Friday, July 20, 2012

The end game in Syria

It looks as repeatedly knocking out the legs of the Assad regime in Damascus is finally having the effect of putting it on the edge, as Walter Russell Mead calls it. The latest leg to be broken:

The killing on Wednesday of President Bashar al-Assad’s key security aides in a brazen bombing attack, close to Mr. Assad’s own residence, called into question the ability of a government that depends on an insular group of loyalists to function effectively as it battles a strengthening opposition.

The strike dealt a potent blow to the government, as much for where it took place as for the individuals who were targeted: the very cabinet ministers and intelligence chiefs who have coordinated the government’s iron-fisted approach to the uprising. The defense minister and the president’s brother-in-law were both killed, and others were seriously wounded.
The attack on the leadership’s inner sanctum as fighting raged in sections of the city for the fourth day suggested that the uprising had reached a decisive moment in the overall struggle for Syria. The battle for the capital, the center of Assad family power, appears to have begun. Though there was no indication he was wounded, Mr. Assad stayed out of public view — unusual but not unprecedented in a secretive country where the government has long tried to present an image of quiet control.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said that Syria “is rapidly spinning out of control,” and warned Mr. Assad’s government to safeguard its large stockpile of chemical weapons. “It’s obvious what is happening in Syria is a real escalation,” he said at a joint news conference with the British defense minister, Philip Hammond.
Wait! Wha-What? Syria has chemical weapons? A large stockpile of them? I wonder where they came from.

Maybe it's time we re-examine those mysterious convoys observed leaving Saddam Hussein's Iraq for Syria just before our 2003 invasion. But I digress ...
The impact of the day’s events reverberated on multiple levels, piercing the psychological advantage that Mr. Assad’s superior military strength has provided in preserving the loyalty of his forces and frightening much of the public into staying home. With the opposition energized and the government demoralized, analysts wondered if other military units and trusted lieutenants would be more inclined to switch sides — and if the government would retaliate with an escalation of violence.
The idea that a poorly organized, lightly armed opposition force could somehow get so close to the seat of power raised questions about the viability of a once unassailable police state. The Assad family has for decades relied on overlapping security forces and secret police to preserve its lock on power. At best, for Mr. Assad, the system failed. At worst, for Mr. Assad, defectors or turncoats helped carry out an inside operation.
The government said that the attack was the work of a suicide bomber, while an officer with the Free Syrian Army said it was a remotely detonated explosive.
The most significant victim was Asef Shawkat — the husband of the president’s older sister, Bushra — who was the deputy chief of staff of the military after years as a top intelligence official. The others killed were Gen. Dawoud A. Rajha, the defense minister and the most prominent Christian in the government; and Maj. Gen. Hassan Turkmani, a previous defense minister serving as the top military aide to Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa.
“Who will replace these people?” asked Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese military officer and a military analyst knowledgeable about Syria. “They are irreplaceable at this stage; it’s hard to find loyal people now that doubt is sown everywhere. Whoever can get to Asef Shawkat can get to Assad.”
“Everyone, even those close to the inner circle, will now be under suspicion,” he said.
Michael Weiss at Foreign Policy explains what it means for Assad:
The building targeted Wednesday was reportedly the National Security Compound in the Rawda district of Damascus, one of the most heavily fortified and wealthiest neighborhoods inside the capital.  Rebel officials told Britain's Daily Telegraph that there were two bombs -- one hidden in a flower arrangement and one in a chocolate box -- which had been smuggled into the meeting days earlier by FSA members working closely with the drivers and bodyguards of the crisis management cell.     
The victims confirmed by the Syrian regime so far are Assef Shawkat, the deputy defense minister and brother-in-law to Assad; Dawood Rajha, the defense minister; and Hasan Turkmani, a former defense minister who is widely considered to be the mastermind behind the regime's Inquisitorial torture network. (Interior Minister Mohammad Shaar was initially reported dead, though Syrian state media subsequently denied this.)
But don't mind the titles. They don't matter and never did, for the simple reason that influence in Syria is inextricable from one's filial connection to the House of Assad, which has always behaved more like Levantine Borgias or a modern-day organized crime syndicate than a classic authoritarian dictatorship. This is why Brigadier General Manaf Tlass's defection this month was so significant: His family was seen as the glue that bound the Sunni merchant class to the Alawite lordlings of Damascus, and so the abandonment was intended, and likely taken, as a personal slight. And it's why Shawkat's death is even more serious.
And what it means for the international community, such as it is:
As for continued diplomacy, British Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the bombing and U.N. envoy Kofi Annan asked the Security Council to delay a vote on a resolution calling for sanctions against Syria. He might have done so via carrier pigeon to underscore just how behind the times the international response is to this crisis. The United States, Britain, France one side, and Russia and China on the other, are in a pitched war of words over a country that exists only in their collective imagination, where a "political solution" is still thinkable and we're only one stray comma away from the Chapter VII resolution that will bring lasting peace and stability.
This is either supreme fantasy or deep cynicism underwriting what is in fact a consensus that no one has the desire or will to sort out Syria. Rebels I spoke with recently in Istanbul -- they were there to attend a bomb-making seminar -- told me that even if Assad were to renounce power, they'd fight on because the institutions of state terror, including the 27 torture dungeons recently anatomized by Human Rights Watch, would inevitably remain in place. No one abroad seems to want to listen to them. Maybe now they will.
Diplomacy rarely works with people like Assad, the Iranian mullahs, the Kims, Hugo Chavez, the Taliban, or Robert Mugabe. Those people only use diplomacy to fool those for whom diplomacy actually works. The people who seem the least able to understand this are diplomats, who seem to think there is no crisis that can't be solved with words.

There are two issues here with diplomacy, one with Assad, the other with his foreign backers. The Assad dynasty took power by force. People like that don't usually give up power except by force. His foreign backing comes from Iran and Russia. Iran will not agree with us on anything unless the agreement is hollow and fraudulent. Russia has its own game in Syria -- restoration of its international prestige, maintenance of its power in the Middle East, keeping its naval base at Latakia, blocking Islamist influence in the Caucasus -- that is largely inconsistent with US interests.

Elliott Abrams discusses our next options:
What now? First, let’s hope those who call Syria a hopeless quagmire are quieter. It is a war that can be won, or rather two wars: a civil war between the Assad regime and the vast majority of Syrians, and a proxy war between the United States and our allies on one side, and Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia on the other. The American goal should be victory: to oust the Assad regime and thereby defeat the axis supporting it. This goal is in sight, but it will not be brought about by Kofi Annan; it will be the result of fighting in Syria’s streets. If there is a role for the U.N., it will be after the regime collapses, in helping avoid or at least limit intercommunal strife.
With the regime appearing increasingly weak, there are two other matters to keep in mind. First, Assad might in extremis conceivably try to use chemical weapons against the populace. If he does, the United States should organize a group of nations, including the Arab League, Turkey, the UK, and France, to intervene militarily from the air as we did in Libya, and help the rebels win quickly. Second, there is no sensible reason to make deals now with Russia that guarantee its access to a naval base in Syria or a role in Syria’s future. Most Syrians hate Russia for its role in defending the regime and supplying it with the weapons it has turned against the people. Let the Russians cope with that problem without our help.
Another reason why our negotiation with Russia with respect to Syria is nonsensical. But Mead takes an approach so conservative it borders on paralysis:
With this assassination and the renewed fighting in Damascus, the Syrian crisis has taken a much graver turn. It is too soon to count Assad out; order could still be restored in Damascus, and if that happens the regime could re-stabilize, at least for a while. But if the regime can’t stabilize things quickly, this could be the beginning of the end.
We will have to wait and to see what happens, but it’s troubling that we still have no idea who would replace Assad if the government falls. Indeed, two different Syrian rebel groups tried to lay claim to the assassination attempt. It is one thing overthrow a bad government, and something else to replace it with a better alternative.
I understand the need to think four or five moves ahead, but it seems that in many cases the inability to predict what will happen four or five moves ahead is used as an excuse for not using the move you have now. The Assad dynasty had been a menace to peace in the Middle East and especially US interests in the Middle East for decades. Opportunities to get rid of them don't come along every day. First priority should be to get rid of it, then work out what to do after that.

Once again, our focus on what is best for the United States. And no one else. Because, as always in international politics, everyone else will be out for themselves.

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