Knowledgeable people gathered last Thursday under Chatham House rules to discuss shifting US objectives in Syria and how the new administration might pursue its ends. The explicit intent of American involvement in the conflict, most thought, should be population protection, because the greatest threat to US interests and security stems from violence against civilians and the resulting population displacement. The most likely outcome for post-conflict Syria is a fragmented and weakened state. The issue would then become how the United States could influence and stabilize the various regions.
The current Russian ceasefire is likely to prove little more than a strategic reset; a true end to the violence will not be realized. There are various strategies the United States might undertake to stop the bloodshed, including reducing the regime’s capacity for aerial bombardment and incentivizing a cessation of violence. It should be made clear that these moves aim to exact a cost on those who thwart US funded humanitarian efforts or directly harm civilians, rather than to engender regime change.
The United States needs to work with partners outside of the regime to establish a lasting ceasefire and dismantle terrorist control. It is particularly important to secure the borders of Syria, an effort in which both Turkish and Kurdish fighters need to be involved. The hostility between them derails peace efforts. One commentator called for senior US leaders to demand a ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurds as a necessary benchmark before any meaningful objectives or lines are drawn. Some participants demonstrated concern for the potential success of this strategy given a growing desire within the Pentagon to leave areas in the east under Assad’s control, and America’s general reluctance to get involved.
The conversation made it clear that the security of post-conflict Syria as a federal system of statelets depends on the “de-marbleization” of opposition groups. Separation of the groups would lead to their turning against Al-Qaeda and subsequently the stabilization of the country. International support today is not sufficient to achieve this. In addition the moderates must be linked to civil society to lead and maintain the separation. Though one speaker was averse to the moderate label, remarking that “moderates never win,” he described a need for a genuine Syrian nationalist movement. There is a lot of local discontent with extremist control. It is urgent to consolidate and support this resentment before it is supplanted with anti-Western rhetoric. The US government must determine which areas to support, and whether or not it is willing to trade off regions of control.
The United States is not alone. Turkey has actively worked to demarbleize opposition groups, and the upcoming peace talks in Astana are an example of its efforts. The Turkish government has reached out to local civil society and non-militant groups to attend these talks in addition to opposition political leaders, though no one expressed confidence in the potential of success of these efforts.
Turkey’s intentions are questionable. The growing power of Erdogan and his willingness to make territorial concessions to the Assad regime are worrisome to US interests and values. Successful implementation of US strategy in Syria requires long term commitment as well as clear limits on the expenditure of US blood and treasure. While the US must wholeheartedly commit to the effort, it cannot do so alone, nor can it dictate the outcome.
People to People Diplomacy and Culture an Alternative to an All-Security Tunisia?
| Tuesday, January 17 | 12:00 pm – 2:00 pm | Tunisian American Young Professionals | Click HERE to Register Join the Tunisian American Young Professionals this Tuesday for a panel discussing the importance of Education and Culture six years after the Jasmine Spring. Tunisians continue to fight on multiple fronts, can current cultural revival efforts be sustained with dwindling resources? How can the US, the EU and others help? The Panel is moderated by Dr. Leila Chennoufi, head of the education initiative at TAYP and features Stephen McInerney, Executive Director, Project on Middle East Democracy, Hisham Ben Khamsa, veteran Tunisian activist and organizer in culture, cinema and media, Dr. Ridha Moumni, art and archeology historian and curator of the highly successful Tunisian exhibit “The Rise of a Nation”, and Dr. Sarah Yerkes, visiting fellow, Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
- Social Media Jihad 2.0: Inside ISIS’ Global Recruitment and Incitement Campaign | Wednesday, January 18 | 12:15 pm – 1:45 pm | New America | Click HERE to Register
Since June 2014, the Islamic State has waged the most aggressive online recruitment and incitement campaign of any terrorist group in history. The unprecedented efficacy of this group’s conversions of popular social media technologies into tools used to build and reinforce support is highlighted by the recent wave of terrorist attacks in the West executed by individuals who have not set foot inside the group’s so-called “caliphate.” To offer an insider’s view of this campaign New America welcomes Michael S. Smith II, a terrorism analyst and adviser to members of the United States Congress who specializes in the influence operations of Salafi-Jihadist groups like al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State. Smith is involved with a variety of collection programs targeting online communications which help improve both strategic and tactical intelligence pictures of threats posed by elements comprising the Global Jihad movement. For his work collaborating with hactivists who have infiltrated Islamic State social media networks and online infrastructure to expose threats to the US and its allies, in 2016 Smith was listed among Foreign Policy magazine’s “100 Leading Global Thinkers.”
- Turkey and the Middle East under the Trump Administration | Thursday, January 19 | 10:00 am – 3:30 pm | SETA Foundation | Click HERE to Register This day long conference features three separate panels. The first panel, Syria and Iraq’s Impact on US-Turkey Relations, include Burhanettin Duran, General Coordinator at the SETA Foundation, Luke Coffey, Director of the Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation, Sasha Gosh-Siminoff, President and Co-Founder at People Demand Change, and Hasan Basri Yalcin, Director of the Strategy Program at the SETA Foundation. The second panel, The Trump Administration and Middle East Policy, features Hannah Thoburn, Research Fellow at the Hudson Institute, Nicholas Heras, Fellow at the Center for New American Security, Hassan Hassan, Fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, and Kilic B. Kanat, Research Director at the SETA Foundation. The final panel of the day, Turkey’s Fight Against ISIS, includes Ufuk Ulutas, Director of the Foreign Policy Program at the SETA Foundation and Murat Yesiltas, Director of the Security Policy Program at the SETA Foundation.
- Ardeshir Mohasses: The Rebellious Artist Documentary Screening| Thursday, January 19 | 6:00 pm – 7:30 pm | The Aftab Committee | Click HERE to Register Ardeshir Mohasses (1938-2008) was Iran’s foremost political cartoonist, satirist, painter and illustrator. Drawing upon his intimate knowledge of Iran’s culture, history, and sociopolitical situation, Ardeshir attracted the attention not only of the intellectuals, poets and writers of Iran of the time but also the international community. Filmmaker Bahman Maghsoudlou seeks to portray the beauty of Ardeshir’s purpose and power in crafting his art to convey the plight of the oppressed, and his universal sense of justice and tyranny, expressed through a satirical visual history of Iran since the Qajar era. Interviews with prominent critics and friends are arranged to depict the nuances of Ardeshir’s life: his time and career in Iran, his art and passion later in the United States, sources of his brilliant inspiration, his private reclusive moments, and his progressive political and social outlook. Ardeshir’s various artistic endeavors are comprehensively covered, and viewers will see samples of his political cartoons, visual commentaries, and works for the New York Times along with his avant-garde style. This feature documentary admiringly displays the depth of Ardeshir’s observations and his extraordinary free spirit.
Baytna Syria sent this message early today, representing the views of an important segment of opposition-oriented Syrian civil society:
The Syrian civil society organizations followed closely the recent developments and discussions regarding the ceasefire agreement signed by opposition armed groups and the Syrian regime mediated by Russia and Turkey as endorsed by UN Security Council resolution 2336.
The signatories welcome any serious and credible ceasefire agreement as it will spare our people further blood, killing, and destruction. Such an agreement should be a prelude to a credible political process that will lead to the realization of the Syrian people’s aspirations in freedom, justice, and dignity.
For such an agreement to acquire the necessary seriousness and credibility, it shall:
- include a publicly published monitoring, verification and accountability process. The signatories declare their readiness to participate in any monitoring role required, each according to its mandate and principles.
- specify a single wording for the agreement signed by parties to the conflict and the guarantors, and carbon translated to Arabic, Russian, English, and Turkish. The details of the agreement should be made public.
- include a published and clear description of the role of the guarantors (Russian Federation and Turkey) and means to verify and sanction any violation.
- declare the UN Security Council resolutions as the unique political reference to the negotiation process, especially UNSCR 2118 and UNSCR 2254.
The signatories see in the Higher Negotiations Committee the sole representative of the Syrian revolution and opposition in the negotiations. The Syrian regime should appoint its delegation and negotiations should be between two parties only.
The continued shelling of the Barada valley in Damascus suburbs, Atareb in Aleppo suburbs and other areas in Syria proves yet again the lack of seriousness of the regime to positively engage in any ceasefire process, its insistence on its security/military solution to crush any opposition, and its non-credibility when declaring adopting a political solution to the conflict.
Russian maneuvering with different versions of the agreement and its attempt to impose a new UN Security Council resolution that would give it a role in defining the Syrian opposition team worries us a lot, especially regarding its role as a guarantor to the agreement. This pushes us to ask Turkey, the other guarantor, and countries of the Friends of Syria group, to follow matters closely and to block any understandings or agreements that do not meet the criteria above.
At the end, we would like to stress that the continuous and unhindered delivery of humanitarian and medical aid to all Syrian territories and primarily to the besieged areas remain the real test on the willingness of the regime and its allies to abide by UNSC resolutions, including the latest one 2336 and to engage in a serious and credible political process that leads to the desired political transition in Syria.
The Day After
Syrian Network for Human Rights
Space of Hope
Violations Documentation Center in Syria
Bihar Relief Organization
John Oliver has already said it:
For me, 2016 was a lousy year on many fronts:
- Russian and Iranian intervention reversed the tide of war in Syria and chased many more innocent civilians from their homes and their country.
- North Korea has continued its increasingly capable missile and nuclear weapons programs.
- Major terrorist attacks have succeeded in Paris, Nice, Brussels, Berlin, Orlando, Lahore, Istanbul as well as on board a Paris/Cairo Egyptair flight.
- Britain voted in a referendum to leave the EU.
- Donald Trump won the American presidential election, despite a notable lack of qualifications, reasonable policy proposals, and a majority of the popular vote.
Sure some nice things happened too, like the Paris climate change agreement, but global warming continued apace. The Islamic State lost a lot of territory in Syria and Iraq, but many innocent people got killed in the process. The Cubs won the World Series, but Cleveland lost.
Really unalloyed good news has been rare. Or at least not enough to counter the sense of an inexorable slide into more instability, less equity, and more confusion.
Most concerning is that liberal democracy–based on individual rights and rule of law–is losing ground. It’s not just Putin and Russia, but also Xi Jinping and China, Sisi and Egypt, Netanyahu and Israel, Erdogan and Turkey, Duterte and the Philippines, Khamenei and Iran, Kabila and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, even Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma. Leaders and countries are turning in illiberal if not outright autocratic directions. Hopes for liberalizing politics and economics are limited to places like Tunisia and Taiwan, important in their own right but peripheral to the center of gravity in their regions.
2017 is likely to be worse rather than better. There is no visible barrier to deterioration in the Middle East. The North Korean regime is increasingly consolidated. China is exploiting Trump’s provocations to ratchet up its own defiance, the movement of the US embassy to Jerusalem is likely to provoke dramatic Arab reactions, Angela Merkel is in peril, Marine Le Pen has a chance to win the French presidential election, Italian banks may fail, Khamenei, Erdogan, Duterte, and Kabila are determined to hold on to power.
But despair is no more a policy than hope. What counts more than anything else is not the pace of change. That might be very fast under Trump. But it is the direction that really matters. We need to find ways to make the world safer, more stable, more prosperous and more free. Even small steps in the right direction will eventually get you where you want to go. Let’s keep that in mind as we approach the end and the beginning.
Here’s the proof the pudding, but you have to take the long view to see it:
The next four years is unlikely to reverse any of these fabulously positive developments.
Or watch this via Zack Beauchamp (which dates from 2015 and therefore does not include the uptick in war deaths of the past couple of years, which still leaves the numbers low in historic terms):
Rajaa al Altalli of the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria has clear ideas of what should be done about Aleppo and urges us all to call or tweet the following to the Russian and Iranian embassies:
1- Require the UN investigation team to document and record the human rights violations that took place in Aleppo over the past three months.
2- Make any and every effort to force a complete and sustainable ceasefire in Syria.
3- Ensure the safe evacuation of all people who want to leave Eastern Aleppo.
4- Create the mechanisms, which allow people in other besieged areas in Syria to have the option to stay in their homes without facing death, and starvation.
5- Honor their commitments under UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and work toward a negotiated peace agreement that will guarantee a political transition in Syria.
The problem of course is that neither Tehran nor Moscow is even remotely interested in doing these things. Both capitals have been using violence against the remaining opposition civilian population in Aleppo and tolerated its use by the Assad regime. They will no doubt repeat the horrors they have inflicted on Aleppo in Douma, Idlib, Palmyra or wherever they attack next. The regime and its allies have adopted a Grozny strategy against opposition-controlled strongholds: level them and chase their populations out, replacing the population whenever the place is strategically located with regime loyalists, whether Syrian or not.
There is no sign at the moment of any serious Russian, Iranian or Syrian government moves against Islamic State territory. That is being left to the Turks and their Free Syrian Army (Arab) allies at Al Bab and to the Americans and the Syrian Democratic Forces (mostly Kurds, some Arabs) around Raqqa. While some still hope that a wedge can be driven between the Russians and Iranians, winning the former over to an effort against extremists while the latter continue to defend Assad, I’ll believe it when I see it.
Buried in the rubble of Aleppo are a lot of good intentions and international norms, which Rajaa is still trying to uphold. The Iranians, Russians, Turks met yesterday to try to strike a deal. It is unlikely to be one Europe and America like, but they won’t resist. Turkey had already abandoned the Aleppo opposition in favor of Russian acquiescence in its Euphrates Shield operation farther north and east, intended to block Syrian Kurdish forces from controlling the entire border with Turkey. The Americans are still focused on defeating the Islamic State at Raqqa and want the Turks to remain west of the Euphrates and out of that battle.
I’m with Rajaa. The Russians and Iranians should do all those things. But they won’t. The values we should uphold have suffered a big defeat at Aleppo. We are going to have to live with the consequences for a long time to come.
You can always tell when a cause is lost: the UN General Assembly passes a resolution to stop the bombing, allow in aid, and protect civilians. This was the clear signal this week that Syrian opposition forces in Aleppo are on the verge of defeat at the hands of multinational Shia militias as well as Iranian, Russian and Syrian government forces. Russian efforts to arrange a ceasefire for evacuation of civilians have failed, so far. Fighting age men are reportedly disappearing, likely some of them into prisons from which they will never emerge.
Assad is crowing. For good reason: victory in Aleppo will allow him to concentrate his forces against Idlib, which is the last remaining bit of what he has termed “useful Syria” that he doesn’t control. It runs from Damascus north to Aleppo and west to Lebanon and the Mediterranean. If he doesn’t already, Assad will soon control about one-third of the country’s territory and tw0-thirds of its population.
But the war will still not be over. The opposition will have some territory in the south along the Jordanian border and some in the north (west of the Euphrates), while the Kurds will control the rest of the border with Turkey and the Islamic State will control Raqqa and much of the relatively unpopulated east. The defeat at Aleppo and the impending defeat at Idlib will drive more opposition fighters into the arms of extremist jihadis, strengthening both Jabhat al Sham (the erstwhile Al Qaeda affiliate) and the Islamic State.
Assad now seems likely to survive, if only because the Americans will continue to pursue Jabhat al Sham and the Islamic State, which now represent by far the largest threat to his hold on power. This will make life easy for Trump. In order to ally with Russia as he says he wants to do, he’ll need only to cut American assistance to those few non-jihadi opposition who are still fighting Assad and provide support only to those willing to join the campaign against the Islamic State at Raqqa.
How Trump and National Security Adviser Flynn will square this de facto alignment with Iran I don’t know, but who’s watching? Like George W. Bush before him, Trump is likely to open still another door to Iranian power projection to the west.
Assad’s survival is not however the end of the story. Syria is a shambles. It needs hundreds of billions in aid. The Americans have already provided billions, but that has been overwhelmingly humanitarian assistance, much of which went to regime-controlled areas. I doubt however that the Americans will be interested in providing reconstruction assistance to the Assad regime. Even for a Trump administration, that might be a bit much, and in any event Congress likely wouldn’t go along.
The Europeans will be under a lot pressure to provide aid, since Assad will provide them with some minimal reason to hope that refugees will return if the Syrian economy revives. That however will be a false promise, as he doesn’t want them to return and restart the rebellion against him. He prefers to provide homes and livelihoods to non-Syrians, mainly Shia, who have fought on his behalf.
The people who should ante up are the Russians and Iranians, who have caused much of the damage and are coming out on the winning side. That entails obligations that the Washington and Brussels recognize, but Moscow and Tehran don’t. They aren’t likely to do more than minimal assistance calculated to help Assad regain and maintain control over strategically important turf.
Without a significant influx of resources, Syria will remain a fragmented basket case for many years to come. Even after Raqqa and Deir Azzour fall (precisely to whom is not yet clear), Islamist insurgency is likely to continue. Turkey and its Arab and Turkmen allies will control part of the north, with the Syrian Kurdish PYD controlling the rest. A bit of the south will remain in opposition control.
The Aleppo defeat may be the beginning of the end, but it is not yet the end.