Tag Archives: Latakia

Syria: The Assad Equation

 

Hussein Ibish

An alarming precedent in international relations is being established in Syria by rewarding gassing civilians

Bashar al-Assad speaks to Turkish media in an interview later uploaded to YouTube by the Syrian president.

The worst fears of those who doubted the wisdom and effectiveness of the agreement between the international community and the Assad regime to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and capability are rapidly being realized. Today’s “deadline” to ship the most serious material out of the country produced no movement. And a new precedent in international relations with potentially far-reaching and alarming consequences – call it “the Assad equation” – is unmistakably unfolding.

Whatever signals the West intended to send through the agreement, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has clearly taken it as an implicit green light to use all other weapons with increasing intensity in his onslaught against both rebels and Syria’s defenseless civilian population.

The way the regime is “implementing” the agreement demonstrates they see it primarily as a useful distraction for the international community from the vicious war it is conducting against the Syrian people. The regime probably doesn’t care that much about chemical weapons. But, as they are making abundantly clear, when they can avoid compliance, they will.

Reports suggest that today’s “deadline” for shipping most of its chemical weapons stockpile out of the country is being systematically procrastinated. Indeed, according to reports by those involved in the process on the UN and international side, the weapons have not even begun to be moved.

Anyone who finds it convenient can cite logistics, winter weather, and, of course, the ongoing conflict for such “delays.” All of these complications were fully understood and, presumably, factored into the equation when the December 31 deadline was agreed upon. But the process required to ensure that Syria retains no chemical weapons in the timeframe the agreement sets forth was always implausible at best and, at worst, practically impossible to either accomplish or verify.

The plan to transport Syria’s declared 1,200 tons of chemical weapons material requires its transfer from 12 different sites around the country by road to the northwestern port of Latakia. This means, in effect, that the agreement both relies on and therefore implicitly endorses military measures the regime can claim are necessary to secure the areas required for this macabre long-haul convoy.

The agreement not only makes Assad a partner with the international community in the project of getting rid of his own chemical weapons following their use against civilians, but it can also be cited to justify regime offensives in order to ensure their control of all the necessary areas and roads for this transfer.

International authorities say the regime now has “virtually all” of the necessary “logistical and security assets” in order to bring these weapons to Latakia. But to cite this as a positive development can also only mean de facto endorsement of regime control over key areas and transportation corridors of the country.

Assad, therefore, appears to have discovered or pioneered a new principle of international relations: lost legitimacy can be restored, and a consensus in favor of regime change can be profoundly compromised by dumping poison gas on civilians, including hundreds of children.
This, then, is “the Assad equation,” and dictators around the world must surely be taking note of the increasingly obvious and substantial benefits to the regime of having committed a heinous war crime.

Worse still, there is no sign that the international community’s patience is being particularly tested by how the agreement is playing out. The regime is predictably dragging the process on as long as possible, which they will certainly continue to do, citing any number of plausible-seeming technical and security problems.

Worst of all, and although the West and the United States could not have intended this, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Assad dictatorship regards the chemical weapons-focused process as, in practice, providing cover for an intensification of massive attacks, including of unarmed civilians, by even the fiercest “conventional” weapons.

The ongoing barrel bombing onslaught in Aleppo in which at least 500 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in recent days exemplify this dynamic. International eyebrows are hardly raised by such butchery anymore.

Indeed, the main development in the Western policy conversation since the agreement – the increasing use of heavy weapons against Syrian civilians notwithstanding – has been the emergence of establishment constituencies that openly endorse the survival of the regime as “the least bad option” for the West in Syria.

Today’s will hardly be the last missed deadline or breach of the agreement. An endless string of them may be readily anticipated. Meanwhile, Syria will continue to be immolated as the rest of the world shrugs or, in the case of Russia and Iran, applauds.

As things stand, the “Assad equation” is emerging as a chilling but unmistakable new principle of international relations. And there seems little interest in Washington or other Western capitals in correcting this perilous precedent.

Rebels versus rebels?

 

Maya Gebeily

 

Fighters of the jihadist al-Nusra front stand on top of a pick-up truck mounted with a machine gun during clashes with regime forces on April 4, 2013 in the Syrian village of Aziza, on the southern outskirts of Aleppo.

A new front in the Syrian conflict may have opened up last week, when members of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) killed a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander in Syria’s Latakia province. Kamal Hamami, known by his nom-de-guerre Abu Bassir al-Jeblawi, was shot last Thursday at a checkpoint after a dispute with members of ISIS, an al-Qaeda front group.

 

Abu Bassir’s death was only the latest casualty in the increasing tensions between Islamist factions – mainly ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra – and the coalition of more moderate FSA battalions. Also last week, FSA member Fadi al-Qash was brutally beheaded in the village of al-Dana in the Syrian province of Idlib by members of ISIS. In the wake of this violence, an unnamed FSA commander described Abu Bassir’s execution as “tantamount to declaration of war” between the FSA and the al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, namely ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. Many Western and Arab media outlets reported the commander’s announcement as indicative of an official break between the FSA and Islamist factions, which had been conducting joint operations against regime forces.

 

The reality, however, appears to be much more nuanced. Aron Lund, a Syria specialist who has closely followed the developments of the armed opposition, told NOW that many of the clashes between al-Qaeda affiliates and FSA battalions are a result of local disputes and the specific relationships among battalions; which does not necessarily indicate a materialized front between moderate and Islamist forces.

 

According to Lund, the relationships between the FSA and Islamist forces vary based on province and (even more so) on the particular battalions in question. Although there are serious tensions between certain battalions, “you have groups that are connected to the FSA in the Idlib area – big groups – that work perfectly well alongside the Islamist factions,” says Lund. “It really varies from group to group and from area to area.”

 

Lund notes that there hasn’t been much infighting in the actual battles against Syrian government forces, but that altercations occur between the FSA and Islamist factions in liberated areas. “A lot of these incidents seem to have their roots in some sort of power struggles – over a village, a right to have a checkpoint, running the local military council, access to weapons,” Lund told NOW. Indeed, although accounts of Abu Bassir’s death differ widely, all cite a quarrel with ISIS over the presence of a checkpoint in Latakia.

 

Lund also attributes the tension between the al-Qaeda factions and the FSA to “the fact that international funding for the FSA comes with conditions, one of which is pushing out the al-Qaeda factions.” He pointed to the obvious interest that FSA leaders may have in magnifying the conflict in order to assuage Western concerns over weapons falling into extremist hands.

 

Overall, Lund assessed that these altercations occurred in localized contexts, where the relationships between particular groups – not competing ideologies – are the primary catalysts to conflict. “My hunch is that one should look at the local situation before drawing conclusions on what a group is doing in all of Syria,” he said.

 

NOW also spoke to Abd Hakawati, a Syrian activist in Aleppo. Hakawati confirmed that tensions exist between the FSA and ISIS, but he also described an unwillingness on the part of the FSA to meaningfully confront ISIS. Hakawati told NOW that in Aleppo, ISIS has started governing, issuing decrees, arresting activists opposed to Islamist rule, and operating their own prisons.

 

“Most civilians in Aleppo, like Raqqa, are against this new dictatorship,” Hakawati added. Despite civilian protests against ISIS’s presence, “the FSA isn’t getting involved – it’s trying to stay neutral because it thinks this isn’t the time for problems with ISIS.”

 

Like Lund, Hakawati stressed that cases differed across provinces and groups: the relationships between ISIS units and FSA battalions, for example, did not mirror relationships between Jabhat al-Nusra units and the FSA, and the circumstances in Idlib’s countryside differed from those in the provincial city.

 

“Problems with ISIS, though, aren’t far away,” Hakawati told NOW. “In the coming period, there will be more executions like the one in Latakia, but uglier.”

 

For now, however, neither Lund nor Hakawati perceive a full-on war between the FSA and Islamist groups, whether al-Nusra or ISIS. “In the past month or two, we’ve had maybe five flare-ups between these groups, all of which seem to have been local,” Lund said. “Now, FSA spokesmen and some Islamists as well are trying to connect the dots in such a way that it means there’s an all-out war going on, and I don’t think there is one yet.”

Rise of the militias

The Bayda and Banias massacres signal the next phase in Assad’s war

rise of troops

The use of chemical weapons and Obama’s fudged “red line” has given way to gruesome footage of a schismatic Syrian rebel commander biting into the lung of a slain Hezbollah fighter and vowing revenge against Assadist soldiers. Such is the international press’ attention span that the far more significant development in Syria has gone almost entirely unnoticed. The al-Bayda and Baniyas massacres that occurred earlier this month were not just crimes against humanity; they signaled the clearest evidence to date of the regime’s transformation from a conventional military force into a consortium of sectarian Alawite-Shiite militias, which have been trained and financed by Iran, or reactivated after years of desuetude. Unlike the Syrian Army, which has claimed to be fighting a nationalist battle against foreign-backed interests, these armed proxies make no pretense about their true objective: to ethnically cleanse Syria’s Sunni population in the strategically vital western corridor of the country.

On May 2, around 400 people were slaughtered, and possibly as many as 800 disappeared, in the Syrian coastal hamlet of al-Bayda. Of those killed, 200 were buried in a mass grave in which only 150 bodies were identifiable, the rest having been mutilated beyond all recognition. According to The New York Times, which interviewed eyewitnesses and survivors of the massacre, pro-regime forces clad or semi-clad in military fatigues went house to house, separating men and boys above the age of 10 from women and younger children. Whole families were executed and images have since emerged showing children piled atop each other, some with half their faces blown off. Corpses later recovered in al-Bayda were said to include “the burned body of a baby just a few months old” and “a fetus ripped from a woman’s belly.” Two days later, on May 4, a similar massacre was repeated in Ras al-Nabeh, a district near the city of Baniyas.

In contrast to previous atrocities, the regime neither denied that these massacres had taken place nor tried to blame it on the opposition. Rather, it boasted of its success. State television claimed that the army had “crushed a number of terrorists,” while pro-regime Facebook pages displayed those grisly photographs of butchered children, categorizing them as militants. Moreover, the National Defense Forces were evidently involved in the assault on al-Bayda and assumed the most barbaric role of beating, shooting, or stabbing families to death, then burning down their houses. This new-minted guerrilla army is actually a professionalized reinvention of the pro-regime Popular Committees, which were, prior to 2013, locally armed Alawite militias that coordinated closely with the Syrian security services, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah. Now the Committees are being trained up, along with Jaysh al-Sha’bi, the Syrian “Basiji,” as the primary purveyors of state violence.

“The Syrian military doesn’t know how to fight an urban insurgency,” Elizabeth O’Bagy of the Institute for the Study of War told me. “The regime would have lost significant territory in Homs had it not been for Hezbollah moving in from Lebanon,” a relocation that Hassan Nasrallah was reluctant to order.  In a valuable briefing she published, O’Bagy observes that the regime’s strategy isn’t to carve out an Alawite rump state on the Mediterranean but to retain a necessary arms and personnel resupply line from Damascus to Latakia. That’s because the regime’s greatest security threat is not a Sunni-on-Alawite conflict, but rather an intra-Alawite one.

A recent example O’Bagy cites is the death of close relative of exiled Rifaat al-Assad, the brother of Hafez al-Assad best known for masterminding the 1982 Hama massacre and attempting a failed coup in the early 1980s. The relative has been dead for roughly two and a half weeks but lies unburied because Rifaat, who has postured as an “opposition” figure for years, has not gained permission from Damascus to return to Qardaha, the Assads’ ancestral home, to attend her funeral. As a result, a lot of latent or dormant clan tensions have flared up again, tensions not made easier by the dwindling Alawite demography along the coast. Sunnis are now said to comprise 45 percent of the population of Tartous, half the population of Latakia, and 70 percent of the population of the Latakia outskirts, which only means that they have been tolerated by Alawites in these areas – a phenomenon that is retrograde to the divide-and-rule strategy that Assad has pursued from the start of the uprising. The wholesale slaughter of Sunni communities in Houla, Quebair, Tremseh, al-Bayda, and Banias is therefore meant to dial up inter-tribal hatred and precipitate Sunni reprisal attacks.

The messaging in this regard has been unmistakable. The savagery in Banias occurred almost simultaneously with the leaking of an undated YouTube video showing a Turkish Alawite commander from Hatay province called Mihrac Ural  discussing the need to “cleanse and liberate” the Alawite strongholds of the Syrian coast. Presented next to Sheikh Mouaffac Ghazal, an Alawite cleric (a rare sight in pro-regime propaganda), Ural is in fact a secular communist, whose curriculum vitae is is reminiscent of an Anatolian Carlos the Jackal. He was imprisoned in Turkey briefly after his participation in the 1970s in the Marxist-Leninist People’s Liberation Party/Front, as well as its splinter faction Acilciler (the “Hasty Ones”), which is widely believed to have been the creation of Syrian intelligence. Released in 1980, Ural relocated to Syria and gained citizenship there. He’s rumored to have been the man who first introduced Abdullah Ocalan, the now-imprisoned head of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), to Hafez al-Assad.

Former CIA officer and counter-terrorism expert Edward Mickolus believes that Ural married Rifaat al-Assad’s secretary, which would have made him extremely close to the fiefdom in Damascus that was in charge of the Defense Companies, one of the most elite (and overwhelmingly Alawite) regime protection forces until the early 1980s. Ural now heads the Syrian Resistance, an Alawite super-militia, that is suspected as the main perpetrator behind the Ras al-Nabeh massacre.

Following the Al Bayda attack, Ural spoke a funeral for a local militiaman, vowing to wage war against Saudi Arabian-supported rebels, and pledging fealty to Assad. Ural has also been implicated as the mastermind behind the car bombings in Reyhanli last week, which killed 51 people and were clearly designed to exacerbate both Turkish-Syrian and Alawite-Sunni animosities in that restive city.

That a thirty-year Red conscript of the mukhabarat is resurfacing just as the regime relies more and more on Khomeinist proxies is hardly a coincidence. It should also give the United States pause in its already ridiculous pursuit of further diplomatic efforts with Damascus. It’s not entirely clear that a regime per se still exists, much less controls the loyalist swaths of Syria any more. Agents more akin to the Sudanese janjaweed or Rwandan impuzamugambi now appear to be the ones in charge.