Syria: intervention imminent?

Turkey on June 24 called a NATO meeting to discuss a response to the shooting down of one of its warplanes by Syrian forces the previous day. Ankara accuses Syria of shooting its F-4 Phantom over international waters without warning, and denies it was on a spy mission. While acknowledging that the plane briefly entered Syrian airspace, Ankara says it was on a routine test of Turkey’s own radar system. Damascus says the jet was shot down less than a mile from Syria's coastal province of Latakia. (BBC News, LAT, June 24; Reuters, WSJ, June 23)

The crisis comes on the heels of growing signs of a consensus for intervention among NATO and its regional allies—and the grooming of the Free Syrian Army as proxies. From The Guardian, June 22:

Saudi officials are preparing to pay the salaries of the Free Syria Army as a means of encouraging mass defections from the military and increasing pressure on the Assad regime, the Guardian has learned.

The move, which has been discussed between Riyadh and senior officials in the US and Arab world, is believed to be gaining momentum as a recent flush of weapons sent to rebel forces by Saudi Arabia and Qatar starts to make an impact on battlefields in Syria.

Officials in the Saudi capital embraced the idea when it was put to them by Arab officials in May, according to sources in three Arab states, around the same time that weapons started to flow across the southern Turkish border into the hands of Free Syria Army leaders.

Turkey has also allowed the establishment of a command centre in Istanbul which is co-ordinating supply lines in consultation with FSA leaders inside Syria. The centre is believed to be staffed by up to 22 people, most of them Syrian nationals.

From The Telegraph, June 15:

[S]enior Free Syrian Army representative met in the past week at the US State Department with the US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford and Frederick Hoff, special coordinator for the Middle East, sources have confirmed.

The rebel emissaries, armed with an iPad showing detailed plans on Google Earth identifying rebel positions and regime targets, have also met with senior members of the National Security Council, which advises President Obama on national security policy.

FSA representatives in Washington have compiled a "targeted list" of heavy weaponry, including anti-tank missiles and heavy machine guns that they plan to present to US government officials in the coming two weeks.

From CNN's Security Clearance blog, June 14:

The U.S. military has completed its own planning for how American troops would conduct a variety of operations against Syria, or to assist neighboring countries in the event action was ordered, officials tell CNN.

In recent weeks, the Pentagon has finalized its assessment of what types of units would be needed, how many troops, and even the cost of certain potential operations, officials tell CNN.

Multiple military officials say initial planning is complete with a full understanding of what types of troops and units would be needed. This has been done so that if President Obama were to ask for options the military would be ready to present them. But officials say additional detailed work would have to be done before forces could be deployed.

The planning comes as the U.S. has become increasingly concerned that the violence in Syria is verging on civil war. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the recent series of bombings have heightened the worry.

Dempsey said it reminded him of the escalating violence during the Iraq war.

Inevitably, the desperate will take their allies where they can find them, and the Syrians on the receiving end of the Assad regime's bombs and bullets may well welcome NATO intervention. But we warned a year ago that the Syrian opposition had better beware of their cause being exploited by those who mean them no good. We hope they are going into the next phase of the conflict with their eyes wide open...

See our last posts on Syria and the Arab revolutions.

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Russia, China, Iran plan military maneuvers in Syria?

Probably not. The Jerusalem Post reported that exercises were planned on June 19, citing a report on Iran's Fars News service (described as "semi-official"). The claim was quickly taken up by MENA Financial News and elsewhere. But they failed to note that JP within hours of the original story posted a second report saying that "Russian and Syrian officials dismissed as provocation" the claims. Russia's RT network ran a cranky editorial decrying that the "media war against Syria has got a new target—Russia. Far-fetched stories circulating in western media this week have been raising eyebrows in Moscow." Interestingly, Iranian officials seem not to have weighed in.

What are we to believe?

Syrians for Romney?

This is really depressing, and we hope against hope that it is a Republican psy-op, and this picture was really shot in Texas. But it has been all over Facebook, and on a few right-wing blogs, as well as legitimate sources like The Guardian's Middle East Live blog. This banner is dated December 2011, but apparently activists in Kafranbel, Idlib province, were photographed with a similar banner on June 29 calling for "early elections" in US. Can anyone provide any context? Is this real?


New massacre in Syria

In another contested incident, a new massacre is reported in Tremseh village in Hama province. Opposition activists and witnesses say tanks and helicopters bombarded the village for several hours July 12 before pro-government Shabiha militiamen swept in, shooting and stabbing victims at close range. They assert up to 220 people were killed. The Syrian government says some 50 people were killed, blaming "armed terrorist groups." Tremseh is a predominantly Sunni farming village, surrounded by villages dominated by Alawites. Both sides seem to agree it was a stronghold of the Free Syrian Army. (BBC News, Reuters, July 13)

Usual murkiness in Damascus escalation

A suicide bomber struck July 18 at the heart of Syria's high command, killing Defense Minister Daoud Rajha, intelligence chief Assef Shawkat (Assad's brother-in-law) and former defense minister Gen. Hassan Turkmani. Among those wounded were Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar and Gen. Hisham Ikhtiyar, head of National Security. The rebel Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for the attack. The attack came a day after the FSA declared that its battle to "liberate" Damascus had begun and warned the government to "expect surprises." Fighting is spreading across the capital, with government forces shelling the districts of Qaboon and Barzeh. (Middle East Online, NOW Lebanon, June 18)

The day before the attack, Nawaf Fares, Syria's newly defected former ambassador to Iraq, told the BBC that Assad's regime and al-Qaeda are collaborating to orchestrate major bombings across Syria as a provocation to justify a crackdown. (RFE/RL, July 17)

Syria and the "end of colonialism"

Russia and China veto a Security Council resolution on Syria that left open the door to military intervention. Comments Rami G. Khouri in Lebanon's Daily Star July 21:

Everything going on at the U.N. Security Council is now irrelevant, and has been for about a month, for the center of gravity of this political struggle shifted some time ago to military developments inside Syria. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice's protestations against the Russian and Chinese vetoes of resolutions to pressure Syria are pathetic gibberish, given the much worse track record of the United States in vetoing resolutions that seek to force Israel to comply with international law and morality. The U.S. and Russia at the U.N. are acting like children, with their self-serving hypocrisy and selfishness. We just have to accept that the Security Council does not function when the superpowers shift into infantile mode, and talk nonsense. We should keep our gaze instead on more important things, like developments inside Syria.

This leads me to conclude that the bigger story that links Syria with the other Arab uprisings and recent Middle Eastern developments is that the will and actions of indigenous Arabs, Iranians and Turks will always have a greater impact than anything done by powers abroad. The striking inability of the Americans, Russians and their assorted allies to shape events in Syria follow similar serial failures in recent decades in their attempts to promote Arab-Israeli peace, democratic transformations, economic trajectories or other such strategic issues.

Only when local people across the Middle East took matters into their own hands did conditions change, and history resume. The sentiments of ordinary people such as those in Bab al-Hawa, Midan, Deir al-Zor and Deraa are far more significant that the pronouncements of the world's powers. The sooner we learn this lesson, the better off we will all be.

The colonial era may finally be drawing to a close.

With imperatives for military intervention rising—not "humanitarian" concerns, nor an imperialist plot to remove Assad, but the need to control the political trajectory of a situation spinning out of control—we aren't so sure we are looking at the end of the colonial era. However, Khouri's recognizing the agency of the Syrian people rather than looking at them as mere pawns of the Great Powers (as commentators on the left and right nearly universally do) is extremely refreshing. We hope his optimism will be vindicated.