FP alum Josh Rogin, now plying his trade over at the Daily Beast, had a scoop yesterday: The White House has requested that the Pentagon draw up plans for implementing a no-fly zone in Syria. While President Barack Obama hasn't made any decisions yet, an administration official affirmed, "the planning is moving forward and it's more advanced than it's ever been."
Rogin knows his stuff, and I have no reason to doubt the story is true. But this leak, suggesting America's policy on Syria is poised to change radically, sounds eerily familiar. Here is a trip down memory lane:
May 3, 2013: "U.S. Considering Arming Syria Rebels." -Radio Free Europe
April 5, 2013: "The White House ... is reviewing a new set of potential military options for assisting rebels in Syria." -Wall Street Journal
March 15, 2013: "CIA begins sizing up Islamic extremists in Syria for drone strikes" -Los Angeles Times
Feb. 26, 2013: "U.S. moves toward providing direct aid to Syrian rebels" -Washington Post
Feb. 7, 2013: "Pentagon leaders favored arming Syrian rebels" -Washington Post
Dec. 3, 2012: "The White House has been loath to make a direct intervention in Syria but clearly indicated Monday that the use of chemical weapons could change the equation."-AFP
Nov. 28, 2012: "The Obama administration, hoping that the conflict in Syria has reached a turning point, is considering deeper intervention to help push President Bashar al-Assad from power." -New York Times
Feb. 22, 2012: "Shelling of Homs resumes as U.S. signals possibility of arming Syrian opposition" -Al-Arabiya
Feb. 8, 2012: "International 'militarisation' in Syria growing closer, warns US official" -Telegraph
To be clear, none of these stories is inaccurate. They all quote Obama administration officials' remarks about the options currently on the table to respond to the Syrian crisis. They always note that the White House is considering its options -- not that the president has made a decision yet.
But just because these articles aren't wrong doesn't mean they shed much light on what the Obama administration is thinking on Syria. It's the job of large swathes of the U.S. defense establishment to prepare options in the event that Obama decides to intervene more aggressively. Roughly 24,000 people work in the Pentagon alone -- if one team in the building is mulling efforts to arm the rebels or implement a no-fly zone, it's fair game for a newspaper to write that the Defense Department is in the planning stages on those options. But that doesn't mean the possibility will ever become a reality.
Collectively, all these articles suggest that U.S. policy toward Syria is in a state of flux -- any moment now, the blaring headlines suggest, Washington could jump headfirst into this conflict. In reality, U.S. policy has been fairly constant: The Obama administration provides humanitarian and non-lethal aid to the opposition, but largely is opposed to entangling the American military in the conflict. Like anything else, that could change. But more than two years into this war, the picture should be pretty clear.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
After two years of crowing that the end of Bashar al-Assad was nigh, the official and popular perceptions in the United States and Europe of the Syrian president's staying power have shifted dramatically. There's a new narrative taking hold, fueled by both media reports and assessments by Western intelligence agencies -- that the Assad regime is largely stable, and making significant gains against the rebels throughout the country.
Not so fast. While the regime has made progress on a few fronts, its actual territorial gains are so far rather minor. And in other parts of the country, it's the rebels who are still on the offensive. The Syrian war isn't turning into a regime rout -- the stalemate is only deepening.
In northern Syria, the rebels continue to make slow progress against the remaining Syrian military outposts. The "Youth Camp," one of the few remaining Syrian military strongholds in Idlib province, fell this week -- in this video, Syrian rebels can be seen storming the area. As the New York Times' C. J. Chivers noted recently, the Youth Camp and another Assad stronghold at a nearby brick factory mutually supported each other from rebel attack. With the loss of the Youth Camp, the brick factory will no doubt come under greater pressure. In Aleppo, meanwhile, Syrian rebels kept up their assault on the central prison, employing mortar shelling and car bombs.
The most active front where Assad is on the offensive is Qusayr, where rebel forces are defending the western city from a joint assault by Hezbollah and Syrian military forces. The battle has dragged on for six days, despite early regime claims of a quick victory, with Hezbollah suffering significant losses in the conflict. Given the balance of forces, Qusayr will likely eventually fall to Assad. But despite being regularly described in the press as "strategic" -- much like every other contested town in Syria has been -- it is not the only opposition hub for weapons flowing from Lebanon, and its strategic benefits went largely unremarked during the more than a year it was under the control of the opposition.
Elsewhere, Assad's victories have largely consisted of preventing the rebels from making progress. He appears to have gained a stronger grip over the suburbs ringing Damascus, preventing the rebels from launching an offensive on the capital, and halted rebel gains in the south by capturing the southern town of Khirbet Ghazaleh.
Assad also has a numbers problem. As this valuable article from the Washington Post's Liz Sly makes clear, his gains have largely been achieved through mobilizing some 60,000 militiamen drawn primarily from the Alawite sect, to which Assad belongs. The short-term benefits of that strategy are obvious -- but by increasing the sectarian nature of this struggle, Assad endangers his remaining Sunni support, which has been so vital to his family's dynasty since his father seized power in 1970. By relying solely on minority groups -- even with Hezbollah support -- it is unclear how the Syrian regime has the manpower to reclaim the large swathes of territory it has lost in the north and the east.
None of this is to say that the old conventional wisdom -- that Assad's fall was just around the corner -- was right all along. However, the narrative that the Syrian regime is making sweeping gains across the country is just as wrongheaded. What we are really witnessing is the beginning of a bloody conflict that, if the world does nothing to stop it, could continue for years on end.
Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images
With more than 80,000 people dead and millions more driven from their homes, can Syria's opposition and President Bashar al-Assad's regime really negotiate a political settlement?
At least one opposition leader is willing to give it a try. Former Syrian National Coalition President Moaz al-Khatib presented a 16-point initiative today that would pave the way for a political transition in Syria. It calls for Assad to hand over power to either his vice president or prime minister, and to leave the country with 500 people of his choosing. The Syrian government would then remain in place for 100 days to restructure the security services, after which a transitional authority would replace it. Those fighters who engaged in "legal military action" during the conflict would be granted a pardon -- but Assad and his 500 departing supporters would be provided with no legal protection.
That would be a great deal for the opposition. And given the circumstances, they just aren't going to get it: Assad's forces are on the offensive in several key areas, most notably the western city of Qusayr. Western governments are finally coming to grips with the fact that the regime is more stable than previously believed; German's foreign intelligence agency now believes that the Syrian military can retake large swathes of the country by the end of the year. Khatib's initiative reads like terms of surrender -- Assad isn't going to sign it at a moment when he's winning.
Nevertheless, Khatib's plan is an important indicator of where the Syrian opposition stands on the possibility of a peace deal. He likely released the proposal now because of internal opposition politics, rather than the state of the conflict more broadly: The Syrian National Council launched the beginning of its two-day general assembly in Istanbul today, where it will select a new president. Khatib abruptly resigned the presidency two months ago -- only to immediately try to un-resign, a maneuver thwarted by his rivals in the coalition. Khatib may hope that, by floating his initiative now, he can convince the new opposition leadership to endorse it in the run-up to potential talks with the regime, which will be mediated by the United States and Russia.
The initiative also shows where the opposition disagrees -- and where there is broad consensus -- regarding a negotiated settlement with the regime. Following Khatib's departure, the Syrian National Coalition has been largely dismissive of peace talks, saying that Assad's departure must come first, while Free Syrian Army commander Salim Idris has repeatedly said that the rebels must receive a greater infusion of weaponry before peace talks can begin. But while there is friction between Khatib and other elements of the opposition on opening talks with the regime, they agree on an important point: At the end of the process, Assad must go.
Needless to say, that's not something that Assad is yet willing to contemplate. And until he does, even if peace talks get off the ground, it's doubtful that they will go very far.
DANI POZO/AFP/Getty Images
The shocking video of a Syrian rebel eating the lung of a pro-Assad fighter spread like wildfire across the Internet earlier this week. The rebel, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Sakkar, has filmed a YouTube video explaining his actions.
"I am willing to face trial for my actions if Bashar and his shabeeha [militiamen] stand trial for their atrocities," he says. "My message to the world is if the bloodshed in Syria doesn't stop, all of Syria will become like Abu Sakkar."
The Syrian rebel, whose real name is Khalid al-Hamad, goes on to explain that he did what he did because of atrocities committed by pro-Assad fighters. He said that evidence taken from their cell phones showed how they raped women, killed children, and tortured men. In an article published this week by TIME magazine, the rebel fighter explained that he had a sectarian hatred of Alawites, and that he had made another video where he cuts up a pro-Assad fighter's body with a saw.
Abu Sakkar's actions not only created controversy among observers of the conflict, but also prompted the Syrian rebel leadership to take action. The Free Syrian Army's Military Council released a statement condemning Abu Sakkar's "monstrous act," and instructed field commanders to being an investigation "in which the perpetrator will be brought to justice."
So far, however, Abu Sakkar appears to still be on the battlefield. At the end of the video, the cameraman asks him whether he will continue fighting after this controversy. "Victory or martyrdom, I will fight to the death," he replies, then walks off down the road.
Even as Washington debates whether suspected chemical weapons use in Syria should provoke direct intervention, Secretary of State John Kerry stepped back from the Obama administration's longstanding position that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad needs to leave power.
"[I]t's impossible for me as an individual to understand how Syria could possibly be governed in the future by the man who has committed the things that we know have taken place," Kerry said at a press conference yesterday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, where the two officials laid out a plan for an international conference to reach a negotiated settlement to the Syrian conflict. "But ... I'm not going to decide that tonight, and I'm not going to decide that in the end."
Kerry's remarks came on the same day that President Barack Obama repeated his administration's stance that Assad must leave power. In a White House statement, Obama called on the Assad regime to end its "violent war" and "step aside to allow a political transition in Syria." Obama first called on Assad to resign in August 2011, saying that it should be done "[f]or the sake of the Syrian people."
The U.S. insistence on Assad's exit has long been a sticking point in its attempts to find common ground with Russia on the Syrian issue. The two sides now seem to be trying to bridge this gap: Lavrov said that he was "not interested in the fate of certain persons" when it comes time to determine who sits in a transitional government.
Kerry framed his refusal to say that Assad should step down as in line with the June 2011 Geneva communiqué, which was supposed to provide a roadmap for a negotiated settlement in Syria. The communiqué, which was agreed to by both Russia and the United States, ducked the issue of Assad's future by saying that each side -- the Syrian opposition and the regime -- would be able to veto candidates for an interim government who they found unacceptable. Presumably, the opposition would veto Assad while the regime would veto radical Islamist groups like the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra.
Washington and Moscow seem prepared to move quickly to get both sides to the negotiating table. Kerry said that Russia would try to arrange a conference as early as this month.
A failure to reach a compromise, Kerry argued, would mean that the bloodshed in Syria would only worsen. "The alternative is that Syria heads closer to the abyss, if not over the abyss, and into chaos," he said. "The alternative is that the humanitarian crisis will grow. The alternative is that there may be the break-up of Syria or ethnic attacks, ethnic cleansing."
Update: A State Department official, speaking on background to FP, clarified the U.S. position on Syria after this post was published. The official said that the U.S. position that Assad "has lost all legitimacy and must step aside" was unchanged, and that the United States also believes that Syrians must negotiate the makeup of a transitional government themselves.
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
There's a culture war playing out in Egypt these days over the degree to which Islam should be part of the country's political life. But in interviews with foreign journalists, President Mohamed Morsy keeps reaching for another cultural touchstone -- life in the United States in the late 1960s and 1970s.
The latest example comes in an interview with Morsy published in the Globe and Mail. "You are too young to remember [Walter] Cronkite, I think," the president said, before adopting the CBS Evening News anchorman's famous sign-off to drive home a point about Egyptian politics: "That's the way it is."
Morsy's familiarity with this period should come as little surprise, as he moved to the United States in 1978 to pursue an engineering Ph.D. at the University of Southern California. The Vietnam War drama The Deer Hunter -- a three-hour epic about the destructive effects of war on the human psyche -- was released the same year. As Shadi Hamid wrote in his FP profile of the Egyptian president, Morsy indicated his familiarity with the film -- and even did "an impromptu impression of a former U.S. president."
Finally, who can forget Morsy's interview with TIME magazine, where he references a scene in the 1968 science fiction film Planet of the Apes to implore mankind to build a more just society. The president even knew that there had been a remake of the film, and that the Mark Wahlberg vehicle didn't live up to the original. "There is a new one," he told the interviewers. "Which is different. Not so good. It's not expressing the reality as it was the first one."
You can read too much into these throwaway cultural references, but it does appear that Morsy is most familiar with a low point in 20th-century U.S. history. The Vietnam War, the lack of trust in America's political leadership following Richard Nixon's resignation, and the Cold War's looming threat of nuclear annihilation -- those would have been inescapable realities confronting Morsy as he arrived in California in the late 1970s. In his Globe and Mail interview, the president compared Egypt's current difficulties to the 1973 oil embargo and the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis -- two more events that highlighted America's economic and political vulnerabilities.
Of course, Morsy stayed in the United States long enough to see the election of Ronald Reagan. Does the Egyptian president see any parallels between himself and the conservative icon who promised to restore his nation to greatness? If Morsy keeps talking to foreign reporters, some day we may just find out.
The big news in Cairo is that a long-awaited cabinet reshuffle has finally become a reality. President Mohamed Morsy swore in nine new ministers today in a move that increases the Muslim Brotherhood's representation in the government. The shakeup comes as Egypt is deep in talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) about a $4.8 billion loan intended to help the country jumpstart its stagnant economy.
The IMF talks mean that the replacement of Egypt's finance minister is the most important change to come out of the reshuffle. The new finance minister is Fayyad Abdel Moneim, who previously worked as an economics professor at al-Azhar University, the oldest Sunni Muslim educational institution in the world.
Abdel Moneim, however, may not have a great deal of experience cutting deals with the IMF. According to his biography -- published on the prospectus of an Islamic capital holding where he served as sharia advisor -- Abdel Moneim has made his career entirely in the insular world of Islamic finance. He received his master's degree and Ph.D. from al-Azhar University -- his master's thesis tackled the issue of how the money supply should be organized in Islamic thought, while his Ph.D. thesis addressed the performance of Islamic banks in Egypt.
The new finance minister parlayed this knowledge of Islamic finance into a successful career in the field. He was the manager of the Islamic Research Center in Cairo's International Islamic Investment and Development Bank, and a consultant to numerous Islamic banking enterprises. He also conducted research "on the international economic crises from an Islamic economic perspective," as well as "the economic roles of the Islamic country in the Prophet's and major eras."
A strict interpretation of sharia forbids paying interest or engaging in other activities that form the basis for the modern banking system -- Islamic finance is an effort to align Islamic law with today's investment practices. Sharia-compliant financial products boomed in the 2000s, and Islamic finance assets hit $1.3 trillion in 2011. The growth may be impressive, but Islamic finance is still a niche field -- the Islamic bond market, for instance, represents only 0.1 percent of the global bond market.
The IMF has studied Islamic finance in the past, and some of Egypt's ultra-conservative Salafist leaders have made their peace with the prospect of an international loan. A deal, therefore, is still likely possible -- and a government spokesman was quick to argue that "[t]here will be no impact on the IMF discussions," according to Bloomberg. But with negotiations having already dragged out for the entirety of Morsy's term, that may not be good enough.
Early on Sunday morning, the skies over Damascus lit up with explosions as Israeli jets launched airstrikes near the capital. The target was reportedly the innocuously named Center of Scientific Studies and Research in the suburb of Jamraya, which goes by its French initials CERS.
CERS, according to Western intelligence agencies, is in charge of research and development for Syria's chemical and biological weapons programs. It has long been on the radar of the Israelis: As far back as 2010, an Israeli general warned that the site "will be demolished" if it continued to transfer weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas, and it was already targeted by a suspected Israeli strike in January. While CERS is an ostensibly civilian agency, it works hand in glove with the Syrian military: In the 1990s, the U.S. Defense Department reported that the Assad regime had set up a production line to manufacture bomblets containing VX nerve agent at an underground site in the same location as CERS's Damascus facility.
How did CERS acquire the know-how to manufacture such weapons? The crucial period was in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Assad regime researched and acquired sarin gas, which it now stands accused of using in small quantities on its own people. During this period, Syria did not rely on rogue states, or even entirely on its alliance with the Soviet Union, to acquire its chemical weapons stockpile -- it simply asked European companies for the technology.
Foreign assistance was of "critical importance in allowing Syria to develop its chemical warfare capability, and ...West European firms were instrumental in supplying the required precursor chemicals and equipment," testified then-CIA Director William Webster before Congress in 1989. "Without the provision of these key elements, Damascus would not have been able to produce chemical weapons."
In order to receive European help, Syria exploited gaping loopholes in the Western anti-proliferation regime. President Hafez al-Assad established CERS in 1971 as a civilian agency dedicated to research in unthreatening fields such as solar energy, sewage treatment, and telecommunications. In reality, by the 1980s CERS reported directly to Assad, and the agency director-general was promoted to the rank of cabinet minister. CERS's true aim was to scour Europe for dual-use technology that could bolster its chemical weapons program.
The Assad regime was massively successful. CERS received financial support to purchase equipment from the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO, and it sent its engineers for training at the French government's official research agency, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). Until the early 1990s, the French government was actively encouraging French high-tech companies to do business with CERS, according to a 1992 report by Middle East Defense News (Mednews).
European companies, rather than inquiring about how their sensitive technology would be used, looked to make a quick profit by providing CERS with whatever it desired. In the mid-1980s, the West German company Schott Glasswerke provided high-durability glass instruments for what the Syrians dubbed the "Borosilicate Glass Project" --- but which was, in reality, a project to manufacture sarin gas. According to Mednews, over a dozen major German companies also supplied CERS with sensitive hardware.
By 1992, Europe had wised up to the military research being conducted by CERS -- but the damage had already been done. The Assad regime had already acquired stockpiles of sarin gas and potentially VX nerve agent. These same weapons are now causing headaches for governments across the globe: Israel's recent strike allegedly targeted ballistic missiles bound for Hezbollah, and one reason Jerusalem acted so aggressively is no doubt because it fears Assad could enable the Lebanese militant group to launch chemical weapon-tipped missiles.
But even while Syria's chemical weapons program was advancing, some European officials knew that something was not quite right. "Every day I sign off on export licenses," Mednews quoted a senior French licensing official as saying, "and I wonder whether I have not just signed my resignation."
GERARD CERLES/AFP/Getty Images
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