Changing Assad’s calculus

By David Rohde
May 23, 2013

A deserted street with building destroyed by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad , near Aleppo International airport, May 20, 2013. REUTERS/Nour Kelze

AMMAN, Jordan – Secretary of State John Kerry and 10 European and Arab foreign ministers gathered here Wednesday night to again talk about helping Syria’s rebels.

As the international community discussed “grand strategy,” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was taking decisive action.

With the help of thousands of fighters from Hezbollah, Iran and Iraq, he was close to achieving some of his largest military gains in two years.

Kerry played down Assad’s military advances as “very temporary.” In truth, the Syrian leader and his foreign backers are gaining the upper hand in the conflict.

The Syrian opposition is in disarray; approving a major American military intervention is politically impossible in post-Iraq Washington; and a rift between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has slowed their delivery of weaponry to the rebels. Diplomatically, Washington’s key interlocutor is Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, one of Assad’s primary international defenders.

One key factor favors Assad’s survival. Assad, his Allawite allies, Hezbollah and Iran are “all-in” inside Syria. They are hurling vast amounts of manpower, weaponry and money into the fight.

On the other side, supporters of Syria’s rebels are still trying to decide just how much assistance to offer. There is a strategy, but it is incremental.

The American “grand strategy” is threefold. First, increase military aid to the rebels, but not American aid.

Last month in Istanbul, Saudi Arabia and Qatar promised additional military assistance to Brigadier General Selim Idris, the military leader of moderate Syrian opposition forces. They also pledged to curtail their support to the hard-line Islamist fighters who now dominate the opposition on the ground in Syria.

A senior State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the Saudis and Qataris appear to be keeping their word. They have supplied weaponry to Idris’s force and their shipments to hard-line Islamists appear to be slowing.

“Indicators are good,” the official said, “but we want to see more.”

Meanwhile, American diplomats are trying to unite Syria’s fractious opposition. Since the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, resigned last month, the group has struggled to name a leader. In Syria, the Istanbul-based coalition is still regarded as ineffectual.

This week, the opposition council will expand from 60 representatives to between 90 and 100 members. This larger group will then choose a prime minister and other leaders.

Finally, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov will host peace talks next month in Geneva. Theoretically, the opposition will be more militarily powerful and politically united.

At the same time, Russian officials have said that Assad’s prime minister, Wael al-Halqi, will attend peace talks in Geneva. The United States has also quietly dropped its objections to Iran being allowed to have some role in the talks.

In a best-case scenario, increased military support for the rebels and Russian pressure force will force Assad to bargain seriously.  The centrifugal forces now unraveling Syria – sectarian tensions, jihadist fighters and foreign funding – will ebb.

“We don’t need more proof that now is the time to act,” Kerry said in his opening statements at the talks here. “What we need to do is act.”

American officials agree that their strategy depends on changing Assad’s calculation. “The balance of power on the ground must change,” said the senior State Department official.

Given the extent of support Assad is receiving from his allies, that appears unlikely. Hezbollah fighters are playing a crucial role in the battle to take the strategic town of Qusayr. Iranians are now advising Syrian government units in Qusayr and around Damascus. Members of Iraqi Shia militias are fighting alongside Assad’s forces in several battles.

Assad and the Iranians are winning. If the Obama administration and its European and Arab allies want to defeat Assad, they must increase military aid to the rebels now.

For the last two years, Washington and its allies have carried out, in essence, a half intervention. Enough aid is provided to the rebels to prolong the conflict but not enough for them to defeat Assad.

If the Obama administration and its allies are not going to decisively back the rebels, their talk of assistance should end. More empty rhetoric simply prolongs the bloodshed.

PHOTO (Insert A): Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh (L), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C), and British Foreign Secretary William Hague (R) attend the Friends of Syria alliance meeting in Amman May 22, 2013. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

PHOTO (Insert B): Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad gestures during an interview with journalists from Argentina in Damascus in handout photograph from Syria’s national news agency SANA on May 18, 2013. SANA/Handout via Reuters

PHOTO (Insert C): Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a joint news conference after meeting in Moscow, May 7, 2013. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

 

 

 

12 comments

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“On the other side, supporters of Syria’s rebels are still trying to decide just how much assistance to offer. There is a strategy, but it is incremental.”

This is a lie. Without massive assistance to insurgents this fake rebellion would’ve been over long time ago. Qatar, Saud Arabia, Turkey have poured billions in terms of Weapons, logistic support, terrorists and cash into this adventure.

There is no proof that Iranians are fighting. But Turkish, Saudis, Saad Harriri militants, Chechens, Lybians, Tunisians, Afghans have been killed and arrested fighting in Syria. French, Britain, Turkish special forces have been arrested in Syria. The release of Iranians pilgrims involved a deal to free Nato special forces arrested by the Syrian army.

Hezbollah has an obligation to support Lebanese who have lived in villages around Qusair and in Qusair for years and who were being slaughered by al Nusra terrorists. 8,000 Christians living in Qusair fled the wrath of these Islamic terrorists. That did not concern Western Journalists and leaders. The notion that Al Nusra can be in Syria fighting the goverment but Hezbollah can’t assist its long time ally is absurd.

“Assad and the Iranians are winning. If the Obama administration and its European and Arab allies want to support the rebels, they must do so now.”

This sounds like Nutyahoo talking. How about Assad and Russians are winning? Or Assad and the Syrian people are winning since 70% of Syrians support their army and government?

The Obama administration helped these fake rebels more than any Regime-change operation the US has been involved in but the Syrian army turned out to be a tough nut to crack. The sensible thing to do now is to stop spilling innocent lives for nothing.

“For the last two years, Washington and its allies have carried out a half-intervention.”

Now you admit it was “half-intervation” by Washington and its allies and not “a peaceful demonstration repressed by a brutal dictator”

Instead of beating around the bush just spell it out that you want a “full” US military intervention on behalf of Israel.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

> “More empty rhetoric will prolong the bloodshed.”
— Precisely my concern. Thank you for filling in the blanks in my understanding, to highlight a potential road-map to resolution. It’s so important to believe in the best-case scenario at the same time as preparing for the worst!

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

You state “If the Obama administration and its allies are not going to decisively back the rebels, their talk of assistance should end. More empty rhetoric simply prolongs the bloodshed.”

By the rhetoric of your article, I assume this derisive comment is aimed at increasing our military involvement in Syria.

You are wrong!

This nation needs to get involved in Syria about as much as we needed to become involved in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Do we EVER learn ANYTHING from our multitudinous foreign policy mistakes?

WHAT WE NEED TO DO IS GET OUT, AND NOW, BEFORE WE MANAGE TO BLUNDER ONCE AGAIN AND CAUSE ANOTHER MAJOR WAR!

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

Rohde, get off your high horse. Go write a book or learn to read Russian or something.

A half-intervention, indeed. Is that like a half-penetration?

Qatar, the Turks and the Saudis have been doing all they can for the past two years to get rid of Assad. They’ve been huffin’ and puffin’, trying to blow his house down. If they can’t it’s because he has more of the citizenry behind him. And who are you to tell people who should govern them?

Posted by pyanitsa | Report as abusive

It’s obvious that Mr.Rhode and his ilk are part of the non-lethal assistance being given to al Nusra and the contras

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

Since the rebels do not have clear ideology that is anti-Muslim radical. The West does not have too mush reason to support either side, except in absence of anti-terrorist, the best can hoped for is weakening the area through internal wars. In which we should support the losing side which ever it is with short range weapons only.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

Unless aside plans to have anti-terrorist and anti-terrorist religion. It is to the the West advantage to to support things tending to give the area bad government or better still no government and depopulation. In sort at lest divide them even if you do not want rule them as long as they are likely to be an enemy.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

This U.S. policy is the classic Obama approach to governing and policy: passive and play-it safe politically and otherwise. People say it’s unwise for the U.S. to get involved because our weapons and help will end up with radicals, yet it was the very lack of U.S. help that empowered and enabled the radicals, since the Syrian rebels had no where else to turn for assistance. People have been pointing out the need for more U.S. help for years now, but Obama has just twiddled his thumbs and hid behind Russia and China’s opposition to international action against the Assad government. The Syrians deserve to have a voice in their own government, not a never-ending family oligarchy. Russian and Chinese despots don’t want more democracy: they’re afraid it will infect the masses in their own countries and that they won’t be able to stop it. That’s why it’s in their own selfish interests to squelch the rebels’ demands for Assad’s ouster. Unfortunately, I’m not reassured by John Kerry, who comes across as a major b.s-er.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

“The Syrians deserve to have a voice in their own government, not a never-ending family oligarchy.”

You don’t Know and don’t care what the Syrians deserve. A “never-ending family oligarchy” has ruled Saud Arabia longer. Maybe the US should start by attacking it first. like in Egypt, the job would be easier and less bloodier to American soldiers.

“Russian and Chinese despots don’t want more democracy: they’re afraid it will infect the masses in their own countries and that they won’t be able to stop it.”

Again the US is the protector of Saudi despots. Why not start democracy in Saud Arabia where the US has influence? Democracy in Saud Arabia would have a powerful domino effect and would certainly infect the masses globally more than in Syria.

The people of Bahrain also are demanding democracy. Why is the US/Obama not rushing to their rescue?

You don’t care about the people and democracy in the ME. You only care about hegemony and oil. If you cared about the people in the ME you would not support the tyrannical regimes in Saud Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, UEA, Oman….

Do you really think that there would be democracy in Syria with the Muslim Brotherhood or you’re just trying to fool people as usual?

The truth is the US is the biggest supporter of despotic regimes. It only turns against them when they stop or refuse to serve its interests.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

Kissinger stated all an insurgent had to was not loose to win.

IMHO that applies when an insurgent is attacking a western government.

This is an Islamic conflict, in an Islamic state. For Assad and his administration to loose, they must be physically driven from power, and out of the state, or the insurgents have achieved only the carnage that is now Syria.

Assad may leave power at the end of his term as a sop to peace. The Allawite administration will keep the reigns of power after his departure in any peace deal, or there will be no deal.

They have Damascus, Hezbollah, Tehran, and MOSCOW. A deal they will accept or no deal is where the process is headed. At the moment every day wasted talking about talking favors Assad’s Administration.

We have seen two years of Stalingrad, the Insurgents do not seem to be able to master any other tactics.

Assad’s seem to be changing, instead of reacting to the Insurgents and fighting their ridiculously expensive (In Human life’s) urban war. He appears to be taking the initiative and returning to tactics of Territory (and also possibly ethnic cleansing).

The Insurgents need a Cease fire so they can regroup or thousands of tons of weapons. They will get neither if the can not swiftly heal their political disunity.

Posted by nzl-kz7 | Report as abusive

Assad is nothing but the chieftain of the Alawi tribe, and he would have been dead, in prison, or in exile now, had it not been for the help he gets from Hezbollah’s mercenaries, who are handsomely paid by the regime in Tehran.
Why has Putin gotten so deeply engaged with the Alawi tribe is a mystery, since Russia has nothing to gain from it in the real world, and much to lose.

Posted by reality-again | Report as abusive

“Why has Putin gotten so deeply engaged with the Alawi tribe is a mystery, since Russia has nothing to gain from it in the real world, and much to lose.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-1 8642032

Gives a simple explanation.

Remember Putin and his FSB buddies have more power than any other leadership Russian History.

Polit (sp) Bureau Member’s had more power than the Tzars Boyars, Putin’s FSB buddies Make the
PB Member’s look like new born Kittens.

Posted by nzl-kz7 | Report as abusive