Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The State of the Syrian Civil War/ The Plight of Mideast Christians

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Update from AIJAC

August 31, 2012
Number 08/12 #07

This Update contains two pieces on the state of the civil war in Syria, where rebel efforts over recent weeks to gain footholds in Damascus and Aleppo, the two largest cities, appear to be being pushed back by the regime.

First up is a report from Aleppo courtesy of the Economist, which makes it clear that many, both inside and outside Syria, are now arguing that the rebel move into Aleppo was an over-reach by rebel forces - and was not well-received by residents of the city. The story also discusses at length the problems of lack of unity in rebel forces, with no overall command even of the brigade attacking Aleppo, and many different military councils in various areas, with some rebel commanders at loggerheads with each other. For this inside look at the limitations of the rebel forces and apparent recent setbacks, CLICK HERE. Speaking of Aleppo,it was once one of the major centres of the Jewish world, and this piece discusses the reaction to the city's plight by the extensive exile community of Aleppan Jews.

Next up, Tony Karon of Time magazine looks at a number of reasons why the Assad regime appears to have been more resilient than other Middle East regimes under threat. These include the sectarian nature of much of the conflict, the divisions in the opposition, Syria's ability to export elements of the war to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and thus create pressure for a resolution, and especially geo-political rivalries, with Syria gaining seemingly unshakeable support from Iran, Russia and China. He also has a look at the complexities which attend any post-war scenario, especially the possibility that the somewhat artificial Syrian state could fall apart into a situation akin to Lebanon's long civil war. For fuller discussion of all these important issues in Syria, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Canadian political scientist Prof. Salim Mansur offers a short, heartfelt warning about the state of the Christian minority in the Middle East in the wake of the so-called "Arab Spring." Drawing on the experience in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, he sees the situation as somewhat analogous, but notes that while the West intervened to protect Yugoslavia's Bosnian Muslim minority, this is not happening with respect to the Christians of Egypt, Gaza, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, whose future appears bleak. He calls this both an "immense moral failure" and "an ominous sign of a tragic future for the region." To read all that he has to say, CLICK HERE.

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More than they can chew

Following an audacious offensive, the rebels are struggling to survive the regime’s counterattack

The Economist
Aug 25th 2012 | ANTAKYA AND IDLEB | from the print edition


A MONTH after rebel forces launched a blazing attempt to capture Aleppo, Syria’s second city, they are starting to wilt. The regime claims to have routed them from their main stronghold in the Salaheddin district. Clashes continue in the southwest of the city and around the airport, but the best that rebel commanders can now hope to achieve is to draw the regime into a quagmire.

Whole streets have been reduced to rubble in the country’s commercial hub of 2.5m people. This is hardly the outcome the rebels were looking for, but it is not surprising either. Commanders have long acknowledged that they find it difficult to hold cities. With the recapture in February of the Baba Amr district in Homs, Syria’s third city, the regime showed it has no qualms over using heavy weapons to kill as many as necessary to regain control. At the end of July, with the battle in Aleppo under way, it brought out fighter jets for the first time. With little more than harsh words to fear from the outside world, the regime keeps using ever more powerful weaponry. A bombing from the air in Azaz, north of Aleppo, on August 15th left scores dead. America tried to put an end to the escalation of force when President Barack Obama declared on August 20th that use of chemical weapons could trigger an American military intervention, not least to keep them out of the hands of third parties, including Islamist terror groups.

Many Syrians—as well as outside observers—conclude that the rebels overreached by taking the fight to Aleppo. “Rebel commanders had a sensible strategy of fighting a war of attrition that matched their capabilities. They were going after roads, military outposts and consolidating control of the rural areas where the regime has retreated,” says Emile Hokayem, an analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Then suddenly they diverted to a plan to ‘liberate’ a city which they knew they couldn’t do.”

Part of the problem is that the rebels are failing to win hearts and minds among the urban middle class in Aleppo. The same was true of the failed attempt to take the capital, Damascus, in July. Most Aleppans cannot stomach the regime, whose brutality has left some 20,000 dead. But they find the rebels’ tactics off-putting too, including summary executions such as that of Zaino Berri, head of a pro-regime militia. Some rebel groups have sent captives in booby-trapped cars to blow up checkpoints.

Meanwhile, the political opposition is as divided as ever. Much to its dismay, America’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton snubbed the Syrian National Council, a group of exiles, during her recent visit to Turkey. The group is “on the verge of irrelevance”, says a Western diplomat.

Foreign powers are trying to strengthen civilian institutions inside the country. Late last year they cheered local co-ordination committees coalescing into more sophisticated councils overseeing cities and provinces. “But many of those have now been taken over by the rebels as the militarisation grows,” says one dejected activist. Fuel and bread go to fighters first.

Some help from Western governments, including intelligence, is still reaching the rebels. In the country’s east and north-west, fighters hope to push the army out of smaller cities by making it too dangerous for them to use the roads to resupply bases. But without a no-fly zone or plenty of surface-to-air missiles to bring down regime jets many rebels think they will struggle.

Take the Tawhid (Unity) Brigade that is leading the assault on Aleppo. It is the biggest and best organised opposition force in Syria. Although formed on July 18th it still lacks a unified command. Its men manage to draw up a rota for front-line duty and joint operations.

Most fighting forces are less organised. Bassel Shahoud, a calm, thoughtful commander of just 80 men in Sarmeen, a small town in the north-western province of Idleb, says it is easier to command that way—and adds that many want to lead. With four groups in Sarmeen alone, he reckons there could be as many as 2,000 groups across the country. Some, such as fighters in Hama, Syria’s fourth city, are not plugged into national networks.

The Idleb Military Council is one of nine or so provincial military councils that were set up late last year by defectors to oversee the fighting groups that are staffed mainly by volunteers. But this is far from a unified force. “There was a lot of hope these councils would create a nationwide military, but we haven’t seen that,” says Asher Berman at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

Competition for resources and personal feuds have already led some groups to fall out. The two main rebel forces in the Homs area, the Khaled Ibn Walid Brigade and Farouq, both work out of the rebellious town of Rastan, but their leaders are at loggerheads. Some groups like Tawhid claim to work under the Free Syrian Army, whose secular figureheads are based in Turkey. But this is more of a brand than an organisation. Others choose to distance themselves. One of Idleb’s largest groups, Saquor al-Sham, churns out mini-documentaries, each starting with its logo morphing into a falcon as thunder crackles in the background. These films are used to attract funding, which comes mainly from wealthy Syrians abroad and Gulf traders. Because the West will not arm and defend the opposition, weapons must often be bought with cash. So far at least there is no sign of its running out.

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Five Reasons Why the Assad Regime Survives

Syria's conflict has morphed into a civil war whose fault lines and consequences are quite different from other Arab rebellions

By Tony Karon

Time.com, August 30, 2012 | 26


President Bashar al-Assad promised Wednesday to ”cleanse” Syria of the rebels that have challenged his rule, but he’s unlikely to achieve that goal. Indeed, in a rare interview with Syrian TV, Assad conceded that his promised victory would not come soon. Still, there may be more than empty braggadocio to Assad’s claim that, from his regime’s point of view, “the situation is better now.” That’s because although his forces are unlikely to ever restore Assad’s authoritarian control over all of Syria or to pummel the rebellion into submission, at the same time there’s little sign right now of the Syrian rebels or their regional and international backers being able to muster the knockout punch that topples the regime. The rebellion has made intractable gains, but the regime sustains a capacity to fight that negates the narrative of an isolate despot facing the wrath of his people.

Not only is the international community divided over Syria, but even those countries most supportive of the rebellion have not settled on a common strategy, while the disarray among the Syrian opposition further deepens disquiet over intervention.

Whether by design or luck — or the failures of the opposition — the Assad regime may well have created a situation in which it survives for quite some time, even if in considerably diminished form. Lebanon, just next door, is a grim reminder that civil wars can go on for years, and seldom end with a decisive victory for either side.

Here, then, are the five factors that combine to keep Assad in power well beyond the predictions of early enthusiasts of the rebellion:

1. In a Sectarian Showdown, Assad Has a Posse

The collapse of a dictatorship usually begins when its edifice of fear that has cowed its people into quiescence is punctured by brave protesters taking to the streets — and ends when the strongman is abandoned by so many of those who had been willing to kill their fellow citizens on his behalf, that he is forced to flee for his life. The rupture in Assad’s edifice of fear happened in February 2011, but 18 months later, despite the defection of some senior figures and thousands of its foot-soldiers, the core security forces on which Assad relies remain very much intact, and brutally effective. Far from being ground down by the attrition of more than a year of full-blown civil war, the regime’s core fighting forces remain more determined and fanatical than ever. Indeed, as the International Crisis Group recently noted, the regime’s control has at once diminished and hardened,  its will and capacity to fight fueled by the sectarian character of the civil war.

The fighting forces of the rebellion are overwhelmingly drawn from Syria’s Sunni Arab majority, and the duration of the war has, perhaps inevitably, seen Islamist elements playing the most prominent role. But Assad’s regime is dominated by members of his minority Alawite sect, though it has traditionally counted on the support of other minorities such as the Christians, Kurds and Druze, as well as of Sunni business, political and military elites. The defections from the regime have largely come from within that Sunni elite — and the Sunni conscripts that make up the bulk of the regular armed forces.

But Assad retains the fierce loyalty of a hard core of Alawites, a community that sees its own fate tied to that of his regime, fearing at best, disenfranchisement, and at worst, brutal retribution, should the Sunni-led rebellion triumph.

The increasing militarization of the rebellion hardens hearts on all sides, raising the level of viciousness on the ground and reinforcing the support not only of Allawites, but also of many Christians, Druze and members of other minorities for the regime. While Assad loyalist forces are accused of massacring Sunni villages, stories of Christians expelled by rebels from their homes around Homs and elsewhere, and of senior Christian clerics seeking refuge abroad while warning about Islamist extremism in the rebellion reinforces that dynamic.

Kurdish residents of the northeast, meanwhile, have declared a de facto autonomy from their Arab brethren, whether regime or rebel, instead making common cause with the Kurdish polity in northern Iraq — much to the alarm and chagrin of Turkey.

Handwringing in Western capitals over the need for the Syrian opposition to adopt an inclusive vision of a post-Assad future has done little to change the dynamic on the ground, where the rebels have thus far failed to peel away the layers of political support without which Assad couldn’t survive. If they’re unable to isolate him from his traditional base of support, they’re unlikely to end the civil war, even if the territorial balance changes. And the obvious absence of an inter-communal consensus in Syria reinforces the reluctance of Western powers to intervene, taking sides in what could be a protracted and messy civil war.

2. The Regime Has Exported Syria’s Crisis

The borders that distinguish Syria from all of its neighbors are, in the grand historical scheme, somewhat arbitrary: They were drawn by France and Britain at the end of World War I as they exercised the victor’s prerogative of carving up the defeated Ottoman Empire, and they bear little relation to the region’s historical ethnic and sectarian fault lines. As a result, Western powers have been concerned that an escalation of Syria’s civil war will inevitably jump its borders, with consequences across the region. And it appears that the Syrian regime and rebels between them, have made it so. The Sunni rebels fighting the Assad regime in Syria’s southeast are intimately connected with the Sunni tribes in Western Iraq that have long opposed the Shi’ite dominated government in Baghdad — and the level of insurgent violence in Iraq is steadily escalating, although that may have as much or more to do with the authoritarian governance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as with dynamics in Syria. The connection has been more direct in Lebanon, where the city of Tripoli has seen 17 people killed and more than 120 wounded in fierce clashes between local Sunni supporters of the Syrian rebellion and local Alawite supporters of Assad. While the Lebanese military has imposed a tenuous truce, fears are widespread that the conflict next door could rekindle Lebanon’s generational civil war that ended in 1992.

By shrewdly ceding control of towns in the Syrian northeast to Kurdish forces, Assad has created a problem for Turkey, which remains locked in an ongoing bloody cycle of insurgency and counterinsurgency with its domestic Kurdish challengers, the militant separatist PKK. Indeed, Assad’s forces handed over a number of towns to the Syrian ally of the PKK, known by its local acronym PYD, prompting alarm in Ankara and an uptick of attacks on Turkish soil. Turkey now finds itself having to navigate an increasingly complex reality in Syria which has uncomfortable resonance with its domestic political situation. Indeed, besides the Kurdish issue, Ankara also finds its support for the Syrian rebellion challenged by Turkey’s half-million strong Alawite community, and also among the Alevi sect whose members comprise some 25% of Turkey’s population.

But the most immediate problem for Turkey is the steady stream of refugees arriving at its borders — at a rate of some 5,000 a day over the past week. More than 200,000 Syrians have fled the country since the start of the rebellion, almost half of them to Turkey — and most of the rest to Jordan and Lebanon, although in the consummate irony, some 15,000 are reported to have fled to Iraq (from which hundreds of thousands of refugees had fled to Syria over the past decade).

Both Turkey and Jordan are warning that their capacity to absorb the rising number of refugees is finite, pressing Western powers for more humanitarian assistance — and, in the case of Turkey, for the creation of a “safe zone” for refugees on Syrian soil, but protected by Western militaries. But that’s an option over which U.S. officials have been skeptical until now.

By regionalizing the Syrian crisis, the Assad regime raises pressure on his neighbors and foreign powers to find a way to end the conflict, while at the same time making them more leery of direct military intervention.

3. The Opposition Remains Deeply Divided, and Lacks a Clear Strategy

When France’s President François Hollande urged the Syrian opposition earlier this week to form a transitional government in exile that France and other Western governments would immediately recognize as the legitimate government of Syria, he seemed to have forgotten one of the golden rules of French cuisine: You can’t reheat a souffle. Recognizing an opposition government and mounting a regime-change military operation may have worked in Libya, but it’s essentially off the table in Syria. The idea was quickly pooh-poohed by U.S. officials, who branded it “premature” given the consistent failure of Syrian opposition groups, over 18 months of rebellion, to create a single unified leadership. Washington’s response was immediately slammed by Syrian National Council (SNC) leader Abdelbaset Sieda, who accused the U.S. of indecisiveness, but his complaints would have been undermined by the fact that his group’s longtime spokeswoman Basma Kodmani resigned from the SNC on the same day, declaring that it had failed to earn “the required credibility and did not maintain the confidence of the people”. Indeed, despite its support from the French government and Turkey, the SNC appears to have been largely sidelined, having failed to win the support of unarmed opposition groups on the ground, or of the various armed formations that fight under the Free Syrian Army banner.

Besides having no umbrella political leadership, the rebellion also appears to have limited military coherence, with hundreds of disparate fighting formations making their own decisions at local level, and Islamist fighters — some of them foreign — making an increasingly visible showing.

The danger of a militarized rebellion without clear political leadership was highlighted in the recent battle for Aleppo, where rebels freely conceded that they failed to win over the majority of the city’s residents, and that even many anti-Assad elements were angry that the mostly rural insurgent groups had chosen to wage a head-on battle that they had no hope of winning, at great cost to the local civilian population. While the fighting in Aleppo has underscored the tenacity of the rebellion and the inability of the regime to destroy it, the impact on its ability to peel away middle class support for Assad has been mixed.

Even if it was provoked by the regime’s own brutality, the militarization of the rebellion runs the risk of alienating many elements ambivalent or opposed to Assad. A protracted war that sees the economy steadily decline has already seen elements of the Sunni elite and middle class switch sides, but should the military impasse remain unresolved, it also risks creating a war wariness in the population — and, perhaps, also in the region and beyond — that eventually makes ending the war a greater priority than its outcome.

4. Regional and International Strategic Rivalries Reinforce the Stalemate

It’s no secret that the international community has never spoken with one voice about Syria — it was the fundamental division between Russia and China, on the one hand, and the Western powers on the other that put the kibosh on U.N. Security Council action on Syria, and eventually prompted the resignation of Special Envoy Kofi Annan, who warned that international discord over Syria’s immediate future — driven by preexisting strategic rivalries — sabotaged his efforts to forge a political solution to the conflict. And the best efforts of the Obama Administration to cajole or shame the Russians and Chinese into changing their positions proved fruitless. Syria has become a battleground of a new geopolitics, in which Beijing and Moscow are determined to block Western powers from toppling Middle East regimes outside of their strategic orbit — as well as a battleground of a longstanding regional geopolitics that has pitted Saudi Arabia against Iran in proxy conflicts from Lebanon to Afghanistan. So the Saudis fund and arm rebel forces, while the Iranians are reportedly even sending military personnel to help the Assad regime fight the war. Russia and China insist that a political solution can’t be premised on demanding that Assad first step down, and also that Iran’s participation is essential to any workable regional solution. Washington has strenuously opposed any role for Tehran in a Syrian solution.

With efforts to forge a common international approach in abeyance — and schemes such as the proposal by Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsy to create a quartet composed of Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Iran to seek a political solution unlikely to go beyond wishful thinking in the near term — international players appear increasingly in disarray. The strategy by the Western powers in conjunction with Turkey and Arab countries to boost the SNC as a credible alternative to Assad has failed, and there’s evident discord among the “Friends of Syria” states over issues such as whether to escalate the conflict through providing heavier arms to the rebels, imposing a partial or full “no-fly” zone which won’t have any U.N. authorization or to create a buffer zone inside Turkey for refugees, or rebels.

Iran has already signaled its own response by allegedly sending troops to help Assad in the fight, and it’s not clear whether Russia would stand aside or would, for example, take steps to boost the capacity of the regime to defend its airspace should Western powers move to intervene directly.

Nor is any change in the U.S. reluctance to embrace the many and complex risks of intervention likely to change before November’s presidential election.

5. The End Game Has Grown More Complex

While there are various exercises underway in Washington and Berlin involving Syrian dissidents in extensive if hypothetical planning for a post-Assad Syria, the operating assumption of much of the thinking and planning assumes that doing away with the dictator takes care of most of the problem: Sure, there would have to be outreach to communities that traditionally supported Assad and some form of reconciliation process to avoid the violent retribution that so many are expecting; and hopefully the rump of the police and national army can be maintained intact to avoid repeating America’s mistakes in Iraq, by ensuring order and avoiding chaos. But generally, the discussion assumes that Syria as we’ve known it will remain intact, albeit with a different and more democratic distribution of power.

Assad, of course, has had other ideas, and has plunged Syria into a vicious sectarian civil war in which neighboring communities have turned on one another in scenarios sometimes reminiscent of the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early ’90s. After 18 months of conflict, it’s worth asking whether what we’re seeing is simply the death throes of a despot, or a new dynamic in which the regime has chosen to fight on a terrain that at once diminishes its power and tacitly abandons its claim to rule all of Syria, but which allows it to survive in that diminished form for a more protracted period?

The growing danger is that the military and communal trajectory being followed by the conflict deals a fatal blow to prospects of stitching Syria back together again, instead creating a situation analogous to Lebanon from the late ’70s, where a protracted civil war left a fractured state that could no longer be ruled by any one power center. It’s not yet clear whether Syria has reached that point, but it is increasingly evident that it has eluded the full gamut of outcomes that ended the Arab rebellions of the past two years.

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Arab Spring now a Christian nightmare

By Salim Mansur   

Toronto Sun, Friday, August 24, 2012

In the 1990s, western democracies stepped forward to stop ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia by dispatching NATO forces in support of UN peacekeeping operations in the Balkans.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia precipitated ethnic strife, and like all such struggles anywhere in the world, the Balkan conflict was complex and layered with history of grievances, identity politics, and religious bigotry. If one reaches back to the early years of the last century, this region was a cauldron of ethno-nationalism that ignited the First World War.

Some 16 years later, the so-called Arab Spring mirrors the conflict that ripped through the Balkans.

The rotten structures of Arab states were primed to crash once the people set aside their fear of despots. But not unlike the Balkans, the death knell of Arab dictatorships has been accompanied by predictable conflicts among people divided by religion, sect and ethnicity.

There is one stark difference, however, between the Balkans and the situation in the Arab-Muslim world.

In the Balkans, the minority most seriously hurt by the conflict were Bosnian Muslims.

It was in part to protect Bosnian Muslims that the West intervened with force and, eventually overseen by President Clinton’s administration, the parties agreed to abide by the Dayton Agreement of November 1995 reached in Dayton, Ohio and formally signed in Paris a few weeks later.

In the Arab-Muslim world, the so–called Arab Spring has hurt most seriously the dwindling Christian minorities of the Middle East. While Arab despots in the name of secularism paradoxically provided some protection to Christians, the situation has worsened with Islamists taking power.

William Dalrymple, the well-respected historian and author of From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (1998), recently wrote, “Wherever you go in the Middle East today, you see the Arab Spring rapidly turning into the Christian winter … The past few years have been catastrophic for the region’s beleaguered 14 million strong Christian minority.”

The decline, probably disappearance, of Christians from the Middle East is an ominous sign of a tragic future for the region.

And such an eventuality has precedence.

Jews of the Arab-Muslim world from the pre-Christian era, with their rich heritage and long historical presence in ancient cities across the region — Alexandria, Algiers, Baghdad, Beirut, Cairo, Constantine, Damascus, Fez, Oran, Sana’a, Tripoli, Tunis and more — were compelled to leave lands conquered by Arabs in the name of Islam following the establishment of Israel in 1948.

There have been numerous anti-Coptic riots with attacks on Christian churches in Egypt. From Gaza reports have come of forced conversions among Christians reduced to a miniscule presence.

Iraqi Christians fled in large numbers following post-Saddam sectarian strife, and they found refuge in Syria.

This safe-haven for Iraqi Christians is in jeopardy as the sectarian conflict in Syria has intensified, and Syrian Christians are endangered.

While Christians flee from their ancient homes in the Arab-Muslim world, the West’s failure to respond effectively, unlike its response in the Balkans, is more than an immense moral failure.

It is another sign of the West scandalously appeasing Islamist totalitarianism that might well be as catastrophic as when Europe’s major democracies appeased Hitler and the Nazis in the 1930s.

Salim Mansur is a professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario.

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