U.S. Strategy in Syria: Having Lost Sight of the Objective…
September 12, 2013
Somewhere along the line, the Obama Administration and Congress seem to have lost sight of the US strategic objective in Syria. The focus has shifted almost completely to chemical weapons, and any effort to bring an end to the Syrian civil war has either been forgotten or touched upon almost as a ritual afterthought.
In the process, the issue of chemical weapons has been badly blown out of proportion as Appendix A at the end of this commentary explains in detail. No one can ignore the fact they were used in large numbers against civilians after a systematic series of low-level attacks to test the US response, but even if the President (1,000+) and Secretary of State (1,400+) could agree on the number of casualties, they would be a tiny fraction of the more than 117,000 civilian dead estimated by the UN.
They would be an even smaller fraction of the total number of external refugees that various UN agencies estimate ranges from over 1,850,000 to over 2,000,000 external refugees, and what UNHCR estimates are some 4,250,000 internally displaced Syrians that face major problems from the loss of homes, housing, employment and business, education, services, and anything approaching the rule of law.
Chemical Weapons are Not the Real Humanitarian Challenge
The scale of the humanitarian problems in Syria not only exceeds 117,000 dead by conservative UN estimates, they affect some 20% of the nation’s population and they involve repeated conventional attacks by the Syrian government as well as the most extreme elements of rebel forces.
The summary to the Independent International Commission of Inquiry for the Syrian Arab Republic report of 9/11 of 2013 states:
"The conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic has taken a dangerous turn. The majority of casualties result from unlawful attacks using conventional weapons. Nevertheless, the debate over what international action to take, if any, has assumed new urgency following the alleged use of chemical weapons in August. As stated by the Secretary-General in a press conference on 9 September, there is a need for accountability, “both to bring to justice those who used them – should Dr. Sellström confirm their use – and to deter anyone else from using these abhorrent methods of warfare.”
As detailed in the Commission’s most recent report, released today, with fighting raging between Government forces, pro-Government forces, anti-Government armed groups and Kurdish armed groups, it is civilians who continue to pay the price for the failure to negotiate an end to this conflict. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost. Over six million Syrians have fled their homes, each with a story of devastation and loss. Entire communities now live in tents or containers outside Syria’s borders, with millions more displaced inside Syria. A society has been ripped apart.
Failure to bring about a political settlement has allowed the conflict not only to deepen in its intransigence but also to widen – expanding to new actors and to new, previously unimaginable crimes. For the Commission, charged with investigating violations of international law committed by all parties to the conflict, any response must be founded upon the protection of civilians. The nature of the war raging in Syria is such that the number of violations by all sides goes hand in hand with the intensity of the conflict itself. With the spectre of international military involvement, Syria – and the region – face further conflagration, leading to increased civilian suffering.
Protection of human rights and respect for international humanitarian law are closely interlinked with the UN Charter, particularly with action by the Security Council. To help ensure compliance, the Security Council must be engaged as a forum to leverage the parties to the conflict in Syria as well as influential states on the issue of the protection of civilians.
There is an urgent need for a cessation of hostilities and a return to negotiations, leading to a political settlement. To elect military action in Syria will not only intensify the suffering inside the country but will also serve to keep such a settlement beyond our collective reach.
Even a few excerpts from the full text of the report, which can be found on the UN website at http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/IICISyria/Pages/IndeendentInternationalCommission.aspx, show the truth is even grimmer and make it clear that any meaningful US strategy must focus on reinforcing the moderate rebel forces as well as dealing with the thugs within Assad’s power structure:
Government and pro-government forces have continued to conduct widespread attacks on the civilian population, committing murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearance as crimes against humanity. They have laid siege to neighbourhoods and subjected them to indiscriminate shelling. Government forces have committed gross violations of human rights and the war crimes of torture, hostage-taking, murder, execution without due process, rape, attacking protected objects and pillage.
Anti-government armed groups have committed war crimes, including murder, execution without due process, torture, hostage-taking and attacking protected objects. They have besieged and indiscriminately shelled civilian neighbourhoods.
Anti-government and Kurdish armed groups have recruited and used child soldiers in hostilities.
The perpetrators of these violations and crimes, on all sides, act in defiance of international law. They do not fear accountability. Referral to justice is imperative.
… The Government, including its intelligence agencies, employed widespread, systematic torture to interrogate, intimidate and punish its perceived opponents. Torture was used in detention centres, security branches, prisons and hospitals.
77. Previously reported torture methods remained in use across the country. Many of the victims interviewed carried visible scars consistent with their accounts and exhibited symptoms of psychological trauma.
78. Interviewees consistently identified Air Force Intelligence (AFI) as one of the worst perpetrators. In Hamah, AFI detainees were beaten upon arrest and tortured during interrogations. According to an AFI defector in Hamah, personnel who used torture faced no disciplinary measures.
79. Military Security interrogated those apprehended by the army and routinely used torture. One detainee, arrested in Dara’a city in mid-May, was released from Military Security three weeks later with a broken leg and multiple cigarette burns on his back. Another former detainee described being tortured in Military Security Branch 235.
80. Victims in these centres were subjected to previously undocumented torture methods. Military Intelligence officers used water torture, such as simulated drowning, at Branch 227. Detainees in the Al-Fehar Branch in Damascus were held in solitary confinement “squatting cells”, in which it was impossible to stand upright or lie down. One detainee was held in such conditions for 10 months, beaten daily, suspended by his wrists for 17 days, burned with cigarettes and subjected to electric shocks.
81. Where detainees were brought before Government courts in Aleppo city, they bore evident marks of torture, which were ignored by the judiciary.
82. Medical professionals at some military hospitals were co-opted into the maltreatment of hospitalized detainees.
83. Security and intelligence services operated detention centres within Abdul Gadir Al-Shagafi Military Hospital in Al-Waar, Homs, and at Al-Mezzeh Military Hospital in Damascus. Detainees were brought in bound and blindfolded. They were registered according to the number of the detaining authority. Security personnel guarded the detainees and acted as intermediaries between patient and doctor.
84. Cases were recorded of patients being tortured in these hospitals in coordination with various security branches. Patients were reportedly beaten in the guarded 14-bed ward of Al-Mezzeh Military Hospital.
85. The bodies of those tortured to death in Abdul Gadir Al-Shagafi Military Hospital and in State Security in Damascus were transferred to hospital morgues. Most bodies were not returned to their families. Some were returned to their family in exchange for a signed statement confirming that the victim had been killed by “terrorists”.
86. Multiple reports were received of beatings and ill-treatment at checkpoints and other points of arrest. Most victims were men accused of assisting the opposition, and they were often transferred to Military Security and tortured during interrogations. A man was arrested in January at a checkpoint in Khalidiyeh (Homs). He was detained until his death in June. His body was covered with injuries consistent with extensive beating and whipping.
87. Beatings were documented at the checkpoint at the entry of Dara’a, operated by Military Security, the checkpoint in Deir Baalbah operated by Political Security and at checkpoints along the Homs-Damascus highway, which contained short-term detention facilities where detainees were beaten prior to their transfer to the Military Intelligence, outside Masharah (Al-Qunaytirah) and in Al-Ashrafiyah (Aleppo).
88. Torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment were perpetrated by government forces as part of a widespread and systematic attack directed against a civilian population, pursuant to or in furtherance of an organizational policy. The involvement and active participation of government institutions indicated that torture was institutionalized and employed as a matter of policy. The crime against humanity of torture and cruel treatment was perpetrated with impunity by Syrian intelligence agencies, in particular Military and Air Force Intelligence, as well as the Military Security services. Such conduct is also prosecutable as a war crime.
89. Some anti-government armed groups mistreated and tortured persons in their custody. While such violations were committed in isolated instances, there are strong indications that such practices are on the rise.
90. In mid-May, members of a sharia committee in northern Aleppo city arrested and detained several activists following a peaceful demonstration, and subjected them to physical violence, including beating them on the soles of their feet.
91. Liwa Asifat Al-Shamal operated a 300-person capacity prison in Azaz (Aleppo) where, as a method of interrogation, detainees were put in a 1.5 m deep hole in the ground and covered with sheet metal for 48 hours.
92. On 19 July, the Saddam Hussein Battalion, part of the Liwa Al-Tawheed military police, beat and tortured a man using the dulab method.
93. Some anti-government armed groups perpetrated the war crime of torture. The infliction of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment is also a violation of international human rights law and humanitarian law.
…114. Across the country, the Government shelled civilian areas with artillery, mortars and rockets. Aerial bombardment by helicopters and jet fighters was common and, in some areas, a daily occurrence. Imprecise weaponry, such as surface-to-surface missiles and cluster munitions, was regularly used. Defectors indicated that there was a retributive element to some attacks, to “punish” civilians for the presence of armed groups.
115. Government forces continued to fiercely shell and bombard contested areas of strategic importance (see annex III for a description of the attack on Al Qusayr and the surrounding villages by government forces and Hezbollah).
116. Across Homs, shelling and bombardments have intensified since April. Civilian populations residing in Job Al-Jarrah, Houlaia, Al-Houlah, Al-Talif, Ain Tamora, Talkalakh, Dar Al-Kabirah, Al-Ghantu, Teir Maalah and opposition-controlled neighbourhoods in Homs city came under attack. In Al-Qaryatayn, shelling increased in April and became near-continuous in the days leading up to the ground attack of 24 June. On 18 May, in Al-Talif, a rocket landed in the house of a displaced family from Al-Houlah, killing a woman and her three children. Between 7 and 9 June, 22 civilians who had been internally displaced from other areas of Homs were killed by shells. In April, in eastern Homs, more than a dozen civilians attempting to flee towards Jordan were killed when a checkpoint shelled a truck.
117. Accounts received from those who fled western Homs countryside, particularly the Al Qusayr region, emphasized that the attacks had displaced the Sunni population. Most believed this to be a deliberate policy. The fact that some attacks were launched by Hizbullah and that many of the Government’s artillery positions were located within Shia villages led to a strong undercurrent of sectarianism in the interpretation of events by those who lived through them.
118. As civilians fled Homs into north-eastern Damascus, the shelling and bombardment of localities hosting internally displaced persons intensified. This occurred in Al-Nabak, Al-Qarah, Yabrud and Dayr Atiyah. Soldiers extorted money from civilians in these areas in exchange for a temporary cessation of the attacks. Government forces continued to shell and bombard areas south of Damascus city, including Darayya, Jbeb, Ramadan and Adra.
119. Between April and July, civilians in northern rural Hamah (Kafr Zita, Howija, Qalat Al-Madiq, Al-Hawash, Halfaya and Tremseh) came under sustained attack. Artillery shells were launched from army checkpoints and from within pro-government towns, such as Al-Suqaylabiyah. In Halfaya, the shelling presaged the ground attack by pro-Government forces of 19 May. Government forces also fired cluster munitions into Halfaya between 12 and 16 May.
120. Shelling and aerial bombardment, including the dropping of barrel bombs, continued in towns across northern Aleppo. Indiscriminate attacks were recorded in Mare’a, Azan, Anadan, Hreitan, Kafr Hamrah, Al-Atarib and Tal Rifat. Surface-to-surface missiles were widely used, resulting in many civilian casualties.
121. In Idlib towns where civilians remain, such as Taftanaz, Salqin and Jisr-Ash-Shughur, indiscriminate shelling by government forces caused excessive civilian casualties. Cluster munitions were used extensively in these areas.
122. In Dara’a, planes continued to bomb Dara’a city, notably the Tariq Asad area. Also shelled were Tafas, Inkhel, Al-Musayfrah, Nawa, Khirbet Ghazalah and Maarbeh.
123. The shelling and aerial bombardment of opposition-controlled areas of Dayr az Zawr city and Muhassan continued. Surface-to-surface missiles were fired on these locations, where civilians still resided. Similarly, in Ar Raqqah governorate, Ar Raqqah city and Al-Tabqah came under artillery and mortar fire, as well as barrel bombing. Attacks intensified in early June, with a corresponding increase in civilian casualties. In Al Hasakah governorate, Government forces shelled Al-Hamis and Zahiriya villages in March after they fell under opposition control.
124. Indiscriminate sniper fire resulted in civilian casualties, including children, in Aleppo and Dara’a cities.
125. Government forces conducted their military operations in flagrant disregard of the distinction between civilians and persons directly participating in hostilities. The Government should take greater precautions to protect civilians inside areas where military operations are conducted. Precautions include the use of more targeted weaponry and the cessation of use of barrel bombs, poorly-guided missiles and cluster munitions.
126. Government forces continued to position military objectives inside towns and villages, including Nubl and Zahra (Aleppo), Fou’a (Idlib) and Shia villages in south-western Homs, thus endangering the civilian population and violating international legal obligations. As the residents of these localities tend to be predominantly Shia, Alawite and Christian, such positioning contributed to rising sectarian tensions.
Anti-government armed groups
127. Armed groups continue to operate within civilian areas, violating international legal obligations to avoid positioning military objectives within or near densely populated areas. In several locations, including Kafr Zita (Hamah), Al-Qaryatayn (Homs) and Al-Nabak (Damascus), armed groups took care to base themselves away from the civilian population. Some fighters, however, including those in Aleppo city, live among civilians, exposing them to attack.
Horrible as the TV images of suffering from chemical weapons are they are no more horrible than BBC images of conventional attacks on civilians. And, quite frankly, we do not face a major risk of new chemical weapons proliferation. A number of nations almost certainly have chemical weapons regardless of whether they have signed and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, but only two other countries in the world present significant risks of building up their chemical warfare capabilities and actual use.
One of these two nations may not even be such a risk. Iran has signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and claims to have destroyed its inventory, but has not reported any real details. Moreover, Iran is a suspect biological weapons power and is moving toward a nuclear capability that provides a far more serious threat.
The other nation is North Korea. It has major stocks of such weapons but—quite frankly – it is not going to be deterred by what happens to Syria.
Removing Syria’s Chemical Weapons as a Form of Political Warfare
Singling out chemical weapons also almost ensures that any effort to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons will become a form of political warfare – in fact, it already has. Even the best resolution and enforcement attempts cannot stop Assad from benefiting from a stalling exercise that buys him time to use other weapons against the rebels, and lead most states to concentrate on chemical weapons rather than the overall impacts of the civil war.
If they are not part of a much broader strategy, they may end in preventing the President from meaningful efforts to support the rebels in ways that might bring a negotiated end to civil war. If they drag on and Assad can turn them into a political morass of confused positions, he may be able to either use such weapons of large-scale conventional attack on his population while building up even more political barriers to meaningful US strikes.
If Assad does fully comply, the US must put a major effort into narrow international efforts to deal with locating and verifying, securing, and destroying chemicals weapons. It means supporting an effort that US intelligence sources have reported involve some 34 sites, plus at least four production facilities.
The end result may be to make all involved dependent on Assad in ways that increase his authority in Syria as th US, UN, and all other outside states and bodies that participate in the international effort become indefinitely dependent on Assad’s compliance, on the security his regime provides to inspectors and their protection forces, and other forms of Syrian government support.
At a minimum, this means the President needs to act now to enforce stringent conditions for inspection, verification, protection of those involved, quick destruction by neutralization, and push for rapidly neutralizing or destroying such weapons and agents in unpopulated desert areas. The President should also follow any agreement by making it clear from the start that any serious violation will lead to immediate US strikes without a vote by Congress.
Focusing on Chemical Weapons May Not Produce Even Limited Strategic benefits
Moreover, the US needs to be realistic enough to understand that the real lesson that rogue states are likely learn from the present crisis -- almost regardless of what eventually happens to Syria’s chemical weapons – will not be to avoid proliferation. If anything, the real lesson will be to reinforce the past lessons from what happened to authoritarian and repressive leaders in Libya and Iraq: if you want to deter outside attacks, and intimidate those around you, go nuclear.
If such states can’t go nuclear, the lesson may be to acquire biological weapons. After all, the Biological Weapons Convention is little more than a hollow shell, There is no inspection, the effort to develop and produce weapons can be far smaller and easier to conceal, and the end result is far more lethal and intimidating than chemical weapons.
And if such states want to attack their own populations or other states without weapons of mass destruction, they may adopt lessons like shutting off water and power and halting food supplies, and using cyberwarfare and precision-guided, conventionally armed missiles as “weapons of mass effectiveness” that strike at their enemy’s critical infrastructure – including targets like desalination facilities.
It is Time to Focus on Real US Strategic Interests
Above all, the US needs to focus on the fact that US strategic interests are only loosely linked to the risk that new forms of chemical proliferation, and or the transfer of Syrian chemical agents will lead to attacks on the US or critical shifts in regional balances that affect key US interests. America’s real strategic interests are tied to the destabilizing impact of the civil war on Syria’s neighbors, the growing role of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, and the pressure on Iraq to join with Iran and Syria if Syria remains dependent on Iran.
They are tied to preventing division of the region’s Muslim states between a Syrian-Iraqi-Iranian bloc and the Arab Sunni states – creating a pattern of instability and growth in Iranian influence that threatens Israel and Turkey as well.
Our core strategic interests are tied to US ability to deter and contain Iran’s nuclear and other military efforts, to deter or win any conflict affecting the flow of Gulf oil exports and the global economy. They are tied to the now region-wide risks posed by the growing conflict between Sunni extremists and other sects, violence against non-Islamic minorities. They are tied to the risk that a still largely moderate Sunni rebel movement in Syria may be driven to extremism if Assad survives.
They are tied to the confidence our regional allies place in US commitment to their security. They are tied to the ability to work with regional allies that single out chemical weapons as a threat, but who see far broader threats to their strategic interests in terms of the stability in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey and the preservation of something approaching an Arab-Israel peace.
All of the states in the Middle East – friendly, neutral, or hostile --- have long put stability and security first. Like it or not, “international norms” in dealing with chemicals weapons have not prevented past incidents that showed Egypt and Israel were importing precursors and probably had stocks to deter each other and other local states.
Rhetoric aside, they all largely ignored Egypt’s use of mustard gas in Yemen, eight years of Iraqi use of chemical weapons in civilian areas like Halabja and on vastly larger scale in the battles for Faw in 1998. Iran is the only state to say chemical weapons were uniquely horrible and it still acquired them in response to Iraq’s attacks. Their concerns with weapons of mass destruction focus almost exclusively on nuclear proliferation.
Focusing on a Negotiated End to the Syrian Civil War
This means the President and the Congress need to shift America’s US main strategic focus, to aiding the rebels with the specific goal of trying to force a negotiated end to the conflict. Such a negotiation should be based on “de-thugging” the Assad side, “de-terrorizing” the rebel side, and “de-proxyizing” the role of outside volunteers.
- De-thugging means Assad and the worst leaders, supporters, military, and security personnel should be forced to leave or brought to trial without any of the mass purges of the competent and the innocent that took place in Iraq. It means keeping moderate Alawites, other minorities, and Sunni officials and officers to stay in place and share in Syria’s politics, governance, and military.
- De-terrorizing means that the rebels that are part of a negotiated peace are not violent extremists or terrorists, that power goes to now dominant moderate rebel factions, and that no foreign element linked to Al Qa’ida or any similar extremist group can gain power.
- De-proxying means forcing out the some 5,000 Hezbollah and Iranian “volunteers” that are linked to the Revolutionary Guards and Al Quds Force and three Alawite militia training centers. It means doing everything possible to halt Iranian and Russian arms transfers, and then halting all outside sources of arms and money to any armed faction other than the new government once any agreement is in place.
These are goals the US might have achieved relative easily at the peak of the rebel advance. Even now – for all the uncertainties involved -- US strategy should be to provide serious and sustained arms transfers to the rebels for the first time, provide them with funding, step up its humanitarian efforts and force USAID and others to show expenditures are properly used and the aid is effective.
This support, however, should be carefully focused and controlled in ways that avoid flows to extremist elements. The US should coordinate with Saudi Arabia and the UAE to ensure the rebels not only get funds and arms, but that all major donors only aid the moderate rebels, nothing goes to those who deny rights to Alawites and minorities, and that any advanced weapons like anti0tank guided missiles and air defense missiles have special controls. U.S. support should be structured to give both Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other friendly Arab states much more latitude in supporting the rebel groups that meet the same standards the US applies to supporting moderate rebel elements.
The US support should also be openly and clearly conditional. It should be provided on terms that state the US objectives are negotiations and a broadly based national government, and not a rebel victory per se. The US should make it clear it will end support to any rebel effort that does not recognize the need to reach agreement with those who have supported Assad out of necessity. It should be equally open in stating that the rebels must shape this outcome largely on their own and without US or other outside troops on the ground.
The US should push the Arab League and key Arab states to take a lead in pushing for such negotiations. It should work closely with our European allies to help achieve these ends and do so on a continuing basis. It should help develop broad international commit commitments to providing international aid to the right kind of post-negotiation Syrian government as an incentive to all sides. And, that the United States should seek to include Russia in such an effort, making it clear the Cold War is over, and that the US will not try to exclude Russia from playing a role in Syria.
There are no guarantees that such a US effort can now achieve a stable and secure Syria, or that the US can get all it wants. The odds are uncertain at best. But the US does need to show the world it has realistic and credible plans and strategies, that it can focus on the real strategic priorities of both the US and its allies, and that it is not paralyze by past mistakes and can act decisively enough to matter.
It is also all too clear that letting the civil war simply drag on without such a US effort will be far more of a humanitarian disaster, that American inaction will increase the threat to every ally in the region, and that American weakness and inconsistency will undercut our credibility and our ability to deter and limit future conflicts on a global level.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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