7 solutions to the Syria problem
Posted: 08/07/2012 12:00:00 AM EDT | 2
About the author
A defence consultant, Mr. Farwell is an expert in strategic communication, political and sovereignty issues in the Middle East, North Africa and southwest Asia, and in cyber. He is the author of The Pakistan Cauldron: Conspiracy, Assassination & Instability (Washington: Potomac Books, 2011), and the forthcoming Power & Persuasion (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2012).
The Syrian insurgency belies the familiar Arabic and Chinese proverb that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
A critical question must be addressed: Who might seek to acquire elements of Bashar al-Assad’s large, sophisticated arsenal of Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High Explosive (CBRNE) weapons? Furthermore, who is prepared to deal with that challenge or the threats posed by a regime that employs such weapons?
The rebellion has already killed 19,000 Syrians. What began as a peaceful protest in 2011 against Bashar al-Assad’s political repression has turned into a full-blown civil war. At a minimum, the conflict appears likely to reduce Assad and the Alawites – who comprise 13% of Syria’s 23 million population – to a rump state on the Mediterranean based in Latakia, which is the de facto capital of the Alawite heartland. Amid reports that half those residents oppose Assad, his ability to secure even this base is unclear.
Assad and his cohorts have stumbled badly in confronting political reality, flubbing any opportunity for reconciliation, even if they didn’t have any interest in it to begin with. Now it’s up to the international community to take action and keep his formidable WMD arsenal from being used or falling into the wrong hands.
Syrian officials acknowledge that the regime possesses deadly chemical and biological weapons. Apparently sarin nerve agent, mustard gas and cyanide stocks are broadly dispersed. Arguably that was done to strengthen their security, but nothing today in Syria is secure. The regime claims it would never use such weapons against Syrians, although Yemen and Iraq, which used them against their people, offer a cautionary tale. Assad may or may not grasp that using WMDs against anyone will provoke a fierce international response.
Syria’s professed pledge
While pledging against the use of WMDs on Syrians, the regime has threatened to use them against foreign forces.
What does that mean? Obviously it embraces a foreign invasion force. The picture from there grows cloudy.
The regime blames the rebellion for the influx of non-Syrian foreign assailants. Clearly the Free Syria Army (SFA) receives external support. Does the regime view its members or supporters as ‘foreigners,’ much as Islamic terrorists have justified violence against innocent Israeli civilians on the specious theory that Israel is a militarised state, rendering all of its citizens ‘fair game’ for terrorist acts? Some Alawites perceive the Sunnis – or factions of them – as foreigners. Does this render them targets?
What about Islamic extremists like members of Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham min Mujahedi alSham fi Sahat al-Jihad (The Support Front for the People of the Levant by the Levantine Mujahedin on the Battlefields of Jihad), usually called the Al Nusra Front, a group linked to Al Qaeda? There is irony here, as on this issue we could be siding with Sunni extremists against Assad in Syria while fighting them in Iraq. Further, Syria had previously provided sanctuary for Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) operatives who had moved – and continue to move – back and forth between the two countries, battling both the Iraqi and Syrian governments. Two secular governments – one an ally, the other a foe – are battling the same Sunni Islamic extremists.
The bottom line is that Syria’s pledge to refrain from using WMDs is ambivalent. Assad’s actions hardly inspire trust. The pledge to avoid using WMDs must be viewed with suspicion.
Our enemies are our enemies
One worries less about Assad using WMDs against Islamic extremists than the threat that the extremists themselves might seize them. The influx of violent extremist groups into Syria is growing. Besides the important Al Nusra Front, over half a dozen Sunni extremist groups have surfaced: the Ahrar al-Sham Brigades, a network of Islamist militia operating in several provinces; the Ansar Brigade in or near Homs; Fath al-Islam, a Syrian-Lebanese-Palestinian group; a group named after Al Qaeda leader Omar Farouq, who was killed near Basra in 2006 (not to be confused with a different Al Farouq Brigade that is part of the FSA); the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, associated with Al Qaeda; Al Baraa Ibn Malik Martyrdom Brigade, named after an Al Qaeda Iraq cell, which claims to have formed an anti-Assad martyrdom battalion; the Liwa al Islam (Brigade of Islam), which, like FSA, has claimed credit for the bombing that killed four key leaders around Assad; and members of Al Qaeda Iraq.
We must presume that each would like to get their hands on any component of Syria’s CBRNE arsenal. That they might employ them is a real concern. Equally, if they acquired such weapons, they might transfer them to other troublesome third parties. For its part, Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Liberman has understandably made clear that efforts by Assad to transfer WMDs, notably to Hezbollah or Iran, would be a causus belli. The international community must be prepared to take action to prevent Assad or any other party from making such transfer to those or other enemies.
Kurdish nationals pose a separate concern. Centred in Syria’s northeast, the Kurds have kept out of the insurrection so far. But their desire to carve out a niche, perhaps in conjunction with Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, worries some people. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has refused to participate in the uprising, and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) are active political players.
Prime Minster Recept Tayyip Erdogan has declared that Turkey will not tolerate a Kurdish-run region in Syria. He has warned the PYD and PKK to avoid collaborating. Such warnings could impel Kurdish activists to try and seize parts of Assad’s CBRNE arsenal. Kurdish activists may perceive that possessing chemical or biological weapons would strengthen their hand in dealing with the Turks and promoting their own interests. That judgment might prove correct. If Kurdish activists get such weapons, it’s not clear what they might do with them.
Divisions have emerged within the FSA and the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council (SNC), which has acted as the diplomatic voice for the insurrection. Instead of helping, the SNC is fast losing credibility. Some critics snipe that it’s too close to foreign powers like Qatar and Turkey. Others worry that Islamists control it. Concerns have been voiced that it has failed to reach out to Christians and other minorities, including Alawites, to ensure that a post-Assad era respects religious tolerance and principles of political pluralism. The European Union, which had embraced the SNC last November, seems to be backing away from it. Western leaders are searching for a figure and leadership team that could effectively lead a new transition government. In short, diplomatically, there is confusion and disorder, and that increases the WMD theat.
There are a lot of moving pieces and each complicates the chaotic strategic situation. Sensing his own danger, Assad appears to be pulling his thinly-stretched forces back from parts of the country. His security, militia and military appear to be taking heavy casualties. He has maintained the loyalty of the core Alawite elements, but many believe that the regime has decided to consolidate their position around Latakia, where the Alawite population is centred. That could increase uncertainties. When dictatorial regimes fall, they may collapse suddenly. An enclave strategy may or may not work. Syria’s CBRNE arsenal may be secure today, but that’s no guarantee it will be tomorrow.
For their part, Russia, China and Iran have shown little interest in undercutting Assad. While one presumes they will cover their bets over the uprising’s outcome, Russian and Chinese opposition to foreign intervention stems from deep-rooted concerns against legitimizing foreign meddling that aims to block suppression of internal dissent. They will do nothing that sets a precedent that anyone may invoke against their own security practices.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also gripes that the West used UN sanctions for humanitarian action in Libya to push a broader Western political agenda. He wants no repetition. Russians are paranoid about encirclement. They remember talk about drawing Georgia and the Ukraine into NATO. Putin seems to understand that the uprising may succeed. But neither he nor the Chinese leadership seem anxious to facilitate the regime’s demise. That does not mean both countries should not and cannot play a useful role on WMDs.
Iran, of course, is no help at all. It has provided advice, materials, and political support to Assad. Syria is seen as a bridge to its ally, Hezbollah. Its support for him will persist, although, sensitive about its own efforts to develop a nuclear arms program, Iran seems unlikely to take action that causes Syria’s CBRNE arsenal to get loose.
A regime collapse could put elements of that arsenal up for grabs by a diverse mix of forces. Revolutions are messy and chaotic. One cannot easily forecast who would prevail. As chaos deepens, the uprising picks up steam and Assad’s grip weakens, what’s to be done about Syrian CBRNEs?
Securing or destroying Syria’s WMD arsenal
The critical goal is keeping the WMD arsenal secure, seizing it, or destroying it, as well as deterring Assad from employing such weapons.
A confluent series of steps make sense, but let’s put ill-considered talk about foreign intervention into its proper box. Providing intelligence, technical support, training, anti-tank weapons and weapons to shoot down Assad’s helicopters that can provide his forces with invaluable tactical support is one thing. Sending an invasion force is implausible. That operation would be difficult, entail urban warfare, and nobody has an army that it’s willing to employ for the job.
Therefore, it makes sense to focus on what is actionable in reality. The options are as follows…
Deterring use of WMDs
- Communicate through diplomatic and Western military channels to Syrian military and security forces that any order to employ WMDs against any party is illegal and will subject any participant to criminal prosecution in the International Court of Justice. That warning should apply to participation in any transfer of WMDs to Hezbollah, Iran, or other terrorist group. Eventually, the international community must devise a procedure for transferring control, hopefully to a new, stable government that can be trusted to secure the arsenals and preferably destroy them under international supervision.
- Persuade Syrian military defectors like BG Manaf Tlass to contact his fellow flag officers and persuade them both to abandon Assad and enjoin them against taking any action in using any WMD. Apparently Tlass is already seeking new defectors. He and other defectors need to broaden their message to cover WMDS, if they are not already doing so.
- Communicate to Assad that use of any WMD will cause Western nations to lift the current ban on targeting a Head of State for death. Assad should be warned that use of any WMD carries an extreme price.
- Forge and execute a strategic communication campaign directed to the Alawite community warning that as an ethnic group they will suffer global ignominy if their leaders use WMDs against fellow Syrians and urge them to join in overthrowing the dictatorship.
- Communicate to Assad that use of any WMD will provoke international intervention. That does not mean sending in an Army. That is not going to happen, and we should not make empty threats. But other action – air strikes or special operations – fall within the realm of plausible options.
- Some suggest creating “safe havens” for refugees. If done, the international community must make clear to Assad that no violence of any kind against refugees inside them will be tolerated. Equally, Assad must not misconstrue the creation of safe havens for refugees as a green light to use WMDs outside of them.
- Russian and Chinese interests dictate ensuring that no WMD falls into the hands of Sunni Islamist extremists or is employed. We should focus attention, behind the scenes, in persuading them to help achieve that goal. There is common ground within all parties to accomplish it. They may be able to obtain the location of the CBRNE arsenals. That intelligence would help. Both countries cannot legitimately countenance the use of WMDs. They should make clear to Assad that use of any WMD will forfeit their support and, indeed, cause Russia and China to actively assist in his removal and the destruction of his regime, whether it controls all or part of Syria.
Securing or destroying WMDs
- Accurate intelligence and information is critical. FOX News has reported that the US knows where chemical weapons are stored. The report is unconfirmed. We should presume nothing. Iraq’s chemical weapons survived the 1991 war because intelligence proved less accurate than supposed. ISR efforts have improved greatly as have detection methods. These need to be maintained or intensified. The FSA sources that we might trust can help achieve this goal by providing on-the-ground information.
- Should Syria try to transfer WMDs outside of the country, air strikes, preferably led by regional nations like Qatar, Jordan, and Turkey, may be essential. That may not prove easy. Syrian air defences – centred in the Western part of the country, where many arsenals exist, are large and sophisticated. Successful air strikes require first suppressing these defences. Another challenge is that chemical weapons are usually stored in large containers. While the components of binary weapons must be combined in order to employ them, an air strike could cause the release into the air of hazardous agents, posing a danger to innocent civilians. Another problem is that the damage still needs to be verified, so that air strikes may not be sufficient. Michael Eisenstadt has suggested the possibility of obstructing the entrances to mountainside chemical weapon bunkers with bombing and mining to deal with those stocks. His idea merits exploring.
- We need to warn the SFA that any looting or pillaging by their forces of WMDs will elicit a harsh response. The interest of the international community lies in keeping WMDs out of the hands of any particular political faction until a procedure for dealing with them is devised and gains acceptance from the international community. While that may prove difficult, the task must be undertaken.
- Former UN Ambassador John Bolton has advised warning insurgents that looting or pillaging will deprive any guilty party of post-Assad era support. He’s right.
- Warn Iran and Hezbollah against attempting to acquire the arsenals. Israel has already stated that would be a cause for war. The international community should make clear that such action will provoke an immediate kinetic response.
- Special Operations missions led by regional nations may yet prove the best way to confirm the location of Assad’s arsenals and to destroy them.
- What if Assad retreats to the Alawite base in Latakia, carrying with him his arsenals? That may not be cause to secure or destroy them, but all the actions noted above to deter use or transfer of WMDs should be forcibly communicated.
- Warning the Islamic extremists against seizing or using WMDs is useless. Let’s not deceive ourselves. These groups are enemies. Let’s deal with them as they were dealt with in Iraq. Preferably, the FSA should take the lead, with support from regional neighbours. We should provide whatever support is required. If that fails, the international community should take up the challenge. There may be nothing simple about this but better to quell the extremists before they grow stronger.
- The SNC and FSA should mount a strong strategic communication campaign, with international community resourcing and support, to warn the Syrian population about the danger that WMDs falling into the wrong hands presents and to enlist their support in helping identify the location of any arsenal, and any effort to loot, pillage, or otherwise gain control of a WMD. Although the FSA has internal divisions, currently it seems the best party to act on such information. How this is done needs careful thought so that a strategic communication plan matches the realities on the ground and becomes actionable.
The days of the Assad regime’s dominance over Syria may be numbered. Its total collapse seems less clear, as it may well succeed in establishing an enclave based in Latakia. But the threat posed by its formidable CBRNE arsenal is immense. Now is the time to forge and execute actionable plans to deter the use of any WMD, prevent their transfer, and to secure or destroy them should any real possibility that they could get loose emerge, in the wake of Syria’s political chaos.
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7 solutions are just wasting time and more lives wasted. Just send in the drones and take out Assay and his regime.