Saturday, July 28, 2012

Syrian wheel of fortune spins China's way


[This is my most recent piece for Asia Times.  It can be reposted if AT is credited and a link is included to the AT site.]

The question before the People's Republic of China (PRC) leadership is how badly it misplayed its hand on Syria. Or did it? Certainly, the solution advocated by Russia and China - a coordinated international initiative to sideline the insurrection in favor of a negotiated political settlement between the Assad regime and its domestic opponents - is a bloody shambles.

As articulated in the Annan plan, it might have been a workable, even desirable option for the Syrian people as well as the Assad regime.

But Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey were determined not to let it happen. And the United States, in another case of the Middle Eastern tail wagging the American dog, has downsized its dreams of liberal-democratic revolution for the reality of regime collapse driven in significant part by domestic thugs and opportunists, money and arms funneled in by conservative Gulf regimes, violent Islamist adventurism, and neo-Ottoman overreach by Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Erdogan.

But a funny thing happened last week. The Assad regime didn't collapse, despite an orchestrated, nation-wide assault (coordinated, we can assume, by the crack strategists of the international anti-Assad coalition): a decapitating terrorist bombing in the national security directorate, near-simultaneous armed uprisings in the main regime strongholds of Damascus and Aleppo, and the seizure of many of Syria's official border crossings with Iraq and Turkey.

The border adventures revealed some holes in the insurgents' game, as far as showing their ability to operate independently outside of their strongholds to hold territory, and in the vital area of image management.

Juan Cole of the University of Michigan laid out the big picture strategic thinking behind some of the border seizures on his blog, Informed Comment:
If the FSA can take the third crossing from Iraq, at Walid, they can control truck traffic into Syria from Iraq, starving the regime. The border is long and porous, but big trucks need metalled roads, which are few and go through the checkpoints. Some 70% of goods coming into Syria were coming from Iraq, because Europe cut off trade with the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad. The rebels are increasingly in a position to block that trade or direct it to their strongholds. [1]
According to an Iraqi deputy minister of the interior, the units that seized the border were perhaps not the goodwill ambassadors that the Syrian opposition or Dr Cole might have hoped for:
The top official said Iraqi border guards had witnessed the Free Syrian Army take control of a border outpost, detain a Syrian army lieutenant colonel, and then cut off his arms and legs.

"Then they executed 22 Syrian soldiers in front of the eyes of Iraqi soldiers." [2]
They reportedly also raised the al-Qaeda flag.

The forces participating in the operation at the Turkish border crossings were also an interesting bunch - and certainly not all local Syrian insurgents, as AFP reported:
By Saturday evening, a group of some 150 foreign fighters describing themselves as Islamists had taken control of the post.

These fighters were not at the site on Friday, when rebel fighters captured the post.

Some of the fighters said they belonged to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), while others claimed allegiance to the Shura Taliban. They were armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, rocket launchers and improvised mines.

The fighters identified themselves as coming from a number of countries: Algeria, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates - and the Russian republic of Chechnya… [3]
The operation also had a distinct whiff of Taliban-at-the-Khyber-Pass about it, as the fighters looted and, in some cases, torched more than two dozen Turkish trucks, to the embarrassment of the Erdogan government.

Aside from occupation of frontier posts by the kind of hardened foreign Islamist fighters that, before Bashar al-Assad's removal became a pressing priority, served as the West's ultimate symbol of terrorism run amok, things have gotten quite lively at the Syria/Turkish border.



It is alleged that, in order to fill the vacuum left by the departure of Syrian border forces to fight the insurgents in the heartland, the Syrian regime has turned over local security to Syrian Kurdish political groups, and Kurdish flags are flying all over Syria's northeast.

Not to be left out of the rumpus, the president of the virtually-independent region of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, announced that Syrian Kurd army deserters sheltering in northern Iraq have been organized into an expeditionary force that will, at the proper time, return home to keep order in the Kurdish areas of Syria.

Presumably the strongly pro-American Iraqi Kurds under Barzani can easily be induced to inflict mischief on Assad, but at the same time they will feel little incentive to minimize the Kurdish nationalist headache Erdogan has created for himself on Turkey's southeastern border. [4]

Now that the democratic opposition, the overseas agitators of the Syrian National Congress, and the insurrectionists of the Free Syrian Army have all taken their shot at the Assad regime and failed, at least for the time being, attention is once again turning to "the Yemen solution", a k.a. regime restructuring featuring the symbolic removal of an embattled strongman, lip service toward democratic reform, and the continuation of business as usual under a selected junta of more palatable regime strongmen.

Or, as the Syrian National Council put it on July 24:
"We would agree to the departure of Assad and the transfer of his powers to a regime figure, who would lead a transitional period like what happened in Yemen," SNC spokesman Georges Sabra told AFP. [5]
The SNC's statement found a prompt echo from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, according to Xinhua:
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to plan a political transition in his violence-plagued country. "We do believe that it is not too late for the al-Assad regime to commence with planning for a transition, to find a way that ends the violence by beginning the kind of serious discussions that have not occurred to date," Clinton told reporters … [6]
It is perhaps unnecessary to mention that for the last few months the groups steadfastly opposed to any "serious discussions" have been the anti-Assad coalition and the SNC, while Assad, backed by Russia and China, has been gamely attempting to cobble together a loyal opposition with sufficient heft to credibly discuss political reform.

But all of a sudden, it seems not everyone is singing from the same hymnal:
Earlier Tuesday, some Western media reported that SNC spokesman George Sabra said the main opposition group was willing to accept a transition led temporarily by a member of the current government if President Bashar al-Assad agrees to step down.

"This is an utter lie. Neither Mr. Sabra nor Ms. Kodmani has made these statements," SNC European foreign relations coordinator Monzer Makhous told Russia's Interfax news agency, referring to Bassma Kodmani, the SNC's head of foreign relations.

Makhous said the opposition would not agree to accept talks with the Assad government as "no persons associated with murders of the Syrian people could participate in the talks." [7]
It remains to be seen how the AFP or Secretary Clinton - or, for that matter, the unhappy spokesman Georges Sabra - respond to this rebuke.

One catches hints of a possible disconnect between Gulf-state intransigence (which has driven the "Assad must go" rhetoric of the last year and a half") and US and EU dreams of a quick, face-saving resolution along the lines of Yemen.

A "Yemen solution" would probably also be acceptable to Russia and China. Instead of Syria becoming a pro-Western/Sunni dagger aimed at the heart of Shi'ite Iraq and Iran, it would instead become a dysfunctional, expensive, and bloody liability for the West and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

In other words, just like Yemen.

There are, however, problems with the Yemen precedent for Syria that go beyond the unwillingness of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to settle for anything less than a triumphal march into a conquered Damascus.

The key event in the "Yemen solution" was President Saleh getting blown up in his palace mosque. Although he wasn't killed, he was injured badly enough that he was removed from the scene for several months as he underwent medical treatment, allowing a new crew in the presidential palace to undertake the transition.

The anti-Assad coalition had worse luck with the bomb in Damascus; Assad was not present at the meeting, he is still the face of the Syrian regime, and his inconvenient presence makes it more difficult for the international community to claim victory in principle while allowing the regime to survive in practice.

There's another problem with the Yemen solution; although there are continued news reports, leaks, and analyses - and, most recently, a proposal by the Arab League - ballyhooing the idea that Assad can receive immunity from prosecution for crimes against humanity under the International Criminal Court if he agrees to leg it to Russia, there is no way for the coalition to provide a convincing guarantee to him, let alone his family and associates under the current state of affairs.

The fact is, the entire purpose of the Treaty of Rome, which set up the International Criminal Court, was to prevent this sort of sordid deal-cutting.

In practice the ICC is something of an unhappy mutant. Its fundamental premise of "universal jurisdiction" - the idea that bad guys could be prosecuted in the courts of any member country - was undermined by the United States and other countries not to keen to see their political and military supremos vulnerable to prosecution in some remote do-goodery or hostile jurisdiction.

The result was an unwieldy two-tier system. Those states with a masochistic desire to permit other nations to interfere in their criminal affairs ratified the treaty, becoming "states parties". Within this exclusive club, universal jurisdiction reigns.

States that merely signed the treaty - "non states parties" - are not subject to universal jurisdiction. Their miscreants can only be brought to justice by the consent of their own governments or if the UN Security Council decided that the overriding demands of international security merited the opening of a prosecution.

This was still not enough for the United States, which took the ungraceful step of "unsigning" the Treaty of Rome.

Yemen had placed itself in the exalted company of the United States by also "unsigning" the treaty in 2007, so a successor regime has no immediate recourse to the ICC and ex-president Saleh's fate is in the sympathetic hands of the United States and the rest of the UN Security Council.
Just to be safe, the Yemeni transitional government went the extra mile of granting irrevocable immunity (binding on future, perhaps less friendly governments) to Saleh and his aides.

Ironically (or predictably) the Yemen solution has short-changed the law-and-democracy friendly opposition we supposedly cared so much about, in favor of placing a new, tractable regime (best described as the old regime sans Saleh) in power.

This does not sit well with Tawakkul Karman, a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011for her brave pro-democracy and women's-rights activism in Yemen. She has been fruitlessly calling on the UNSC to direct the ICC to open a prosecution of Saleh. After a visit to The Hague, she met with a reporter from AFP:
Because Yemen has not signed the court's founding treaty, the Rome Statute, the only way the prosecutor could launch an investigation is if the United Nations Security Council tells him to.

"This is unfair," Karman said on the steps of the court's headquarters. "They have to find a new way to bring everyone who is killing his people to here, to this building." [8]
However, in the matter of ICC jurisdiction, Syria recapitulates Libya and C๔te d'Ivoire, not Yemen.

Libya had signed but not ratified the treaty; so it took a UN Security Council resolution to place Muammar Gaddafi and his family and associates within the jurisdiction of the ICC while they were still in power.

Syria is in the same boat - a signer but not a ratifier. With the current regime in place, it would indeed take a UN Security Council resolution to get Assad and his associates on the hook for war crimes under an ICC prosecution, and that simply isn't going to happen.

However, if Assad were to leave power, a successor regime in Syria can issue a declaration submitting itself to ICC jurisdiction retroactively, in order to cover crimes against humanity committed by prior leaders back to the date of the court's establishment in 2002.

That, indeed, is what happened in C๔te d'Ivoire, when the current government has turned over the former president, Laurent Gbagbo, to the ICC for prosecution for crimes against humanity allegedly committed while he tried to cling to power following a lost election in 2010. [9]

Given the intense rancor surrounding the bloody crackdown in Syria and the crimes against humanity that were undoubtedly committed, it would appear extremely difficult for the international coalition to offer a convincing assurance that a victorious opposition (which, in addition to rebels bought and paid for by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, also includes a large number of principled and righteously and rightfully incensed Syrians) would not, as its first order of business, call on the ICC to prosecute quite a few leaders of the previous regime for crimes against humanity.

This was a point made by Navi Pillay, head of the UN Human Rights Commission. Reportage at the time characterized Pillay as gratuitously adding complications that would make it harder to cut a deal with Assad, but she was simply making a statement of fact.

So the offer to allow Assad to go into exile with a promise of immunity is unlikely to sway him, his backers in Russia and China, or the military and security officers nervously regarding the red harvest of judicial and extra-judicial revenge that would follow any regime overthrow.

With the Syrian regime proving resistant to a quick collapse, and anti-Assad sentiment within the regime stifled by fear of victor's justice, what's Plan B?

It seems to be Send in the Clowns.

In other words, find an ex-regime figurehead who is at least superficially palatable to the Syrian populace and sufficiently obedient to the foreign coalition, and can also persuade the Assad regime that his first act will be to push a bill through the (presumably unrepresentative, hand-picked, and tractable) transitional legislature granting a graceful exit to Assad and amnesty to his associates (aside from some carefully-chosen scapegoats) from prosecution for their past crimes in the name of reconciliation.

(It should be noted in passing that the ICC is not supposed to recognize this kind of legislated impunity and the victims of Assad and the Ba'ath regime would still have the right to apply to the ICC prosecutor to open a case, but presumably this can be finessed.) [10]

The initial candidate for the exalted role of transition leader is Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, who fled Syria amid widespread huzzahs a few weeks ago.

Tlass has been literally grooming himself for his role as popular leader for months, growing out his military haircut into a heroic Byronic mane prior to his defection.

His photographic prop is a big cigar, presumably to reinforce the image of manly leadership, and he issued a post-defection statement describing how his patriotic qualms concerning the Assad regime's brutal counter-insurgency operations had led to his sidelining from the military chain of command (and fortuitously exonerating him from implication in the worst excesses of regime forces).

He is also, apparently, France's great hope for clout in Syria, as this priceless excerpt from the Christian Science Monitor reveals:
Now, Mustafa [his father] and Tlass's sister, Nahed Ojjeh, are living in Paris, where Ms. Ojjeh is a prominent socialite who once dated a former French foreign minister.

"France has a longstanding relationship with the Tlass family, going back to the 1980s. Manaf's sister … throws lavish dinner parties and infiltrated the French political and media elites," says Mr. Bitar. "When she became the mistress of a foreign minister, there was a national security risk for France, but the president then chose to turn a blind eye because he felt there was need for backchannel diplomacy between France and the Assad regime.

"Given these old ties, France today might be thinking of grooming Manaf Tlass and counting on him to play an important role in the post-Assad transition phase." [11]
Manaf Tlass is the foppish scion of a family of mysteriously wealthy and allegedly fornicating emigres and, by Syrian army standards, also a lightweight, owing his rank to his father, who once served as Assad's Minister of Defense. Despite that, he is emerging as Saudi Arabia's favored candidate as figurehead for the new Syria. Perhaps this is because Tlass, with his embrace of non-Islamist financial and moral values, would present a reassuring secularist face to the West while at the same time serving as a compliant accessory to Gulf interests.

However, Qatar appears comfortable with another high-level defector, one who also happens to be Sunni (as is Tlass), but was an important cog in the Assad machine and has hands-on experience with the nitty gritty of restoring order in a violent and dangerous set of circumstances.

The man is Nawaff al-Faris, formerly Syria's ambassador to Iraq. According to an interlocutor communicating with the As'ad AbuKhalil's Angry Arab blog, Ambassador Nawaff is quite a piece of work, having earned his bones with the Ba'ath regime as battalion commander during the legendary Hama massacre of 1982, the action that routed the Muslim Brotherhood from Syria at the cost of around 20,000 lives in that one city:
"I know about this man, nawaf al-faris, the defecting ambassador of syria to iraq, from the ... the hama area. Hama people remember him well. He was commanding one of the battallions that committed atrocities there in 1982, and i heard it from hama and halab older people (now dead) that he personally threw 16 young boys youngest was 6, from the the rooftop of a building before their parents' eyes.

…he was very close to the regime, as much as the tlass clan, except that he commands a larger following among bedouins in the euphrates area…his flight through qatar, rather than turkey, means that the qataris have big plans for him in post-assad syria. you will hear his name again. a very very dirty and cruel man." [12]
Nawaff might be a good choice in the eyes of Qatar, but installing one of the butchers of Hama would presumably not be the kind of Arab Spring triumph that the West is looking for in Syria. So perhaps the search will continue for a more suitable candidate, while hoping that the remorseless grind of violence, sanctions, and anger will finally crack the power of the Assad regime.

However, when we talk about "events spinning out of control in Syria" we can also take it as a reference to the international game plan for Syria. Indirectly enabling regime collapse through a disorderly collection of guerillas is no substitute for sending in a big, shiny army to occupy the capital and dictate events.

The longer regime collapse is delayed, the greater the risk that important elements of the insurrection might slip the leash, start fighting with each other as well as against Assad, and contribute to the creation of a failed state where Syria used to be.

Therefore, even as international support for the insurgency escalates, the anti-Assad coalition finds it particularly frustrating that China and Russia have refused to vote for escalated UN Security Council sanctions that, under the pretext of supporting the moribund Annan peace initiative, might expedite the collapse of the Syrian regime.

For all the principled talk by Russia and China concerning non-interference and the right of the people of Syria to control their destiny, it is difficult to escape the inference that they are not particularly unhappy with the current turn of events.

After the West rounded on China and Russia for vetoing another round of sanctions against Syria, Beijing shrugged off the criticism.

People's Daily approvingly reproduced a Global Times editorial that stated:
China also opposes the UN Security Council openly picking sides in Syria's internal conflict. It insists that the Syrians should seek a political solution through their own negotiations.

This is a bottom line that must be upheld so as to prevent the West from overthrowing any regime at will. [13]
Bashar al-Assad is doing a pretty good job of staying in power and crushing the insurrection. The longer he is able to cling to power, the more shattered and divided Syria becomes - and the less useful it is to the West and the Gulf states as a proxy warrior in the battle with Shi'ite Iraq and Iran.

Notes:
1. Syrian Rebellion Enters new Stage with Aleppo, Border operations, Informed Comment, Jul 22, 2012.
2. Syria rebels 'control all Iraq border points', AFP on Google, Jul 20, 2012.
3. Turkish truck drivers accuse rebel fighters of looting, AFP on Google, Jul 22, 2012.
4. Iraqi Kurds train their Syrian brethren, Aljazeera, Jul 23, 2012.
5. Syria rebels would accept transition led by regime figure, Hurriyet Daily News, Jul 24, 2012.
6. Clinton urges Syria's Assad to plan political transition, Xinhua, Jul 25, 2012.
7. Syria opposition denies reports on forming coalition government, Xinhua, Jul 24, 2012.
8. Yemen's Nobel laureate calls for ICC trial for Saleh, Tehran Times, Nov 29, 2011.
9. Gbagbo's ICC Transfer Advances Justice, Human Rights Watch, Nov 29, 2011.
10. Yemen: Amnesty for Saleh and Aides Unlawful, Human Rights Watch, Jan 23, 2012.
11. As blast rattles Syrian regime, defecting general reemerges in France, Christian Science Monitor, Jul 18, 2012.
12. Meet the defector: the Syrian ambassador Nawwaf Al-Faris and the Hamah massacre of 1982, Angry Arab News Service, Jul 12, 2012.
13. West wrong on Chinese public's Syria view, People's Daily, Jul 23, 2012.

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