The following are my notes from the presentation on “The Current Situation in Syria: Problems and Prospects” made by Amb. Mark G. Hambley & William Morris (Next Century Foundation) in a round table discussion at the 2014 Dialogue on Middle East Strategies sponsored by the Policy Studies Organization. The notes represent my impression of the presentation, so everything of value in it is due to the presenters and any errors are mine.
Civilian deaths in Syria have declined as the civilian population has evacuated. March 2013 was the peak. The UN has stopped updating casualty figures as the sources are no longer identifiable. Al-Nusra does most of the fighting. We are cooperating in the ethnic cleansing of places like Homs. Even our humanitarian aid programs are helping to clear out the populations. Increasingly rebel groups are fighting one another. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is having a hard time as Syrian resentment of foreign fighters increases. There are over 5,000 Sunni foreign fighters. Arab Sunnis are a bare majority in Syria; most of the other Sunnis are Kurds.
The chemical weapons attack of 2013 was a driver of American foreign policy but it is a classic case of communications problems. It occurred in a rebel held area surrounded by the government which had captured about 30 rebels and sent one back to tell the others to surrender or be wiped out. We believe the government then hit them with chemical weapons, but it is not clear. The UN report was staggeringly incompetently written. The intelligence people were not well-trained in weapons and there was much withheld information. Significant chemical weapons evidence was found in ONE missile and most of the information about that was withheld. We have substantiated 394 deaths including 144 children and 2 women. Mainly young men in the target area but many children as the chemicals disbursed through adjacent neighborhoods. The US government of 1,492 fatalities is too high and politically motivated. The pledges totaling $2.5 billion to the refugees is pure propaganda and nowhere near that much gets to the refugees. The refugee numbers are also sheer guesswork.
We agree that Asad should not be part of the future of Syria, but the idea that a resolution will be arrived at without including him in the negotiations is absurd. Most of the camps are disgraceful. We think a humanitarian effort under the military based on the recent UN resolution could give a positive impression of the US. We are starting to work closely with our Gulf allies to make sure that funds go to non-terrorist factions. Salim Idriss has been replaced as head of the Free Surian Army (FSA) by a recent arrival who defected from the Syrian regime about a year ago. He has more credibility and more skill sets than his predecessor. We must engage the Russians and the Iranians on this issue. We have worked with the Russian in Geneva, although it has failed so far. Outreach to the Iranians is more complicated and relations with Russia have been complicated by the Ukraine. NCF has had quiet conversations with the Iranians and we see their position changing somewhat, but the Iranians play tough games; yet, without them, the chances of affecting Bashar are miniscule. The best way to irritate someone of his nature is to find someone in the Alawite community who could replace him. One third of Syria are now refugees (internal or external). Sabra Halal is the oldest refugee in the world, 107 years old living in northeastern Syria, recently driven out by the rebels, languishing in Athens awaiting paperwork to go to Germany, but she will probably die before she can get there.
When Syria coughs, Lebanon sneezes. Despite recognizing Lebanon’s independence, Syria has never appointed an ambassador. Hezbollah has on the order of a thousand troops in Syria. Lebanon itself is a mosaic and the balance of power dictated by the French imposed constitution is destabilizing as the Shia numbers increase.
Under Hilary Clinton the policy was pretty good, avoiding boots on the ground and monitoring where our funds are going. FSA is growing in numbers but they still lack training and the Islamists remain the most effective fighters. Saudis are unhappy with us about Iran, Egypt, and Syria. Hopefully, things will improve now that Muhammad Naif is representing the Saudis.
In the early days he FSA resorted to kidnapping to raise funds. The Islamists came in and refused to exploit the local population in that manner, so they have support from the locals as well as from the outside funders. The Lebanese war lasted over a decade so why would we think this is going to stop any sooner? Even an invasion will not stop it. Some sort of peace process must be forced on Syria. Iran must be part of this. Their position is nuanced. They support Asad, but MORE important to them is that Syria remains a client state. The Saudis number one red line issue to get rid of Asad. Iran privately says if allowed to engage with Saudi Arabia they are willing to think about regime change, a new constitution, and maybe even democracy. The Alawites are less concerned about the future of Asad than about their fate in the aftermath of his ouster. The Saudis don’t like Shia at all and especially not Iranian Shia. Qatar gets a bad rap. The current government under Shaikh Tamim is very inward looking and more supportive of the US than they have been in the past.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute