Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sticking to their story: UNAC's new 'Statement on Syria'

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If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. --- Bishop Desmond Tutu
The United National Antiwar Coalition [UNAC] is a coalition of well known US anti-war groups. On 24 December 2012 they issued a new position statement about the conflict in Syria, titled:
UNITED NATIONAL ANTIWAR COALITION (UNAC) STATEMENT ON SYRIA Hands off Syria and Iran! End the Drone Wars! We Need Jobs, Education and Healthcare, Not Endless War!
Six months before the Arab Spring even began, UNAC had an action program to oppose a US war against Syria. From their point of view, not much has changed since July 2010. They still see the threat of imminent US invasion as the main problem facing the Syrian people. That's their story and they're sticking to it. As we shall see, they don't need to consult concrete conditions in Syria to inform their position so it can remain the same throughout time. I am including their entire statement in my appreciation of it so that the reader may see what I mean when I say that this statement says more by what it is silent on than it does by what it says. I am breaking it up, as I see appropriate, so I can interject comments, but other than that, it is complete and in the order in which they published it. The copyright police can know that there is no violation as UNAC has asked that it be distributed widely. And so the body begins:
The ominous signs of impending war with Syria escalate.
There is already a war going on in Syria which this "Statement on Syria" leaves unmentioned. That is the war to overthrow the Assad regime and it has cost more than 40,000 Syrian lives so far, but what is really telling in this first sentence is their identification of the Assad regime with Syria. There have been calls for NATO intervention in support of those forces attempting to overthrow the Assad regime, and there have even been signs that NATO may be preparing to go to war against the Assad regime, but to equate that with a war against Syria is to equate the Assad regime with Syria and to discount the Syrian armed opposition as a legitimate Syrian force. 130 countries no longer recognize the Assad regime as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, but UNAC still does. The day after UNAC issued its "Statement on Syria," the head of Assad's military police defected to the Free Syrian Army. Maj. Gen. Abdul Aziz Jassem al-Shallal, then became the highest raking officer to defect from Assad. He said he had done so because of the military's deviation from “its fundamental mission to protect the nation and transformation into gangs of killing and destruction.” He also confirmed the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Homs last week. That's what finally sparked his defection. This is the reality of Syria that the UNAC "Statement on Syria" doesn't admit to. They are in an alternate universe.
NATO is massing troops and military equipment on Syria's borders, and preparing to install missiles aimed at Syria. U.S. warships are stationed off Syria’s coast. ‘Special operation’ units are readied.
I wish the most pressing problems the Syrian people faced right now were worries about future possible NATO attacks.
The U.S. government has been supplying arms and logistical support to a few selected Syrian paramilitary groups favored by the U.S. as “replacements” for Assad.
This is about as close as this UNAC "Statement on Syria" gets to recognizing the massive Syrian opposition to the Assad regime. Is it possible that they think the main struggle playing out in Syria in the last 23 months has been between Syria, as represented by the Assad regime and US imperialism?
The media bombards us with arguments that support foreign intervention, supposedly for “humanitarian reasons”.
That is about as close as this UNAC "Statement on Syria" comes to acknowledging the humanitarian crisis that without question really is going on in Syria. Is it possible that they believe the incredible human suffering and devastation we see every day on YouTube in hundreds of videos is all a fabrication or distraction to be ignored?
Assad's warplanes attacking civilians in Douma same day UNAC issues statement
Like WMD’s in Iraq, alarms are sounded, with no credible evidence, that Assad may unleash chemical weapons, thus establishing a pretext for invasion.
Acknowledging more than 40,000 murdered Syrians or that Assad's war planes are dropping explosive barrels and clusters bombs on civilians might get in the way of the "no credible evidence" line of reasoning. Those acknowledgements would also show that there already exists many a "pretext for invasion" so those corpses are conveniently swept under the carpet. No one will ever get a clue how many thousands of children have been slaughtered by this regime from the UNAC "Statement on Syria."
These are the facts that impel us to oppose any military, economic, diplomatic, or covert intervention aimed at controlling the internal affairs of Syria or any other country:
It would appear that the "facts that impel" the UNAC are very bias and very selective indeed and don't admit to the real suffering of the Syrian people let alone its chief cause.
· The Syrian people in their majority, regardless of their political positions re: the current government, have rejected calling for foreign intervention, such as occurred in Libya.
But there have been mass protests in Syria calling for intervention ala Libya. How did "Friday of International Protection", "Friday of No-Fly Zone", "Friday of the Syrian Buffer Zone" and "Friday for international military intervention" slip past the UNAC fact checkers? The names of these nationwide Friday protests is even more telling because they are chosen through a fierce on-line competition among activists and then endorsed by Syrians who come out in their hundreds of thousands to demonstrate under those banners. Also when they say this, whether they know it or not, they are just reinforcing the imperialist line for doing nothing:
MS. NULAND: I think our position on this hasn't changed. As we have said, the vast majority of the Syrian opposition continues to speak in favor of peaceful, nonviolent protest and against foreign intervention of any kind, and particularly foreign military intervention into the situation in Syria, and we respect that.
· Sanctions harm the people of Syria by causing food shortages, power outages, and blocking the distribution of goods.
This is true, but right now the Syrian people are suffering a lot more from artillery bombardments and air attacks than they are from sanctions but those attacks aren't mentioned in the UNAC "Statement on Syria." Probably the UNAC is also opposed to any arms embargo against the Syrian government. The next four paragraphs in their "Statement on Syria" are about the US, not Syria. All their "facts" are disputable, but I don't want to be distracted by that minutia and instead direct the reader to my other writings about the Syria revolution.
· The U.S. is directly involved in arming and training a few selected Syrian militias favorable to the U.S., contributing to the escalation of violence, direct foreign military intervention, and total destabilization. The people who always suffer the most are the people not engaged in the armed struggle.
Which is why it is better to fight back and why every day more and more Syrians are fighting the Assad regime.
· We see the results of ‘humanitarian’ U.S. wars and occupations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya today, where the people, especially women and children, are worse off than before, with millions dead, injured, and/or displaced, an infrastructure and economy in shambles, and where there is no peace. A country that has a river of Iraqi, Afghan, and Libyan blood on its hands has no right to tell other countries what to do.
In other words, since Obama kills kids with drones, he has no right to demand, along with the majority of countries in the world and the majority of people in Syria, that the mass murderer Assad step down. What does US moral authority, or the lack of it, have to do with anything? Of course this "Statement on Syria" is not about Syria, but even if it were about countries in the region and not the US, they shouldn't try to get away with lumping Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya all together.
· The U.S. government’s goals in Syria are to gain dominance in a part of the world that holds the vast majority of the known oil reserves and to gain strategic advantage as it seeks to isolate and contain competitors like Russia and China.
And exactly why are the US government's goals the main focus of the UNAC "Statement on Syria?" Because the goal of the majority of Syrians to see an end to the Assad regime is not spoken of. They have demonstrated their determination with "rivers of blood" and a two year struggle that is on the verge of succeeding without international intervention on their side but the UNAC says nothing of this. There has been international military intervention on the side of the Syria government by Iran, Hezbullah and Russia but the UNAC doesn't object to that. Governments like the Assad regime have a "right" to ask for international assistance; the Syrians, upon which the Russian cluster bombs rain, do not. That's their story and they're sticking to it.
The U.S. has no interest in democracy or the humanitarian well-being of a country’s peoples anywhere in the world, especially in areas where the U.S. has economic or strategic interests.
Their emotional dislike of the US, which is really the focus of the UNAC "Statement on Syria" causes them to make such categorical statements and not see that the US does have an interest in establishing bourgeois democracy as a more stable method of bourgeois rule in many cases and that they are actually interested in "humanitarian well-being," as they are interested in the health of their workers, if only to the extent they need to be to protect profits.
· The U.S. has a long history of thwarting the emerging economies and progressive initiatives of the third world while supporting repressive regimes.
One could only wish that insight would help the UNAC understand why US imperialism really is in no particular hurry to see the Assad regime go, and has actually been throttling, rather than helping, Assad's opposition.
While activists may hold different views of Syria’s internal political system,
This is code for the fact that some members of the UNAC actually support the fascist Assad regime but in the interest of "Left" unity, they have decided to be neutral as to the Syrian people's struggle to overthrow that regime, as noted above. You will notice that while there are many "facts" and assertions in this "Statement on Syria" that the SNC and FSA would object to; there is nothing in it that would trouble the Assad regime much; nothing that is in conflict with their narrative on the situation.
we must all agree that the U.S. government has no right to impose its will on other countries, especially those formerly colonized and exploited by the West.
This is like an axiom that is easy to agree with except its placement in this "Statement on Syria" together with the four paragraphs above makes it sound like the main thing troubling Syria now is the U.S. government trying to impose its will. This may well be the ego-centric view of the U.S. Left, but I'm here to tell you that is not main thing going on in Syria. Here again, the UNAC has rendered the courageous two year revolutionary mass struggle of the Syrian people invisible.
In all cases, we must support the right of nations to self-determination – that is to be able to decide on and resolve internal conflicts free from any foreign intervention.
By which they mean foreign intervention on the side of the people, because while there is a mountain of proof of foreign intervention in support of the Syrian government, they raise no objection to that. We know this because in an earlier statement they complained "State Department spokespeople are targeting Iran and Hezbollah for alleged military support to the Assad government." They even put this on their list of "alarming new threats" back in October 2012 and in June 2012, when Amnesty International called upon Russia to "end its shameful silence," UNAC called it "a campaign to support military intervention at the very time that the U.S. is openly feeding the violence in Syria by providing weapons, foot soldiers and logistical support." The principal they wish to create is that when a people attempt the overthrow their government, which is already in possession of massive military hardware and advanced weapons, or when a people are being slaughtered by their government for any reason, there should be no international assistance given to those people. The "principal" of self determination is here perversely interpreted as the duty to allow an unarmed minority to be slaughtered by their government unless they can stop it themselves. In accordance with this "principal" the UNAC would have objected to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that fought in the Spanish Civil War and many other examples of militant internationalist support. And that's it. That's how they end the "Statement on Syria." The worst thing that can be said about this "Statement on Syria" is that it is ignorant of the realities facing the Syrian people now, the hardships they have endured or their striving for freedom from the fascist Assad dictatorship, The "Statement on Syria" was drafted with the requirements of the drafters in mind, not those of the Syrian people.
Anti-Assad demonstration today in Jobar neighborhood of Damascus | 26 Dec 2012
Click here for a list of my other diaries on Syria

Friday, December 21, 2012

SecState[?] John Kerry and his "dear friend" Bashar al-Assad

Follow clayclai on Twitter President Barack Obama has just nominated Senator John Kerry for the position of Secretary of State. I believe John Kerry first came to public notice as a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War in the early 1970's. Probably his introduction to the Senate came in April 1971 when he became the first Vietnam veteran to testify before congress. More recently he has been a senator himself and chairman of the very same Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he first testified before more that forty years ago. More recently, he has been President Barrack Obama's point man on US relations with Syria and it's dictator President Bashar al-Assad.
Senator John Kerry with "dear friend" Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
John Kerry visited Damascus as part of the Cardin Congressional delegation in February 2009. While there, Mr. and Mrs. Kerry had dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Assad. He also had private meetings with Assad. He returned from this visit, full of hope for building good relationships between the Assad regime and the White House:
"I believe very deeply that this is an important moment of change, a moment of potential transformation, not just in the relationship between the United States and Syria but in the relationship of the region," ... "My hope [is that] in the next days things will begin to emerge that can begin to signal that kind of different possibility."
Seymour Hersh interviewed Kerry about this trip and wrote about it in the New Yorker, 6 April 2009, and he reported on Kerry's hopes:
These diplomatic possibilities were suggested by Senator John Kerry, of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who met with Assad in Damascus in February-his third visit since Assad took office, in 2000. "He wants to engage with the West," Kerry said in an interview in his Senate office. "Our latest conversation gave me a much greater sense that Assad is willing to do the things that he needs to do in order to change his relationship with the United States. He told me he's willing to engage positively with Iraq, and have direct discussions with Israel over the Golan Heights-with Americans at the table. I will encourage the Administration to take him up on it. "Of course, Syria will not suddenly move against Iran," Kerry said. "But the Syrians will act in their best interest, as they did in their indirect negotiations with Israel with Turkey's assistance-and over the objections of Iran."
As President Obama's conduit to Assad, as he developed his new policy of engagement with Syria, John Kerry made numerous trips Damascus during this period. It must have been after one of these trips that the incident reported in Commentary Magazine took place:
Staffers describe their collective cringe when, after a motorcycle ride with Bashar al-Assad, he returned to Washington referring to Bashar as “my dear friend.” Bashar may be a lot of things, but “my dear friend”—an address Kerry used only with a select few, such as the late Ted Kennedy—should not have been one.
And indeed, with Kerry's guidance, relations with the Assad regime were steadily developed. By August 2009, a US military team was in Damascus for talks. A Stratfor analyst summarized the developments to that point:
Syria offering intel cooperation on AQ, Iran, HZ Syria facilitating March 14 win in Lebanon Saudi pouring money into Syrian coffers US and Saudi rewarding Syria with diplomatic recognition (notice how quiet everyone is about Lebanon) Signs that Syria is moving forward -- big Syrian military/intel reshuffles; Iran threatening to destabilize the Syrian regime; HZ anxiety this is all covered in our analysis
Less than a year later, in March 2010, an internal Syrian email [soon to be released by Wikileaks] catalogs the developments in the past year from the Syrian pov:
1? Since January 2009, there have been multiple visits to Syria by US officials, including:
? Administration officials, namely Under Secretary of State William Burns, Special Envoy Senator George Mitchell, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, White House?NSC Senior Director Dan Shapiro, and Counterterrorism Coordinator Daniel Benjamin, among others. ? Members of Congress, such as Senators Judd Gregg, John Kerry, Ted Kaufman and Benjamin Cardin; and Representatives Adam Smith, Tim Walz , Alcee Hastings, Stephen Lynch, Howard Berman, at the head of several congressional delegations. ? High?Ranking military officers from US Central Command.
2? US Officials have repeatedly emphasized the importance of improved US relations with Syria, the positive role Syria can play in the region, and the need for Syria to join peace efforts. 3? On July 28, 2009, the US administration initiated steps to ease American sanctions against Syria, starting with allowing the export of material related to information technology, telecommunication equipment and civil aviation. 4? The US lifted an advisory that warned American travelers about security concerns in Syria. 5? The US is getting ready to send back its ambassador to Damascus. 6? Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Al?Miqdad was invited to Washington in October 2009 for high?level talks with US officials. 7? Syrian Ambassador to Washington Imad Mustafa has been having regular meetings at the White House, the State Department and Congress with various US officials, after 5 years of boycott.
The next month, April 2010, Kerry was back in Damascus again, according to State Department cables released by Wikileaks. Maybe Kerry was taken in by the urban upper-class manors of Bashar al-Assad; maybe there was something that reminded him of his Yale Skull & Crossbones days, or maybe it was just the shared class-consciousness of people in power, but whatever caused John Kerry to connect with the dictator, other things were happening in Syria that ultimately should lead to the overthrow of his "dear friend" Bashar al-Assad. The status quo of the entire region was about to be overthrown from below, by the very forces that were never consulted in Kerry's negotiations with Assad. Already two dictators had been overthrown, in Tunisia and Egypt, Qaddafi was shooting at protesters in Libya and demonstrations were starting to breakout in Syria when Haaretz reported, 24 February 2011:
U.S. Senator John Kerry and Syrian President Bashar Assad reportedly began drafting an unofficial position paper that would define the principles of negotiations with Israel. U.S. Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee and a close associate of U.S. President Barack Obama, has been working together with Syrian President Bashar Assad over the last few months on a plan to restart negotiations between Syria and Israel. ... Kerry has met with Assad in Damascus five times over the last two years. The issue of restarting Israeli-Syrian talks was raised at all of these meetings, and a few months ago, the two began exploring practical ideas for doing so.
In his public report back, 16 March 2011, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he said:
"President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had," Mr. Kerry said. "I think it's incumbent on us to try to move that relationship forward in the same way. ... "So my judgment is that Syria will move; Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it and the participation that comes with it."
As compared with his view on future relations with Syria under Assad, the views he expressed at that Carnegie talk about Libya under Qaddafi were quite hawkish, and sound ironic today, given his non-interventionist stand on Syria:
With Libya on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe, Kerry stressed that “the international community cannot watch from the sidelines as a quest for democracy is met with raw violence.” Kerry endorsed recommendations by the Arab League and the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace and said that U.S. and international leaders should consider “whatever is necessary” to prevent further escalation of violence.
Whether Kerry knew it of not, the day before his Carnegie talk, 15 March was the "Day of Rage," the official start of the Syrian Revolution. Wikipedia describes the day this way:
Simultaneous demonstrations took place in major cities across Syria. Thousands of protesters gathered in al-Hasakah, Daraa, Deir ez-Zor, and Hama. There were some clashes with security, according to reports from dissident groups. In Damascus, a smaller group of 200 men grew spontaneously to about 1,500 men. Damascus has not seen such uprising since the 1980s. The official Facebook page called "Syrian Revolution 2011" showed pictures of supportive demonstrations in Cairo, Nicosia, Helsinki, Istanbul and Berlin. There were also unconfirmed news that Syrian revolution supporters of Libyan descent, stormed into the Syrian Embassy in Paris ... After the first day of the uprising there were reports about approximately 3000 arrests and a few "martyrs", but there are no official figures on the number of deaths
Since that first day, the death toll has climbed towards 50,000, with hundreds of thousands arrested or disappeared and half a million seeking refuge outside of Syria.
New Syria policy needed
John Kerry has come a long ways since his first days as an anti-war activist, as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as Obama's man in Damascus, he put a lot of time and energy into a plan that depended on the continued success of one man, or at a minimum, the regime that he represents. John Kerry had no illusion about what kind of government Assad ran; when he co-sponsored the Syria Accountability Act in 2003 he said,:
The Syrian government has historically ruled by methods such as torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, prolonged detention without trial, and limits on freedom of speech and the press.
Yet he bet on that government and he clung to the hope that Assad would survive, and with him, all those plans the two of them had made together, long after the revolution against his rule had begun. In June 2012, Klein Halevy, a Jerusalem-based contributor to the New Republic, recounted a meeting she had with Kerry in 2011:
Last year, I was part of a group of Israelis who met in Jerusalem with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. Mr. Kerry had just come from Damascus with excellent news: Bashar al-Assad was ready for peace with Israel. When one of the participants mentioned that demonstrations had begun to challenge Mr. Assad’s legitimacy, Mr. Kerry’s response was: All the more reason to negotiate while he’s still in power.
That was then and this is now. Clearly Assad's "still in power" days are numbered. I'm sure John Kerry and everyone else in the Obama administration realize that now. They refused any military aid to Assad's opposition and even did their best to deny them heavy weapons, but that has only delayed, at great human costs, the inevitable defeat of the Assad regime. If and when John Kerry takes on the tasks of Secretary of State, I hope he can grab something of the past from his own history as a protester and as a soldier in a rebel army [VVAW] that can help him relate to those who will most hopefully will be running Syria in the near future. It looks very likely that Syria will be his first big foreign policy challenge. He must realize that all the fancy plans he made over the years with Assad and now as dead as Qaddafi. He will now have to lead the United States in building a new relationship to Syria with the knowledge that our recent actions and lack of humanitarian concern, has done almost nothing to endear us to the Syrian people, and he will rightfully be seen as one of the chief engineers of that policy.
John Kerry as he appears in my film Vietnam: American Holocaust What a long strange trip its been!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Interview: Yassin Al Haj Saleh

Republished from Syria Deeply December 4th, 2012 by Yassin Al Haj Saleh:

Yassin Al Haj Saleh is a prominent moderate dissident in Damascus. He is an independent writer and journalist from a family of leftist activists, who spent almost two decades in prison for his views against President Bashar al Assad. He agreed to an interview with Syria Deeply via email. It was translated by our team from Arabic.

SD: You were jailed for sixteen years and harassed for your political positions. What is life like for you today in Damascus?

Al Haj Saleh: I live in comfortable conditions most of the times. I had only very few changes in my lifestyle since the start of the revolution up to now. I started moving around less, especially after Damascus was cut into pieces by checkpoints over the past few months. Generally, I have no special reasons to complain, and no general reasons to be satisfied.

SD: What are the core reasons for the lack of unity in the Syrian opposition today? What will it take to bring the opposition together as a coordinated force?

Al Haj Saleh: Syria is like Iraq in the days of Saddam and Libya in the days of Gaddafi. It is much more so than Tunisia and Egypt. This country was politically drained for decades. The regime used to cut the heads of all political figures, respected notables, and independent authorities of the social scene, as well as the cultural, economic and religious leaders, even in sports. The only political figures this country has produced over half a century of Baathist rule are subjects, flunkeys and dwarfs.

Besides, Syria is a complex society, even more complex than other Arab countries. The Assad regime depended on "divide and rule" strategy: it nurtured divisions by turning the different ethnic, religious and sectarian groups against each other. It did that also by creating yes-man political parties and other half-loyal opposition parties. It also did so by attracting dissidents with carrots and sticks, and sometimes by terrorizing them. Under these circumstances it is not easy for Syrians to emerge with effective [leadership] alternatives.

Before the revolution the political opposition formation was very small and scattered. After the revolution it widened and it became larger in size but less organized. Whenever the fall of the regime approaches I think that the size of this opposition formation will grow as well as its organization level. Therefore, what is good for the fall of the regime is also good for the emergence of a coherent alternative.

SD: Do you think the opposition abroad can lead a political transition in Syria?

Al Haj Saleh: Everything is moving in Syria and even the existing formations will need rebuilding after a while. The National Coalition also might need a restructuring after a time. And at the bottom of the Syrian National Council's problem is the large and rapid expansion of its membership, with inadequate experience and capacity to correspond with this challenge.

In balancing the politics [of transition], I think the new Coalition must combine a staunch stance against the regime with openness and flexibility in accepting other groups political and social groups inside Syria. On top of that, mobilizing international support for the Syrian cause as much as possible.

SD: Do you see any hope for a ceasefire in Syria, after the failed truce over Eid al Adha? Do you think the UN has any hope of negotiating a solution?

Al Haj Saleh: Never. This is a regime of continuous war that never followed its promises or pacts, only with those who are stronger than itself. The regime of Hafez al-Assad and his heir didn't show any respect to its Syrian subjects (or Lebanese, Palestinians, the weaker ones), and the father killed tens of thousands of Syrians (and thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians) decades ago.

And the son today is moving to break his father's record, even surpass it. If you hear one day that the Assad regime agreed to a ceasefire and it committed to it seriously, it means that it became weaker than the revolution and it is about to fall.

This regime might also commit to a ceasefire if it was faced with a real international threat that if it didn't do, it would face an end by a sweeping force. The United Nations must know this. Syrians call this regime a "gang" or "occupation force." It would be well advised for the United Nations to comprehend what these words mean.

Whoever wants a serious negotiation with the regime must be stronger than the regime. And it will not recognize a political process, only if it is forced to. And [the world] cannot force it unless they break the regime’s monopoly of war and weapons. This is a painful reality for our country, which makes it a playground for a very violent and large scale battle. But this is our situation, and we need to acknowledge it with a very clear mind. Illusions about the Assad regime may be more costly and more painful than anything that’s happened until today.

SD: Does Russia have enough influence in Damascus to steer the key political players, in the regime and the opposition, toward a truce?

Al Haj Saleh: I don't think that Russia can push the regime in a certain direction. If it abandons the regime it will weaken it even more, but its support to the regime doesn't guarantee an important influence on it – especially since the regime is fighting for survival, it lacks any flexibility. This is a regime that either stays as it is or collapses, falls down completely. Therefore, even if it wanted to, Russia cannot find itself capable of influencing the regime, even to save it from itself.

Russia also has no influence on the opposition – who considers it an enemy, in fact. It might have an influence on a group of dissidents who are closer to the regime, but those have no influence on anything that is happening on the ground today.

Again, it is impossible to imagine a ceasefire with this regime. Only its collapse would offer Syrians the inner peace that they need it after 50 years of Ba'ath war regime.

SD: Is the growing influence of some Islamist militant groups, like Jabhat al Nusra, strengthening support for the regime?

Al Haj Saleh: I don't see any manifestations for that, but it offered a very much needed excuse for the regime, about which it was talking in the beginning of this year even before the "Jabhat al-Nusra" appeared. And there is no doubt that it raises the threshold between some segments of the society and the revolution, especially among the minorities. We can tell that the appearance of Islamist groups in the revolution made the hesitant confirm his hesitation, including some political "dissidents". It also pushed a wide public of educated middle class which was comfortable with the revolution when it was peaceful to pessimism and isolation. For those who were thinking about leaving the country, this nudged them to leave.

In the educated and politically active environments no one is comfortable with this development, but the motive to get rid of this regime might weigh higher on anything else for the majority of crowd who supports the revolution.

And I don't know anyone who was with the revolution and changed ranks to side with the regime because of the appearance of these Islamist groups.

SD: How much support do you think the regime has left? What is keeping it going?

Al Haj Saleh: It appears to me that it still enjoys a big support among the Alawites, who pay the highest bill of blood to defend the regime. It has lower support among religious and sectarian minorities, who might prefer the regime, but not ready to sacrifice for its sake. It also enjoys the support of some segments of the religious Sunni population, those who have roles connected with the regime, such as Sheikh al-Bouti, and the main figures among the Qubaysiyyat and the Official Fatwas apparatus. Also, there’s support from the high class bourgeoisie of various backgrounds, who are united by the fact that they rose under this regime.

The secret of the regime's survival is it supremacy with the tools of war, and the generous support it gets from very well known international powers, specially Iran and Russia. Also, it feels a certain immunity after killing more than 35,000 people until now, by to modest estimates, without facing anything more than just condemnation.

A valid question in this regard is how the revolution could continue all this time facing a regime which wages a war against it since the beginning, without having any considerable financial or military support from anyone. The answer to this question causes deep rooted anger for the majority of Syrians that they well be slaves with no considerations if this regime stays.

SD: What do you think the US and its allies need to do to help resolve the crisis in Syria?

Al Haj Saleh: The first point that they should get is that if the Syrian crisis takes long time, it will only feed extremism in Syrian society. That will not only harm Syrians, but also the surrounding region, and perhaps beyond. Therefore, the cornerstone of what can be a constructive western policy is to help Syrians to get rid of the regime of Bashar al-Assad as soon as possible. And, in my opinion, it requires a combination of giving the armed opposition effective arms and disarming the regime.

Some might say why westerners would support toppling the Assad regime? They have a long term interest in the improvement of the political life in Syria as well as the Arab World. They also have interest in dealing with national elites that have legitimacy inside their societies before anything else.

After all, what is good for Syrians generally is bad for the jihadists; therefore it is less-bad for the West. We want Syria to be an independent country, whose policy is bound only to its people's preferences and alignments.


Friday, September 14, 2012

Barack Obama's Courtship of Bashar al-Assad

Preface I have been a Linux advocate since 1996 but today I am using the term "open source" in a new context with a new meaning. I have known it to mean computer software for which the all-important source code is freely available and generally under some degree of "copy-left" protection, but in the intelligence world, i.e. spyville, it refers to publicly available information of the sort found in newspapers, press releases and government publications; the kind of stuff we all have access to. This history of the relationship between the Obama administration and the regime of Bashar al-Assad has been done as an investigative partnership organised by WikiLeaks. I have been privileged to have access not only to the usual open source medias but also to three generally "closed source" databases highly relevant to my search, thanks to Wikileaks. The first is the Cablegate database of secret US State Department cables published by Wikileaks. This gave me a window into what the US government was really doing and saying. The second were the Syria files that WikiLeaks published. This collection of emails and their attachments to and from high Syrian officials, allowed me to see things from their point of view, you might say. Finally, there are the 5 million emails of the global intelligence company Stratfor obtained by WikiLeaks. I have joined the Wikileaks Global Intelligence Files research and publication team on this new treasure trove of information from the company commonly known as the "private CIA." They track everything happening in world affairs and they run their own string of agents and informers, including in the highest offices in Washington, D.C. and Damascus. This source of material gave me invaluable insights into what was really going on. The material from the GI Files incorporated into this essay is being published by Wikileaks at the same time as this essay. I want to thank Binh Pham of the North Star for editing my rough draft.
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Barack Obama's Courtship of Bashar al-Assad
President Barack Obama wasn't thinking about Bashar al-Assad when he was being sworn in as President of the United States on 20 January 2009, but he was thinking about a second term and he knew nothing could guarantee that like a breakthrough on the Israeli-Arab front; That is why he wasted no time in naming George Mitchell his special envoy to the Middle East only two days after he took office on 22 January 2009. Less than a month later, on 21 February 2009, U.S. Senator John Kerry was meeting with the Syrian President in Damascus. Senator Kerry would become Obama's key envoy in dealing with Assad. The main focus of peace negotiations in the Middle East has long been the need for a settlement of Israeli-Palestinian issues. The Arab position was embodied in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, while Israel continued grab more Palestinian land, oppress the Palestinian people and insist that all of Jerusalem is its capital. The two sides were as far a part as ever when Obama took office and the split between Hamas and Fatah made things even more complicated on the Palestinian side. But there was another road to a peace breakthrough in the Middle East. Syria looked forward to a new administration in the White House and was eager to end its suffering under the Bush administration's policy of sanctions, isolation and the threat of "regime change." Bashar al-Assad lead Obama to believe that he was now very serious about doing a peace deal with Israel and was interested in working with the US in other areas including common work in the "Global War on Terror" and cooperating to create more stability in Lebanon. As he entered the White House, Obama saw two roads to a Middle East peace breakthrough, and since Hamas maintained its headquarters in Damascus, both roads went through Damascus. Furthermore, it was clear to Obama and anyone else that looked at the world situation objectively that Bush's policy of lumping Syria together with Iran and attempting to isolate it had been a dismal failure. So Obama hit the ground running with a new policy of engagement with Syria, and that meant engagement with al-Assad. As a matter of fact, Obama didn't even wait until he was sworn in as president to begin that process. On 12 November 2008, just a week after he had won the election, a delegation representing President-elect Obama , met with Syrian officials at a meeting in Beirut that was very hush-hush. I wasn't much reported in the Western media or mentioned by the Syrian press, but it was covered by Al-Ahram Weekly:
A US delegation affiliated with President-elect Barack Obama visited Syria on 12 November and met with two figures close to the Syrian government. The US delegation, comprising intellectuals, academics, and politicians from several US states, aimed to find out more about the impact of Obama's election on the region, explore Arab reactions, and examine the future of US relations with the Syrian government. ... The meeting took place at the Arab Institute for International and Diplomatic Sciences in Beirut. Syrian media made no mention of the visit. The delegation is on a regional tour of six Middle East countries, including Lebanon and Jordan to gather information about Arab reaction to Obama's election and the prospects of peace and dialogue in the region. The US consul in Damascus briefed the delegation on Syrian reaction to US policies. .. The Syrians told the US delegation that Damascus is interested in defusing tensions in the regions, is earnestly pursuing talks with Israel, and wants the Americans to sponsor and participate in these talks. Damascus holds no grudges towards the US administration and believes that the best way to sort out problems is through dialogue. ... Third, the Syrians are looking for yet another way to open up to the United States, and are laying the groundwork for what they hope will be a political rapprochement between the al Assad regime and the incoming administration led by President-elect Barack Obama. By privately demonstrating to Washington and Beirut that it is cooperating against significant militant groups in Lebanon, the Syrians are sending a deliberate message to the incoming U.S. administration that Syria is prepared and capable of dismantling militant organizations - to include Hezbollah - in exchange for normalization of relations and support in the Syrian-Israeli negotiations. The Syrians have also been exhibiting their cooperation in clamping down on insurgent traffic into Iraq toward this.
A week after this meeting between the Obama people and the Syrian official on 20 November 2008, the global intelligence firm Stratfor was reporting that "Syria throws Fateh al Islam under the bus" in internal memos obtained by WikiLeaks [214636]:
Stratfor has learned that Syria has made a decision to cut off ties with Fatah al Islam, a murky Islamist militant group operating in Lebanon whose paychecks primarily come from Syrian military intelligence. The Syrian move is intended to solidify ties with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to further Syrian interests in Lebanon. In the past, Syria counted on its militant proxies in Fatah al Islam to undermine the Lebanese army and build up a case for Syrian intervention in Lebanon. The Syrians will now focus on Saudi-backed Islamist militants in Lebanon to serve this goal as the Damascus-Riyadh rivalry continues to build. At the same time, Syria appears to be signaling to the incoming U.S. administration that it is; prepared to dismantle militant groups in Lebanon - to include Hezbollah - in exchange for normalizing relations.
So even before Obama took office the Assad regime was signaling a certain willingness to play ball.
Genesis of the US-Syrian Engagement
The hope that Bashar al-Assad would prove to be a less brutal dictator than his father has had a history in the US that goes back to when the son first took over the presidency in 2000. Even the neocon Middle-East "expert" Daniel Pipes told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as much:
"But I'm hopeful that, within the context of Syrian political life, which has been totalitarian, brutalized, impoverished -- that within this context, the fresh face, fresh approach of Bashar Assad could lead to good things."
28 December 2006, Senators Chris Dodd and Kerry had wide ranging discussions with Assad in Damascus that focused on Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict according to US State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks [#06DAMASCUS5447, #06DAMASCUS5448 ]. They were there following the recommendation of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group Report on the situation in Iraq that had been released on 6 December 2006 and recommended that the US move from the Bush policy of isolation towards Iran and Syria to one of engagement. The Israeli news outlet Haaretz told of the report's recommendations with regards to Syria:
In relation to Israel, the Baker-Hamilton panel is recommending talks along two main axes: Syria-Lebanon and the Palestinians. The committee sets the conditions Damascus must fulfill to be considered an effective interlocutor, some of which are similar to those posed by the Bush administration to the Assad regime in exchange for dialogue.
The U.S. continues to demand that Syria avoid interference in Lebanon's domestic affairs; that it cooperate in the investigation of the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri; that it cease all assistance to Hezbollah and undertake efforts to persuade Hamas to recognize Israel's right to exist. At the same time, the panel concludes that Israel must return the Golan Heights to Syria as part of a peace treaty, and says that in exchange Israel will be granted security guarantees from the United States on this front. This report was widely praised by many leading Democrats, including Speaker of the House designate Nancy Pelosi and Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) and a number of Republicans including Senators Chuck Hagel and Susan Collins, but the neocons hated it, the conservatives criticized it and President Bush ultimately rejected it's recommendations, including direct talks with Iran and Syria, instead opting for escalation in Iraq and isolating Iran and Syria. The Democrats had already taken back Congress but Bush was still in the driver's seat with regards to foreign policy. Most objective Middle East observers could already see that his attempt to isolate Syria along with Iran was a dismal failure and was even undermining the goal that most of them agreed on: isolating Iran. While the Bush sanctions were hurting the Syrian economy, they weren't creating a situation that threatened the regime's grip on power. With Assad's close alliance with Iran and through his influence with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, both of which had headquarters in Damascus, Assad made himself the indispensable player in any Middle East peace plan. The Baker-Hamilton report expressed this view and suggested that instead of trying to isolate the Baathist regime in Damascus, they should instead follow a policy of engagement because all roads to a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement led to Damascus. Against the wishes of the Bush administration, Nancy Pelosi, now Speaker of the House, said that she had "determined that the road to Damascus is the road to peace," took a congressional delegation that included Dennis Kucinich and Dick Lugar to Damascus and met with Assad in April 2007. She said of Assad:
"We were very pleased with the assurances we received from the president that he was ready to resume the peace process."
This was the genesis of the Syria policy that Obama bought with him to the White House. It was about diplomacy and doing deals between world leaders. Whatever problems the Syrian people might have with their leadership, that was their problem; their legitimate grievances were not part of his calculus and he was blindsided when those people rose up against the government he had by then spent so much time cultivating and blew his carefully tended peace plans all to hell. While he was quicker to grasp the meaning of the Arab Spring in the other countries of North Africa and the Middle East, he was in denial for a long time with regards to Syria and I think he still holds out hope that somehow Assad will survive and the deal can be salvaged. While he was still a presidential candidate in June 2008, Senator Obama foreign policy adviser Daniel Kurtzer took the road to Damascus and met with Assad's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem. He was following in the footsteps of Obama supporter Zbigniew Brzezinski who had met with Assad in February according to the New York Sun. After Kurtzer's stop-over in Damascus, he joined "the presumptive Democratic nominee for the Israeli-Palestinian Arab leg of his Middle East tour." Officially he went to Damascus for a conference arranged by the British Syrian Society which was described as "closely connected to the [Assad] family", and officially had nothing to do with the campaign. A spokeswoman for the Obama campaign, Wendy Morigi, said: "Senator Obama values the expertise of Ambassador Kurtzer, but he is not a paid adviser, nor is he authorized to conduct talks with any government." Bush was still the president and he would try to make anyone who took the road to Damascus pay a toll. This didn't stop Republican presidential contender John McCain from trying to make hay of the trip:
"If one of Senator Obama's advisers has been to Damascus, we just wonder how many have been to Tehran."
Obama's Courtship Begins
After Obama became president, Assad told the Guardian:
"We have the impression that this administration will be different and we have seen the signals. But we have to wait for the reality and the results,"
Between 17 - 22 February 2009, a Congressional delegation consisting of Benjamin Cardin, Howard Berman and John Kerry visited Damascus. The Damascus Embassy told them From [09DAMASCUS132] obtained by WikiLeaks:
You should expect an enthusiastic reception by government officials of the Syrian Arab Republic (SARG) and from the media, who will interpret your presence as a signal that the USG is ready for enhanced U.S.-Syrian relations. Your visits over the course of February 17 - 22 form a trifecta that Syrians will spin as evidence of the new Administration's recognition of Syria's regional importance. The Syrians will look for your assessments on the possibility of reversing U.S. sanctions policy, and they will gauge your views on the probability of returning a U.S. ambassador to Damascus. The SARG may also seek your views on a U.S. role in the Golan track with Israel. While we hope the SARG might reveal a tangible side to their positions, our recent experience (and that of the French) has shown that the Syrian government's positive rhetoric yields little result over time. Already, the SARG has begun to link potential movement on issues of operational importance to the Embassy -- like identifying a plot of land for a new Embassy compound -- to major bilateral issues, including their fervent desire to see U.S. economic sanctions lifted. On Syria's relationship with Hizballah, Hamas, and Iran, we expect President Asad to defend the necessity of ties to these actors because of Israel's continuing occupation of Arab land. We view your visits as an opportunity to educate senior Syrian leaders on Washington priorities in the region and how Congress views Syria in the context of the United States Government's new policy of engagement. (They are not always clear on the difference between Congress and the Administration.)
Middle East OnLine reported that this was the second congressional delegation to visit Syria in the first month of the Obama presidency:
The Cardin-led delegation is the second congressional team to visit Syria in less than a month and John Kerry, foreign relations committee chairman, is expected to make the country one of his stops on a current Middle East tour. Assad described the visits as "important" and a "good gesture," but said he hoped Washington would send an ambassador to cement these ties. The United States pulled it ambassador from Syria after the February 2005 assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in a car bomb attack blamed on Syria. Damascus has denied any involvement.
The CONDELS and pre-presidential contacts were more like foreplay, just copping a feel. The real courtship began with the meeting of Senator John Kerry and President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on 21 February 2009. Reuters reported on the meeting:
Senator Kerry: Syria willing to help achieve Palestinian unity After meeting President Assad, Kerry says 'this is an important moment of change' for the Middle East. Syria has indicated it is willing to help achieve a Palestinian unity government that could restart peace talks with Israel, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry said on Saturday. Syria, which is under U.S. sanctions, hosts the exiled leadership of Hamas and has influence on the Palestinian group. "Syria could be, in fact, very helpful in helping to bring about a unity government," Senator John Kerry told reporters after meeting President Bashar Assad. "If you achieve that, then you have made a major step forward not only in dealing with the problems of Gaza but you have made a major step forward in terms of how you reignite discussions for the two-state solution ... I think that Syria indicated to me a willingness to be helpful in that respect." Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is expected to take part in Egyptian-sponsored unity talks between Palestinian groups on Wednesday. Washington supports Cairo's mediation, although it regards Hamas as a terrorist group. The Fatah faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has historically been on poor terms with Damascus. Abbas broke off peace talks with Israel during its 22-day offensive against Hamas in Gaza but later criticized the Islamist group for what he described as reckless decisions that invited the invasion. Syria backed Hamas during the conflict, deepening the rift between Damascus and U.S. allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Kerry, one of several Democratic lawmakers to visit Syria since President Barack Obama took office last month, said Syria had an opportunity to take advantage of the new administration in Washington. "I believe very deeply that this is an important moment of change, a moment of potential transformation, not just in the relationship between the United States and Syria but in the relationship of the region," Kerry said. Assad had emphasized Syria's desire to have a dialogue with the Obama administration after years of tension with the United States when George W. Bush was in power. Damascus supports the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and Washington has accused Syria of allowing rebels to infiltrate Iraq. "What I heard is great willingness to share, with respect to Iraq...I heard strong language about the hopes for Lebanon and the possibilities of providing stabilities," said Kerry, who is close to Obama. "My hope [is that] in the next days things will begin to emerge that can begin to signal that kind of different possibility."
Journalist Seymour Hersh talked to Kerry after his meeting with Assad and wrote about it in the New Yorker:
These diplomatic possibilities were suggested by Senator John Kerry, of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who met with Assad in Damascus in February—his third visit since Assad took office, in 2000. "He wants to engage with the West," Kerry said in an interview in his Senate office. "Our latest conversation gave me a much greater sense that Assad is willing to do the things that he needs to do in order to change his relationship with the United States. He told me he's willing to engage positively with Iraq, and have direct discussions with Israel over the Golan Heights—with Americans at the table. I will encourage the Administration to take him up on it. "Of course, Syria will not suddenly move against Iran," Kerry said. "But the Syrians will act in their best interest, as they did in their indirect negotiations with Israel with Turkey's assistance—and over the objections of Iran."
The US Embassy in Damascus passed along the following CONFIDENTIAL assessments of that meeting in three cables. Obama needed Assad's cooperation in fulfilling his campaign pledge to bring US troops home from Iraq. Assad was in a position to throw a real monkey wrench into that, so that was at the top of the agenda. From [09DAMASCUS158] obtained by WikiLeaks.
Summary: Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator John Kerry told President Asad that he believed progress was being made in Iraq and the U.S. wanted to withdraw its troops as soon as possible. The recent provincial elections in Iraq had been the first real, positive sign that Iraq was moving forward and the first demonstration of the legitimacy of the GOI's authority, Asad said, but the U.S. should give the Iraqi leadership "more space" or they will be labelled American puppets. Before the U.S. leaves Iraq, Asad said, it must ensure that it won't allow federalism to fragment the country. If Iraq were to break down into federal states, the Sunni state, Asad predicted, would be governed by al-Qaeda and the Shi-ite state by Iran. The Kurds will end up fighting with Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Syria and Iran see Iraq differently from each other. Asad advised that the U.S. must view Iran as a Persian state, more than as a Shi-ite state ) the cultural identity, he implied, is more important than the religious identify. "Don't bet on Khatami's candidacy (in Iran's June presidential elections)," Asad warned. "You can make deals with Ahmadinejad more (readily) than you can with Khatami . . . Never mind the rhetoric, Ahmadinejad has political power." Kerry expressed concern over Iran's continued pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability and Asad responded by saying there should be a mechanism for monitoring Iran's nuclear activities; states do not operate on trust. Asad said it is necessary to shift discussion from Iran's right to nuclear technology to means of monitoring its activities. By attacking Iran's right, Asad said, "you unify Iran." End Summary.
and the situation in Lebanon is important. From [09DAMASCUS159] obtained by Wikileaks:
Summary: Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator John Kerry asked President Bashar al-Asad February 21 about Syria's activities in Lebanon in the lead-up to Lebanese elections in June. Asad, clearly primed, demanded, "Saudi Arabia has spent millions of dollars in Lebanon for the elections . . . are you against this (too)?" Asad refused to yield to pressure to quickly name a Syrian ambassador to Beirut, calling it a "sovereign issue," and implying that the French had railroaded him unwittingly into making a commitment to send an ambassador before the end of 2008. "Every step has a meaning," he said, declaring that he knew whom he would appoint and when he would announce the appointment, refusing to share the information before then. Asad alleged the Saudis were "paying out money, approaching the elections like a political war." If the line that ultimately separates Lebanon's political opponents is sectarian, then, Asad warned, the seeds of the next civil war will have been sown. Asad's overt anxiety over trends in Lebanon, and his particular concern over Saudi interference, demonstrates yet again that Syria views Lebanon as its vulnerable underbelly and is still preoccupied by the perpetual concern that civil war could once again erupt there. End Summary.
And finally there was the all important question of the Middle East Peace process. From [09DAMASCUS160]:
Summary: Syrian President Bashar al-Asad told Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator John Kerry that the U.S. position on the Middle East peace process is Syria's most important concern. Kerry said there was consensus among President Obama, Secretary Clinton, APNSA Jones and himself on their hopes for the Middle East. The U.S. needs to talk respectfully and frankly with the parties in the Middle East. Kerry then advised Asad that the perception he got from other regional leaders is "Bashar al-Asad says one thing and does another . . or he says he will do something and then doesn't do it." Asad demanded specific examples: "I need to know this," he said. Absolving himself of credibility gaps, Asad said he wanted better relations with the U.S. He cited counter-terrorism, a unified Iraq, and peace with Israel as areas where the U.S. and Syria have common interests. Senator Kerry asked Asad what he could take back to Washington as an indicator of Asad's good will. Asad deflected the question by asking what is the U.S. willing to do? Is it willing to revive the peace process, for example? And that seems to be the main stumbling block in restoring a U.S. ) Syrian dialogue: the Syrians are unwilling to make concessions, convinced as they are that they were ill-used and unappreciated by the Bush Administration. Having apparently made a tactical decision against it, the SARG did not raise the Syria Accountability Act. End Summary.
As the courtship progressed, on 26 February 2009 Syrian ambassador in Washington, DC was invited to meet the acting head of the Near Eastern Affairs bureau, Jeffrey Feltman, who had been U.S. ambassador to Lebanon. "We see this as an opportunity to explore those areas where we have potential for progress," the official told Reuters which also reported the Syrian view of this meeting:
Syrian embassy spokesman Ahmed Salkini said no reasons were given by the State Department for the meeting but Syria hoped for an end to the "dictation" policies of the past administration of President George W. Bush. "We hope we will see new policies, a new approach and a new vision over what we had over the past eight years," said Salkini of a possible thaw in ties between the two nations.
An internal Stratfor email gives us a clue as to why Assad's terrible human rights record played no part in the discussions, and also spoke about the beginnings of intel sharing that didn't make the official reports. Reva Bhalla wrote: [1198916]:
according to one of my sources, the syrians also gave them the middle finger and said they dont have to cooperate when the US is committing human rights violations through its occupation in iraq, etc. at the same time, there has been some 'low-level intel cooperation' (which jibes with the insight ive been getting through a source in syria and what we wrote about). ... now with bashar going to saudi we could see things move quicker
CNN reported that there also was a meeting between Secretary of State Hilliary Clinton and Syria's foreign minister Walid al-Moualem at about this time:
Clinton and Moualem met briefly in March 2009 on the sidelines of an international donors conference on rebuilding the Gaza strip after the December 2008 Israeli offensive. They spoke by phone earlier this year about improving the U.S.-Syria bilateral relationship.
Also in March 2009 Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the ruler of Qatar, told Seymour Hersh in Doha that "Syria is eager to engage with the West." Hersh wrote about this and other observations in a major New Yorker piece, Syria Calling, on 6 April 2009:
A former American diplomat who has been involved in the Middle East peace process said, "There are a lot of people going back and forth to Damascus from Washington saying there is low-hanging fruit waiting for someone to harvest." A treaty between Syria and Israel "would be the start of a wide-reaching peace-implementation process that will unfold over time." ... Many Israelis and Americans involved in the process believe that a deal on the Golan Heights could be a way to isolate Iran, one of Syria's closest allies, and to moderate Syria's support for Hamas and for Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group. ... A major change in American policy toward Syria is clearly under way. "The return of the Golan Heights is part of a broader strategy for peace in the Middle East that includes countering Iran's influence," Martin Indyk, a former American Ambassador to Israel, who is now the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, at the Brookings Institution, said. "Syria is a strategic linchpin for dealing with Iran and the Palestinian issue. Don't forget, everything in the Middle East is connected, as Obama once said." ... For negotiations to begin, the Syrians understood that Washington would no longer insist that Syria shut down the Hamas liaison office in Damascus and oust its political leader, Khaled Meshal. Syria, instead, will be asked to play a moderating role with the Hamas leadership, and urge a peaceful resolution of Hamas's ongoing disputes with Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Syrians were also told that the Obama Administration was reƫvaluating the extent of Syria's control over Hezbollah. ... During the long campaign for the White House, Obama often criticized Syria for its links to terrorism, its "pursuit of weapons of mass destruction," and its interference in Lebanon, where Syria had troops until 2005 and still plays a political role. (Assad dismissed the criticisms in his talk with me: "We do not bet on speeches during the campaign.") But Obama said that he would be willing to sit down with Assad in the first year of his Presidency without preconditions. He also endorsed the Syrian peace talks with Israel. "We must never force Israel to the negotiating table, but neither should we ever block negotiations when Israel's leaders decide that they may serve Israeli interests," he said at the annual conference, last June, of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). "As President, I will do whatever I can to help Israel succeed in these negotiations."
But just when the re-engagement with Syria seemed to be getting off swimmingly, it started to hit some rapids when the US renewed sanctions against Syria, according to this Stratfor GI File [77025] dated 26 May 2009 and obtained by WikiLeaks:
PUBLICATION: background/analysis ATTRIBUTION: Source in Syria SOURCE DESCRIPTION: Adviser to Bashar al Assad SOURCE RELIABILITY: C ITEM CREDIBILITY: 3-4 My source says U.S. President Barack Obama*s decision to renew the sanctions on Syria has shocked his Syrian counterpart Bashar Asad, who now thinks his advisors and the architects of his foreign policy have misled him. Asad seems to have resolved himself to reshuffling his team of advisors and policy implementers. Asad was given the false impression that the U.S. has accepted a major role for him in the region, and that it sees no harm in his return to Lebanon. Asad came to understand from his country*s diplomats in the US and ministry of foreign affairs that Washington has waived its precondition to resuming normal relations with Syria that it [Syria] first disengages itself from Iran and Hamas. My source says Obama was enraged by Asad*s decision to host in Damascus Iranian President Ahmadinejad two days before the arrival of the Feltaman-Shapiro team to Damascus. Asad apparently wanted to play a game, that turned crude, with the U.S. to the effect that the improvement of his country*s relations with Washington will not come at the expense of those with Iran. My source says the Obama administration was particularly enraged by Asad*s decision to prevent Lebanese President Michel Suleiman from forming his own third wave (between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions) parliamentary bloc that would serve as a swing player in Lebanon*s highly polarized politics. Instead, Asad has moved in the wrong direction by promoting the candidacy of the March 8 parliamentary contestants. My source says the U.S. has made gestures towards Damascus, but the latter misinterpreted them, such as allowing the sale of Boeing spare parts to the Syrian national carrier, and authorizing the Iraqi government to receive Syrian prime minister Naji al-Utari to Baghdad and concluding an agreement that allows for the resumption of the flow of Iraqi oil through the Kirkuk-Banyas pipeline. My source says the Obama administration grew fed up with the Syrian style of mercantile negotiations, which they could not understand. Eventually, talks between the two countries amounted to a dialog of the deaf.
Two days after this analysis was filed, on 28 May 2009, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was telling Senator Edward Kaufman and Congressman Tim Waltz at a meeting in Damascus that [09DAMASCUS377]:
he is looking for the Obama Administration to put forward a "road map" outlining a way forward in the U.S.-Syrian relationship, and that Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim would float the idea with Secretary Clinton during their planned June 1 telephone conversation. Asad wondered about U.S. thinking on the sanctions issue, and asked rhetorically whether one goal of U.S.-Syrian re-engagement might be the removal of these "obstacles." He expressed irritation with a recently released Country Terrorism Report re-identifying Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism, and questioned how the USG could take such a step while sending an envoy to Damascus to ask for security cooperation.
Two weeks later, on 14 June, Obama's Middle East special envoy George Mitchell made his first official visit to Damascus, "breaking the diplomatic cold that prevailed between the two countries since 2005" by meeting with Assad according to Le Monde. The next day, 15 June, U.S. envoy Fred Hoff left Israel for Damascus July 15 to meet with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al Moallem, according to a Stratfor report obtained by Wikileaks. [378139] This may have been to prepare for Mitchell's second visit to Damascus on 26 July 2009, in any case, Fred Hoff was with him on that trip. AP reported on that meeting:
President Obama's special Mideast envoy arrived Saturday on his second visit to Syria since he took up his post in the latest U.S. diplomatic outreach to a country deemed a state sponsor of terrorism. Last month, George Mitchell became the highest-level U.S. administration official to visit Damascus since 2005. He acknowledged Syria's clout, declaring Damascus has a key role to play in promoting Mideast peace. Mitchell did not speak to reporters after his arrival at Damascus airport Saturday. He is to meet Syrian President Bashar Assad on Sunday to discuss bilateral relations and the prospects of reviving Syrian-Israeli peace talks. Mitchell later travels to Israel as part of U.S. efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The Obama administration had a series of meetings with Syria and hopes the diplomatic outreach will encourage Damascus to play a positive role in both the Middle East peace process and also in Iraq. Syria is seen as a major player in this process because of its support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, its backing for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and its intermittent peace talks with Israel. Turkey has said it is prepared to resume mediating peace talks between Syria and Israel. Syria also maintains close links with Iran, whose disputed nuclear program is a matter of international concern. Mitchell's visit to Syria follows two separate trips in the past few months by senior U.S. officials Jeffrey Feltman, acting assistant secretary of state, and Daniel Shapiro, a Middle East expert at the White House, as part of talks about improving relations with a country shunned by former president George W. Bush. Ahead of Mitchell's visit, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said his country is working to rebuild its diplomatic relationship with the United States. The U.S. withdrew its ambassador to Syria in 2005 to protest alleged Syrian actions in Lebanon. The Obama administration said last month it plans to send an ambassador to Syria, though no date has been set. Al-Moallem, speaking in London after talks with his British counterpart David Miliband Friday, said Syria is looking forward to Mitchell's visit as "the first step of dialogue."
From the Medea press review for the week from July 27 to 31, 2009:
This week US Middle East envoy George Mitchell toured widely in the region visiting one after another Israeli, Syrian, Egyptian and Palestinian authorities. During his visit to Damascus, George Mitchell said that President Obama had decided to work for a "comprehensive peace in the Middle East which includes Israel and Palestine, Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon and normal relations with all countries in the regions," said Nouvel Obs. ... The comeback of Syria on the regional scene Le Monde highlights the feat : despite a clear position in favor of the Iranian regime and of Hezbollah and Hamas, Bashar al-Assad has been able to restore Syria in the role of a regional actor that cannot be ignored. The daily commented the failure of the French policy which was trying, by resuming diplomatic relations, to take Syria away from its Iranian ally. On the contrary, Syria has managed to use the blank check offered by France to revive its relations with Washington. For the second time in just over a month, the U.S. special envoy for the Middle East visited Damascus. Le Monde reminds that on June 14, George Mitchell visited the Syrian capital, breaking the diplomatic cold that prevailed between the two countries since 2005. Following this visit, Washington has announced the gradual lifting of the economic sanctions imposed to Syria, said AFP. Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the White House nevertheless warned that « to change the U.S. sanctions would require coordination and close consultation with Congress ». AFP also reminds that Washington also announced on pas June 24 the sending of a new ambassador to Damascus. According to Israeli news agency Guysen news, as they have done with Iran, the United States try to find a compromise with Syria in order to "make Damascus a new bridge between Islamists and Arab moderates, particularly between Hamas and Fatah." Le Monde also notifies that Syria is a central player in the palestinian inter dialogue: The Syrian capital is hosting the headquarters of Hamas and Hezbollah, while Mahmoud Abbas is coming there regularly to consult his Syrian counterpart.
The day after Mitchel's second visit, the US lifted an embargo on information technology products and aviation industry goods to Syria, according to a Stratfor email released today by WikiLeaks. [1679601]"Nice little sign of faith" was the comment of a Stratfor analyst [5464098]. Things seemed to be moving along so well that by 12 August 2009, the US was sending a military team to Damascus for talks. Ynet News reported:
A US security delegation will visit Syria on Wednesday in a sign of growing cooperation between the two countries since US President Barack Obama started talking with the Damascus government, diplomats said.
That same day, Stratfor analyst Reva Bhalla summarized the changes in an email [986090] that didn't waste any words:
Syria offering intel cooperation on AQ, Iran, HZ Syria facilitating March 14 win in Lebanon Saudi pouring money into Syrian coffers US and Saudi rewarding Syria with diplomatic recognition (notice how quiet everyone is about Lebanon) Signs that Syria is moving forward -- big Syrian military/intel reshuffles; Iran threatening to destabilize the Syrian regime; HZ anxiety this is all covered in our analysis
From an attachment to an email from hans-georg.mueller[@] and sent to fadl.garz[@] of the Syrian government and published by WikiLeaks as part of the Syria files, we have this further report on that meeting:
A senior US delegation visited Damascus, the Syrian capital, on August 12th-13th, led by Major General Michael Moeller, the Central Command's director of strategy, plans and policy, and including Frederick Hoff, the deputy to the US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell. This followed a series of US delegations in April-June. The US State Department said that the main purpose was to follow up on initial discussions about curbing the infiltration of foreign fighters and military equipment into Iraq, although Mr Hoff's presence suggests the Arab-Israeli conflict was also covered.
The day after the US military delegation left Damascus a Stratfor source was reporting [1699977]:
The Syrian regime is preparing to dismantle two major Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) bases in Lebanon, a STRATFOR source reported. ... The source added that the Syrians are making it more difficult for PFLP-GC and Hamas officials to move around in Damascus, where each group has a base of operations. For each meeting they hold inside Syria, these Palestinian militants allegedly require a special permit from the director-general of Syrian intelligence. Syria's apparent clampdown on Palestinian militants operating in the Syria-Lebanon domain is yet another indicator that Damascus' ongoing negotiations with the United States and Saudi Arabia are making real progress. According to the source, the Israelis told the Syrians through U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell that closing down these two bases was a critical precondition to resuming peace talks between Israel and Syria.
September 2009 marked the end of the first six months of the Obama administrations re-engagement with Syria and to mark the occasion, a discussion paper, with the Subject: Re-engaging Syria: Toward A Six-month Plan, and graded SECRET from the Damascus Embassy was circulated on 10 September, according cable [09DAMASCUS671] obtained by Wikileaks.
Summary: March 2010 will mark the end of the first year of U.S.-Syrian engagement. As reported reftel, this period poses a series of formidable challenges. Syrian policies continue to impede government formation in Lebanon, support foreign fighters going into Iraq, maintain close ties with Iran, Hizballah, and Hamas, and reject calls from the IAEA to cooperate. Our engagement efforts have established relationships that will enable us to discuss these subjects, but Syrian officials remain less willing to accept their responsibility in addressing core issues. ... ¶2. (S/NF) With the trilateral border assessment initiative now all but dead, we need a replacement to demonstrate the ability of both sides to work together constructively. Beyond our focus on national security issues, we should be considering how to expand our contacts in other technical areas in which initial U.S.-Syrian contacts could lead to more routine interaction. Syrian interest in judicial and law enforcement reforms, expanding educational contacts, water management issues, urban planning, and NGO development provide just a few examples of areas in which U.S. government and private sector contacts could dramatically expand our access and influence. We need to frame these initiatives in broader terms of choices facing the Syrian regime and the need for concrete Syrian actions on Lebanon and Iraq for our engagement to continue. We also need to dangle what the Syrians really want -- relaxation of sanctions and visits by high ranking officials to expand our dialogue on core issues -- as a payoff once Syria has demonstrated its intent to utilize these contacts to build a more solid foundation. If we can advance these ideas over the next six months, we may increase our ability to persuade senior Syrian leaders that their country's interests is better served by more constructive policies that would bring even closer U.S.-Syrian ties. End Summary.
28 September 2009, AP reported:
A senior Syrian official has been invited to Washington for talks, a U.S. Embassy official said Monday, in the latest signal of the Obama administration's efforts to improve relations with a country deemed a state sponsor of terrorism. The upcoming visit by Syria's deputy foreign minister, Fayssal Mekdad, is the first in about five years and is part of U.S. efforts to improve strained relations with Damascus. Mekdad, who is currently in New York as part of the Syrian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly meetings, will fly to Washington on Monday for talks with U.S. government officials on a range of issues, the embassy official said. The Syrian diplomat's visit is part of a continuing dialogue with the Syrian government that began in March, the official said, without giving details. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations made this further report:
Assistant Secretary of State for public affairs P.J Crowley told reporters that this visit is "part of a continuing dialogue that we've opened with the Syrian government, again, earlier this year with visits by Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman and NSC Senior Director Dan Shapiro." He added that "Obviously there also have been visits by U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell." He indicated that a wide range issues are discussed but refused to detail them.
Stratfor emails obtained by Wikileaks [1711150] also claim that when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris on 11 November 2009, he gave Sarkozy a message to be relayed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was expected in Paris the next day for a two day meeting with Sarkozy and other French leaders. The French newspaper La Figaro on 13 November 2009 quoted Assad as saying that US President Barack Obama represented a weak point in the efforts to renew negotiations:
"The American godfather needs to draw up a plan of action and take his own initiative, not wait for others," said the Syrian President.
Still things did seem to move along, as this 3 February 2010 memo from Seymour Hersh about intelligence sharing seemed to indicate:
One note: a transcript of our talk, provided by Assad's office, was generally accurate but it did not include an exchange we had about intelligence. A senior Syrian official had told me that, last year, Syria, which is on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, had renewed its sharing of intelligence on terrorism with the C.I.A. and with Britain's MI6, after a request from Obama that was relayed by George Mitchell, the President's envoy for the Middle East. (The White House declined to comment.) Assad said that he had agreed to do so, and then added that he also has warned Mitchell 'that if nothing happens from the other side "in terms of political progress" we will stop it.'
President Obama nominated Robert Ford to be the first US ambassador to Syria in 5 years on 17 February 2010 but thanks to Republican stonewalling of Obama's appointments, he would not be able to take up the post in Damascus at this critical time for another eleven months. That is a real shame because once he did get to Damascus on 16 January 2011 after a recess appointment, he soon became well known for his out spoken support for the protest movement. As Reuters was to write on 13 September 2011:
U.S. ambassadors are usually the most measured of professionals, weighing each word in a delicate dialogue to advance America's interests with a minimum of public fuss. But Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, is taking an undiplomatic tack -- flouting government travel restrictions, courting opposition figures and taking to Facebook to publicly denounce Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brutal crackdown on unarmed protesters. ... One of the State Department's top Arabists, Ford arrived in Damascus in January with a very different brief. As the first U.S. ambassador to Syria in five years, he was expected to implement a policy of gradual rapprochement in hopes of prising the Assad government away from its alliance with Iran, Hezbollah and other Islamist groups and facilitating cooperation on new peace moves with Israel. ... The soft-spoken envoy proceeded to radically redesign his mission to become one of the most outspoken critics of Assad now operating in Damascus.
When news of the appointment hit Stratfor, apparently it was a surprise to some but not to others, sparking discussions like this [1115772]:
On Behalf Of Peter Zeihan Sent: February-17-10 8:51 AM To: Analyst List Subject: Re: discussion3 - US/SYRIA- Obama names first US ambassador to Syria in 5 years what's changed? what's the plan? i don't ask questions for my health Kamran Bokhari wrote: Nothing has changed now. It has long been in the making. Goes back to the U.S. need to pull Syria out of the Iranian orbit and they have been working with the Saudis in order to accomplish this. DC has also been interested in getting Syria to move forward on the peace process with Israel. The idea is that if you can get Syria on your side that could put some distance between Iran and Hezbollah. The Bush admin's move to isolate Syria was an anomaly.
WikiLeaks Syria files documents also indicate that John Kerry made a trip to Damascus in April 2010 to meet with Assad [221424]. At the time there was a big dust up about Syria supplying Scuds to Hezbullah. Stratfor made this overall assessment of the situation:
The Syrian government has been accused of transferring Scud missiles to Hizbullah in Lebanon. Despite these accusations, which Syria denied, the US's policy of increased engagement with Syria is unlikely to be derailed. ... The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and his ruling Baath party are expected to retain a secure grip on the country, supported by key elements in the security services. The core of the elite is drawn largely from Mr Assad's Alawi sect, and any move against him would risk endangering its hold on power. However, tensions within the regime persist, accentuated by external pressures such as the UN inquiry into the killing of Rafiq Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, the ongoing investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into allegations that Syria has a nuclear programme and accusations that Syria has been supplying the Lebanese militant group, Hizbullah, with longrange missiles.
None of these analysts and diplomats seemed the least bit concerned with the internal dynamics of Syria, so this report gave a rare glimpse:
Only limited progress is expected on political reform over the forecast period. Although some promised measures may be implemented, it is hard to envisage any steps being taken that would significantly diminish the Baath party's hold on power. Mr Assad initially advocated political reform when he came to power in 2000, but he has acknowledged that the pace of reform has been slow since then. He has pledged to increase popular participation in the political process by introducing a political parties law, which will create a second chamber of parliament, the Majlis al-Shura—in addition to the existing lower chamber (the Majlis al-Shaab). He also pledged to devise a local administration law to bring about greater decentralisation. Although there have been no visible signs of progress with these reforms in over two years, the reduction in international pressure on Syria will make it easier for at least a few cosmetic changes to be made at home during the forecast period. However, the security and intelligence services, which are pervasive and effective, will continue to clamp down on activists demanding democratic reform. The various opposition-in-exile groups and domestic critics are unlikely to pose a substantive threat to the government.....Syria is expected to continue the gradual liberalisation of its centrally planned economy, a process that has been led by the deputy prime minister for economic affairs, Abdullah al-Dardari.
Another email, dated 19 May 2010 from the Wikileaks Syria files revealed the courting friends of the Obama administration could expect in Damascus:
Dear Bouthaina, I hope this finds you well. Some close friends of mine will be visiting Damascus from May 25-29, for tourism. However, they are influential people in Washington and I think that you and Walid would benefit from meeting them and they would certainly benefit from meeting both of you. Jim was Chief of Staff to Vice President Walter Mondale in the Carter Administration. He has also served as Chairman of the Brookings Institution. I have appended his resume so that you will get a fuller picture. Put simply, he is very influential in the Obama White House and in the Democratic Party. His wife, Maxine Isaacs, is a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government where she teaches about the role of women in foreign policy! So you can see why I thought immediately of putting them in touch with you when they told me they were going to visit Damascus. I would be very grateful if you have the time to meet with them, and to introduce them to Walid. With very best wishes, Martin [Indyk]
June 2010 was a busy month for President Assad on the diplomatic front. It began with a visit by Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev on 1 June in Damascus [831135] and ended with Assad's visit to Cuba for an official visit on 29 June. [816327] While Assad was on his Latin American tour he "declared that the Obama administration's failure to facilitate change in the Middle East shows that it is weak." according to this assessment from the Syria files obtained by Wikileaks. On 23 September 2010 U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the Syrian Foreign minister Walid Moualem"in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly." according to a CNN report that went on
The rare meeting comes on the heels of a visit by Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell to Damascus earlier this month. Although officials stressed the United States still has "serious concerns" about Syrian support for terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, the visit provided enough common ground for discussions to move to a higher level. "The secretary would not be meeting with Foreign Minister Moualem if she did not feel it was an opportunity to make progress," one U.S. official said.
On 22 October 2010, the Jerusalem Post summed up Assad's success in overcoming the Bush era boycott:
Despite efforts to internationally isolate Syria, especially during the Bush era, it has reasserted itself as a central player in the Middle East. Following the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, the US withdrew its ambassador to Beirut, intensified sanctions against Damascus and sought to deepen Syria's isolation from the international community. The recent array of high-level visitors to Damascus – including US officials – demonstrates that President Bashar Assad has weathered the storm of isolation and has emerged as an essential actor in resolving regional disputes, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel should now respond favorably to Syria's call for renewed peace talks, and in so doing utilize its influence to advance peace, rather than thwart it.
Even more than his Libyan counterpart, Mummar Qaddafi, Bashar al-Assad was being brought in from the cold and welcomed back to the international community of power brokers. On 28 October 2010 Senator Arlen Specter was in Damascus meeting with Assad and various other Syrian top-brass including Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, Presidential Political and Media Advisor Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban and Deputy, Foreign Minster Dr. Fayssal Mikdad, according to this SANA report:
Damascus,(SANA)_President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday discussed with US Senator Arlen Specter the latest regional developments, stressing the importance of finding suitable circumstances for achieving the just and comprehensive peace in the region. ... President al-Assad affirmed that Syria appreciates US President Barack Obama's desire in this regard, saying that there are no indications for achieving a tangible progress in light of the presence of an Israeli government which doesn't want peace and doesn't believe in it.
A Stratfor email [1002707] exchange on 9 November 2010 obtained by Wikileaks gives us a view of the the negotiations:
Reva Bhalla wrote The US would like to hive Syria off from the Iranians, and that's why they've been working through the Saudis to create some distance between Damascus and Tehran. The problem is that Syria can't expect to give into all of US/Israeli demands and US often comes at this with an all or nothing approach. If SYria shows real restraint on HZ, then US could start to open up more. this is what we need to watch for Jacob Shapiro wrote: do you think the US will ever give in?
Reva Bhalla wrote: syria doesn't care about the Israel/Palestinian talks - those aren't going anywhere. Syria wants to negotiate with Israel from a position of strength, and it wants US endorsement. So far, US hasn't given in and Syria has held back from full cooperation on HZ, Iran, etc., which is why these broader negotiations have always been so piecemeal
National Security Council official Dennis Ross is reported to have made a secret visit to Damascus, on the day after Christmas, 26 December 2010. The facts are a little hard to make out because some sources, including Now Lebanon, put out a counter story that, no, actually it was Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, that took the secret, post-Christmas road to Damascus and met with Assad and Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem. Most likely, they both were there. From this Stratfor email [5487260] dated 3 January 2011 it certainly sounds like Ross was:
On January 1, the independent Al-Rai al-Aam daily carried the following report by its correspondent in Washington Hussein Abdul Hussein: What is happening backstage and why did former envoy to the peace process Dennis Ross visit Damascus last week and meet with senior officials? Will Syria and Israel reach the signing of a peace agreement "in the very near future," as was stated by an American official?
The Arab Spring slips in under the radar
On 17 December 2010, less than ten days before Ross and Assad had their secret meeting, a poor street vendor in Sidi Bouzid lit himself on fire to protest his treatment by the Tunisian dictatorship. I doubt that event was on anybody's radar when they had their 26 December discussions at the Presidential Palace in Damascus, but what had already begun was shortly to shift the very foundations upon which their grandiose diplomatic schemes were built. They were making yesterday's plans for the future only they didn't know it yet. Nine months later Obama would be putting sanctions on Muallem personally for his role in the crackdown. Exactly one month after this secret meeting, on 26 January 2011, Hasan Ali Akleh from Al-Hasakah became the first Syrian to follow the led of Mohamed Bouazizi of Tunisia, when he poured gasoline on himself and set himself ablaze in an act of "protest against the Syrian government." But as the year 2011 began, these fires were as yet unseen from the heights, and in diplomatic circles all the buzz was about a new Middle East peace deal in the works. On 1 January 2011, according to a Stratfor report obtained by Wikileaks [5478219]:
The United States has been in secret contact with Syrian officials in the hopes of realizing a comprehensive Israel-Syrian peace treaty, the Kuwaiti al-Rai newspaper reported Saturday. The past few weeks had witnessed an "unprecedented Syrian cooperation" in the peace process, prompting Washington to talk with Syrian officials to reach a peace agreement between Syria and Israel, informed sources told al-Rai. Sources said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem had sent positive signals to the U.S. showing that "the Syrians are ready to re-engage in dialogue with the Israelis to reach peace". President Barack Obama's administration believes that an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement will be "a breakthrough in the peace process as a whole to achieve peace in the Palestinian territories." Sources said that Obama adviser Dennis Ross told the U.S. administration that he found "Syria ready to move away from Iran and reduce relations with Hezbollah and Hamas, and work with the United States in the fight against terrorism."
\President Bashar al-Assad laid out his own views at this time in a very extensive interview with the Wall St. Journal on 31 January 2011. He explained why there would be no uprising in Syria:
Internally, it is about the administration and the people's feeling and dignity, about the people participating in the decisions of their country. It is about another important issue. I am not talking here on behalf of the Tunisians or the Egyptians. I am talking on behalf of the Syrians. It is something we always adopt. We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries but in spite of that Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people's beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance.
24 February 2011, as the Libyan Revolution was entering its second week and Qaddafi's goons shot dead 10 protesters in Zawiyah, the Guardian was running an article titled Syria clamps down on dissent with beatings and arrests, and according an article in Haaretz that day "Kerry and Assad began drafting an unofficial position paper."
U.S. Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee and a close associate of U.S. President Barack Obama, has been working together with Syrian President Bashar Assad over the last few months on a plan to restart negotiations between Syria and Israel. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been briefed on Kerry's talks with Assad, opposes the plan, since he does not believe Assad is serious about making peace with Israel. Kerry has met with Assad in Damascus five times over the last two years. The issue of restarting Israeli-Syrian talks was raised at all of these meetings, and a few months ago, the two began exploring practical ideas for doing so. According to both senior Israeli officials and European diplomats, Kerry and Assad began drafting an unofficial position paper that would define the principles of negotiations with Israel and the conditions for restarting them.
Various reports said that Senator Kerry did plan to take the road back to Damascus near the end of January 2011 but the White House had that trip canceled. Mr and Mrs Assad even had Mr and Mrs Kerry over for dinner once. On 16 March 2011 John Kerry spoke about Syria at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He still had a strong belief in Bashar the reformer. He still had a strong belief in Bashar the reformer:
"President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had," Mr. Kerry said. "I think it's incumbent on us to try to move that relationship forward in the same way. ... "So my judgment is that Syria will move; Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it and the participation that comes with it."
On 27 March 2011 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton answered Bob Schieffer's questions about the situations in Libya and Syria on CBS's Face the Nation:
QUESTION: Tens of thousands of people have turned out protesting in Syria, which has been under the iron grip of the Asad for so many years now, one of the most repressive regimes in the world, I suppose. And when the demonstrators turned out, the regime opened fire and killed a number of civilians. Can we expect the United States to enter the conflict in the way we have entered the conflict in Libya? SECRETARY CLINTON: No. Each of these situations is unique, Bob. Certainly, we deplore the violence in Syria. We call, as we have on all of these governments during this period of the Arab Awakening, as some have called it, to be responding to their people's needs, not to engage in violence, permit peaceful protests, and begin a process of economic and political reform. The situation in Libya, which engendered so much concern from around the international community, had a leader who used military force against the protestors from one end of his country to the other.... ... QUESTION: But, I mean, how can that be worse than what has happened in Syria over the years, where Bashar Asad's father killed 25,000 people at a lick? I mean, they open fire with live ammunition on these civilians. Why is that different from Libya? ... SECRETARY CLINTON: ... There's a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he's a reformer. What's been happening there the last few weeks is deeply concerning, but there's a difference between calling out aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing your own cities and then police actions, which, frankly, have exceeded the use of force that any of us would want to see.
The headline that went around the world the next day was that unlike Libya, there would be no military intervention in Syria. This piece in The Peninsula was typical:
No attack on Syria: Clinton 28 March 2011
Washington: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday said that the United States currently has no intention of launching a military intervention in Syria, despite its brutal crackdown that has left dozens of protesters dead.
Asked on CBS television's "Face the Nation" programme if Washington is planning military action similar to that launched in Libya, Clinton answered that it is not. "No, each of these situations is unique," she said and added that the "elements" that led to international intervention in Libya were absent in the case of Syria.
Just hours before Clinton went on "Face the Nation," Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Assad, announced that one of the key demands of the protesters, the lifting of the emergency law, would be met. Three days after he had been assured that no military intervention was planned, on 30 March 2011, Assad made a speech blaming foreign conspirators for causing the uprising and reversing the promise to lift the emergency law. When people took to the streets to protest the speech in Latakia and Daraa, the police used live ammunition and killed five. Syrians had expected him to announce an end to the emergency law. The next day 25 people were killed by security forces in Latakia. The term "bloodbath" was starting to be used. After Clinton's statement, Assad started to use his army to attack the protesters and the death toll started rising dramatically. The mask of "the reformer" was dropping fast as the bodies piled up now that Assad knew he was not going to get the "Qaddafi treatment." The private spooks at Stratfor thought they had a pretty good idea of what was going on. In a 31 March 2011 Stratfor [1154727] memo obtained by Wikileaks:
Since Mubarak has gone and Gaddhafi is under fire, Assad has more than enough reasons to be concerned about Syrian regime's survival. Regardless of what our Syrian contacts tell us about Assad's confidence, we know and Assad knows that he is on the thin ice and needs US/Saudi support for survival. US/Saudi (and by proxy, Qatar) back Assad not because they fear things may get worse in Lebanon. Indeed, they think this is the best time to put pressure on Assad to give concessions in Lebanon due to his current weakness. Don't you really find it a bit unusual that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United States did not even hesitate throwing their support behind Assad at the very beginning? Washington could have easily sent a warning to Damascus by saying that "Libya-like treatment for Syria is one of the options". France was already willing to get engaged in Syria. But US did the contrary.
Less than a month later, Clinton was trying to strike a different tone without changing anything. Assad had greatly intensified the crackdown and people were demanding action so the leaders of the "free world" had to at least look like they were doing something. Reuters reported
Clinton says Syria must stop detention, torture Wed, 20 Apr 2011 18:49 GMT WASHINGTON, April 20 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday condemned violence in Syria and said the Syrian government must stop the arbitrary arrest, detention and torture of prisoners. "We are particularly concerned about the situation in Homs where multiple reports suggest violence and casualties among both civilians and government personnel," she said at a news conference. Independent confirmation was difficult because journalists were not being allowed access, she said. Activists in the central city of Homs say more than 20 pro-democracy protesters have been shot dead since Monday by soldiers and other forces. "The Syrian government must allow free movement and free access, it must stop the arbitrary arrest, detentions and torture of prisoners," Clinton said. She called on the Syrian government to cease violence and respond to "the legitimate issues that have been raised by the Syrian people seeking substantial and lasting reform."
The next day, 21 April 2011, as if to placate Mrs. Clinton, Assad signed decrees lifting the emergency law, but nothing changed on the ground. The following Friday, 22 April 2011, saw the biggest protests to date with tens of thousands turning out in Damascus and ten other Syrian cities. 114 people were killed nationwide as security forces open fired on protesters. That would be a "light" day now with the Assad regime regularly killing more than 200 Syrian's a day, but then the New York Times called it "one of the bloodiest days in the so-called Arab Spring." The Stratfor spooks could see the US quandary, and the meaninglessness of sanction, as we see in an email exchange on 25 April 2011 obtained by Wikileaks [65118]:
the US doesn't necessarily want to deal with the instabilty that would follow regime collapse in Syria. They've been trying to ignore what's going on there, but it's getting a lot harder to ignore as the deaths have been climbing over the past few days. this is a way for the US to tone down the hypocrisy by saying, 'look, we're taking action."
and the reply [1001704],
Agree. I would say US sanctions against Syria mean that US wants to buy time and appear like it's not ignoring deaths in Syria, but in fact it does. Sanctions mean that US is not prepared to do anything in Syria anytime soon.
The Stratfor discussions of the next day give us even more insight into the thinking of these world players: [997505]
From Bayless Parsley The other thing is that while protests have spread the opposition is far from being an organized force. So, the situation is still salvageable. Bashar will have to do what he did in the aftermath of the Hariri assassination. Get rid of some people saying he is taking action against those who are responsible for the killing of people. and initiate a really slow process of change, which could get a lot of people off the streets. We need to see if he is up to the task. Kamran wrote: See that's the thing. The Iranians are not asking to back off from using force. Rather saying do what the Egyptians did. Align with the protesters and control the movement. Keep in mind that many people still expect Bashar to engage in reforms.
In another email [968577] that day Parsley gives us a most revealing and interesting analysis of the US response to the Arab Spring uprisings:
I'm aware the situation is very different. In Egypt, the U.S. could afford to abandon Mubarak and let the military keep running the show. US mil was maintaining channels of communication with their counterparts for much of the early days, and though there was a gap for a bit for a week or so after that, DC probably had a pretty high degree ofconfidence that the country was not going to descend into chaos if Mubarak were to be forced out by the deep state. In Syria, that is not the case. The sectarian nature of the country added to the fact that it's not really isolated from its neighbors by large tracts of desert the way Egypt is, but rather, intertwined with Lebanon, Turkey and, to a lesser degree, Iraq makes the prospect of the Syrian regime collapsing much more dangerous than Mubarak being pushed out. I should have said "ironic" rather than "remarkable," because the irony is that everyone thought the US viewed Mubarak as an ally and Bashar as an enemy. And this may have been true. But what I was pointing out is that this is not a good metric for gauging how DC will respond to unrest in a country that threatens to upend the leader.
Then he follows up with this addition for completeness.
forgot to add Jordan in there as well and not to mention Israel actually quite likes Bashar being in power
And that is the naked truth about why it is costing the Syrian people more blood than it did the Egyptian, Tunisian, Yemeni, or even Libyan people to be rid of their dictator. In the "international community," the major players really don't want to see Assad go. That's why they instruct their diplomats to keep themselves busy debating empty U.N. resolutions instead of getting busy by taking resolute action. The truth is that the world's major powers, including the United States government, rather like Assad. He's their kind of guy. He could be bargained with in geopolitical and financial matters. He was as greedy and power-hungry as they. He was and is terrible to his own people but that was their problem (and besides, what world power doesn't use force against peaceful protesters?). He could be counted on to use the Golan Heights and the Palestinian struggle as pawns in his game. A post-Assad revolutionary Syria or a truly democratic one on the other hand might take the Palestinian struggle seriously and not use them as pawns. Particularly in the West and among the Gulf kingdoms, world leaders are lining up to abhor Assad's slaughter but the bottom line is that nobody is doing anything to stop him but the Syrians themselves. However, those world leaders see the need to look and sound like they are doing something. By 10 May 2011 more than 700 Syrians had lost their lives to regime violence and Senator Kerry was articulating a very different stance on Assad, he told the Cable:
[I]n an exclusive interview today, Kerry said he no longer saw the Syrian government as willing to reform. "He obviously is not a reformer now," he said, while also defending his previous stance. "I've always said the top goal of Assad is to perpetuate his own regime." When pressed by The Cable about his earlier, rosier view of Assad, Kerry denied he had expected the Syrian regime would come around. "I said there was a chance he could be a reformer if certain things were done. I wasn't wrong about if those things were done. They weren't done," Kerry said. "I didn't hold out hope. I said there were a series of things that if he engaged in them, there was a chance he would be able to produce a different paradigm. But he didn't."
2011 wasn't half over and the peace deal that Obama's heart was set on and looked so imminent at the beginning of the year, a deal two years in the making, had been overtaken by events internal to Syria and laid in tatters on the floor. Obama was probably heartbroken that his love affair with Assad had come to naught. On 13 May 2011 George Mitchell, the plan's guiding architect, resigned. CNN reported:
Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell is resigning as the Obama administration's Mideast envoy, the White House announced Friday. Mitchell has served as President Barack Obama's point man in the region as the administration has tried to keep Arab-Israeli peace talks on track. Deputy Middle East Envoy David Hale will take Mitchell's place, according to the White House. "George Mitchell has worked as a tireless advocate for peace as the U.S. special envoy for the Middle East," President Barack Obama said in a written statement. He "leaves behind a proud legacy of dedicated public service and the country owes him a debt of gratitude for his extraordinary commitment."
When Obama first slapped sanctions on Assad on 19 May 2011, France24 wrote :
The Obama administration had pinned hopes on Assad, seen until recent months as a pragmatist and potential reformer who could buck Iranian influence and help broker an eventual Arab peace deal with Israel.
But U.S. officials said Assad's increasingly brutal crackdown left them little choice but to abandon the effort to woo Assad, and to stop exempting him from the same sort of sanctions already applied to Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.
But those sanctions didn't deter Assad, as reported by Reuters on the same day:
Syrian troops backed by tanks deployed in a border village Thursday, witnesses said, ignoring growing pressure from Washington, which has imposed sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad for rights abuses.
A political assessment written for senior Syrian official Fares Kallas by the PR firm of Brown Lloyd James just before sanctions were applied to Assad was even more frank. From the Syria files obtained by Wikileaks we have Political Communications 2.0 doc which was attached to an email [2089956] dated 19 May 2011:
It is clear from US government pronouncements since the beginning of the public demonstrations in Syria that the Obama Administration wants the leadership in Syria to survive. Unlike its response to demonstrations in some other countries in the region, there have been no US demands for regime change in Syria nor any calls for military intervention, criticism has been relatively muted and punitive sanctions—by not being aimed directly at President Assad--have been intended more as a caution than as an instrument to hurt the leadership. However, the tone of the Administration's statements has grown noticeably harsher in recent weeks and may be nearing a tipping point that could make a reassessment of the US position towards Syria inevitable. One potential bellwether of this shift is the transformation in the public statements of US Senator John Kerry, the Administration's de facto point man on outreach to Syria. Senator Kerry has begun to publicly backtrack his often-repeated confidence in the leadership's ability to reform.
May 19th is a special day for revolutionaries because it is the birthday of both Ho Chi Minh and Malcolm X, and 19 May 2011 was no quiet day for the Syrian revolution. It was also the day that President Obama gave his Middle East speech in which he started to grapple with the contradiction between the traditional US view of Middle East priorities and new requirements put forward by the unfolding Arab Spring:
The question before us is what role America will play as this story unfolds. For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region: countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce, and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel's security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace. We will continue to do these things, with the firm belief that America's interests are not hostile to peoples' hopes; they are essential to them.
Notably absent from this "set of core interests in the region" was any concern for democracy, economic inequality or human rights, but now the people of the region are turning out governments over precisely those issues.
Yet we must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind. Moreover, failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our own interests at their expense.
Lest people get the wrong impression, we must speak out.
.....While Libya has faced violence on the greatest scale, it is not the only place where leaders have turned to repression to remain in power. Most recently, the Syrian regime has chosen the path of murder and the mass arrests of its citizens. The United States has condemned these actions, and working with the international community we have stepped up our sanctions on the Syrian regime – including sanctions announced yesterday on President Assad and those around him. The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way. The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests; release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests; allow human rights monitors to have access to cities like Dara'a; and start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition. Otherwise, President Assad and his regime will continue to be challenged from within and isolated abroad
Obama recognizes that Assad "has chosen the path of murder," but he doesn't demand that he be tried for these murders or even that he be removed from the presidency. Obama is still calling on him to "lead the transition." Secretary of State Clinton echoed this administration view that it still was not too late for Assad to lead reform and stay in power as late as 2 June 2011 when she told reporters:
"The legitimacy that is necessary for anyone to expect change to occur under this current government is, if not gone, nearly run out. If he's not going to lead the reform, he needs to get out of the way."
In another indication of how the US wants to see things evolve in Syria, on 30 July 2012, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told CNN that the current Syrian army and security structure should be keep in place even after Assad leave. In other words, they want to see an Egyptian-styled "revolution" in Syria, only the Egyptian army refused to slaughter their people, didn't they?
"I think it's important when Assad leaves, and he will leave, to try to preserve stability in that country," Panetta said. "The best way to preserve that kind of stability is to maintain as much of the military and police as you can, along with security forces, and hope that they will transition to a democratic form of government. That's the key."
So the Obama administration would like to see Assad "step down" but it also wants to keep in place the Assad killing machine that has so far taken more than 20,000 Syrian lives and has been condemned for massive human rights violations by the United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. So we might say that Obama is demanding that the Syrian people marry their rapist. If these US leaders thought the exposure and harsh language would do anything to deter Assad, they were badly mistaken. Michael Weiss wrote in the Telegraph on 31 July 2011:
Several months ago I had a conversation with an American academic specialising in the Middle East. Wouldn't it be difficult, I'd asked, for Bashar al-Assad to repeat his father's 1982 massacre in Hama all over again in 2011, in the age of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook? ... "Why?" came the frigid reply. "Why do you think having an atrocity filmed in broad daylight and exhibited to the world would stop a dictator like Assad from committing one?"
Still the more Assad murdered, the more the US government turned up the rhetoric. 12 August 2011 Now Lebanon wrote [2608551]:
Last week, the United States signaled it no longer subscribed to the idea that Assad's survival was necessary for geopolitical stability, saying he had the region on a "very dangerous path."
But when Obama issued Statement by President Obama on the Situation in Syria and announce new sanctions on 18 August 2011, it got a yawn from the analysts at Stratfor [109723]:
they already have heavy sanctions on Syria. this is making it sound like it's a lot bigger of a deal than it is to show that the US is being tough on Bashar
On 19 September 2011, Helen Cooper at the NY Times wrote:
While other countries have withdrawn their ambassadors from Damascus, Obama administration officials say they are leaving in place the American ambassador, Robert S. Ford, despite the risks, so he can maintain contact with opposition leaders and the leaders of the country's myriad sects and religious groups. .... Mr. Obama's call last month for Mr. Assad to step down came after months of internal debate, which included lengthy discussions about whether a Syria without Mr. Assad would lead to the kind of bloody civil war that consumed Iraq after the fall of Mr. Hussein ... To be sure, Mr. Assad may yet prove as immovable as his father, Hafez al-Assad, was before him. Many foreign policy analysts say that the longer Mr. Assad remains in power, the more violent the country will become. And that violence, they say, could unintentionally serve Mr. Assad's interests by allowing him to use it to justify a continuing crackdown. ... A collapse in Syria, on the other hand, could lead to an external explosion that would affect Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and even Iraq, foreign policy experts say, particularly if it dissolves into an Iraq-style civil war.
A little over a month later, 24 October 2011, US ambassador Robert Ford did leave Damascus. The Guardian reported:
The state department stressed that Ford's return did not amount to a formal breakdown in relations and that Ford's deputy, Haynes Mahoney, would remain in Damascus and carry out Ford's duties.
Soon Dennis Ross was also out the door. He resigned on Hezbollah Martyr's Day, 11 November. Stratfor posted this document obtained by Wikileaks [776130]:
The White House announces the resignation of Dennis Ross, President Obama's assistant and former Middle East envoy, for personal reasons.
Which prompted the following further intelligence obtained by Wikileaks [777026]:
This will leave White House without its chief strategist for the region. Ross had initially pledged to work for President Barack Obama for two years but extended that by another year because of Arab Spring (Israel radio 0430 gmt)
Obama's Syria Policy
If you want to know what a government's policy is, you need to focus on what they do, not what they say. That's what the Stratfor analyst was talking about when he said [5417524]:
These endless statements really don't matter that much. Trying to suss out what is going on through these statements really doesn't work. Remember that this is why we don't go to press conferences.
It has been often stated that a variety of international players are secretly helping the armed opposition in Syria. Months before the Free Syrian Army was formed, Assad claimed that he was fighting armed terrorist gangs sponsored by Syria's international enemies. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey were most often mentioned, but he claimed Israel, the UK and the US were really pulling the strings. This explanation for what is really doing on in Syria has had a certain traction among many cynics in the West. This is why Assad has put it out there. For there part, most of the listed countries would like it to be known that they strongly oppose Assad's violence and that they are doing something, at least providing "humanitarian aid." Of course, the whole idea of providing only "humanitarian aid" while Assad's war planes are still allowed to fly is ludicrous. Does anyone think that the surgeons can keep up as long as the bombs are falling? When you have a heavily armed mad killer on the loose, you don't call in observers so that you can prepare a strong legal case later, you don't spend a lot of time trying to talk him out of continuing his killing spree. You call in the sharpshooters and you put an end to it by putting the killer down. That's how every police force it the world would handle it even if some would accuse them of further militarizing the situation. So with Bashar al-Assad, adopting the murderous strategy of simply pummeling resistive communities with heavy artillery, tanks, jet planes and helicopter gunships, until they submit, it is becoming clearer everyday that there can be no effective relief for the Syrian people that doesn't involve an armed response to Assad's violence, because the people are not going to submit. This is why the Syrian opposition at all levels and almost from all quarters has been crying out for military intervention from some one, any one, against Assad's slaughter for many months now as it has become increasingly clear that Assad would be left to his own devices with no international imperialist military intervention forthcoming. They have demanded that they at least be supplied with the heavy weapons to do the job themselves. What had begun as a peaceful movement against the Assad regime had been forced to become a revolution because the people would not relent and Assad met every demand with increasing levels of violence. The Free Syrian Army that was first founded in July 2011 to defend the protesters in Daraa has grown, its ranks swelled by a continuing flow of Syrian army defectors and citizens-turned-fighters. They got most of the arms they have from the Syrian Army, either stolen or purchased on the black market. A lot of claims have been made that they have received weapons from outside, claims that have come not only from the supporters of the regime, but also from its detractors that know they should be doing more. The Free Syrian Army has said, in numerous interviews, that they have received no outside military aid. Since the handful of Assad's aircraft that they have managed to down have been shot down the old fashion way, with anti-aircraft guns, it's clear that they have not gotten their hands on modern surface-to-air missiles, or MANPADs, that could thwart Assad's aerial assault. Frankly, there has been little in the way of hard evidence to support the story that the rebels are being significantly armed by anybody outside of Syria, so when the NY Times ran an article titled C.I.A.Said to Aid in Steering Arms to Syrian Opposition, some commentators jumped on it as an admission that the CIA was strongly supporting, if not instigating the armed insurgency against Assad:
A small number of C.I.A. officers are operating secretly in southern Turkey, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border will receive arms to fight the Syrian government, according to American officials and Arab intelligence officers.
But if information from other sources is correct, that title would read more correctly if it said the opposite: CIA Steering Arms Away from Syrian Opposition, because here are more details about what those CIA agents in southern Turkey are really doing, according to the Australian:
Over the past 10 months, a Syrian opposition official told The Sunday Times, the CIA has blocked shipments of heavy anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, which rebel units of the Free Syrian Army have long said are vital to their efforts to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. At the same time they have approved supplies of AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles, and just over a month ago gave the green light to a shipment of 10,000 Russian-made rocket-propelled grenades.
It is precisely the lack of those heavy anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons that is keeping the Free Syrian Army from winning and causing this war to go on and on. It is also the lack of those defensive weapons that allows Assad to continue his carnage unabated. Apparently someone, maybe Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Qatar, is willing to supply them, but the Obama administration is putting the kibosh on the deal. The Syrian opposition lives or dies depending on what the US does much more than on what the US says, which is why the balance of opinion among Syrians is that the US is opposed to the uprising and wants to see Assad stay in power. As Hannah Allam of McClatchy Newspapers wrote 10 August 2012:
When asked point-blank this week whether the United States supports the rebel movement, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell fumbled through platitudes with four references to a "peaceful" transition. At no point did he give an answer to what had been a yes-or-no question. "Is the United States supporting the rebels? We are being very careful and judicious in supporting the Syrian opposition," another State Department official said later, speaking only on the condition of anonymity per diplomatic protocol. "The entrance of extremist elements into the conflict is a deeply troubling variable. That is a genuine concern that the United States has. While we support the aspirations of the Syrian people, we should be very cautious."
The supreme irony of this last concern about the involvement of Islamic extremist in the Syrian revolution is that their involvement is being simulated and encouraged by the inaction of the international "community" as the Syrian revolution continues to drag on. Those most concerned about the growing influence of Islamic extremists in Syria should be first in demanding that whatever needs to be done to end this carnage be done sooner rather than later. For over a year, US opposition to the Assad regime's brutal crackdown against the people demanding an end to his dictatorship has been limited to harsh words and mild sanctions. When " The Obama administration set new, largely symbolic, sanctions Friday on Syria's state-run oil company and the Hezbollah militant group" which is the way Fox News reported it, 10 August 2012, the question of Obama's Syria policy again came up at the White House Press Briefing with Press Secretary Jay Carney. The reporters seem to think very little was being done by the US to oppose Assad, and the press secretary seemed eager to play up what was being done, but in the end revealed that the Obama policy was still one of waiting for Assad to " step aside" and allow a political transition to take place. A year after the sanctions of 18 August 2011, and a year to the day, of Obama's 10 August 2011 first call for Assad to lead the transition or step aside, some 20,000 Syrians had been slaughtered, most by Assad's use of heavy artillery and aerial bombardment on civilian areas, and US policy had not shifted. Here is part of that exchange at the White House Press Conference about the new Syria sanctions:
Q But these aren't actually designed then to force the Assad regime into any type of action, or to actually kind of tighten the economic pressure on them? MR. CARNEY: No, I think every time we take a new step that addresses, or comes within the rubric of a financial sanction, it has an impact on the resources that Assad has and to finance his crackdown. No single sanction is going to, by itself, prevent Assad from getting his last bit of financing. But together, collectively, the sanctions enhance pressure. And the sanctions that we periodically announce, as we look for other means of pressuring Assad, are not -- are part of a broader effort that includes diplomatic efforts, includes increasing our humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, increasing our non-lethal assistance and support for the opposition as part of a broader effort to bring about that day that must come when Assad steps aside and a political transition is allowed to take place.
Carney then moves on to talking about the president's latest fundraiser but the questions soon return to Syria:
Q Back to the Syrian sanctions, John Brennan, the other day in a speech, said that there was under consideration apparently a no-fly zone. Is that under consideration by the administration to ratchet up? MR. CARNEY: I think, Roger, what Mr. Brennan said was in response to a question about a specific measure, the no-fly zone, and his answer reflected the fact that we have not, and the President has not, taken any option off the table when it comes to Syria.
Everybody in the world knows what it means when a US president says "no option is off the table." It means he is carrying a "big stick" in the phrasing of an earlier US president, and he may use it. It is diplomatic speak for the threat of US military power. Generally speaking, US presidents always leave that option on the table in any international situation, even when they know they would never resort to it for the stakes on the table. That "big stick" cost trillions and, historically, more of its value has come from waving it than has come from using it. So people in the Obama administration that are desperate to hide the fact that "Responsibility To Protect" has fallen on such hard times, and want to make it seem like the US might do more, probably felt safe making the time-honored empty threat that "all options are on the table." Even if there is no there there, Assad might not know that, and if he is lead to believe that Obama is seriously considering a no-fly zone, he might feel compelled the limit the carnage he is creating with his air force. No doubt such thinking played a role in Brennan's floating of the idea of a no-fly zone, and Carney's timid support for Brennan. 10 days later, 20 August 2012, President Obama made a surprise visit to the White House Press Briefing in person and took questions on Syria. Apparently, he wanted to make his Syria policy clear and unambiguous: There would be no fly zone or any other US military action against the Assad regime or military support for his opposition provided he did not use significant amounts of chemical or biological weapons when committing his mass murder. Obama said:
I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation….We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.
That statement told Assad there would be big trouble if he used massive amounts of weapons of mass destruction. It also told him that if he continued to do his killing with long-range artillery, tanks fire, helicopter gunships, jet planes dropping cluster bombs, incendiary bombs and thugs on the ground with guns and knives, there might be more sanctions, but the US wasn't going to stop him. On the day before Obama made that statement, 130 Syrians died in the violence, on the day after he explained his cold-blooded calculus and drew his "red-line", 250 Syrians were slaughtered and the level of violence perpetrated by the Assad regime has only accelerated since then. This is why I said Obama gave a green light to Assad's slaughter.
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