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September 3, 2015

New Approach in Southern Syria

 

Middle East Report N°163 2 Sep 2015

syria-2sep15.ashx

REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The Syrian war rages on, its devastating civilian toll rising with no viable political solution in sight. Diplomacy is stymied by the warring parties’ uncompromising positions, reinforced by political deadlock between their external backers. The U.S. is best placed to transform the status quo. A significant but realistic policy shift focused on dissuading, deterring or otherwise preventing the regime from conducting aerial attacks within opposition-held areas could improve the odds of a political settlement. This would be important, because today they are virtually nil. Such a policy shift could begin in southern Syria, where conditions are currently most favourable.

While the White House has declared its desire for an end of President Bashar Assad’s rule, it has shied from concrete steps toward this goal, pursuing instead a strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State (IS), which it deems a more serious threat to its interests. Yet, a year into that strategy, the overall power of Salafi-jihadi groups in Syria (as in Iraq) has risen. This is no surprise: the Assad regime’s sectarian strategy, collective punishment tactics and reliance on Iran-backed militias, among other factors, help perpetuate ideal recruitment conditions for these groups. By attacking IS while ignoring the regime’s ongoing bombardment of civilians, the U.S. inadvertently strengthens important aspects of the Salafi-jihadi narrative depicting the West as colluding with Tehran and Damascus to subjugate Sunnis.

Salafi-jihadi groups, including IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate which fights both IS and the regime, are strongest in the north and east, where they have exploited disarray and conflicting priorities among the opposition’s external sponsors. While the U.S. has attached greatest importance to the battle against IS, for example, Turkey has pressed for a more concerted effort to topple the Assad regime, while pushing back against Kurdish groups allied with Iran. Continuing disagreement has prevented establishment of a northern no-fly zone, a key Turkish demand.

Southern Syria currently provides the best environment for a new approach. Beginning in early 2014, increased assistance from Western and Arab states and improved coordination among the southern armed opposition factions they support sparked a string of victories against regime forces, enabling these factions to gain strength relative to Salafi-jihadi groups. With these factions in the lead, by late January 2015 opposition forces had gained control over contiguous territory encompassing most of Quneitra province and the western third of Deraa province. A major regime counter-offensive the next month south of Damascus, with unprecedented Iranian and Hizbollah support, recaptured only a small share of territory and failed to halt the momentum of opposition forces that extended their territory through much of eastern Deraa between March and June. An opposition offensive is ongoing in late summer to capture the portion of Deraa’s provincial capital still under regime control.

Some of this success can be attributed to the steady erosion of regime military capacity, which manpower constraints suggest will continue. This may force Assad to deepen reliance on Iran-backed militias in areas he fears losing, or concede these to the opposition and resort to aerial attacks (including barrel bombs) to keep them ungovernable. In either scenario, Salafi-jihadi groups would gain further traction, lowering prospects for resolving the conflict politically. Avoiding this requires a joint strategy among the opposition’s backers to empower credible opposition elements to fill the military and civil voids on the ground by establishing effective civil administrations. The south, where Salafi-jihadi groups are weakest, is the most favourable starting ground.

As has become clear throughout Syria, however, opposition elements cannot build effective governance amid the death and destruction caused by aerial bombardment, particularly given the regime’s tendency to target precisely those facilities necessary for capacity to emerge. Diplomatic admonitions which are not backed by concrete action carry little weight with the regime’s backers, and are unlikely to halt Assad’s use of air attacks as part of a scorched-earth strategy and a way to mete out collective punishment. The U.S. needs to be ready to pursue other means at its disposal, and to signal that readiness.

The Obama administration has sought to avoid that deeper involvement in the conflict, due to scepticism about what a more robust policy could achieve and concern that the regime’s allies might retaliate against U.S. personnel and interests elsewhere. But this conflict will not end without a shift in U.S. policy. In addition to improving living conditions in the south, it could also significantly help in degrading Salafi-jihadi power and otherwise improve prospects for an eventual negotiated end of the war.

It would do so, first, by enabling opposition groups to consolidate military control and establish governance capacity in the south. This would improve their strength and credibility vis-à-vis Salafi-jihadi groups and could incentivise their development as political actors capable of governing their areas.

Secondly, achieving a zone free of aerial attacks in the south could provide a model for a different approach by the rebels’ state backers in the north, where poor coordination and divergent priorities with Ankara, Doha and Riyadh have contributed to a situation not conducive to an escalated U.S. role. A move by Washington to halt regime aerial attacks in the south could signal it would consider doing so in the north as well, if those allies would assist in bringing about a similar shift in the northern balance of power away from Salafi-jihadi groups.

Thirdly, a U.S. push to halt regime air attacks in the south would signal resolve to the regime’s most important backers, Iran and Hizbollah, and demonstrate that the returns on their investments in the status quo will further diminish. Iranian and Hiz­bollah officials play down the long-term costs of their involvement, believing they can outlast their opponents in a proxy war of attrition, and viewing the price of doing so as preferable to negotiating a resolution that includes an end to Assad’s rule. Their view appears based, in part, on the assumption that Washington’s narrow focus on IS and reluctance to confront the regime are pushing its policy toward accepting Assad’s political survival and thus, ultimately, a resolution of the conflict more favourable to them.

The U.S. initiative described here could help refute that assumption and put weight behind the White House’s assertions that the nuclear deal will not pave the way for Iranian hegemony in the region. This message of resolve should be paired with a parallel one indicating U.S. willingness to take the core interests of the regime’s backers into account in any political deal to end the war.

Beirut/Brussels, 2 September 2015

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‘No Camp, No Camp’: Migrants Forced Off Train

Desperate migrants lie on train tracks in protest at being taken to a camp, as one family is wrestled off the ground by police.

14:49, UK, Thursday 03 September 2015

Video: Refugee Family Wrestled To Ground

Desperate migrants hoping to reach western Europe have been forced off a train by riot police in Hungary, as authorities try to take them to a holding camp instead.

Sky’s Europe Correspondent Mark Stone, who was on the train originally bound for the Austrian border and was earlier on the platform at Bicske, said: “We have just witnessed the most awful, awful sight.”

He described seeing a crying mother holding a baby and pleading with police on the platform in the town 22 miles (35km) outside Budapest.

The father, clearly overcome with emotion, then pulled his wife and child onto the tracks, before he was handcuffed and taken away.

The train, which earlier left Budapest’s main railway station, was halted in Bicske, where there is a migrant reception centre.

Migrants, most of them from Syria, banged on train windows from the outside and shouted “No camp, no camp”, while dozens of riot police looked on.

Dozens more lay on the tracks in protest against being taken to the camp, while others caught in the underpass pushed back dozens of riot police blocking the stairs to fight their way back to the train.

Those still in the carriages are demanding water as they sit at the station in the heat.

Hungarian police have declared the area an “operation zone” and have told all media there to leave. They are using batons to push reporters out of the station.

Video: Sky Reporter On Station Platform

Earlier on Thursday, thousands of desperate migrants poured into Keleti railway station after it was reopened, forcing their way onto a train despite announcements that there was no service to western Europe.

The migrants pushed into the carriages and tried to cram their children through open windows.

The train that left Keleti, the first in two days after authorities closed the terminal on Tuesday, was initially thought to be heading to Sopron, a town near the Austrian border.

Hundreds more migrants remain at Keleti, and are waiting on crowded platforms for the next available trains.

Video: Station: Cops Out, Migrants In

An Austrian police spokesman said there are no services running from Budapest to Vienna, while the Hungarian government told Sky News no international trains will be leaving Keleti for “safety reasons”.

Keleti had been closed for two days, but migrants poured into the terminal on Thursday as police withdrew. Thousands had slept outside waiting for the station to reopen.

Amid the chaos, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said his country had done everything to stick to EU rules on border protection, and revealed the army will be deployed to defend Hungary’s border with Serbia.

More than 150,000 migrants have travelled this year to Hungary, a gateway to the EU for those crossing by land from nations including Syria and Afghanistan, across Macedonia and Serbia.

Video: ‘This Is Germany’s Problem’

Mr Orban, meeting European Union leaders in Brussels to discuss the crisis, said other politicians should not criticise his country for “doing what is compulsory to be done”.

He said: “The problem is not a European problem. The problem is a German problem.

“Nobody would like to stay in Hungary… all of them would like to go to Germany.

“So if the German Chancellor insists on it, Hungary must register them.”

Video: Refugee Baby Born In An Underpass

Berlin has agreed to take in some 800,000 migrants from Syria and the Middle East.

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, said the influx of migrants “is a problem that concerns us all in Europe” and added her country is doing what is morally necessary.

French President Francois Hollande said he and Ms Merkel are putting forward a series of measures to deal with the migration crisis.

Mr Hollande said this would include a “permanent and obligatory mechanism” by which refugees, “notably Syrian”, would be distributed among the 28 countries in the EU.

These will be submitted to a meeting of European interior ministers on 14 September.

Last weekend, Hungary had allowed migrants to travel by train to western Europe without going through asylum procedures.

Trainloads of migrants arrived in Austria and Germany from Hungary on Monday as asylum rules collapsed under the strain of a wave of migration unprecedented in the EU.

However, Budapest’s stance has since hardened, as demonstrated by the Keleti closure and plans to deploy the military to the border.

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Glavin: This is what it’s come to: Letting Syria die, watching Syrians drown

Hundreds of mostly Syrian families walk the final few kilometers through fields towards the Macedonian border to have their papers processed before crossing on September 2, 2015 in Idomeni Greece. Several thousand migrant people are expected to arrive at the border today hoping to head North through Macedonia, after arriving in Athens in the previous few days. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called 'Balkans route' has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The number of people leaving their homes in war torn countries such as Syria, marks the largest migration of people since World War II.
Hundreds of mostly Syrian families walk the final few kilometers through fields towards the Macedonian border to have their papers processed before crossing on September 2, 2015 in Idomeni Greece. Several thousand migrant people are expected to arrive at the border today hoping to head North through Macedonia, after arriving in Athens in the previous few days. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called ‘Balkans route’ has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The number of people leaving their homes in war torn countries such as Syria, marks the largest migration of people since World War II. (PHOTO BY DAN KITWOOD/GETTY IMAGES)

“The worst part of it is the feeling that we don’t have any allies,” Montreal’s Faisal Alazem, the tireless 32-year-old campaigner for the Syrian-Canadian Council, told me the other day. “That is what people in the Syrian community are feeling.”

There are feelings of deep gratitude for having been welcomed into Canada, Alazem said. But with their homeland being reduced to an apocalyptic nightmare – the barrel-bombing of Aleppo and Homs, the beheadings of university professors, the demolition of Palmyra’s ancient temples – among Syrian Canadians there is also an unquenchable sorrow.

Bashar Assad’s genocidal regime clings to power in Damascus and the jihadist psychopaths of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are ascendant almost everywhere else. The one thing the democratic opposition wanted from the world was a no-fly zone and air-patrolled humanitarian corridors. Even that was too much to ask. There is no going home now.

But among Syrian-Canadians, the worst thing of all, Alazem said, is a suffocating feeling of solitude and betrayal. “In the western countries, the civil society groups – it’s not just their inaction, they fight you as well,” he said. “They are crying crocodile tears about refugees now, but they have played the biggest role in throwing lifelines to the regime. And so I have to say to them, this is the reality, this is the result of all your anti-war activism, and now the people are drowning in the sea.”

Drowning in the sea: a little boy in a red t-shirt and shorts, found face-down in the surf. The boy was among 11 corpses that washed up on a Turkish beach Tuesday. Last Friday, as many as 200 refugees drowned when the fishing boat they were being smuggled in capsized off the Libyan coast. At least 2,500 people, most of them Syrians, have drowned in this way in the Mediterranean already this year.

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A year ago this week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry emerged from a gathering on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Wales with commitments from nine NATO countries, including Canada, to join in a military effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIL. A few days after that Sept. 4 2014 huddle, a half-dozen Arab states signed up. At least a dozen other countries are now also contributing in one way or another.

To say the American-led coalition effort has failed to stop the war in Syria would be true enough. It would also be disingenuous, for two reasons. The first is that to have allowed ISIL to expand the scope of its rampages would have meant war without precedent in 1,000 years of the Middle East’s bloody history. The second and most important is that the Obama administration never had any intention of stopping the war in the first place.

Bashar Assad, the Iranian ayatollahs’ Syrian proxy, has been allowed to persist in his relentless bombing of Syria’s cities and his dispatching of Shabiha and Hezbollah death squads. Assad has been allowed to violate Obama’s allegedly genius chemical-weapons pact as well, dozens of times. It is the toll from Assad’s war, not ISIL’s atrocities, that is the thing to notice: perhaps seven of every eight Syrian deaths (at least a quarter of a million people so far), almost all of Syria’s seven million “internally displaced” innocents, and the overwhelming majority of the four million Syrian refugees who have fled the country.

The enormity of the Syrian catastrophe is at least partly what makes the tragedy so difficult to comprehend, but in Canada there is an added encumbrance. It is the delicate sensibilities of established opinion that require diplomacy to be privileged as an unimpeachable virtue, and further require the United Nations to be understood as the sole means by which disasters of the Syrian kind are prevented, or at least resolved.

It makes no difference that no less an authority than António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, attributes Syria’s agonies primarily to a failure of diplomacy, or that the UN’s governing Security Council is a hostage of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, or that the UN’s refugee budget is running well below the half-way mark – $5.6 billion – for Syrian refugees. Funding is already two-thirds shy of anticipated refugee costs for 2015. The World Food Program has been rolling back its refugee food allowances year after year, and in the coming weeks more than 200,000 of the most desperate Syrian refugees are having their aid cut off entirely.

In Geneva, the International Organization for Migration reckons that about 237,000 people have set out across the Mediterranean in rickety ships headed for Europe this year, a number already exceeding last year’s total figure of 219,000. The main cohort consists of Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population on earth. Europe is now facing a refugee crisis unlike anything since the Second World War.

In a Canadian context, the only comparable event is Black September, 1847, the darkest hour of the Irish famine, when roughly 100,000 mostly Irish refugees arrived in the Saint Lawrence River in dozens of coffin ships. Roughly 17,500 Irish drowned that year, or died on board ship or in the fever sheds on the quarantine island of Gross Isle. The Syrians are the Famine Irish of 21st century.

There’s another illustrative comparison worth making. Canada has settled roughly 20,000 Iraqi refugees since 2009, and last January the Conservative government committed to taking in 10,000 Syrian refugees on top of 1,300 welcomed in 2014. Last month Stephen Harper promised that another 10,000 Syrians and Iraqis would be added to the mix. Here’s the contrast: the kinder, gentler Barack Obama administration has allowed only about 1,500 Syrian refugees to settle in the United States over the past four years.

Stephen Harper is right when he says the New Democratic Party’s approach to the Syrian catastrophe amounts to little more than “dropping aid on dead people.” The NDP is right when it points out the inordinately obtuse and incoherent accounting of just how many Syrian refugees have actually arrived in Canada. The Liberals are right, too, in their call to expedite family reunification visas, show more generosity and cooperation in private-sponsorship efforts, reduce processing times, and allow Syrians on temporary visas to extend their stays in Canada and acquire citizenship.

But what we are all doing – Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats, Americans, Canadians, and all the dominant elites of the United Nations and the NATO countries that cleave to that sophisticated indifference known in polite company as anti-interventionism – is a very straightforward thing. We are watching Syria die. We are allowing it to happen. And if you can comprehend that, you will know something of the sorrow that afflicts Faisal Alazem and all those other Syrian-Canadians these days.

Terry Glavin is an author and journalist.

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