Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Time For Action

The Obama administration has backed itself into a corner in Syria, a crisis with few good options. But the endgame is clear, at least, and the time to get involved has come.


U.S. President Barack Obama

From the time that the peaceful protests in Syria turned into an armed uprising, it has been reasonable to argue that any imaginable outside intervention would do as much harm as good. I have made that argument myself. But the situation on the ground has changed, and so the calculus of outsiders must change as well. U.S. President Barack Obama's administration should accept that the only desirable outcome in Syria is a victory by the rebels and should work much more actively than it has both to hasten the day of that victory and to avoid the terrible settling of accounts that might well accompany such an outcome.

It is true that Syrian forces have committed terrible atrocities in recent weeks, both in the house-to-house killings in the Damascus suburb of Daraya and in aerial bombardments of civilians waiting in bread lines in the northern city of Aleppo, which have been documented in an appalling video recently posted by Human Rights Watch. But the moral case for intervention became incontrovertible many thousands of deaths ago. What has changed is the practical case.

Many people who supported the intervention in Libya, including officials in the White House, have opposed comparable action in Syria out of concern that escalating hostilities could turn an insurgency into a full-blown civil war, inflaming sectarian hatred and threatening neighbors with massive refugee flows and ethnic and religious tension. But almost all those things have come to pass simply as a result of the demons Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has unleashed.

The war has already escalated to previously unimaginable levels. The Syrian regime is now engaging in the strategy of counterinsurgency-by-atrocity used so effectively by Sudan against the people of its south and Darfur -- intentionally killing large numbers of civilians in order to shatter the opposition's will. Assad has sown the seeds of sectarian hatred by unleashing largely Alawite forces against Sunni civilians, in turn making Syria into a new crusade for Sunni extremists, many of them crossing the border from Iraq. And he has exported the conflict beyond Syria's borders, with Sunnis and Alawites facing off in the streets of Tripoli, Lebanon's second-largest city. The greatest danger to Syria and the region now comes from allowing Syria's civil war to continue unabated.

If the calculus of potential harm has changed, so too has the calculus of potential good. A no-fly zone would have done nothing to stop the thugs and soldiers who carried out the massacres in Daraya. The regime, however, doesn't have enough troops to repress the rebellion everywhere at once. Assad has been deploying helicopters and jets in Aleppo, Idlib, and elsewhere in the north not only to terrorize civilians but to prevent the rebels from establishing control over a large swath of territory, as the Libyan opposition did in Benghazi. The rebels have begun to shoot down a few of the government's helicopters and jets, but Assad is still counting on aerial terror to subdue the region. A no-fly zone might not stop the killing, but it could give the rebels the foothold they desperately need.

And unlike in Libya, where it was clear from the outset that NATO planes would have to take on Muammar al-Qaddafi's tanks and armored personnel carriers, a no-fly zone extending perhaps 75 miles south of the Syria-Turkey border could turn the tide in Syria.

A no-fly zone now makes sense. Perhaps if the Libya intervention had never happened, Western and regional powers might be prepared to take on such a task. But Libya exhausted NATO's resources and outraged Russia, China, and other countries that said they had voted only for a more modest no-fly zone. Russia and China will see to it that the U.N. Security Council never approves a resolution authorizing such an attack. And there is little evidence that any of the likely participants in a new effort -- the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia -- have any appetite for ambitious military action in Syria, especially absent U.N. approval.

Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has asked the United Nations to establish a safe haven, but the Turks know perfectly well that Russia and China would veto such a resolution. The Turks, who are deeply worried about the destabilizing effect of the massive influx of Syrian refugees, now thought to number over 250,000, could establish a safe haven on their own, but apparently have no intention of doing so. While in Turkey in mid-August, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the United States and Turkey were setting up a working group to study a no-fly zone and other options. But one U.S. intelligence official with whom I spoke said that no serious military planning for a no-fly zone was currently under way.

Administration officials say that they cannot act without Turkey, but complain that Turkish political and diplomatic leaders barely speak to the Turkish military, which has shown no interest in military action. That may be true, but U.S. officials seem all too happy to use Turkey the way Turkey uses the U.N.: to avoid blame for failing to take action. With the U.S. president trying to get reelected by a public that is paying as little attention as it can to the world beyond America's borders, the White House does not want to be dragged into a foreign campaign that could turn ugly. Indeed, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland immediately rejected Davutoglu's safe-haven plea, saying that the United States wants to help the refugees get to Turkey, not protect them inside Syria.

One administration official said to me that because the rebels are now winning, outside intervention has become unnecessary. But that, too, sounds like a mighty convenient excuse for inaction. Assad may eventually lose his battle with the rebels, but many more thousands of Syrians are likely to die before he does, and an already poisonous atmosphere will become yet more lethal. Because it is now beyond obvious that Assad will leave only if he fears death or imminent defeat, the end must come with a rebel victory. And if the United States wants the rebels to win, then it should be doing everything it can to help them win -- and win in a way that prevents a post-Assad Syria from degenerating into Iraq. Nor do you have to be John McCain to believe that the United States needs to range itself on the right side of history.

Is there an alternative? The obvious one is to give the rebels the military equipment they have been begging for. Until now, the Obama administration has provided only nonlethal equipment, mostly communications gear. But according to the New York Times, U.S. officials have granted an export license to a Syrian émigré group seeking to funnel weapons to the rebels. Why then should Washington not do directly what it is now prepared to do indirectly? One former U.S. government official with extensive experience in Syria suggests an alternative: "Just earmark $50 [million] or $100 million in covert assistance, and have agency guys walking around with bags of money."

Of course, that conjures up memories of Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the CIA supplied anti-Soviet jihadists with Stinger missiles that ultimately fell into the hands of al Qaeda. That's not an encouraging precedent. But CIA officials are reported to be on the ground in Syria and in Turkey helping to direct assistance to rebel commanders whom the United States believes it can work with. That assistance has been grossly inadequate, in part because Saudi Arabia and Qatar have not been supplying arms as promised. The rebels have been forced again and again to break off battles they might otherwise win for lack of ammunition and firepower. With anti-aircraft capability, the rebels could create a safe haven on their own. With anti-tank missiles, they night quickly turn the tide in other disputed areas.

The United States has a profound interest not only in bringing the slaughter in Syria to an end, but in having a meaningful presence on the ground when that happens -- as it did in Libya thanks to the NATO air campaign. It will not be easy, under any circumstances, to prevent Syria from collapsing into religious and ethnic enclaves, or into a war of all against all. But if Washington remains on the sidelines, as it has until now, it will have little influence with those who will ultimately prevail, and thus little ability to help shape the post-Assad landscape.

Obama might decide to postpone the decision until after the election, but that would be an act of consummate cynicism. He should act now, before it's too late.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 31/08/2012
-James Traub is a fellow of the Center on International Cooperation

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Hostility To Syrian Refugees Rising Along Turkey’s Border

Alarm is rising in Turkish border towns like Antakya among residents and politicians who fear the onslaught of refugees—now estimated at 80,000—will overwhelm them and bring sectarian unrest across the border.

By Mike Giglio

A Syrian family sits on a pavement after they were not allowed entry to Turkey near the Syrian-Turkish border line on August 27, 2012 (Aris Messinis, AFP / Getty Imaged)

Malik Balia thinks he has as good an idea as anyone about the number of Syrians in Antakya these days. Since they began to appear last year, he has sold them mobile phones from his busy Turkcell shop in the center of town. They come as refugees to this city near the Turkish border with Syria, but many are revolutionaries too, looking to continue their work for the uprising at home. Revolutionaries need to stay connected, and they come to Balia for SIM cards and USB Internet sticks.

“From 9 in the morning until 12 at night, the Syrians come in and out,” Balia says. He guesses that he’s served 3,000 to date—and that thousands more now live in Antakya and the surrounding border province of Hatay. “There are a lot of Syrians here,” he says.

Like most Antakya residents, Balia is Alawite, hailing from the same religious sect as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As in Syria, Turkey’s Alawites—an off-shoot of Shiite Islam—are a minority in a predominately Sunni country, and many express solidarity with Assad. But Balia says he’s one of the good guys, harboring nothing in the way of sectarian concerns.

Sitting in his shop’s basement, where hundreds of chargers and USB cords dangle from hooks on the walls and scores of cell phones await repair, Balia flips through stacks of Turkcell receipts, many bearing the sort of nicknames—Abu Rami, Abu Ramen, Abu Ibrahim—that Syrian activists and rebels use to keep their identities obscured. (Abu translates to “the father of.”) Balia then pages through a six-inch stack of the passport scans he takes to issue his SIM cards. Almost all the passports are Syrian. “I could make millions selling all this information to Alawites in Syria,” Balia says. “But I wouldn’t do it, even if they threatened to cut my head off.”

But not all of Balia’s clients trust that their information is safe. “He gives it all to the Syrian regime,” one of his regular Syrian customers says.

Antakya has become a nerve center for the uprising against Assad. The city buzzes with activists, rebel fighters, and refugees who forgo camps along the border to pile into houses and apartments around town. Syrians of all creeds have joined the uprising, but the bulk are Sunni, while Alawites make up a bastion of Assad support. As the conflict grinds on, the political dialogue in Turkey has become fixated on the idea that sectarian tensions might spread across the border into Hatay—and which has resulted in what Ceren Kenar, a Turkish columnist and journalist, calls “a panic among Turkish public opinion.”

Politicians from the Turkish opposition have demonized the refugees—one recently claimed Turkey is training terrorists in the camps—and raised the alarm about coming sectarian unrest. The Turkish press, meanwhile, has been filled with accounts from Hatay residents who say they no longer want the Syrians in town. Syrians have been accused of everything from jumping cabs and restaurant bills to making unwanted advances on Turkish women and sowing Islamic extremism. Rumors of big anti-Syrian protests, meanwhile, have become a constant in Antakya of late.

“The media, the opposition parties—everybody is only speaking about Syria. We don’t have any other agenda,”  Kenar says. “Politics has become very polarized around these lines. And the refugee crisis is the new hot-button issue. The language some people are using now is that Hatay is occupied by a foreign army.”

As the Turkish worries mount, meanwhile, Syrians are becoming increasingly wary of their hosts. “We’re very concerned about an extension of the sectarian problem,” says Miral Biroreda, a veteran activist who has been living in Antakya for four months. “This is fertile ground.”

Turkey has been one of the Assad regime’s most vehement critics. As the number of refugees pouring across its borders has surged amid spiraling violence inside Syria—there are now more than 80,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey, according to the foreign ministry—the government in Ankara has pushed to make the refugee issue an international one. Turkey temporarily closed its borders to Syrian refugees this week, saying it was scrambling to put together new camps, while its foreign minister called on the United Nations to establish a buffer zone to safely house the refugees on Syrian soil. (In a rare interview this week, Assad dismissed such a notion, and insisted his army is winning the civil war.)

Refugees are increasingly becoming a domestic issue for Turkey too—one that seems to have put the government in a difficult spot. “It’s a long-standing criticism from the opposition that the Syria policy is creating more problems in Turkey than anything else, and I think it’s resonating,” says David Pollock, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The government has gotten itself into a corner, in that it’s on one side of the conflict, and it’s not winning. And there’s no end in sight. The refugees are still knocking on the door. The fighting is still going on.”

Some well-known Syrian activists in Antakya say they were summoned to a meeting with local government officials to address the refugee issue Monday night. According to the activists, the officials suggested that all Syrians should leave Antakya and Hatay—either for the refugee camps, or to head deeper into Turkey, away from the border. The officials, they say, painted this as a move for the Syrians’ own good—in the camps they could receive more Turkish support. But the Syrians reacted with defiance. “We understood the message,” says Amin Ahmed Abid, a schoolteacher and activist from the Syrian city of Latakia. “They want to move all Syrian people away from Hatay.”

This account of the meeting was put forward by three Syrians who say they attended—Abid, along with Nasr Adin Ahmah and Abu Mohamed Jablawi—as well as a representative of an international NGO. Abid and the others were convinced the meeting was prompted by Turkey’s struggle to respond to the recent outburst of concerns over refugees in Hatay.

“Syrian people have been here for more than a year, and they never thought about this before,” Abid says. “They don’t have enough space in the camps to accept more people from Syria, and now they want to bring everyone here inside? It doesn’t make any sense.”

It’s unclear whether the Turkish government is considering a push to relocate the refugees or how such a measure would be enforced. “We have no exact information on this topic,”  a foreign ministry spokesman said, directing questions about the supposed meeting to the local government in Hatay. At the press office inside the government building, meanwhile, a spokesman for the governor said there was nothing he could say. “You heard what you heard,” he said of the meeting. He then referred questions to Hatay’s director of emergency relief, who referred them back to the foreign ministry.

Many locals, like Balia, insist that any tension is being stirred from the outside, not from the Antakya community that has long welcomed the Syrians as guests. On Tuesday, the governor of Hatay and mayor of Antakya gave a joint news conference that put the same message across. But Ahmah, the local activist, was busy worrying that an already a difficult situation for the Syrians in town was getting worse. Ahmah keeps a house in Antakya for the young activists who tend to turn up without a place to stay—there usually are about 10 living there at a time—that he says he funds largely by “begging my friends for their money,” and contributing his own. Rocks recently crashed through the windows on two consecutive nights. No one saw the culprits, but Ahmah is sure who they were. “Supporters of the regime,” he said.

-This report was published first in The Daily Beast on 30/08/2012
- Mike Giglio is a reporter at Newsweek

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Whose Side Is Yemen On?

Ali Abdullah Saleh's government colluded with al Qaeda and duped the West. Has anything changed since his ouster?

BY SAM KIMBALL in Sanaa, Yemen

In the crowded Shumaila market in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, on May 28, 2005, Faysal Abdulaziz al-Arifi took a few trembling steps past buzzing stalls and garbage quickly accumulating on the street's edge.

Nasr al-Faqih, a police officer in the market, noticed Arifi's nervous looks and approached him. Faqih tried to get close to him, but Arifi pulled away. When the policeman asked him why, Arifi whispered, "I can't tell you on the street. The cell is watching me."

Under interrogation, Arifi confessed that he had been on his way to the central United Nations office in Sanaa, where he had been ordered to detonate an explosives belt hidden under his clothes -- a belt his mother had fastened to his body. But the teenager admitted that he was not ready to die and went looking for somewhere to turn himself in.

This story was related by Abdu al-Faqih, Nasr's brother and an officer in Yemen's Defense Ministry. According to Abdu, however, there was an even more disturbing twist to the young man's suicide mission: The cell he claimed was watching him was an al Qaeda unit operating in the capital whose membership included officers from the elite Republican Guard, Central Security forces, and the army's 1st Armored Division.

The response from authorities when Faqih reported his capture of a suicide bomber targeting the United Nations was negligible, according to Abdu, who has followed his brother's case closely. Officers in the security apparatuses refused to take Faqih's report seriously and ignored claims of al Qaeda infiltration into the ranks of Yemen's armed forces.

Months later, the attacks began. First, a gang attacked Faqih with a dagger as he left a Sanaa restaurant. Then men fired at him on his way home from duty. Finally, returning to Sanaa from his home village on a snaking mountain highway, Faqih's taxi was pushed off the road by a pursuing Hilux pickup truck. Faqih's vehicle overturned, and he lost his right eye and suffered a crushed jaw in the crash.

Yemen's Interior Ministry refused to pay for treatment of Faqih's injuries. Sanaa's prosecution court never published the findings of its investigations of the attempts on Faqih's life, and when his family pressed them for information, they were met with a firm response: His case had been closed.

Abdu is convinced of the complicity of the Yemeni security apparatuses in the attempts on his brother's life. "I accuse members of al Qaeda and their operatives inside the security organizations of being behind the assassination attempts," he seethed, looking over a pile of his brother's records in a living room in Sanaa's Old City. He pointed to the traffic report of his brother's accident, which states that Faqih sustained only basic injuries despite his now permanent disabilities, which Abdu believes is a sign that authorities wanted to keep the accident as low profile as possible by minimizing the damage.

Abdu also emphasized that though the previous and current attorney generals, as well as Gen. Fadhal al-Qawsi, commander of the Central Security forces, issued orders to carry out a full investigation of the attempts on Faqih's life, his case remained untouched.

Faqih, feeling himself under threat and believing the justice system was unable to protect him, fled to Cairo and has refused to speak on his case. Abdu says his brother "is afraid his family in Yemen will be knocked off" if he makes noise about his case, or government collusion with terrorists.

Foreign Policy contacted Yemeni Interior Minister Abdul Qadir Qahtan for comment on Faqih's case and accusations of government cooperation with al Qaeda. He refused to respond to the allegations.

Faqih is just one of the many Yemenis who have come to suspect that their government is not fighting, but helping cultivate, jihadi activity in their country. According to sources in Yemen's Interior Ministry and Defense Ministry, as well as independent Yemeni analysts and journalists with intimate knowledge of al Qaeda in Yemen, the Yemeni government is fully aware of a number of al Qaeda cells -- and their existence is tolerated and their crimes covered up.

It's a richly ironic development. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down in February after a year of mass protests, was lauded by U.S. officials as a valuable partner in the war on terror. In a WikiLeaked 2009 State Department cable, Saleh "insisted that Yemen's national territory is available for unilateral CT [counterterrorism] operations by the U.S." According to another cable, Saleh told Gen. David Petraeus, then the head of U.S. Central Command, that when it came to U.S. missile strikes on Yemeni soil, "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours." For Saleh's cooperation, Washington showered him with political and financial support.

Abdulghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst, has asserted that Saleh manipulated the terrorist threat in Yemen to extract support from the United States. "At all levels of Yemen's political elite you have collusion and cooperation with militants and terrorists," he told Foreign Policy.

The collusion reaches beyond Saleh's presidential circle, Iryani pointed out. Iryani claimed that Yemen's Political Security Organization (PSO), the government's most powerful internal security apparatus, is deeply connected to al Qaeda -- aware of its movements but never taking action unless forced to do so by public events. "Safe houses for al Qaeda leaders in Sanaa were provided by the PSO," he said. "When the attack on the British ambassador to Yemen occurred [in April 2010], the PSO went out to neighborhoods in Sanaa around the British and American embassies and arrested several dozen al Qaeda activists that same day. The PSO knew where they were."

Others working in Yemen's security organizations have come forward to describe their experiences with government collusion with al Qaeda up close.

Sitting cross-legged in a locked room in his tiny cement house on a mountaintop overlooking Sanaa, an officer in Yemen's Interior Ministry, speaking to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity, described how he apprehended a young man in the capital's Hayy Siasi neighborhood in 2008 for his involvement in a gunfight. The officer said they found pictures on the youth's mobile phone of him training with other militants in what looked like Hadramout, a governorate in the distant east of the country. During questioning, the officer said, it came out that the young man was a member of al Qaeda.

"He [the young man under arrest] let slip that he'd been imprisoned by the Political Security before, but had been released, telling us that he was in touch with the chief of Political Security [Ghalib al-Qamish]," the officer said. With growing unease, he went on. "I told him that if he was really in touch with Qamish, why didn't he call him? He did, and Qamish got extremely angry, asking him, 'Why are you talking about me in front of them?!' and hung up. But, a half-hour later, orders came from the ministry to release him."

The release of terrorism suspects has a long history in Yemen. The 2006 prison break of 23 militants from Sanaa's Political Security prison was one of the most notorious escapes in Yemen's history, setting a number of dangerous al Qaeda operatives free again, including several who had participated in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden.

According to some observers, it had to be an inside job. The prison is an imposing fortress in the heart of Sanaa, with plainclothes soldiers patrolling its perimeter. Inmates' spare cells -- only plastic silverware is allowed in -- are inspected several times a day. Prisoners are only allowed a half-hour a day outdoors, according to Muhammed Ghazwan, a Yemeni journalist with the local Shari newspaper, who was imprisoned there.

Muhsin Khosroof, a retired colonel and frequent commentator on Yemeni affairs, said that prisoners who escaped dug a tunnel to a mosque near the prison: "We don't know how they got the tools to dig a 300-meter tunnel, and we don't know where the soil they dug out went." Without the acquiescence of prison officials, he said, "this operation would seem impossible."

Khosroof thinks prison breaks aren't the only thing demonstrating collusion on the part of Yemeni officials with terrorists. The full-scale occupation of areas of southern Yemen by a local arm of al Qaeda calling itself Ansar al-Sharia during last year's uprising against Saleh, he thinks, would not have been possible without help from elements in the armed forces. According to Khosroof, the militants' success was simply too rapid to explain otherwise.

"No more than 400 al Qaeda fighters were able to occupy an entire governorate, which had several military detachments and special anti-terrorism teams trained by the Americans," he said. "All of these soldiers did nothing to confront 400 fighters, who occupied all of Abyan governorate and half of Shabwa governorate [both in Yemen's south]."

Ansar al-Sharia briefly took control of Ridaa, a city in Bayda governorate, for a few days in January, terrifying onlookers with the prospect that the group would move on the capital only 80 miles distant. Khosroof believes that Ridaa's capture was a maneuver orchestrated to make Yemenis cry out to the ailing Saleh regime for protection. "No battle occurred. Is this not evidence?" He asked. "No confrontation. The Republican Guard, the armed forces are supposed to stop them [Ansar al-Sharia]. No one confronted them, and they entered in peace."

President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, Saleh's successor and former vice president, has embarked on a high-profile campaign to wrest control of southern Yemen from al Qaeda. But suspicions run high that Yemen's current government is still covering for the terrorist organization. Ghazwan, who specializes in al Qaeda and military affairs, argued that militants escaped Hadi's offensive largely unscathed primarily with the help of top military leaders. "During the latest war, al Qaeda was able to reproduce itself through relationships with top military leaders," he said.

When the Yemeni military took the southern cities of Zinjibar and Jaar in its lightning campaign in June, Ansar al-Sharia beat a hasty retreat to the port city of Shaqra. When the army moved on Shaqra, the organization was able to regroup with all its heavy weaponry in the remote stronghold area of Mehfid, where it remains today -- and which will likely be the staging ground for even larger battles, Ghazwan noted.

Ghazwan said that a special unit cobbled together from local tribesman and military personnel had been formed with the purpose of defending an area called the Khubr Triangle, which lies between Shaqra and Mehfid. The unit was supposed to intercept Ansar al-Sharia on the al Qaeda offshoot's way to Mehfid. Yet, the unit's leader told Ghazwan that when the battle came, Military Operations ordered him not to intercept al Qaeda.

"Orders came at the time of the battle saying, 'This brigade should not move to Khubr.' And they stayed where they were for two days. And Ansar al-Sharia was able to move all of its heavy equipment to Mehfid," Ghazwan said.

"When you call mid-ranking military officials and speak to them on this issue," Ghazwan pointed out, "they tell you, 'We don't know who's behind this. Orders came from Military Operations not to move.' This indicates that al Qaeda has its hands in the highest ranks of military leadership who make the decisions."

Asked whether this oversight could have been because the officer who gave the orders had made a tactical error or was unaware of Ansar al-Sharia's movements, Ghazwan scoffed: "If that were true, then that too would be a huge problem, because commanders are supposed to be military experts, not ignorant of the enemy's movements." Solemnly, he added, "They [military leaders] gave life to al Qaeda once more. It had been on the verge of death."

As for why elements inside the Yemeni government would cooperate with or encourage al Qaeda's activities, the benefit is clear. The United States backed Saleh's regime with millions of dollars of assistance for his counterterrorism operations -- and it now backs the Hadi government in the hope that it can eradicate the terrorist threat and stabilize Yemen. But elements in the government have an incentive to keep the pot boiling: The greater al Qaeda's profile in Yemen, the more U.S. dollars flow to Yemeni government coffers. And with the country's history of rampant corruption, it should shock no one if much of that foreign assistance finds its way into politicians' pockets.

To the Interior Ministry officer, this couldn't be clearer. "The authorities get support from outside powers, like the U.S. They catch them [al Qaeda operatives] and then let them go to do other operations in order to extort support from other countries," he said matter-of-factly.

Ghazwan had a more nuanced view. "The issue is that those who collude with al Qaeda are not low- or mid-level officers. Those officers don't cooperate with al Qaeda," he said. "It's the highest-level leaders, who don't actually believe in the preachings of Ansar al-Sharia, but who manipulate them to remain in the government or bring a particular party to power."

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 29/08/2012
-Sam Kimball is a freelance reporter based in Sanaa, Yemen

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Iran Said To Send Troops To Bolster Syria

Commanders and Hundreds of Elite Soldiers Deployed to Damascus, Members Say, as Deepening Conflict Worries Key Ally.


Syrian Speaker Mohammed Jihad al-Laham, left, and Alaeddin Boroujerdi of the Iran parliament's national security committee Saturday in Damascus.

Iran is sending commanders from its elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and hundreds of foot soldiers to Syria, according to current and former members of the corps.

The personnel moves come on top of what these people say are Tehran's stepped-up efforts to aid the military of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with cash and arms. That would indicate that regional capitals are being drawn deeper into Syria's conflict—and undergird a growing perception among Mr. Assad's opponents that the regime's military is increasingly strained.

A commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, appeared to offer Iran's first open acknowledgment of its military involvement in Syria.
"Today we are involved in fighting every aspect of a war, a military one in Syria and a cultural one as well," Gen. Salar Abnoush, commander of IRGC's Saheb al-Amr unit, told volunteer trainees in a speech Monday. The comments, reported by the Daneshjoo news agency, which is run by regime-aligned students, couldn't be independently verified. Top Iranian officials had previously said the country isn't involved in the conflict.

Iran has long trained members of the Syrian security apparatus in cybersecurity and spying on dissidents, U.S. officials and Syrian opposition members have said. The decision to send Iranian personnel comes after rebel attacks this summer in Syria's biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, in particular an explosion in July that killed four members of Mr. Assad's inner circle, according to the people familiar with the IRGC.

Syria's regime is increasingly relying on a core of loyalists to conduct operations, say Syrian opposition members and rebel fighters. In recent weeks, Mr. Assad's army has been hobbled by defections, losing territory in Kurdish areas as well as near Turkey's border, these people say. On Monday, a Syrian military helicopter crashed in a ball of fire in Damascus, according to the Associated Press, citing activists and video footage.
Syria's uprising has placed Iran in a foreign-policy predicament. As the Arab Spring unfolded in countries including Libya, Egypt and Bahrain, the Islamic Republic cast its own revolution as an inspiration for the uprisings.

But Tehran didn't support the protesters in Syria—its closest ally in the region, the conduit between it and the Lebanese Shiite militant and political group Hezbollah, and a gateway for Iranian influence in the Arab world. Iran's most influential voices, including its supreme leader and the political and military power structures, have steadfastly supported Syria's president and, like Mr. Assad, have blamed the country's violence on foreign meddling and terrorists.

But in continuing to support Mr. Assad, Tehran's popular support in the region appears to have waned. Some elements of the government appear to be hedging bets: In the past few months, Iran's Foreign Ministry has reached out to some Syrian opposition members, offering to mediate between the two sides.

Those efforts appear to be overshadowed now by Iran's support for the Syrian military in its fight against the rebel insurgency, according to analysts and the former and current guard members.

"One of Iran's wings will be broken if Assad falls. They are now using all their contacts from Iraq to Lebanon to keep him power," Mohsen Sazegara, a founding IRGC member who now opposes the Iranian regime and lives in exile in the U.S., said by telephone.

On Thursday, Iran's defense minister publicly signaled a shift. If Syria fails to put down the uprising, Iran would send military help based on a mutual defense agreement between the two countries, two Iranian newspapers quoted Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi as saying. Syria hadn't asked for assistance yet, he added.

"Syria is managing this situation very well on its own," he said. "But if the government can't resolve the crisis on its own, then based on their request we will fulfill our mutual defense-security pact."

Syria's crisis tops the agenda at the summit of Non-Aligned Movement nations this week in Tehran. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Thursday that Iran would announce a surprise peace plan for Syria during the five-day conference, which started Sunday.

In Tehran, Syrian National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar met Monday with several Iranian officials and expressed Syria's gratitude. "The people of Syria will never forget the support of Iran during these difficult times," Mr. Haidar said, according to Iranian media.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word in all state matters, has appointed Qasim Solaimani, the commander of the elite Quds Forces, to spearhead military cooperation with Mr. Assad and his forces, according to an IRGC member in Tehran with knowledge about deployments to Syria.

The Quds Forces are the IRGC's operatives outside Iran, responsible for training proxy militants and exporting the revolution's ideology. The U.S. blames the Quds Forces for terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Solaimani has convinced Mr. Khamenei that Iran's borders extend beyond geographic frontiers, and fighting for Syria is an integral part of keeping the Shiite Crescent intact," said the IRGC member in Tehran. The so-called Crescent, which came together after Saddam Hussein's fall, includes Shiites from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

Iran is now sending hundreds of rank-and-file members of the IRGC and the basij—a plainclothes volunteer militia answering to the guards—to Damascus, said two people in the IRGC familiar with the movements.

Many of the Iranian troops hail from IRGC units outside Tehran, these people say, particularly from Iran's Azerbaijan and Kurdistan regions where they have experience dealing with ethnic separatist movements. They are replacing low-ranking Syrian soldiers who have defected to the Syrian opposition, these people said, and mainly assume non-fighting roles such as guarding weapons caches and helping to run military bases.

Iran is also deploying IRGC commanders to guide Syrian forces in battle strategy and Quds commanders to help with military intelligence, Mr. Sazegara and the current IRGC members said.
On the other side of Syria's conflict, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have funded and armed opposition rebels, while Turkey has allowed them to keep an unofficial base near Syria's border. Foreign Arab fighters, many of them extremist Jihadist, have also flocked to Syria to fight alongside rebels.

Iran has also started moving military aid and cash to Syria through Iranian companies in Iraq, such as a construction company owned by a former IRGC member now living in Iraq and a tour company servicing pilgrims to holy Shiite sites, said Mr. Sazegara and a person in Iran familiar with the construction company.

The IRGC and Syrian forces are working together to free 48 Iranian hostages kidnapped by a unit of the opposition Free Syrian Army this month, according to two IRGC officials in Tehran as well as comments from an Iranian parliamentarian in Damascus this week.

Iran at first denied the kidnapped Iranians had any link with the IRGC. But Mr. Salehi later said some of the hostages were retired members of the IRGC, calling them Iran's "most dear and beloved." Iranian opposition media, meanwhile, have named four of the men, calling them current IRGC commanders from various Iranian provinces.

Iran's ambassador to Syria said recently that the hostages' whereabouts have been determined and that Iran is negotiation with Syria on how to rescue them, Iranian media reported. The envoy also said Iran and Syria had formed a joint committee, with intelligence, policy and military experts, for the rescue mission. Iranian media said Monday that this committee sends Mr. Assad regular updates of their findings.

-This report was published in The Wall Street Journal on 28/08/2012