Posted By Josh Rogin
As the violence in Syria spirals out of control, top officials in President Barack Obama‘s administration are quietly preparing options for how to assist the Syrian opposition, including gaming out the unlikely option of setting up a no-fly zone in Syria and preparing for another major diplomatic initiative.
Critics on Capitol Hill accuse the Obama administration of being slow to react to the quickening deterioration of the security situation in Syria, where over 5,000 have died, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Many lawmakers say the White House is once again “leading from behind,” while the Turks, the French, and the Arab League — which sent an observer mission to Syria this week – take the initiative to pursue more aggressive strategies for pressuring the Assad regime. But U.S. officials said that they are moving cautiously in order to avoid destabilizing Syria further, and to make sure they know as much as possible about the country’s complex dynamics before getting more involved.
But the administration does see the status quo in Syria as unsustainable. The Bashar al Assad regime is a “dead man walking,” State Department official Fred Hof said this month. So the administration is now ramping up its policymaking machinery on the issue. After several weeks of having no top-level administration meetings to discuss the Syria crisis, the National Security Council (NSC) has begun an informal, quiet interagency process to create and collect options for aiding the Syrian opposition, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable.
The process, led by NSC Senior Director Steve Simon, involves only a few select officials from State, Defense, Treasury, and other relevant agencies. The group is unusually small, presumably to prevent media leaks, and the administration is not using the normal process of Interagency Policy Committee (IPC), Deputies Committee (DC), or Principals Committee (PC) meetings, the officials said. Another key official inside the discussions is Hof, who is leading the interactions with Syrian opposition leaders and U.S. allies.
The options that are under consideration include establishing a humanitarian corridor or safe zone for civilians in Syria along the Turkish border, extending humanitarian aid to the Syrian rebels, providing medical aid to Syrian clinics, engaging more with the external and internal opposition, forming an international contact group, or appointing a special coordinator for working with the Syrian opposition (as was done in Libya), according to the two officials, both of whom are familiar with the discussions but not in attendance at the meetings.
“The interagency is now looking at options for Syria, but it’s still at the preliminary stage,” one official said. “There are many people in the administration that realize the status quo is unsustainable and there is an internal recognition that existing financial sanctions are not going to bring down the Syrian regime in the near future.”
After imposing several rounds of financial sanctions on Syrian regime leaders, the focus is now shifting to assisting the opposition directly. The interagency process is still ongoing and the NSC has tasked State and DOD to present options in the near future, but nothing has been decided, said the officials – one of whom told The Cable that the administration was being intentionally cautious out of concern about what comes next in Syria.
“Due to the incredible and far-reaching ramifications of the Syrian problem set, people are being very cautious,” the official said. “The criticism could be we’re not doing enough to change the status quo because we’re leading from behind. But the reason we are being so cautious is because when you look at the possible ramifications, it’s mindboggling.”
A power vacuum in the country, loose weapons of mass destruction, a refugee crisis, and unrest across the region are just a few of the problems that could attend the collapse of the Assad regime, the official said.
“This isn’t Libya. What happens in Libya stays in Libya, but that is not going to happen in Syria. The stakes are higher,” the official said. “Right now, we see the risks of moving too fast as higher than the risks of moving too slow.”
The option of establishing a humanitarian corridor is seen as extremely unlikely because it would require establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, which would likely involve large-scale attacks on the Syrian air defense and military command-and-control systems.
“That’s theoretically one of the options, but it’s so far out of the realm that no one is thinking about that seriously at the moment,” another administration official said.
Although the opposition is decidedly split on the issue, Burhan Ghalioun, the president of the Syrian National Council, earlier this month called on the international community to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria.
“Our main objective is finding mechanisms to protect civilians and stop the killing machine,” said Ghalioun. “We say it is imperative to use forceful measures to force the regime to respect human rights.”
Is the U.S. bark worse than its bite?
Rhetorically, the administration has been active in calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside and protecting the rights of Syrian protesters, despite the lack of clear policy to achieve that result. “The United States continues to believe that the only way to bring about the change that the Syrian people deserve is for Bashar al-Assad to leave power,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Dec. 21.
On Tuesday, Dec. 27, the administration hinted at stronger action if the Syrian government doesn’t let the Arab League monitors do their work. “If the Syrian regime continues to resist and disregard Arab League efforts, the international community will consider other means to protect Syrian civilians,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.
The Syrian National Council (SNC), the primary organization representing the opposition, has been very clear that it is seeking more than rhetorical support from the United States and the international community. An extensive policy paper titled, “Safe Area for Syria,” edited by SNC member Ausama Monajed, laid out the argument for armed intervention by the international community to aid Syrian civilians.
“The Syrian National Council (SNC) is entering a critical phase in the Syrian revolution whereby the hope of a continued campaign of passive resistance to an exceptionally brutal and unrestrained regime is becoming more and more akin to a suicide pact,” Monajed wrote.
But Washington is uncomfortable acting in concert with the SNC: Officials say there is a lack of confidence that the SNC, which is strongly influenced by expatriate Syrians, has the full support of the internal opposition. U.S. officials are also wary of supporting the Syria Free Army, made up of Syrian military defectors and armed locals, as they do not want to be seen as becoming militarily engaged against the regime — a story line they fear that Assad could use for his own propaganda, officials said.
There is also some internal bureaucratic wrangling at play. This summer, when the issue of sending emergency medical equipment into Syria came up in a formal interagency meeting, disputes over jurisdiction stalled progress on the discussion, officials told The Cable. No medical aid was sent.
So for now, the administration is content to let the Arab League monitoring mission play out and await its Jan. 20 report. The officials said that the administration hopes to use the report to begin a new diplomatic initiative in late January at the U.N. Security Council to condemn Assad and authorize direct assistance to the opposition.
The officials acknowledged that this new initiative could fail due to Russian support for the Assad regime. If that occurs, the administration would work with its allies such as France and Turkey to establish their own justification for non-military humanitarian intervention in Syria, based on evidence from the Arab League report and other independent reporting on Assad’s human rights abuses. This process could take weeks, however, meaning that material assistance from the United States to the Syrian opposition probably wouldn’t flow at least until late February or early March. Between now and then, hundreds or even thousands more could be killed.
There is also disagreement within the administration about whether the Arab League observer mission is credible and objective.
“This is an Arab issue right now, and the Arab League is really showing initiative for the first time in a long time,” said one administration official.
“[The Arab League monitoring mission] is all Kabuki theatre,” said another administration official who does not work directly on Syria. “We’re intentionally setting the bar too high [for intervention] as means of maintaining the status quo, which is to do nothing.”
Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the administration was caught off-guard by how the opposition became militarized so quickly. The administration’s message had been to urge the opposition to remain peaceful, but that ship has now sailed, he said.
“We have a pretty strong policy of not engaging the Syria Free Army directly, because earlier it was agreed that peaceful protesters had the moral high ground over the regime and were more able to encourage defections,” he said. “But there was no clear light at the end of that peaceful protest strategy. We assumed, incorrectly, that the civil resistance strategies used in Egypt and Tunisia were being adopted by the Syrian opposition, but that didn’t happen.”
Most experts in Washington have a deep skepticism toward the Arab League monitoring mission. For one thing, it is led by a Sudanese general who has been accused of founding the Arab militias that wreaked havoc in Darfur. Also, many doubt that 150 monitors that will eventually be in Syria can cover the vast number of protests and monitor such a large country.
The Assad regime has also been accused of subverting the monitoring mission by moving political prisoners to military sites that are off-limits to monitors, repositioning tanks away from cities only when monitors are present, and having soldiers pose as police to downplay the military’s role in cracking down on the protesters.
“It seems awfully risky for the U.S. to be putting its chips all in on that mission,” said Tony Badran, a research fellow with the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “There never was a serious mechanism for it to be a strong initiative.”
Badran said that the Arab League monitoring mission just gives the Assad regime time and space to maneuver, and provides Russia with another excuse to delay international action on Syria.
“Now you understand why the Russians pushed the Syrians to accept the monitors,” he said. “It allows the Syrians to delay the emergence of consensus.”
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the administration is trying to balance the value of protecting civilians with the interests of trying to ensure a measure of stability in Syria.
“The biggest thing is extensive consultation with as many international allies as possible. That’s another feature of this administration,” said Katulis. “And when change does come to Syria, the Syrians have to own it.”
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor did not respond to requests for comment.
- The US must ratchet up pressure on Syria | Matthew Brodsky (guardian.co.uk)
- Activists: Syrian troops kill 9 despite monitors (goerie.com)
- Arab League monitors head to Syrian opposition stronghold – CNN (edition.cnn.com)
- US: Assad’s Syria a ‘dead man walking’ (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- White House warning: Assad must end crackdown or face ‘additional steps’ (jta.org)
- Syria frees 755 prisoners as observers tour Homs (theglobeandmail.com)
- Protest could be turning point in Syrian unrest (smh.com.au)
By Andrew Hammond and Tarek Amara
(Reuters) – Islamists are expected to do well in Tunisia‘s first democratic election Sunday, 10 months after the ouster of autocratic leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in a popular uprising that set off protest movements around the Arab world.
The Ennahda party will almost certainly win a share of power after the vote, which will set a democratic standard for other Arab countries where uprisings have triggered political change or governments have tried to rush reforms to stave off unrest.
Sunday’s vote is for an assembly which will draft a new constitution to replace the one Ben Ali manipulated to entrench his power. It will also appoint an interim government and set elections for a new president and parliament.
Polls open at 2 a.m. EDT and close at 2 p.m.
The mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young man whose self-immolation last December set off the Tunisian revolt, said the elections were a victory for dignity and freedom.
“Now I am happy that my son’s death has given the chance to get beyond fear and injustice,” Manoubia Bouazizi told Reuters. “I’m an optimist, I wish success for my country.”
Ennahda, banned under Ben Ali who is now in exile in Saudi Arabia, is expected to gain the biggest share of votes. But the Islamist party will probably not win enough to give it a majority in the assembly and will seek to lead a coalition.
The North African country’s elite fear the rise of Ennahda puts their secular values under threat. The Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) has centered its campaign on stopping the Islamists, vowing to seek alliances to keep it out of power.
Ennahda has been at pains to assuage the concerns of secularists and Western powers, fielding several women candidates including one who does not wear the hijab, or Muslim head scarf, and promising not to undermine women’s freedoms.
Tunisia was a pioneer of secular modernization among Arab and Muslim countries in the post-colonial period, banning polygamy, equalizing inheritance rights, giving women the right to vote and discouraging the veil.
Fundamentalist Islamists known as Salafists have attacked a cinema and a TV station in recent months over artistic material deemed blasphemous. Ennahda says they have nothing to do with them, but liberals do not believe them.
Observers says Ennahda’s intentions are not clear. Its election campaign has scrupulously avoided offering policy details that mark it out as much different from its rivals.
At a final election rally Friday, Suad Abdel-Rahim, the female candidate who does not wear a veil, said Ennahda would protect women’s gains.
But illustrating the party’s contradictions, many of the books on sale on the fringes of the rally were by Salafist writers who believe women should be segregated from men in public and that elections are un-Islamic.
“In the country’s interior, where it’s more conservative, they use different rhetoric,” said commentator Rachid Khechana. “It’s about stopping culture from outside, moral corruption of youth, defending Islam, which they say has Shura (consultation), not democracy.”
“ARAB SPRING” REPERCUSSIONS
An Ennahda victory would be the first such success in the Arab world since Hamas won a 2006 Palestinian vote. Islamists won a 1991 Algerian election the army annulled, provoking years of bloody conflict.
Ennahda’s fortunes could bear on Egyptian elections set for next month in which the Muslim Brotherhood, an ideological ally, also hopes to emerge strongest.
Libya hopes to hold elections next year after a protest movement that transformed into an armed rebellion with NATO backing managed to oust Muammar Gaddafi. Unresolved violent conflict continues in Syria and Yemen, and many other governments have begun reforms to avoid civil unrest.
With so much at stake, there are concerns that even the smallest doubt over the legitimacy of the Tunisian vote could bring supporters of rival parties onto the streets.
Ennahda’s leader, Muslim scholar Rachid Ghannouchi, riled opponents this week when he described the party as Tunisia’s biggest and warned that the Tunisian people would start a new uprising if they suspected any poll rigging.
Prime Minister Beji Caid Sebsi said in a televised address Thursday that Tunisians should vote without fear of violence or cheating, a feature of Ben Ali’s police state.
“No one can doubt the elections, they will be transparent and clean. Rigging will not be possible. The ballot boxes will be open to everyone,” Sebsi said.
The government says 40,000 police and soldiers are being deployed to prevent any protests escalating into violence. Shopkeepers say people have been stockpiling milk and bottled water in case unrest disrupts supplies.
- Tunisian Islamists to do well in first “Arab Spring” vote – Reuters (news.google.com)
- Tunisian Poll To Provide Bellwether For Arab Spring (npr.org)
- Tunisia to vote in historic poll (bbc.co.uk)
- Campaigning ends for Tunisia’s first free elections (ctv.ca)
- Pride, tears as Tunisians in Canada vote in first ‘real’ election (thestar.com)
- Enthusiasm builds for Tunisia’s 1st free elections (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
May 7, 2011 – 6:16 pm EST
From the Communist Party of China website, May 03, 2011.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi met with Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa on Monday to discuss cooperation between China and the Arab world.
China and the Arab countries decided last year to promote the strategic relationship of cooperation, which marked a new era of bilateral ties, Yang said.
China is willing to join hands with the Arab world to promote the China-Arab Cooperation Forum and deepen bilateral cooperation in all sectors, Yang said.
Moussa said the Arab League is happy to see the progress made in collective cooperation between China and Arab countries in fields such as politics, economy and culture.
The pan-Arab body expected to enhance the level of bilateral ties with the joint efforts from China, Moussa added.
Yang arrived in Cairo on Monday on a two-day visit. On Tuesday, he will meet Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces chief Hussein Tantawi.
Of course the West has nothing to fear from closer collusion between China and the Arab world.
They both have our best interests at heart.