As underlined when we started the series on Syria, one of the analytical challenges we face, in terms of strategic foresight and warning, is the fog of war. The, at time, rapid evolution of the situation, fits badly with any static mean to deliver analysis. We need, of course, to monitor what is happening, but also to regularly integrate this surveillance in our strategic analysis and finally to make it known to concerned audience (readers, decision-makers, policy-makers). After having outlined the methodological difficulties and presented the solution chosen, we shall focus on the updates themselves.
Methodology: challenges and imperfect solutions
First, in terms of periodicity and content of publication (delivery in SF&W jargon), a right balance must be found between publishing too many updates, which will contribute to drown readers into the existing mass of information and analyses – and this is furthermore perfectly done by Syrian experts, as exemplified by the must read Syria Comment – and not enough, which will make our assessments quickly outdated and thus useless, or only useful as background information. Second, in terms of audience, we need to inform both knowledgeable readers, who already know the situation in Syria, and newcomers, who discover it. We also need to face a wide variety of audience, which would ideally demand to see their specificities considered.
Finally, in terms of analytical practice, we need to find the resources to fulfill the previous criteria. It is one task to monitor continuously what is happening in Syria and around, according to our indicators, and another to deliver products out of this monitoring. Indeed, and this will not come as a surprise to many, no amount of technology can save the real and time-consuming work needed to collect and check information, including specialists’ work and news item, then to analyze it, and finally to transform it into what could be called intelligence – according to the issue under investigation (or research focus).
Although far from being perfect, the solution we have adopted here, for now, is
- To update, where and when necessary, each previous posts. Considering the importance of dynamics and the need to document it, previous information and analysis will be kept as such, as well as the date of writing.
- To reorganize all posts on Syria and make them accessible through a “portal,” where the last date of revision is easily seen.
- To make a new post (this post) presenting all relevant changes in the state of play since the last revision, as a warning that something has changed
Finally, each evolution of the situation in and around Syria should have bearings on our scenarios, their likelihood and timeline. If and when such changes are major, then they will be underlined, waiting for a better tool to ease the task of the analyst on the one hand, and to allow for adequate form of delivery, on the other.
Updates on Syria
The war goes on
Let’s start by stating the obvious, besides international crises, diplomatic moves and political alliances’ reconfiguration, the war has not stopped, on the contrary. The new blog of the Institute of War has documented over September through maps air strikes and fighting areas. Wikipedia provides a timeline of “Continued fighting, rebel infighting (July 2013–October 2013)” and has just updated its map of the Syrian war (first map below, click on image to reach the full size map on Wikipedia), which can be compared with a screenshot of the map on 12 July (second map). Both maps together would seem to indicate a slight advantage has been taken by the Al-Assad regime groups, which wold be logical considering in-fighting among opposing factions..
Meanwhile, the situation in terms of refugees (2,15 million to date compared with 1,64 on 17 June), of internally displaced people (more than 5 million according to USAID, compared with 4,25 million in early July) and casualties (UN figures have not been updated recently) worsens.
Pro-Assad regime groups
- Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov and US Secretary of State Kerry reiterated their hope to see the peace conference organised in mid-November on the sideline of the APEC summit (7 October 2013, Ria Novosti), however Lavrov also underlined he doubted the West capability to bring in the “opposition”. West may fail to bring Syrian opposition to Geneva talks in time – Lavrov“, 1 October 2013, RT News, mentioning he was ready to see this date postponed “as the formation of the opposition delegation may require more time” (3 October 2013, Russia Beyond the Headlines).
- Secret talks would have taken place between one part of the “Free Syrian Army” (see below) and the regime, starting “six weeks ago” (Robert Fisk, “A Syrian solution to civil conflict? The Free Syrian Army is holding talks with Assad’s senior staff: Secret approach to the President could reshape the whole war,” The Independent, 30 September 2013). Within the framework of a mounting Islamist threat, this would potentially result, according to Fisk, from a campaign undertaken by the regime to win back the many defectors composing the FSA. This information has been denied by the NC or rather “Colonel Malik Al-Kurdi, the Deputy Commander of the Free Syrian Army”, who emphasized the fragmentation power of secrecy (“Free Syrian Army denies secret negotiations with Assad regime“, 1st October 2013, Middle East Monitor).
The timing of those talks, as told to Fisk by “a senior official on the staff of President Bashar al-Assad” is also particularly important: if we count 6 weeks back from Monday 30th September, we get 19 August, i.e. 2 days before the chemical attack (see below). We may thus be led to wonder if, hypothesis 1, Fisk’s source is reliable and the information he gave his true, which Fisk seems to believe considering the other signs he indicates in his article, this would not increase the likelihood that Russia and the regime of Bashar al-Assad are correct and that one fighting group loosely associated with the opposition but refusing the possibility of such a peace could have carried upon the chemical attack. Alternatively, hypothesis 2, the information given to Fisk is false or partly true and planted to lead people to reason as done here for hypothesis 1, and thus to enhance Bashar al-Assad’s regime status. The indications selected by Fisk would then be nothing else than a smart strategy by the regime and tiredness by the FSA having to fight on multiple fronts. We should not forget that we are here in the context of war and of international politics, and that disinformation and psychological war have been used by all sides and in multiple ways.
Other reasons could exist for having interest in spreading news (which could also have been disseminated on the ground before 30 September) regarding the very existence of the talks and their content – be it true, partly true or false (considering the scattered, chaotic and localised quality of the Syrian fighting forces opposing the regime of Bashar al-Assad, such talks may well have taken place but represent only one or a few groups within the FSA). Some of the new groups or loose alliances that were announced at the end of September 2013 could use it to enhance their own legitimacy and thus gain ground and mobilisation power, while discrediting the NC and FSA or some elements within it. The Al-Assad regime could have interest in underlining the weakness and division of the opposition. It could seek to provoke a reaction from the less moderate part of the warring groups, which would polarize further the conflict, frighten the moderates – as well as “the West” – but also reduce the number of opponents for the Al-Assad regime. Some groups within the Bashar al-Assad regime could have interest in seeing a continuation of war for profit and power, etc.
- The regime of Bashar Al-Assad continues to welcome a Geneva 2 and to state that it would participate, emphasizing that “There is no civil war in Syria, but it is a war against terror…” (“Statement by Walid al-Moualem, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of Syria” at the 68th session of the U.N. General Assembly, 30 September 2013, also summary of statement in “Syrian FM to UN: ‘Terrorists from 83 countries fighting in Syria‘,” 30 September 2013, RT News )
Chemical attack(s) in Syria
On 21 August 2013, attacks using chemical weapons were made in Syria, in Gutha, a suburb of Damascus, where fighting between factions opposing the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the latter’s armed forces was ongoing. As underlined by Kendall, in her detailed and comprehensive early reportage (Bridget Kendall, “Syria ‘chemical attack’: Distressing footage under analysis“, 23 August 2013, BBC News), those attacks were first denounced by groups fighting al-Assad regime (e.g. EinTarma Coordinating on its Facebook page) and followed by many videos made available on the internet. The regime of Bashar al-Assad denied using chemical weapons during the fighting.
Since then, Syrian forces on the ground used abundantly classical and new media to see their viewpoint heard and believed.
As the use of chemical weapons is proscribed according to international law, as “since 1968, Syria has been a party to the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of War, better known as the Geneva Protocol.” (Zilinskas, National Interest, 6 August 2012), and as US President Obama had warned on 20 September 2012 that Syria would face American military intervention if it used unconventional weapons (e.g. Mark Landler, The New York Times, 20 August 2012), then international reactions could only follow. The challenges that had to be faced were first to be certain that chemical weapons had been used in this specific case, and second to identify with certainty the perpetrator of the attack.
In a nutshell, the UK, France and the US argued first that Sarin had been used, according to their intelligence services, and second that the regime of Bashar al-Assad was responsible. On the contrary, Russia, and also China and Iran, asked for more neutral evidence regarding the use of chemical weapons (a U.N. inspection – their report (or access here) establishing the use of Sarin was made public on 16 September 2013), and then asserted that some group from the opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad was the perpetrator.
International actors tried to give as much legitimacy to their positions as possible, using not only domestic and international law, but also making public intelligence assessment in the case of France (Synthèse nationale de renseignement déclassifié, 2 Septembre 2013) and the US (Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013, 30 August 2013) and making abundant use of media in the case of Russia. Afraid to be dragged into another war on another intelligence failure as had happened with Iraq, on 29 August 2013, the UK parliament, refused to authorize military action (e.g. Andrew Sparrow, Politics Live Blog, The Guardian).
Considering irreconcilable positions from members of the U.N. Security Council, which thus forbade any full international legitimacy to any armed action against Syria, yet the necessity to act to ensure the continuation of the current international order, not only Syria but the world were in a very dangerous situation that could potentially have led to another world war or to a disaggregation of the international order. “The use Russia made of US Secretary of State Kerry’s comment, transforming it in a practical and actionable – however complex and difficult – strategy, according to which “the Bashar al-Assad regime could avoid a strike by “agreeing to give up his chemical weapons” (for a summary, see Gordon and Lee Myers, New York Times, 9 September 2013, among others), was an extremely smart move, which took the whole international order out of a very dangerous quagmire” (Democracy: the Key to Avoiding Future Wars 3). Syria’s chemical disarmament has now started and can be followed on the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA).
Yet, uncertainty regarding the perpetrator does remain – it is likely to remain so in the absence of certain direct evidence, as well as considering the psychological war that has been waged through the media. New “revelations” are made by the Russian side. The latest is that “the August chemical weapons attack in the Syrian capital’s suburbs was done by a Saudi Arabian black operations team, Russian diplomatic sources have told a Russian news agency [Interfax]”, according to RT (4 October 2013). This alleged Saudi involvement is to read in the framework of the evolutions among the anti al-Assad factions (see, for example, Joshua Landis and Syria Comment experts “Syria’s Top Five Insurgent Leaders” 1 October 2013), notably – but not only – following from the loss of influence of the Muslim Brotherhood (see below updates for the NC) and of the regional tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Russia also insists in seeing another chemical attack that would have taken place on 19 March in the vicinity of Aleppo investigated (“Sergei Lavrov will meet Syrian rebels halfway“, October 3, 2013, Russia Beyond the Headline, Ria Novosti). Another attack using Sarin has taken place in April 2013, as French declassified intelligence report (ibid. p.2, 6) recalled and was according to the French report perpetrated by the Al-Assad regime.
As a result, of the chemical attack and consequent developments, if everything goes well in terms of disarmament, the regime of Bashar al-Assad is most likely to see its credibility and status enhanced internationally, while the international public opinion, so important nowadays, has grown more confused.
Featured image: Building burning in Homs – By Bo yaser (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons