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Mixed messages from Syrian National Council on U.S., Israel

on 14 Comments

This article first appeared on the Arabist.

According to Reuters, the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria – the two largest opposition coalitions in Syria – signed on the last Friday of 2011 a unity pledge that “reject[s] any military intervention that harms the sovereignty or stability of the country, though Arab intervention is not considered foreign.” However, remarks delivered to the U.S. and Israeli press by a Council spokesman seem to contradict the Council’s stated support for the new joint policy.

The rejection of (Western) military intervention is a significant concession on the part of the Syrian National Council – the smaller, more diaspora-oriented of the two main coalitions – as the Council had been calling for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone (“Safe Area for Syria“). The Council’s representatives have compared the situation in Syria to that in Libya (as such, it is not surprising that the transitional government in Libya is the only foreign government to have formally recognized the Council). Those analyzing the feasibility and costs of such intervention argue that Syria’s extensive air defense system and high population densities will make a no-fly zone difficult to enforce, leading to heavy civilian casualties and, ultimately, require major troop deployments.

Despite the unity agreement, one of the Council’s spokesmen/leaders, Samir Nashar, told the Washington Times that “the majority of SNC leaders agree with international military intervention as early as possible” even though “they might not be brave enough to express it openly.” Nashar’s statements (at least those made to the Washington Times) are expressly targeted at garnering U.S. support: he told the paper that intervention would present a “historic opportunity” for the U.S. in the region, and that most Syrians would welcome a replay of NATO’s 2011 Libyan engagement. It is not clear if Nashar’s statements have been approved by the rest of the Council. The Guardian reported that as of December 31, 2011, “the membership of the group [Syrian National Council] has yet to formally adopt” the full terms of the unity agreement.

Nashar, and the Council, may be hedging their bets at this stage. Even if a Turkish or Arab League military mission (the latter would ostensibly be “permitted” by the Syrian opposition) materialized to oppose Assad, the U.S. would be involved. And unless the Syrian military decides to stand down as the Egyptian and Tunisian armed forces did last winter (thus helping force Ben Ali and Mubarak out of office), it is unlikely Assad will find himself adrift within his own inner circle. A violent end, or sufficient threat of one, would really be the only option available to the opposition to secure victory over the regime.

Nashar’s statements have also been picked up by the Israeli media. Haaretz has focused on the Council’s new Israel policy. The Guardian reports that the unity agreement between the Council and the National Coordination Body only makes vague reference to “liberating Syrian territory,” which is almost certainly a reference to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Samir Nashar is quoted as saying that while the Council’s focus would be on rebuilding Syria, “the Arab Initiative will most probably be acceptable after the regime change, and we hope it will become a reality. After Syria will get back the Golan Heights, they will accept whatever will be accepted by the Palestinian people.” Haaretz also noted Nashar’s reiteration of the Council’s promise to distance Syria from Iranian influence if Assad is removed from power. Although Nashar was reticent about the status of Hamas and recognition of Israel, he is clearly striking the right notes for liberal hawks in the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

He’ll have to press harder, though. Despite Nashar’s latest comments, the U.S. and NATO have not publicly committed their forces to taking military or humanitarian action in Syria. The U.S.’s NATO ambassador said in November 2011 that “there has been no planning, no thought, and no discussion about any intervention into Syria.” The Cable reports that while conservatives and neoconservatives have been critical of Obama’s position on Syria, and of the Arab League observer mission, sources close to the administration say that the president is weighing his options for taking new steps against Assad.

Paul Mutter

Paul Mutter is a contributor to Mondoweiss, Foreign Policy in Focus and the Arabist.

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14 Responses

  1. BradAllen on January 5, 2012, 12:18 pm

    Very interesting how the SNC is saying all the right things that the US wants to hear especially at the expense of destroying their own country and obliterating any military that the country has. Also the reference to relations to Iran which obviously is what the US, NATO and Israel have been demanding for years.
    The problem is, although many Syrians would like to see a change, not that many are stupid enough to pay the price that Libyans paid. Although the Assad regime is in control, he realizes this control is worthless if the Syrian business elite desert him. So, sooner or later he will step down, make the transition and a new Syria will emerge. The problem with the SNC is that they know this will happen but if it happens peacefully, they will be out of it.
    If the SNC get their way and the US and NATO somehow convince the Russians, Chinese and Iran to stay out of it (doubtful), then Syria will be destroyed. Israel’s “Oded Yinon’s” plan will have worked perfectly and a new Islamist country will emerge from the ashes.
    Sometimes i wonder to what degree American foreign policy makers actually think beyond short term gains. With Egypt going to the Muslim Brotherhood, Libya who will likely soon go to civil war and a very extreme islamist group will emerge, putting Syria in this mix and hoping it will be pro US is a “pipe” dream , Daniel Pipes that is.

  2. Dan Crowther on January 5, 2012, 12:44 pm

    I would say its already a done deal ( “intervention” in Syria) – There is a massing of troops and equipment going on in Turkey right now. The Israeli’s are building up their northern defenses, and the Turkish foreign minister just went to Tehran – probably to tell the Iranians its over for Assad.

    Its important to remember that any action taken by any state in Syria or elsewhere is a de facto US attack. The pilots might be Turks, or Saudi’s or Libyans etc. but the gear will be American..

    The “syrian opposition” wants Turkey to invade – do the Turks want Aleppo?

    • on January 5, 2012, 1:03 pm

      agree. The dice have been thrown.
      Now the devils will have their game about to start.

    • BradAllen on January 5, 2012, 1:09 pm

      The Turks maybe trying to talk Iran into standing down, but I doubt this will happen. Both Assad and the Iranians know their strengths is by staying together. If Syria goes down, Hizballah will fade away and an attack on Iran will be a heck of a lot simpler.
      Neither Iran or Russia will want to see Assad leave any time soon. Iran needs this northern front to keep Israel worried and Russia doesnèt want to risk its base in Tartus.
      A few weeks ago a delegation Iran went to Turkey and delivered a strong message to Erdogan, in summary if the attack starts in Turkey, it will be considered an attack on Iran.
      My cards are on Russia. The US will have to give up a lot to talk them into abandoning Assad, I don’t think Syria is worth this much for the US.

  3. ToivoS on January 5, 2012, 6:42 pm

    Asad continues to have support of significant factions of the country, the alawites and shiites, Christians and some other sects. The rebel forces are made up primarily of Sunni fundamentalists backed by Salafis from Saudi Arabia. The minorities live in terror of these guys. Hard to predict how hard these minorities will fight to keep out the fundamentalists but the potential for a bloody civil war is there.

    I guess since Hillary Clinton and Samantha Powers have not given their blessing to another humanitarian intervention we have not seen any of our locals calling for it yet. Let us hope sanity continues to hold.

    • Walid on January 6, 2012, 1:54 am

      “Asad continues to have support of significant factions of the country”

      ToivoS, good assessment of the situation; millions in favour of the regime continue demonstrating in streets but it isn’t because they all agree with Assad but because they want no part of the proposed alternative, which is fundamentalist Islam even if diluted with American influence. No matter how many freedoms are being instituted by the current regime, at the end of the day, 2/3 of the country’s legislature remains reserved for Assad’s Baathist socialist party and still not allowed to initiate any new laws; these are proposed only by the cabinet and the legislature simply discusses them and votes them into law. The people of Syria saw what hapened to Libya and they want no part of it and the Syrian Army saw how the Americans disbanded the Iraqi Army and they want no part of that. And the Christians, as you mentioned, are fully aware that there is no room for them in a fundamentalist Islamic Syria and they want no part of that.

      In short, any group that asks foreign powers to bomb its country and civilians as the Libyans did and as the SNC is doing, for whatever reason, has to be made up of schmucks. If given the choice between seeing Syria becoming another Libya with 100,000 civilians slaughtered by NATO and keeping Assad in power, who wouldn’t be carrying giant posters of the guy? Just because the US decided that Assad’s time is up, it doen’t mean that he’ll be going anywhere.

  4. W.Jones on January 5, 2012, 10:17 pm

    Good points in the comments. Wesley Clark, as pointed out elsewhere on this site, said he was told a long time ago that Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Libya were going to be taken over, so to speak. So it is vaguely on the table.

    Part of what made attacking Libya easier was because there were many left of average people who saw that Gaddafi was a harsh dictator, didn’t consider positive parts of the regime, and just assumed that the opposition would be better. The opposition instead was very brutal and the war was very costly in lives- both civilian and on both sides. And will the opposition group now in power reallybe so enlightened? We can see in alot of Middle-eastern countries the kinds of regimes that these kinds of “regime changes” have caused, although it’s true they have not all been of one kind.

    While the movements of change in Tunisia and Egypt appear positive, I dislike the massive attacks in Libya, and the cautious comments here about attacking Syria, with the concerns about Christians (10-15% of the country as I remember) and many others, are real concerns.

    • ToivoS on January 6, 2012, 2:41 am

      Good points Jones. But I think you understate the problem: many “left of average” folks went out of their way to support the Nato backed rebels. We are now seeing the beginnings of a civil war between the militias that actually carried out that war and the Nato backed “transitional” council that is attempting establish state power on behalf of their Nato over-lords. Not clear how this will turn out but I think Nato will not like the results.

    • RoHa on January 6, 2012, 3:13 am

      I, for one, was sympathetic to the idea of overthrowing Gaddafi, even though I was aware of the postive good he had done for Libyans.

      However, I now seriously doubt that the new regime will be an improvement. I am highly suspicious of the anti-Assad moves. I suspect this is another case of the Western powers trying to force a regime change.

  5. Walid on January 6, 2012, 3:46 am

    The Arabist article is itself sending mixed messages. The Syrian academics currently in Europe and the US that make up along with the Muslim Brotherhood the SNC has leaders Burhan Ghalyoun and Radwan Ziadeh playing good cop-bad cop in the story. The Europe-based Ghalyoun that was always against foreign military intervention in Syria is now singing a different tune saying that an intervention by Arab League forces would not be considered foreign in his book. On the other hand, the US-based Ziadeh is openly asking for American military intervention and saying that he along with members of the Muslim Brotherhood are prepared to recognize Israel and break off relations with Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran, all the tunes that the US wants to hear.

    We have to keep in mind last July’s Paris meeting of Zionists to discuss the overthrow of Assad that was hosted by the Libya shit-disturber B-H Lévy. French Zionists Bernard Kouchner (that asked for military intervention in Syria), André Glucksman, Axel Poniatowski attended as well as Israelis Frédéric Encel, “who cut his teeth in the Betar youth organization of Likud” and former Knesset member and current Ehud Barak advisor, Alex Goldfarb were also included in the Jewish line-up. A notable presence at the Zionist meeting was Mulham al-Droubi, the boss of international relations of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood came out in favor of normalization with Israel without any mention to the end to the Israeli occupation and backed the monarchies of Bahrain and the rest of the Gulf Arab states especially after the United States and the European Union have made their support for the Muslim Brotherhood public. Amazingly, Burhan Ghalyoun at the time came out against the Paris Zionist meeting.

  6. BradAllen on January 6, 2012, 8:17 am

    Here is one of the best analysis i have read so far about the Syrian situation.

  7. annie on January 7, 2012, 2:49 pm

    Samir Nashar, told the Washington Times that “the majority of SNC leaders agree with international military intervention as early as possible” even though “they might not be brave enough to express it openly.” Nashar’s statements (at least those made to the Washington Times) are expressly targeted at garnering U.S. support: he told the paper that intervention would present a “historic opportunity” for the U.S. in the region, and that most Syrians would welcome a replay of NATO’s 2011 Libyan engagement.

    what’s the difference between this and the iraqi national congress, the chabali group.

    ‘come bomb us and call it humanitarian! everyone wants to be bombed, we’re just not brave enough to admit it.’

  8. annie on January 7, 2012, 2:55 pm

    MOA “Free Syrian Army Blows Up People And U.S. Plans” video allegedly of ‘rebel’ syrian forces open firing on a bus of civilians

    and some big food for thought:

  9. Walid on January 7, 2012, 6:16 pm

    “and some big food for thought:
    link to”

    Someone’s been telling you this for months, Annie. Glad you finally heard it from MOA. Again, the Syrian regime is not made of angels and those Free Syrian Army terrorists have already killed over 1000 soldiers and policemen and butchered (cut up body parts)Christian civilians simply because they were Christians, that the western press refuses to talk about because they are backed by the west. Not much difference between those terrorists supposedly fighting for Syria’s freedom and those other ones you wrote about in Libya that had been killing American soldiers in Afghanistan before joining the battle to liberate Libya.

    Speaking of Libya, word is now coming out that there hasn’t been one single substantiated case of rape by Gadadafi’s men as was being deliberately and falsely reported in the western press and not one single case of Gaddafi’s air force shooting at civilians or at hospitals as was also reported. A lot of lies were told about what was really happening in Libya and the same bogus movie is now being played in Syria in preparation of doing to it what was done to Libya.

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