The call for military intervention in Syria has grown more urgent in recent weeks. But it’s a call that should be resisted argues Christopher Dickey.
There's an urgent, somewhat desperate chorus of prominent voices—longtime advocates for reason and humanity in international affairs—who are calling on the United States and its Western allies to intervene in Syria directly and militarily. But despite their best intentions, their propositions sound a lot like the thankless adventures that Rudyard Kipling called "the savage wars of peace."
A Syrian man reacts after seeing the body of his relative buried in rubble after an air strike in the town of Azaz on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria on Aug. 15, 2012. (Khalil Hamra / AP Photo)
Anyone looking at images of the carnage coming out of Syria these days sympathizes with the desire to see the bloodletting end. Nobody in the West or in Israel wants to see the conflict spread, and, as the mass kidnapping in Lebanon of 20 Syrians on Wednesday suggested, there is every reason to fear that it will. So while it is worth listening to those who say they know how the Assad regime can be toppled more quickly, efficiently, and humanely than seems to be the case at present, it's also worth understanding why almost nothing that these people recommend will be done—and why what is being done, mostly in secret, is attracting so little praise.
In The New York Times, noted columnist Nicholas Kristof recently came out in favor of limited American military intervention against the Damascus regime of Bashar al-Assad. In a column headlined "Obama AWOL in Syria," Kristof (who opposed the Iraq invasion in 2003) quoted two Clinton administration officials, former Defense secretary William Perry and former secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Perry suggested a no-fly, no-drive zone. Albright said she favored intervention and more involvement, but "not on the ground." Yet when Perry and Albright were in office, the Clinton administration's own intervention record was decidedly mixed. The invasion of chaotic, enfeebled Haiti was a short-term success. The 1999 war that eventually won Kosovo its independence from Serbia (over Russian objections and outside the U.N. framework) was a model combination of Western air power and guerrilla warfare by the locals. But in Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of people were butchered on Perry and Albright's watch, and the United States never intervened. Somalia was abandoned. The Bosnian war had gone on for three years before the U.S. finally helped tip the scale against the Serbs. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein's brutal regime managed to hold on to power despite repeated bombings and U.S.-backed coup plots—and more than a decade of no-fly zones in both the north and south of his country.
As fighting in rebel strongholds continues.
A mass kidnapping of more than 30 Syrians in Lebanon has officials worried that violence is spreading throughout the Middle East region. Seven Lebanese hostages being held in Syria were also wounded Wednesday, with four others still missing, according to a rebel commander. Meanwhile, a Syrian government fighter jet struck the northern town of Azaz Wednesday, killing at least 30, and injuring at least dozens more, many of whom are women and children.
Hosting U.N. mission, near military compound.
Explosives hit a hotel used by the ever-shrinking force of United Nations monitors in Damascus on Wednesday. The Free Syrian Army has claimed responsibility, allegedly targeting a meeting of top officials. Syrian state TV said the blast was caused by a bomb planted in a car parked at the hotel and at least three people had been injured, but none of them were U.N. monitors.
More than two dozen Syrian rebel leaders pledged to stop torturing and executing prisoners last week. But the soldiers on the ground don’t seem to have gotten the message.
After a video surfaced showing Syrian rebels executing four pro-government militiamen in Aleppo, more than two dozen rebel leaders—at the urging of human-rights groups—signed a pledge on August 8 to stop executing and torturing captives in their battle to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters capture two policemen who the FSA alleged are 'Shabiha' or pro-regime militiamen after the rebels overran a police station in Aleppo in July 2012. (Emin Ozmen, AFP / Getty Images)
Yet as The Daily Beast discovered during a disturbing and at times surreal visit to a detention center in Al Bab in northeastern Syria on August 10, members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main rebel-fighter force, still appeared to be involved in torture and abuse.
Their instruments of pain were on clear display: in the small dusty yard in front of the facility, not far from where guards lounged and smoked cigarettes, wooden sticks and iron bars were scattered in the shade, still coated with blood.
Syria’s highest-ranking civilian defector, former Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, says he has ‘sacrificed’ himself for the cause—could he be ready for a prominent opposition role? Mike Giglio reports from Istanbul, where Hijab has landed.
After more than a week of intrigue, Riyad Hijab, the former Syrian prime minister, made his first public appearance on Tuesday—and he came out charging hard against his former boss, the strongman President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime he was still party to at the start of the month. “The regime is falling apart morally, materially, and economically,” he said in remarks that painted a dire picture of Assad’s grip on power.
Riad Hijab, Syria’s defected former prime minister, speaks at a press conference in Amman, Jordan, on Aug. 14, 2012. (Mohammad Hannon / AP Photo)
Saying the Syrian military is “rusting,” Hijab claimed Assad now controls just 30 percent of the country's land.
Hijab’s unexpected defection caused a sensation last week: not only is he the top civilian defector, but Hijab also bolted from the regime just two months into the job. The interest surrounding his departure only intensified in the coming days, as even the country where he was residing remained a mystery. Initial reports, confirmed by Jordanian officials, were that he had fled to Jordan overnight. But Hijab was also rumored to be on his way to Qatar, and activists in Istanbul were then buzzing that he was amongst them in the Turkish capital, where the primary Syrian opposition body is based. He said Tuesday that he had spent three days hiding out in Syria during the news flurry, before escaping into Jordan with the help of the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Former Syrian prime minister Riad Hijab grabbed headlines at a press conference Tuesday, urging Syrians to rebel and claiming President Assad's regime is 'on the verge of collapse.'
Clinton met with Syrian activists in Turkey, but not the Syrian National Council, ostensibly the revolution’s unified voice. Her snub seemed to stem from a desire to tell the fractious group to get its act together—and perhaps to signal that America is moving on.
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Syrian activists in Istanbul on Saturday, they were asked not to reveal what was said. But the message Clinton sent just by calling the meetings was already loud and clear—and thanks more to whom she decided not to talk with than with whom she did.
In Istanbul over the weekend, international attention focused on Clinton’s talks with the Turkish foreign minister, and the subsequent announcement that the United States and Turkey will analyze the possibility of a “no-fly” zone across the border in Syria—which would constitute a monumental international step in the bloody conflict that continues to rage in the bid to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Associated Press today that plans for a no-fly zone are “not on the front burner.” And in the large community of Syrian revolutionaries living in Istanbul to take refuge from the war, talk of the Clinton visit has centered on her snub of the main opposition group based in town.
The Syrian National Council was founded in Istanbul last year to give a unified voice to the revolution’s many fronts, as its counterpart in the Libyan revolution was able to do. Instead, much the opposite has ensued, and the SNC has gained a reputation for infighting and indecision. “The SNC is just not living up to what we thought it was going to,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, summing up international consensus on the group.
On her visit to town, Clinton hammered this message home, ignoring the people who were supposed to be running the show, and choosing to meet with ground-level activists in their place. America, the message seemed to be, is moving on.
Government blames technical failure.
A Syrian warplane crashed over the eastern province of Deir el-Zour on Monday. Activists released a video that reportedly shows the Soviet-made MiG warplane catching fire before crashing down in flames. The pilot ejected before it crashed. The rebels claim they shot the plane down with ground fire. However, state-run media claims the plane was on a training mission and crashed due to technical error. SANA news agency says that a search has been launched to find the pilot.
Last week’s U.N. General Assembly session on censuring Syria mocked the very notion of civilization, as one totalitarian regime after another took the microphone, writes Andrew Roberts.
If ever, in the dark recesses of the night, you start to doubt the essential decency of the West, or the foul, amoral, hypocritical viciousness of its totalitarian foes, then I have a foolproof remedy for you: attend a session of the United Nations General Assembly. As a happy by-product, it will cure you of any lingering doubts you might have had over the portentous, pusillanimous, utter uselessness of “the international community” into the bargain.
Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Jaafari (shown on screen) speaks before a vote on a U.N. General Assembly resolution on Syria at U.N. headquarters in New York City, Aug. 3, 2012. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)
Last Friday’s session—they’re not called “debates,” as that might imply democracy, the interplay of ideas, and the possibility of votes being swayed through reasoned argument—was on the “prevention of Armed Conflict: Draft Resolution A/66/L57,” which sought to put the Assad regime squarely in the dock for the murder of 17,000 of its citizenry. It further condemns “the increasing use by the Syrian authorities of heavy weapons, including indiscriminate shelling from tanks and helicopters, in population centers and the failure to withdraw its troops and heavy weapons to their barracks.”
The session started with the General Assembly’s president, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, saying that the “credibility of the United Nations is at stake,” as though it hadn’t been already shot through by Kofi Annan’s complete inability to affect events in Syria, with his six-point plan or in any other way. The secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, nonetheless expressed his “tremendous admiration for all [Annan] did,” without mentioning what that in fact amounted to.
John Cantlie, a veteran photojournalist, was captured by jihadis on his return to Syria, whereupon he discovered how dangerous that murky conflict can be, writes Mike Giglio.
It took just seconds for John Cantlie to know that he was in serious trouble. He had made several prior trips into Syria across the Turkish border, to cover the ongoing conflict between rebel forces and the government of Bashar al-Assad. Cantlie had even used the same guide and route before.
The French ambassador to Syria, Eric Chevallier (second from right) watches as the coffin of French photographer Remi Ochlik is carried on to an ambulance in Damascus, March 3, 2012. (Anwar Amro / AFP / Getty Images )
On this latest trip in July, he and fellow photojournalist Jeroen Oerlemans were just an hour into their journey when they saw a rebel camp and walked up to it. As they did, Cantlie prepared himself for a warm welcome from the Syrians inside, who were always grateful when members of the international press arrived to document the bloody situation in the country. But when Cantlie and Oerlemans entered the camp, they didn’t find themselves among Syrians at all. Instead, they were surrounded by foreign fighters who had come to the country to wage jihad. The jihadis took away the photographers’ gear, questioned them angrily, and then led them away from the camp at gunpoint.
“You were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Cantlie remembers some of the fighters telling him as he was held captive over the coming days. The jihadis—who hailed from around the globe, including some from Cantlie’s native Britain—threatened to kill the two journalists, subjected them to mock executions, and sharpened knives in front of them as they promised to cut off their heads.
Overwhelmed and exhausted rebels retreat from Salaheddin to set up new defensive positions. Commanders insist the move is a tactical pullback, but fighters are unnerved as the government intensifies its Aleppo offensive.
Tank shells dropped about one a minute yesterday on the narrow streets of the battered Salaheddin district of Aleppo as exhausted rebel commanders finally conceded they no longer could contain a Syrian government offensive that’s built in intensity and firepower the past week, leaving hundreds dead and wounded, many of them civilians.
Syrian mourners carry the body of 29 year-old Free Syrian Army fighter, Husain Al-Ali, who was killed during clashes in Aleppo, during his funeral in the town of Marea on the outskirts of Aleppo city, Syria, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012. (Khalil Hamra / AP Photo)
With shelling and sniper fire pursuing them, hundreds of insurgents lugged RPG7 rocket launchers, heavy machine guns, and their all-purpose AK47s out of the district and filtered into neighborhoods adjacent to Salaheddin to set up new defensive positions in buildings mainly to the north and east, and to await the next move of their better-equipped adversaries.
Only days ago, as warplanes and helicopter gunships struck at rebel forces, Free Syrian Army commanders insisted they would retain the district in the southwest of Syria’s second-largest city, arguing that its strategic importance made it essential for them to hold it. Salaheddin lies on a vital supply and logistics route for government forces wanting to move men and materiel north to retake a string of towns running south from the Turkish border at Kilis.
As fighting intensifies in Syria, three fragile states next door are being drawn toward the war
Ever since the fighting started in Syria last year, there’s been talk that its neighbors would get sucked into the fray. Well, now they have: Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq—all relatively weak and unstable in their own particular ways—tried to keep a distance from this war. But the conflict has come to them with a vengeance in the form of refugees, tribal links, political deals, and covert operations sponsored by other countries. We haven’t yet seen them in open combat, but there’s every reason to expect there’s worse to come.
Syrian refugees fleeing the violence in their country make their way to the Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, July 31, 2012 (Muhammad Hamed, Reuters / Landov)
“We have to set very clear expectations about avoiding sectarian warfare,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as she prepared to attend an emergency conference in Turkey on Saturday to address the Syrian crisis. “Those who are attempting to exploit the situation by sending in proxies or terrorist fighters must realize that will not be tolerated, first and foremost by the Syrian people.” Clinton didn’t elaborate, but such is the state of the fighting that American allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar might have been the target of her remarks, and not just adversaries like Iran and Hezbollah.
The Middle East has a long history of strong nations fighting proxy wars on the territory of enfeebled ones. Ask the Lebanese, who lived through a full 15 years of savage conflict among a kaleidoscopic array of contending factions with various foreign backers in the 1970s and '80s. Much the same is happening now in Syria. But Lebanon was a tiny country where the fighting could be contained like a plague in a Petri dish. Syria is much bigger, with more neighbors, more players, more pathogens. The Turks, Saudis, Qataris, Iranians, Americans, Russians, and Israelis all have powerful interests in the outcome of the fight, and amid the confusion, the contagion spreads to those neighbors with the least resistance.
More than 50,000 have crossed the border.
With the violence mounting in Aleppo, at least 1,500 Syrians fled to Turkey on Thursday. The heavy fighting has created fear that there could be a mass migration. Turkey has already set up nine camps and absorbed more than 50,000 refugees since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began 17 months ago. Turkish officials are reportedly worried about being overwhelmed by people fleeing the crisis.
As Aleppo burns, Syria’s regime is gradually losing its image as a well-oiled and organized military machine—and Assad may be more vulnerable than many once thought. Mike Giglio reports.
The Syrian regime launched its first sustained ground offensive yesterday into Salahedin, the Aleppo neighborhood that has been under the control of rebel forces for much of the last month. The usual flurry of competing narratives ensued. The regime said it had cleared the area of so-called “terrorists,” its term for the fighters working to bring down president Bashar al-Assad. The rebels announced their own gains, while denying accounts that they’d been forced to retreat. Neither account proved true. By nightfall, both sides seemed to settle back into their positions, and Aleppo braced for a long and bloody fight.
A Free Syrian Army fighter fires an anti-aircraft gun as a Syrian Air Force fighter bomber fires rockets during an air strike in the village of Tel Rafat, 23 miles north of Aleppo, on August 9, 2012. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters)
“Government claims to have conquered the enemy stronghold were false, as were the rebels’ later claims to have breached regime lines,” wrote Guardian correspondent Martin Chulov from Aleppo last night, describing a new sense in the city that there is no end to the battle in sight.
Even as rebel commanders admitted today that they had pulled their fighters from Salehedin at dawn, amid heavy bombardment from ranks and fighter jets, there were signs that they felt that momentum in the ever-present information war, at least, may be shifting their way. As it pounds away at Aleppo, the regime is gradually losing its image as a well-oiled and organized military machine. Breaching the Assad façade of quiet, confident control, as it is often described, has been a key element of the Aleppo campaign from the start--the very existence of heavy fighting in the country’s most populous city and economic center suggests that Assad may be more vulnerable than many once thought.
In the highest level defection yet, Syrian’s prime minister fled after only being in office for two months. Mike Giglio on the latest sign that Assad’s regime is crumbling from within.
He’d only been in office for two months—but that was apparently all the time Riyad Hijab needed to decide that the job of Syria’s prime minister was not for him.
Former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab. (Louai Beshara, AFP / Getty Images)
Hijab bolted for Jordan today amid competing claims over what exactly took place—state media reported that he’d been fired, while Hijab’s spokesman countered that he’d defected with his family, with some additional officials and military officers also in tow.
The spokesman, Mohammed Otri, took to Al-Jazeera with a defection statement on behalf of Hijab. “I announce today my defection from the killing and terrorist regime and I announce that I have joined the ranks of the freedom and dignity revolution,” the statement said.
Former Syrian prime minister Riad Hijab grabbed headlines at a press conference Tuesday, urging Syrians to rebel and claiming President Assad's regime is 'on the verge of collapse.'
Before jumping into Egypt or Syria, the U.S. needs to think about what comes next, next, and next. And then, don’t jump, writes Leslie H. Gelb.
A country at war with itself. Bombs and civilian massacres. Yet, in Damascus, the music plays on.
There is no sign of capitulation as the Syrian government’s bombardment of the city heads into its 20th day.