By Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security, IISS-Middle East
Israel’s recent air strikes on Syria were intended as a warning to both Syria and Iran, and to stop weapons falling into Hizbullah’s hands – but they have increased the likelihood of a regional conflict.
Last week, the Israeli air force struck two targets inside Syrian territory. The first seems to have been a shipment of surface-to-surface missiles destined for the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah (the Fateh-110 is more accurate than anything Hizbullah is known to currently possess, and with a 300-kilometre range has much of Israel within its reach). The second was a major research centre and important storage facility near Damascus, which is administered by units of the elite Republican Guard. Israel had already struck this installation – the Centre of Scientific Studies and Research in Jamraya – in January, allegedly destroying shipments of anti-aircraft missiles destined for Hizbullah.
These strikes add to an already complex political and military landscape in Syria. The Assad regime has deployed its full arsenal of conventional capabilities against the Syrian rebels – and may have even used chemical weapons on a small scale. The rebels are consolidating their hold over much of Syria, but remain too ill-equipped and poorly organised to win the struggle on the battlefield.
The rise of Islamist and jihadi factions has further complicated the picture: better organised and funded, they often spearhead rebel attacks on key regime facilities across the country. They may eventually seize some of the regime’s advanced weaponry.
By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme
Yesterday US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said it was likely that chemical weapons (CW) had been used on a ‘small scale’ in Syria. President Obama claimed in August that the use of CW in Syria would change his calculus on US intervention, but the intelligence must be examined carefully to assess whether his ‘red line’ on CW has actually been crossed.
On Thursday, the White House said that although it was likely the nerve gas sarin had been used, the evidence was still too thin and that it needed ‘credible and corroborated facts’. President Obama is being pilloried in some quarters for not following through on his earlier red line. But after the misuse of intelligence to justify an invasion of Iraq ten years ago, the bar for concluding that Assad used chemical weapons must naturally be set high. The standard of evidence should meet at least three conditions: clear-cut evidence of use, meaningful quantity, and purposefulness.
Dina Esfandiary, Research Associate and Project Coordinator of the IISS Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme, has an article in The Diplomat analysing recent claims of chemical-weapons use in Syria.
Syria’s state news agency, SANA, made the first allegations on Tuesday when it broadcast pictures of alleged chemical-weapons victims having difficulty breathing and foaming at the mouth, in what it reported was the result of a ’terrorist’ rocket attack near Aleppo. The Russian Foreign Ministry then released a statement confirming the opposition’s use of chemical weapons, but presented no evidence to support this claim. An opposition commander also said he had heard secondhand reports that victims were having respiratory problems in response to a chemical attack, but he said the regime was responsible.
What we actually know is patchy, says Esfandiary. Despite ‘proof’ from both sides in the form of photos and videos, there is nothing that shows the attack site, and no indication that any of the victims’ symptoms match those that would result from exposure to mustard gas, Sarin or VX – Syria’s alleged chemical-weapons arsenal – which would have more devastating effects than those reported.
If the use of chemical weapons is confirmed, it could change the character of the conflict because the US and the international community would be pressured to intervene, explains Esfandiary. The US and Europe are therefore rightly proceeding with caution. ‘But if anything, this event reiterates how little is known about the situation on the ground in Syria,’ Esfandiary argues. When the West can be sure of so little, perhaps the real debate should be whether or not it should be arming the rebels.
Emile Hokayem, IISS senior fellow for Middle East security, has a piece in Foreign Policy on the ‘grand battle for Damascus’ currently gathering in the two-year-old Syrian uprising. Hokayem admits that this isn’t the first time that rebels have attempted to wrest control of the Syrian capital from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad; there were earlier concerted efforts in July and December 2012, which were repelled or contained by the regime’s greater firepower. Nor can further ups and downs in the battle be ruled out. However, Hokayem argues, there is a lot more opposition to the Assad regime within Damascus than is generally understood, and the government will put up incredibly stiff resistance in the life-and-death battle to hold on there.
Hokayem sketches out the political geography of a city where the president can count on a large base of support from bureaucrats, others with ties to the regime, religious minorities and middle- and upper-class Sunni urbanites, but not on Christian and Alawite dissidents from the ‘suburbs’ (or the outlying towns that have been incorporated into the capital). Other areas that have not benefitted from the regime’s largesse or the growth of the previous decade – from the conservative, middle-class neighbourhoods of Barzeh and Midan to the poor Sunni area of Qaaboun – have joined the uprising.
By Dr John Chipman, Director-General and Chief Executive of the IISS
We live in the age of ‘fast power’. Our sense of stability, and indeed the rise of insecurity, is dramatically affected by the speed with which events happen and the very many different agents of power with which governments and the private sector have to deal with. Power today is more plural than ever before and adequate responses to its malign use have also to be more various.
Governments, and the defence and foreign ministries that serve them, have to be readier to act at speed if they are to shape, rather than be shaped, by changing events. In the past, strategists asked if a country had ‘soft’ power, ‘hard’ power, or ‘smart’ power. Today they must assess the quality of a state or of an alliance’s ‘fast power’ if they are to make a proper appreciation of the capability to respond to threats and to change.
As ‘Genghis Khan with a telephone’ in the 1930s, Joseph Stalin routinely picked up the receiver late at night to issue instructions that led to the imprisonment or execution of millions. Author Toby Dodge probably wouldn’t compare current Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to the brutal Soviet leader; at the launch of his new book last week he steered away from describing Maliki as despotic as former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Nonetheless, Dodge’s portrayal of the Iraqi premier is of a man with ‘clear dictatorial ambitions’ who understands the utility of the telephone.
Dodge’s just-released Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism recounts how the PM’s office in Baghdad has subverted the military chain of command, directly ‘ringing up mid-ranking officers and issuing orders to them on their mobile phones’. It is one of the methods by which an initially unremarkable, ‘grey’ politician has managed to centralise power in the weak office of the Iraqi prime minister since his appointment in early 2006.
Some political commentators may scrutinise Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s words over the weekend for a glimmer of hope. They might argue that he used defiant language during his speech at Damascus Opera House on Sunday – calling his opponents ‘murderous armed criminals’ and ‘Western puppets’ – to place himself in the best possible position ahead of any negotiations.
Unfortunately, that’s too optimistic, says IISS’s Emile Hokayem in a new piece in Foreign Policy magazine. Nearly two years into the uprising in his country, Assad still believes ‘that he will prevail and that any dialogue can only occur on his terms’.
Hokayem reports meeting regime sympathisers in Beirut who believed in a ’2014 strategy’.
‘Assad’s objective was to survive militarily and hold key cities, roads, and infrastructure until then. In the meantime, the regime could at best propose an improbable multi-year process designed to keep internal and external actors distracted by hollow politics rather than the fate of Assad himself.
‘The “peace plan” laid out by Assad in his speech seems designed to do precisely that,’ Hokayem believes.
With all the high-level diplomatic visits to Moscow and accompanying news headlines, a casual observer might easily conclude that Russia holds the key to resolving the Syrian crisis, writes Samuel Charap, IISS senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia, in a New York Times op-ed. ‘But as the latest round of failed talks this weekend - this time between Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League envoy on Syria – conclusively demonstrate, Russia will not be part of the solution on Syria.’
Charap says that some members of the international community continue to hope that Moscow can bring its influence on President Bashar al-Assad to bear on some sort of political transition. However, he points that the Kremlin has not only ‘fastidiously’ avoided joining the call for Assad to step down, but has also issued three UN Security Council vetoes during votes on Syria, and ‘bent over backward to water down the Geneva Communiqué calling for a peaceful transition of authority’.
Russia is not blind to the tragedy of the situation, but its approach to international intervention is very different from that of much of the rest of the international community, particularly the United States and the European Union. ‘Moscow does not believe the UN Security Council should be in the business of endorsing the removal of a sitting government,’ explains Charap. Indeed, it views many past US-led interventions as threatening to the stability of the international system and is not convinced that Washington’s motives in Syria are driven purely by humanitarian concerns. It even worries that giving its imprimatur to international action on Syria could potentially threaten ‘regime stability’ in Russia itself by creating a dangerous precedent that could eventually be used against it.
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague was very clear on the need for swift international action to resolve the crisis in Syria when he gave that headline quote. Although none of Saturday’s sessions at the Manama Dialogue were devoted to that country, its 21-month-old conflict loomed large over proceedings. Both speakers and delegates intervening from the floor returned to the subject repeatedly:
‘We …remain committed to a transition to a new leadership’.
US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns on US policy towards Syria
‘In Syria…everything that people said would happen if we did not intervene has now happened because we have not intervened – growing radicalisation, sectarian conflict, the collapse of the state, and now the spectre of chemical or biological weapons being used.’
Senator John McCain takes a robust line
‘I do want to say one thing about Russia. I think Russia can play a pivotal role in working with Iran. They helped in Syria when it looked like Assad was going to use chemical weapons and I think it is important that dialogue continues. Sometimes negatives turn into positives and I think this relationship that we can work with Russia will help us with respect to Iran.’
Congressman Charles Ruppersberger is optimistic about Russia’s role in the region
‘At this stage, after 20 months, I think the people of Syria do not want us to provide them with a no‑fly zone. They want us to provide them with the means for them to impose their own no‑fly zone, I can assure you. They are now ready and prepared to impose their own no‑fly zone. The lack of means is what is holding them back.’
Dr Khalid Bin Mohammad Al Attiyah, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Qatar, on whether his government favours a no-fly zone over Syria
‘Everyone here has heard of the numerous deals that were offered to the Syrian regime to reform or leave; this was done not to set a precedent of protecting leaders who have so grossly crossed the line, but to stem the possibility of reaching the situation which we are in today…’
Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bahrain, on efforts to ensure a peaceful resolution
‘We keep hearing from Syrian opposition leaders that the regime is about to end. Farouk Tayfour, Deputy Head of the Syrian National Council, has been predicting it by the end of this year, which is 22 days away. Last night we heard from Mustafa Sabbagh that the end is imminent, from Representative Rogers that the regime is in its last days of desperation, and all this has been brought about by very disparate rebel groups, most of whom are local village militias, and relatively few of whom are actually taking the battle to the enemy. If all this is real, and the rebels control 70% of the territory, etc., etc., why does anyone still need to do anything from the outside? What are we missing?’
Dr Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is sceptical about calls for intervention
‘We have seen enough evidence to know they need a warning’.
William Hague, again, responding to a question from Frank Gardner of the BBC on US and UK intelligence about the potential use of chemical weapons
It wasn’t all about Syria in the Q&A at the end of the First Plenary Session – but it certainly led the discussion. Senator John McCain was critical was critical of US inaction: ‘In Syria … everything that people said would happen if we did not intervene has now happened because we have not intervened,’ he said. Fellow panellist Charles Ruppersberger, on the other hand, was optimistic about the role Russia could play not only in Syria but also in negotiations with Iran. ‘Sometimes negatives turn into positives and I think this relationship that we can work with Russia will help us,’ he said.
Participants also spoke about various wider regional and geopolitical risks generated by the Syrian conflict. The discussion provided a remarkable insight into the current situation and of US thinking on the processes taking place in the Middle East.
Energy issues were not forgotten. David Butters of Chatham House provocatively asking the panel: ‘How long are the American people prepared to continue to bankroll the security of Chinese oil supplies?’
Read the first part of Alexander Vysotsky’s account of the session: Day 1 at Manama: view from the floor