common with the civil wars in Lebanon and Iraq than with the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya or the even swifter regime changes in Egypt and Tunisia at the start of the Arab Spring. The civil war in Lebanon lasted 15 years, from 1975 to 1990, and the sectarian divisions which caused it are as marked as ever. In Iraq, 2006 and 2007 are usually described as being the worst years of the slaughter – three thousand people murdered every month – but sectarian killings began immediately after the US invasion in 2003 and haven't stopped since. According to the UN some seven hundred Iraqis were killed in April: the highest monthly total since 2008. Syria is increasingly resembling its neighbours to the west and east: there will soon be a solid bloc of fragmented countries that stretches between the Mediterranean and Iran. In all three places the power of the central state is draining away as communities retreat into their own well-defended and near autonomous enclaves.
Meanwhile, foreign countries are gaining influence with the help of local proxies, and in so doing the rebels' supporters are repeating the mistake Washington made ten years ago in Iraq. In the heady days after the fall of Saddam, the Americans announced that Iran and Syria were the next targets for regime change. This was largely ill-informed hubris, but the threat was real enough for the Syrians and Iranians to decide that in order to stop the Americans acting against them they had to stop the US stabilising its occupation of Iraq and lent their support to all of America's opponents regardless of whether they were Shia or Sunni.
From an early stage in the Syrian uprising the US, Nato, Israel and the Sunni Arab states openly exulted at the blow that would soon be dealt to Iran and to Hezbollah in Lebanon: Assad's imminent fall would deprive them of their most important ally in the Arab world. Sunni leaders saw the uprising not as a triumph of democracy but as the beginning of a campaign directed at Shia or Shia-dominated states. As with Iraq in 2003, Hezbollah and Iran believe they have no alternative but to fight and that it's better to get on with it while they still have friends in power in Damascus. 'If the enemy attacks us,' Hossein Taeb, a high-ranking intelligence officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, recently said, 'and seeks to take over Syria or Khuzestan' – an Iranian province – 'the priority is to maintain Syria, because if we maintain Syria we can take back Khuzestan. But if we lose Syria we won't be able to hold Tehran.' Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, made it very clear in a speech on 30 April that the Lebanese Shia also see Syria as a battleground where they can't afford a defeat. 'Syria,' he said, 'has real friends in the region and the world who will not let Syria fall into the hands of America, Israel or takfiri groups.' He believes the very survival of the Shia is at stake. For many in the Middle East this sounded like a declaration of war: a significant one, given Hezbollah's experience in fighting a guerrilla war against the Israelis in Lebanon. The impact of its skill in irregular warfare has already been witnessed in the fighting at Qusayr and Homs, just beyond Lebanon's northern border. 'It probably is unrealistic to expect Lebanese actors to take a step back,' a study by the International Crisis Group concludes. 'Syria's fate, they feel, is their own, and the stakes are too high for them to keep to the sideline.'
The Syrian civil war is spreading. This, not well-publicised advances or withdrawals on the battlefield, is the most important new development. Political leaders in the region see the dangers more intensely than the rest of the world. 'Neither the opposition nor the regime can finish the other off,' Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, said earlier this year. 'If the opposition is victorious, there will be a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan, and a sectarian war in Iraq.' Of these countries, the most vulnerable is Lebanon, given the division between Sunni and Shia, a weak state, porous borders and proximity to heavily populated areas of Syria. A country of four million people has already taken in half a million Syrian refugees, most of them Sunnis.
In Iraq, the Syrian civil war has reignited a sectarian conflict that never entirely ended. The destabilising of his country that Maliki predicted in the event of an opposition victory has already begun. The overthrow of Saddam brought to power a Shia-Kurdish government that displaced Sunni rule dating back to the foundation of the Iraqi state in 1921. It is this recently established status quo that is now under threat. The revolt of the Sunni majority in Syria is making the Sunni minority in Iraq feel that the regional balance is swinging in their favour. They started to demonstrate in December, modelling their protests on the Arab Spring. They wanted reform rather than revolution, but to the Shia majority the demonstrations appeared to be part of a frighteningly powerful Sunni counter-offensive across the Middle East. The Baghdad government equivocated until 23 April, when a military force backed by tanks crushed a sit-in protest in the main square of Hawijah, a Sunni town south-west of Kirkuk, killing at least 50 people including eight children. Since then local Sunni leaders who had previously backed the Iraqi army against the Kurds have been demanding that it leave their provinces. Iraq may be disintegrating.
The feeling that the future of whole states is in doubt is growing across the Middle East – for the first time since Britain and France carved up the remains of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. 'It is the end of Sykes-Picot,' I was told repeatedly in Iraq; the reference was to the agreement of 1916 which divided up the spoils between Britain and France and was the basis for later treaties. Some are jubilant at the collapse of the old order, notably the thirty million Kurds who were left without a state of their own after the Ottoman collapse and are now spread across Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. They feel their moment has come: they are close to independence in Iraq and are striking a deal with the Turkish government for political rights and civil equality. In March, the Kurdish guerrillas of the PKK declared an end to their thirty-year war with the Turkish government and started withdrawing into the mountains of northern Iraq. The 2.5 million Kurds in northern Syria, 10 per cent of the population, have assumed control of their towns and villages and are likely to demand a high degree of autonomy from any postwar Syrian government.
What will the new order in the Middle East look like? This should be Turkey's great moment in the region: it has a powerful military, a prospering economy and a well-established government. It is allied to Saudi Arabia and Qatar in supporting the Syrian opposition and is on good terms with the US. But these are dangerous waters to fish in. Three years ago, Ankara was able to deal peaceably with Syria, Iraq and Iran, but now it has poisonous relations with all three. Engagement in Syria on the side of the rebels isn't popular at home and the government is clearly surprised that the conflict hasn't yet ended. There are signs that the violence is spilling over Turkey's 510-mile frontier with Syria, across which insurgent groups advance and retreat at will. On 11 May, two bombs in a Turkish border town killed 49 people, almost all Turkish. An angry crowd of Turks marched down the main street chanting 'kill the Syrians' as they assaulted Syrian shopkeepers. Arab politicians wonder whether the Turks know what they are getting into and how they will handle it. 'The Turks are big on rhetoric but often disappointing when it comes to operational ability,' one Arab leader says. 'The Iranians are just the opposite.' The recent deal between the government and Turkey's Kurds could easily unravel. A long war in Syria could open up divisions in Turkey just as it is doing elsewhere.
When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, it changed the overall balance of power and destabilised every country in the region. The same thing is happening again, except that the impact of the Syrian war is likely to be less easily contained. Already the frontier dividing the western deserts of Iraq from the eastern deserts of Syria is ceasing to have any physical reality. In April, al-Qaida in Iraq embarrassed the rebels' Western supporters by revealing that it had founded, reinforced with experienced fighters and devoted half its budget to supporting al-Nusra, militarily the most effective rebel group. When Syrian soldiers fled into Iraq in March they were ambushed by al-Qaida and 48 of them were killed before they could return to Syrian territory.
There is virtually no state in the region that hasn't got some stake in the conflict. Jordan, though nervous of a jihadi victory in Syria, is allowing arms shipments from Saudi Arabia to reach rebels in southern Syria by road. Qatar has reportedly spent $3 billion on supporting the rebels over the last two years and has offered $50,000 to every Syrian army defector and his family. In co-ordination with the CIA it has sent seventy military flights to Turkey with arms and equipment for the insurgents. The Tunisian government says that eight hundred Tunisians are fighting on the rebel side but security sources are quoted as saying the real figure is closer to two thousand. Moaz al-Khatib, the outgoing president of the Syrian National Coalition, which supposedly represents the opposition, recently resigned, declaring as he did so that the group was controlled by outside powers – i.e. Saudi Arabia and Qatar. 'The people inside Syria,' he said, 'have lost the ability to decide their own fate. I have become only a means to sign some papers while hands from different parties want to decide on behalf of the Syrians.' He claimed that on one occasion a rebel unit failed to go to the rescue of villagers being massacred by government forces because they hadn't received instructions from their paymasters.
Fear of widespread disorder and instability is pushing the US, Russia, Iran and others to talk of a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Some sort of peace conference may take place in Geneva over the next month, with the aim at least of stopping things getting worse. But while there is an appetite for diplomacy, nobody knows what a solution would look like. It's hard to imagine a real agreement being reached when there are so many players with conflicting interests. Five distinct conflicts have become tangled together in Syria: a popular uprising against a dictatorship which is also a sectarian battle between Sunnis and the Alawite sect; a regional struggle between Shia and Sunni which is also a decades-old conflict between an Iranian-led grouping and Iran's traditional enemies, notably the US and Saudi Arabia. Finally, at another level, there is a reborn Cold War confrontation: Russia and China v. the West. The conflict is full of unexpected and absurd contradictions, such as a purportedly democratic and secular Syrian opposition being funded by the absolute monarchies of the Gulf who are also fundamentalist Sunnis.
By savagely repressing demonstrations two years ago Bashar al-Assad helped turn mass protests into an insurrection which has torn Syria apart. He is probably correct in predicting that diplomacy will fail, that his opponents inside and outside Syria are too divided to agree on a peace deal. He may also be right in believing that greater foreign intervention 'is a clear probability'. The quagmire is turning out to be even deeper and more dangerous than it was in Iraq.
9) Gaza exports have plummeted under Israeli blockade
Gaza's exports dropped 97 percent from 2007-12, which Gazans say hurts not only their economy but their dignity. The Gaza Ark project says what's needed is trade, not aid.
Christa Case Bryant, Christian Science Monitor, May 25, 2013
Gaza City, Gaza - After a wave of international flotillas laden with humanitarian supplies for Gaza were headed off by Israeli forces, with one standoff resulting in nine deaths, a new idea was born: a reverse flotilla that would carry symbolic Gazan exports like embroidery, carpets, and dates to foreign customers.
Gazans need "trade not aid," says Mahfouz Kabariti, part of the "Gaza's Ark" international steering committee, as he polishes his glasses at an open-air restaurant in Gaza City. The vast Mediterranean stretches into the distance behind him, a seemingly open portal to the world.
But since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel has enforced a strict naval blockade off Gaza's coast, citing security concerns such as ships carrying Iranian-supplied weapons to Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist group by Israel, the US, and Europe. The blockade has put the kibosh on exporting anything from Gaza by sea, and only very limited exports are allowed by land through the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing, stymieing Gaza's manufacturing potential.
"If Israel is telling the truth that they have not occupied since 2005, they will allow the ship out," says Kabariti, head of the Palestine Association for Fishing and Marine Sports. He plans to have "Gaza's Ark" ready by the end of summer. "If not, they are a liar; this is collective punishment and it's against international law."
His challenge gets to the heart of the debate over Israeli policy toward Gaza: whether it is obliged to maintain such strict control over the flow of goods and people in and out of Gaza for security reasons, or whether it is blurring the lines between civilian and military matters. Kabariti and others argue that the restrictions on exports not only deprive Gazan entrepreneurs of their livelihoods, but also deprive them of the basic dignity of providing for oneself and one's family.
While Israel has been gradually easing its restrictions on Gaza over the past three years, a new report by Israeli NGO Gisha says that the recent closures of Israeli crossings for goods and people in response to Gaza rocket fire appears to mark a meaningful step back.
"Imposing access restrictions which are not directly necessary for security, do not distinguish between civilians and combatants and disproportionately disrupt civilian life, constitutes a breach of Israel's obligations toward Gaza's residents under international law," says the report.
After the May 2010 Mavi Mamara incident, in which Israeli naval commandos killed 9 Turkish activists in a standoff aboard the flagship of a Gaza-bound flotilla, Israel announced a new "civilian policy" toward Gaza. The policy marked a switch from banning all items except those on an approved list to approving all items except those on a banned list.
Since 2010, trade between Israel and Gaza at the Kerem Shalom crossing has increased nearly 75 percent, from .9 million tons to 1.56 million tons in 2012. This positive trend was boosted after the November 2012 cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that ended an eight-day conflict in which Gaza militants attacked cities as far away as Tel Aviv and Israel responded with punishing air strikes.
However, in recent months, trade has dropped off as Israel repeatedly closed its two crossings in response to Gaza violations of the cease-fire. According to a report last week by Gisha, an Israeli NGO that advocates lifting Israeli restrictions on the Gaza Strip, imports dropped by 17 percent while the number of individuals who traveled to Israel dropped by 44 percent.
In addition, the number of trucks carrying goods from Gaza into Israel over the past three months dropped by 37.5 percent over the same period last year, and some products destined for export – such as 2.5 tons of mint – were lost due to delays at the Kerem Shalom crossing.
While some exports do leave Gaza, such as a spice export several months ago, a furniture shipment this month, and seasonal agricultural exports supported by the Netherlands, Gaza merchants are with few exceptions banned from exporting to Israel and the West Bank, which once accounted for an estimated 85 percent of Gaza exports.
That helps explain why only 134 truckloads of exports left Gaza in 2012, down from 4,769 in 2007 – a 97 percent drop – according to a fact sheet by the United Nations Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs for occupied Palestinian territory.
Thanks in part to the export restrictions, which have led to the closures of many factories, some 80 percent of Gazans today receive aid, according to the United Nations. The inability to earn one's own way in the world can lead to demoralization and potential radicalization, particularly among Gaza's young people, who face unemployment rates as high as 60 percent, according to Israeli statistics.
"Once sons feel that their father is not able to secure food … this will have a very bad impression on them of their father… and might send youth to very bad directions; they might join some fundamentalist group," says Kabariti, who recently started a sailing club to give Gazan youths a positive outlet. "But if he can earn a living, this will enable him to feel proud, to feel dignity and happiness."
10) Farc peace talks: Colombia unveils major breakthrough
Agreement on land rights signals 'radical transformation' of countryside and end to half-century of war
Sibylla Brodzinsky, Guardian, Monday 27 May 2013 08.57 EDT
Bogotá - The Colombian government and leftist Farc rebels have announced a major breakthrough in peace talks aimed at ending nearly half a century of conflict, heralding a "radical transformation" of the war-ravaged countryside.
The two sides said in a joint communiqué that they had reached an agreement on land and rural development issues, the first point in a peace process launched six months ago. The lead government negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, said the agreement would represent "a historic change, a rebirth of the Colombian countryside".
Land rights and distribution are at the heart of the conflict in Colombia, which saw Farc rise up against the state in the mid-1960s claiming to fight on behalf of the country's peasants. Today 52% of farms are in the hands of just over 1% of landowners, according to the UN Development Programme, giving Colombia one of the most unequal land distributions in the world.
According to official figures, only 22% of potential arable land is cultivated and 6.5m hectares of land was stolen, abandoned or forcibly changed hands in other ways between 1985 and 2008 as a result of the conflict.
Sunday's agreement "seeks to reverse the causes of the conflict" and would be the "start of radical transformations in Colombia's rural and agrarian reality", according to the statement read in Havana, where the negotiations have been taking place since November.
As part of the deal, Colombia would create a land bank through which farmland would be redistributed. Farmers would receive loans, technical assistance and marketing advice as well as legal and police protection.
The government and rebel negotiators stressed they would enter into effect only if an overall peace accord was reached.
The chief Farc negotiator, Iván Márquez, said several issues surrounding land reform remained unresolved but the agreement was most likely announced to show some progress in the talks, about which many Colombians remain sceptical.
If the land issue was difficult because of the technical nature of the subject and the historical context, the next items on the agenda may be even more complicated politically. When the talks reconvene on 11 June, negotiators will begin to tackle the problem of how Farc can make the transition from an 8,000-strong guerrilla army to a legitimate political movement.
Farc tried this before with disastrous results. As part of a previous peace process in the mid-1980s it created the Patriotic Union party to participate in electoral politics while the rebels remained in arms.
But as many as 3,000 of party its members, including two presidential candidates, were murdered in the process.
Just Foreign Policy is a membership organization devoted to reforming US foreign policy so it reflects the values and interests of the majority of Americans. The archive of the Just 'Foreign Policy News is here: