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Syria: Is the answer Diplomacy or War?

by John Brian Shannon | October 31, 2015

The only good thing to come out of the Syrian situation has been the organized removal of chemical weapons from the country

No doubt, tiny numbers of chemical warheads are in the hands of extremist groups who stole them from the Syrian Army at some point over the past 30 years. And it is possible that the Syrian Army has small numbers of such weapons that they can’t presently retrieve because they are well hidden in abandoned bases or in regions of the country now controlled by ISIS or other terror groups.

Regardless, the removal of most of Syria’s chemical weapons is by far the best success story to come out of the whole Syrian situation.

Something to build on. Except that nobody has…

Which is a shame. Because had the path of (careful, quiet, but firm) diplomacy continued, we might not have ever seen a Syrian civil war. Or if we did, it would’ve amounted to a number of small skirmishes, and only that.

SCUD missile destroys neighbourhood near Aleppo, Syria.

A man at a site hit by what activists say was a SCUD missile in Aleppo’s Ard al-Hamra neighborhood. Photo dated February 23, 2013. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman

State Department policy makers and Pentagon war strategists knew that going to war against Iraq in 2003 would create a huge number of refugees that would flee to neighbouring states, including Syria.

The fact that there *is* now an ISIS (or ISIL) was no surprise to them, these are eventualities in every war. Refugees will flee to countries in the region and tell their stories to the locals. Which generates anger and thoughts of revenge.

In WWII, this led to many underground groups operating (heroically) to fight their Nazi oppressors.

In the Iraq War (and since) this led to the formation of a multitude of (wrong-headed) groups being formed with names like ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the Levant in order to fight their perceived oppressors.

Syria was already the most fertile ground in the region to produce a cadre of anti-Western fighters and anti-Assad-regime fighters. Ergo, the rise of terror groups in Syria and a two-track war (from the point of view of the terrorists) was inevitable. One track being dedicated to the fight against the coalition that invaded Iraq and the other track dedicated to the overthrow of Bashar Al-Assad.

These things were and are utterly predictable and foreseen by the State Department and the Pentagon.

What has been lacking are policies to deal with the eventualities of the Iraq War

Due to the power vacuum that created the right conditions to enable five years of Syrian civil war, Russia, Iran, and now Iraq, cobbled together a (mostly military) response to the disaster in Syria which has some Americans angry at their news channel.

However, before a coherent Syria policy can be devised by the United States, some questions need answers:

  1. Is the United States the world’s policeman?
  2. Should the U.S. get involved in every internecine squabble in the world?
  3. Can the U.S. afford that?
  4. Is that what taxpayers are paying for?
  5. Does the U.S. belong in Syria?
  6. Does fighting Muslim terrorists only create more terrorists?
  7. And does fighting Muslim terrorists only convince them to look with renewed vigor at the U.S. as a target?

It should be a major topic of discussion by 2016 presidential candidates as the answers to those questions will determine U.S. policy in the region for the next decade (at least) and will affect everything from the economy (Iraq War $1 trillion, for one example) to (potentially) civil unrest in the U.S.A. (see: Vietnam protest movement of the 60’s and 70’s) to America’s future standing in the world.

Situations like we see in Syria are not something a president can dispatch 10 military helicopters to solve over the course of a weekend.

Indeed, Syria is in such disarray and there are so many variables there that the best U.S. policy might be complete non-involvement by the U.S. — as every other option is almost certainly worse.

Of course, there are some U.S citizens who would approve without further ado, another $1 trillion dollar war bill, another 5000 U.S. military dead, and another generation of America-haters bent on destruction of the U.S.A.

These people fall into two broad groups:

  • The do-gooders, who want peace, democracy, and freedom to one day flourish in Syria — they want to see Syria as the next Costa Rica or UAE. (Wouldn’t that be nice? Yes!)
  • The war-economy people, who think that any war is good for the overall economy and for the largest number of Americans, even though comparatively small numbers of military people may get killed or maimed in battle.

On those two broad groups, I think both camps are naive people who’ve not had the chance to travel the world and see what it is really like, nor have ever served their country in a combat role, nor have any experience in international relations. The fact that they are likely to be incredibly patriotic citizens, is a different matter altogether.

And there are the people who think the U.S. should pursue a course of non-involvement in Syria and those people too, fall into their own two groups:

  • Those who feel that the U.S. should return to being a near-isolationist nation and that the Executive and the Government should expend their efforts on the domestic economy and other domestic issues.
  • Those who feel that Syria is a no-win-situation for the U.S. and see it for the moneypit that it could represent to America.

On those two similar groups, I think that isolationism can work well in the short term. However, history shows us that after only one decade of an isolationist posture it begins to work against America’s best interests and for that reason should only be invoked for ten years per century at the most. As for U.S. involvement in Syria to continue being a no-win situation, I think there is only a remote chance to pull success out of the epic disaster that is Syria.

To summarize my view of the entire Syrian situation, let me say this; If there is a return to the long term, careful, quiet, but firm diplomacy — of a kind that worked to allow most of Syria’s chemical weapons to be removed and destroyed without firing a shot — then we might see the chances for successful U.S. involvement in Syria rise past 50 percent. Otherwise it’s a losing proposition for the U.S.A. with zero chance for a win by any metric whatsoever

But even a qualified success requires that a president have a significant mandate from voters, support within the State Department, the Pentagon, and a good relationship with the various partner nations poised to assist in the rebuilding of Syria.

Without all of that, even a U.S. president with the best of intentions has no chance of pulling a success out of the Syrian situation. And I think that’s what we’re seeing. A U.S. president who knows what to do, it’s just that not everyone is there yet.

How do I know that?

Let’s look at the building blocks that have been placed in and around Syria in recent years:

BB1: The first ‘building block’ of a successful Middle East policy for the U.S. was the removal of American combat troops from Iraq.

BB2: The second ‘building block’ was the successful program to remove chemical weapons from Syria and its success is almost unprecedented.

(Yes, Moammar Ghadaffi gave up his WMD’s and was promptly killed for his good deed — not a good precedent for similar diplomatic initiatives in the future. And yet, in spite of that terrible precedent, the Obama Administration was able to secure the Syrian chemical weapons deal. And now Bashar Al-Assad is ‘under fire’ literally and politically, for his good deed. Such obscene precedent-setting in the case of Moammar Ghadaffi and Bashar Al-Assad is not conducive to other world leaders giving up their WMD’s in the future — something many people would like to see happen within their lifetimes)

BB3: The third ‘building block’ was a successful nuclear deal with Iran.

BB4: The fourth ‘building block’ must now be a lowering of the rhetoric surrounding the Syrian situation and a return to consensus-building between all of the interested parties — and that must occur without any preconditions, save for the safety of the negotiating teams.

(Preconditions such as removal of Bashar Al-Assad from power are non-starters. Regardless of his actions, he is still the democratically-elected leader of Syria and that country is fully engulfed in civil war. Until such times as he loses an election and refuses to step down, we have no legal case to be in the country except by invitation)

BB5: The fifth ‘building block’ must be a high-level diplomatic push by all interested parties. If former President Jimmy Carter were in better health I would nominate him to lead the American team, and I suggest that the Russians would respond with their best retired diplomat to lead their team.

All other diplomatic teams too, must be led by high level retired diplomats of the highest calibre — ones that have long ago surpassed the desire for media accolades or career advancement. It’s time to ‘get it right’ it’s not the time to ‘use the present situation to get a better career posting’.

I’m only half-joking when I say that all of these diplomats should be locked away in a conference centre in Geneva or Istanbul and not let out until they have arrived at the best plan to save Syria as a viable nation-state, save the Syrian people from five more years of horror, return the Syrian economy to a steady-state and restore Syria to a place of good standing among the nations.

I believe that President Obama has been quietly ahead of everyone on all of this and has put the ‘building blocks’ in place right under everyone’s noses. His only limitations are the people he must work through in order to accomplish these things. And he has limited time, as January 20, 2017 will be his last day in office.

Those who seek confrontation with Syria, Iran, Russia (or any country) are operating at the lowest-common-denominator level (to put it politely) and have no concept whatsoever of what it takes to build a safe, prosperous, and interdependent world order (that is also) compatible with American values.

A safe, prosperous, and interdependent world order is the obvious goal for humankind. Therefore, all of our policies and actions must always be in accordance with our mission otherwise we will without doubt, fail as a species.

And that, my friends, is where we are today.

Syria: A Meeting of the Minds – or Five More Years of War?

by John Brian Shannon | September 27, 2015

A unique opportunity presents itself tomorrow when President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia addresses the UN General Assembly and later meets with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Syrian Crisis Map 2015. Image courtesy of the UNHCR.

Syrian Crisis Map 2015. Image courtesy of the UNHCR.

The question on everyone’s mind is;
Will that *opportunity* turn into an *action plan* that lowers the death toll, casualties, and displacement of Syrian citizens?

Certainly it would look like a Win-Win for both President Putin and President Obama if they put their political differences aside and announce a plan forward — one that involves working together to ‘beat back’ the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) to the point that it no longer threatens the sovereignty of Syria, its long-suffering citizens and neighbouring countries.

Presidents need successful outcomes in order to accrue political capital to boost their political momentum — which they can then use to further their foreign or domestic policy goals.

But for President Putin it is especially important to make the most of this opportunity as the Russian economy is in crisis mode due to the dramatic fall in oil prices over the past months, while President Obama must always work to counter the GOP narrative.

It’s theirs to lose

One way that both leaders could leave the UN in Win-Win fashion is to ink an agreement (a map) showing exactly where in the skies and on the ground that Russia and the U.S./EU nations will and won’t operate in Syria.

Combat Area Operations Agreement

This is a simple way to guarantee that Russian and Western fighter jets don’t accidentally or otherwise, engage each other within Syrian territory. (“You take the North and we’ll take the South. Now, where do we draw the combat operations line?”)

The same applies to ground-based units.

Mutual Agreement to Support Moderate Forces in Syria

One way to drown out the terrorists is to continually work to strengthen moderate forces in the country. Whether combat groups or civilians who want a return to stability and are proactively working toward that end, such people can have a dramatic effect as their numbers are infinitely larger than the ISIS hooligans trying to take control of Syrian towns and cities.

Whether U.S.A.-supported moderates or Russian-sponsored moderates — each of those are enemies to ISIS.

Of course, a constantly updated Who-Is-Who list needs to be kept, so that everyone works off the same page.

Agreement to Prevent Israeli Involvement in the Syrian Conflict

As this would trigger even more trauma for the region resulting in thousands more casualties and millions more refugees, it is important to have a unified policy.

Not only that, but a significant military force must be dedicated to preventing terrorists from crossing into Israel from Syria.

No good will come of trouble along Israel’s northern border and either Russia, the U.S., or a major (and majorly funded) UN peacekeeping/active patrol force must control a 20-mile wide strip of land across the southern Syrian frontier.

It is unthinkable to not do this, as the consequences of multiple attacks across the border would surely complicate and enlarge the war. (What happens if Israeli fighter jets cross into Syrian airspace in full rage mode to hit back at a terrorist Katushya rocket base, and suddenly encounter Russian Air Force or Syrian Air Force fighter jets?)

Internally Displaced and Refugee persons Handling Agreement

A unified approach to handling internally displaced persons in Syria and how to handle those persons wanting to leave the country to become refugees in neighbouring nations, is of paramount importance.

It’s one thing for thousands of people to leave a country by road, it’s quite another when military units are emplaced there expecting a major tank or infantry battle to break out at any minute, along the very path that Syrian citizens are fleeing!

And in the case of large swathes of land full of unmarked landmines left over from previous decades (millions of mines) it is important to prevent civilians from crossing those sections of land.

Both Russia and the Western powers must notify each other of mined areas in well in advance of approaching civilian convoys (whether they are travelling on foot or by vehicle) and obviously, that information must be kept secure from ISIS.

Mutual Support along Common Corridors or near Demarcation Lines

If U.S. forces (for example) get the best of ISIS and they retreat, the very obvious place for them to run is across the line of control into the Russian or Syrian controlled zone. And the reverse is true for ISIS fighters are fleeing Russian or Syrian military units/combat aircraft.

But when preexisting agreements are set up, ISIS fighters will (quite unknowingly) run into a trap — just when they think they’ve escaped their pursuers.

Agreement to Support the Democratically Elected Leader of Syria

Whether some in the West like it or not, Bashir Al-Assad is the democratically elected leader of Syria and significantly, he is the only game in town. There isn’t anyone remotely qualified nor imbued with a power base sufficient to replace him. Like it or not, Assad is going to be the President of Syria for many years to come.

Even ISIS, as successful as it has been on the field of battle couldn’t pull off running a government. Winning a series of paramilitary battles is one thing — governing a country is a different thing altogether.

Regime change isn’t an option in Syria’s case regardless of how appealing that may sound to those in GroupThink office cubicles around the world. What looks good on paper from 5000 miles away can seem truly hallucinogenic to those on the ground in Syria and to those with any experience in the region.

We are stuck with Assad for some time. There is no other option unless the EU agrees to accept 10 million Syrian refugees. Therefore, we better learn how to work with him.

President Obama should be encouraged to instantly fire any federal government employee (including military members) who indulge in the utter fantasy of regime change in Syria. It is so unrealistic a goal, that to waste any time speculating on it should immediately brand the person making the suggestion as sophomoric and functionally illiterate on the topic of Syria.

Where do we want Syria to be in Five Years?

We’ve seen what the past five years have brought.

“If we keep on doing what we have been doing, we’re going to keep on getting what we’ve been getting.” — Jackie B. Cooper

No sane person, no culture, no nation, wants to see another five years of murder, rape, mayhem and destruction for the people of Syria.

Practically any other option is better than that, and we must all reconcile ourselves to the fact that change must come to the Syrian situation. No amount of wishing away the past is going to make the presently-failing plan suddenly begin to work and achieve our goals.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” — Albert Einstein

Therefore, it is time to take-Russia-on as a full and valued partner to a sustainable solution in Syria, knowing that we will be dealing with Bashar Al-Assad for the next decade, and with a view to lowering the total amount of trauma, death, and destruction in that country every day.

If we can’t work together, ISIS wins

If the U.S.A., Russia, and some of Europe’s leading nations can’t agree on mutually-agreed solutions to solve the Syrian crisis, then I respectfully suggest that the present world order has far bigger problems than ISIS.

If the ISIS leadership is allowed to infer that they can defeat great powers by playing them off one-against-the-other it will embolden ISIS far beyond the limited goals they’ve set for themselves in Iraq and Syria.

Differences in approach must be set aside to allow the U.S.A., Russia, the EU, and Syria to work together to marginalize the deviant ISIS group, or we and future generations may experience a never-ending stream of such conflicts.

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Syria: The Definition of Insanity

by John Brian Shannon | September 26, 2015

The world witnesses the underwhelming response to the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII.

The United Nations calls the Syrian crisis the worst humanitarian crisis in a quarter of a century, with half of Syria’s population displaced within Syria or fled to other countries. Some 310,000 innocent civilians have been killed in the crossfire of civil war.

CNN image. The Syrian population and where they are presently located.

CNN image. The Syrian population in 2015.

“The Syrian refugee crisis is the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. And we think people should know more about it.

Of the 4 million refugees, the vast majority are women and children. And nearly 3 million of those children are out of school with no hope of returning to any formal education.” See: The worst humanitarian crisis since World War II — PBS NewsHour

Since 1999 the socio-political structure in Syria has been deteriorating due to many factors and it has been too convenient for some commentators to blame Bashir Al-Assad the country’s democratically-elected leader for all of Syria’s troubles.

But things are rarely as they seem. This is true for the Middle East and North Africa nations (MENA) but is especially true in the case of Syria

For just one example, more than half of the people who live in the port city of Tartus, Syria are retired Soviet or Russian military people who chose to receive their pensions and live out their lives in warmer climes, as compared to say, Moscow or Siberia. I can’t blame them as it is a beautiful part of the world, full of important historical sites.

Farmlands east of Tartus, Syria.

Farmlands east of Tartus, Syria. Visit this link to see some excellent images of the region.

During the Cold War, thousands of Soviet Navy personnel had occasion to debark their ships while they took on supplies at the Russian Navy facility located just south of Tartus.

Not only that, but Soviet merchant ships unloaded everything from Lada cars to borscht, returning to Russia loaded with produce of every kind, especially figs, dates, olives and wine. The punishment for not returning to their ship on time was to be shot by the Soviets, so every sailor (whether Soviet Navy sailor or Soviet merchant mariner) took pains to return to their ship prior to sailing. Yes, really.

Soviet Naval Facility near Tartus Syria taken from a Turkish F-4 Phantom II in September of 1990.

Image now owned by Google. Soviet Naval Facility near Tartus Syria taken from a Turkish F-4 Phantom II in September of 1990.

Over several decades this fraternization between Soviet/Russian citizens and Syrians turned Tartus into the wedding capital of the eastern Mediterranean with many thousands of marriages between Soviet sailors of every rank and background marrying the beautiful young women of Tartus.

Hamrat Street in Tartus, Syria

Hamrat Street, Tartus, Syria. “Hamrat” by Ahmadac at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by nopira. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

When I visited Tartus in 1989 and again in 1990 as the Cold War was ending, I was struck by the fact that all of the road signs were written in the Syrian, Arabic and Russian languages only.

And similar was true in Syrian government offices where I also noted that everyone chatted easily in the Syrian and Russian languages — as I waited over an hour for an English-speaking government employee to arrive from a nearby town so that I could have my passport returned to me. Holding passports until the last day of a person’s visit was standard practice during the Cold War, as was the requirement for government officials to phone the local police to verify that no crimes had been committed before handing the passport back. Sorry about that speeding ticket.

Syria has sourced uncountable billions of dollars of Soviet and Russian military aircraft and other military vehicles through Moscow since WWII. Indeed, Syria was one of the first nations outside of the Soviet Union to receive the export version of the MiG-25 fighter/interceptor aircraft, a very advanced jet fighter for the time.

Petroleum trade between the two countries has likewise been brisk.

Suffice to say that the deep links between Syrian citizens and Russians span several decades and I’ve hardly touched on them.

Therefore, it is quite a natural thing that Russia should lend economic, military, and political support to its ally and we should not interfere in that profound and long-term relationship.

What has been tried for the past five years has not worked and will continue to not work

And the proof of that is that fully half of Syria’s population are internally displaced or have fled the country, living as refugees in neighbouring countries like Turkey which is on track to accept over 2 million Syrians in 2015.

In addition to that, some 3 million (non-Syrian) refugees have arrived in Turkey from Iraq and the Arab Spring nations in recent years.

Must see: Al-Jazeera video showing some of the devastation in Homs, Syria

CNN image of Syrian refugees accepted in the region

CNN image. Note: Jordan says it has 1.4 million Syrian refugees within it’s borders, but the UNHCR has documentation on only 630,000 of them.

Jordan says that more than one million Syrian refugees have arrived in 2015, while tiny Lebanon reports that 1-in-4 people within its borders are Syrian refugees.

JORDAN says it has taken in 1.4 million Syrians, although the UNHCR counts 629,266 registered refugees. Jordan prides itself on its hospitality toward these and other refugees, but the high numbers — about 20% of the population, based on government figures — have taxed the small kingdom, already struggling with strained resources such as energy and water.LA Times

Europe opened its doors to 310,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 with Germany taking a huge share of that number, while Sweden offers almost automatic residency and a full social safety net to 80,000+ Syrians per year.

CNN image Syrian refugee destinations

CNN image. “Conflict, persecution and poverty are creating more refugees than the world has seen in decades.” — CNN

I’ll give the last word to the citizens of Iceland (total population 329,100) who went over the heads of their elected leaders with more than 11,000 private citizens offering their homes to Syrian families after Iceland said it would accept only 50 Syrian refugees

Kudos to the citizens of Iceland. Let’s hope this catches on.

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