In Syria, the patient was smoking all his life – Yusuf al-Misry


The declared objective of the
administration from its decision to arm the Syrian rebels is to recalibrate the
balance of power on the ground in order to facilitate a negotiated settlement.
That sounds good so far as it remains on written policy and strategy papers
submitted by the NSC officials.

It is clear that the balance of power
was tilting towards the Syrian regime and its Hezbollah backers. It was obvious
as well that this will render negotiations obsolete as Bashar Al Assad would
harden his position to the extent that makes the proposed negotiations a
monologue rather than a dialogue. Hence, the strategists concluded, this tilt
in the balance of power on the ground should be reversed and measured in a way
to get a proper deal through.

The problem here is that reality does
not always behave itself to fit into such clever “strategic” calculations. Once
the opposition receives the arms, these arms are defused regardless of the
intensive effort to control its end users. If we have a map of the areas under
the control of five or six groups of the opposition, and each area has a
distinctive color (in the maps of the NSC), the “boarders” between these groups
change constantly. The fighting units of different organizations change their
banners and “defect” (with their arms) to other groups on almost on daily

This has always been the case in
similar wars. We have seen it in Yemen in the 60’s, in Afghanistan in the 80’s
and in Iraq after the last war. But this is particularly true in the case of
Syria now.

Defining the “colored” areas of
different organizations is possible of course but only for a day or two,
perhaps few weeks. As the base of the rebel forces is very fluid, it is fair to
say that arming a specific “friendly” group will mean in fact arming “the
rebels” (without any particular organizational limitation).

What happens usually is that Al Nusra
guys apply a sort of Bolshevik tactics. They send a team of the Da’awa
specialists (propagandists) to the neighboring base or unit that is not
affiliated with AlQaeda. They have dinner together drink black tea togetherr as
fellow fighters and in a couple of days the base declares allegiance to the
black flag. Particularly if the guests start talking about the military
“goodies” they can provide.

This might be an over simplification of
what happens. But the smart guys in the NSC (and some of them are really smart)
should just get back to their trash pins to see how many colored maps they
changed lately.

When we talk about the Syrian
opposition we should talk about the bases, the real fighters on the ground, the
dynamics of their continuous moves and loyalties, the forces behind these
shifts, their inter-relations and their real motives. We should not talk only –
and sometimes at all – about the leadership. We are not talking about regular
forces. Not even a shadow of that.

“Syrian Opposition in General” does not
exist. Gen Idris forces is not an abstract. It is a living element. Therefore,
when we say “we are giving Idris and only Idris the arms” it sounds in any
realist’s ear as an illusion. The assumption of cohesive organization with
understandable boarders and controlled areas does not simply apply here. If we
arm one, it is like we arming all.

But this is not the only error in that

To recalibrate the balance of power on
the ground (in order to get to Geneva II) does not make sense unless we have
this magic button that once we press the rebels freeze in their places and stop

It is an illusion to assume that we
have two parallel measuring rods, one to gauge the rebels’ progress on the
ground with the arms provide, and the other to measure how close we have become
to a negotiated settlement. If we have these two magic rulers one should accept
the geometry of the Administration’s decision. We will understand that at a
certain point on the measure of the balance of power we got to “instruct” the
“opposition” (in general) to hold fire and travel to a Swiss hotel to talk.
This last sentence does not make any sense.

In real life such wars do not obey
neither the strategic papers of the NSC nor the magic measuring rods.
Furthermore, there is nothing called “opposition in General” as I have just
said. Once a group of the rebels well entrenched and rooted like Al Nusra or
Ahrar Alsham hears that the others are going to the Swiss hotel, it will send
immediately its propagandists to their camps with enough stuff about the
selling off of the martyrs and the surrender to the killer of the people..etc.
This might be an over simplification of the dynamics that will be unleashed, in
the mildest of a successful offensive by the rebels using the new arms, but
most certainly we do not have the brakes that can stop all and every major
rebel offensive of all opposition groups when the clock of Geneva rings. A continuation
of opposition operations against the regime – particularly if they feel they
are achieving the progress we wanted them to achieve – will seriously threatens
what is planned to happen in the conference. We do not control the Syrian
opposition. We do not control even a cohesive portion of it. We may simply
reverse the current situation, in which Assad achieves progress, to face a
problem similar to the one that we face now, except upside down. The Iranians
and Hezbollah will decide to escalate as we are deciding right now, to force us
to increase our involvement and it is the Indochina spiral once more.

 Simply put, there is a serious risk that the
momentum achieved by the arms the US intends to send will be the very obstacle
that will hinder any negotiated settlement.

What to do then? The question reminds
me with the guy who smoked all his life until he got lung cancer then went to
the doctor to ask what to do. It seems we are willing to advise him to stop
smoking which should look in the strategic papers a very prudent advice.

The policy towards Syria should be
examined (sadly) in retrospect or at least since last summer when a plan to arm
the rebels was rejected by the White House. It is difficult to understand the
real reason for arming the rebels now. If it is the chemical weapons (please
replace that with the fall of Al Qusair), that should not have been a surprise
to anyone. The strategists in Washington must have calculated that by doing
nothing all that time something of this nature will happen sooner or later.

I assume that the president and his
Russian counterpart agreed to put a ceiling on arming the fighting sides. That
should have been the logical thing that happened in North Ireland. But can we
control the supplies of the Iranians? Or that of Hezbollah? Or that of Al
Anbar? Or that of the Lebanese Salafis? Or that of the Gulf fundamentalis?

Some Gulf States will continue to arm
rebel groups of their liking. And their liking happens to always be a hard core
Islamist group. These states do not trust the US to take a serious step to help
the rebels in any meaningful way. They complain that they will be stuck with a
victory for Iran and Hezbollah and with a regional strategic tilt in favor of
Tehran. The US can influence their decision but only to a certain extent. But
the muscles needed were not used in any effective way.

 The US will be neither able nor willing to
admit that the side supported by its enemies (Iran and Hezbollah) is defeating
the side that receives American arms. The further we go, the higher the stakes
and the bigger the political and strategic investment. It is a one way road.
Deja vue.

Yet, there is one way to turn the
situation around. For those who are familiar with the history of the Algerian
NFL or the war against the British in South Yemen in the 60’s, the fierce
inter-fighting between rebel groups was one important characteristic of these
episodes. In Algeria different wings of the NFL fought each other until a
unified leadership was formed. In South Yemen, the Arab Nationalists lost their
bloody fight with the Marxists which later ruled that country.

In Syria, there should be one unified
leadership of the opposition, that of Gen Idris. To reach that result, the
forces of the SMC should be supported in order to control the North and unify
the opposition forces (those which accept to be unified under the leadership of
the SMC). Those who do not accept, for political or ideological reasons, should
be confronted at a later stage. An explicit understanding
with Russia should be reached in that regard. That should be explained by the
Russians to Damascus as well. Once there is a unified force in the North, the
Geneva clock could ring. I just hope that this was the content of the NSC
strategy papers.

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26 Responses to In Syria, the patient was smoking all his life – Yusuf al-Misry

  1. turcopolier says:

    The problem with Yusuf’s analysis here is that the goal of a peace conference is not a good faith” effort. The sole goal of the US and “friends” is to bring the Syrian government to a meeting where they can surrender power. The idea that the present Syrian government could survive the departure of its constitutional head is absurd. The result of such a surrender would be the collapse of government, a government that represents all the minorities as well as the non-jihadi Sunnis. Chaos would follow and the US would find itself committed to another ten year pacification campaign. the Europeans would soon retreat to lick their economic wounds. pl

  2. b says:

    Agree Colonel.
    There are also other some nice ponies in Yusuf’s analysis: First he explains how the Nusra fighters are the better ones that take others in, next he wishes “Those who do not accept for political or ideological reasons should be confronted.”
    So the Idris FSA which does not really exist is supposed to fight down the Takfiris? Nice idea but totally unrealistic.
    It is by the way completely false to say “Obama has now decided to send arms”.
    Obama has been sending arms from the beginning. The ambassador in Benghazi was killed over some conflict of who would get the next assorted load of Libyan arms. The NYT reported of 3,500 tons Croatian arms flown from Al Udeit airbase to Turkey and distributed under the watch of the CIA. The last big batch of MANPADS (120) and ATGMs (250) has been delivered about a month ago. New Croatian sourced arms are now showing up in south Syria.
    All those arms have come under U.S. control from U.S. allied countries transported through U.S. friendly countries and were delivered under U.S. eyes. To say that the U.S. only now starts to deliver weapons is just propaganda. It has organized the major weapon flow from the very beginning.

  3. FB Ali says:

    The problem with Yusuf’s solution — compel the opposition, if necessary by military force, to unite under the ‘moderate’ Gen Idris — is the age-old one: who will bell the cat? Who is going to send in troops to bring this about?
    Under the circumstances, it is a good solution in theory, but cannot work in practice.

  4. confusedponderer says:

    Mr. Lang,
    I go further: With states that the US have designated for regime change, negotiations are NEVER the goal of a peace conference a good faith effort. They are merely venues for these states to offer their unconditional surrender.
    That is the essence of America’s political problems ever since they have adopted regime change as a policy. It precludes compromise. Once the words ‘regime change’ have been uttered, there is no turning back.
    And it unerringly leads to escalation, since acknowledgement of failure and the corresponding loss of face not being an option, the US inevitably doubles down.
    What? Sanctions don’t work? Well, tougher sanctions sure will! They don’t work either? Then let’s try more of the same – even tougher sanctions! It still doesn’t work? Oh, gee, then let’s just bomb them lest they win (i.e. the targeted regime survives) and this thing takes forever. Let’s see … any mushroom clouds on the horizon? No? Then we must try harder. Anybody knows any exiles who have seen any?
    The remarkable continuity on the subject of regime change from Clinton over Bush to Obama speaks for itself.
    Heck, the US haven’t managed to afford themselves a sensible Cuba policy in half a century, and ever since 1963 the US deny their citizens under threat of punishment to spend money in Cuba i.e. travel there, because there are some Commies left there. And since the Cubans haven’t been defeated since “Red Dawn”, “Invasion USA” and “Red Scorpion” – this is clearly an unacceptable outcome. Obviously the sanctions must be toughened!
    The US have eventually succeeded in getting so remarkably doctrinaire in their policies that it would make the Kremlin’s concrete-headed Old Guard jealous.

  5. Fred says:

    “It is clear that the balance of power was tilting towards the Syrian regime and its Hezbollah backers.”
    The Syrian government, which has been recognized by the US for decades as the government of Syria may be now allied with Hezbollah, but that is only because it is the in interest of the latter organization. “Backers” is a word used by the current US administration to solicit a specific response and is inaccurate.
    Negotiations? The Palestinians have been ‘negotiating” for half a century, what has that gotten them? A blockade and a couple of generations of poverty? How would doing the same in Syria be in the interest of the United States?

  6. optimax says:

    The various rebel factions are already squabbling over the arms supplied by other Gulf states. The moderates are whining that they the fundamentalists are taking the best toys, er, weapons. Bullies don’t play fair.
    And the Serbs were told Kosovo would remain an autonomous region of Serbia and not independent.

  7. Rd. says:

    ” The sole goal of the US and “friends” is to bring the Syrian government to a meeting where they can surrender power.”
    That may be the wish, they would also like to keep ME in constant turmoil. US has been stuck in the morass of its own failed policies. Keepin ME in turmoil, ensures no one else gains too much power to shove of US out of the region.
    However, this continued policy of killing and slaughtering in the ME promoted by US policies will generate so much hatred by the masses that you can be sure US will eventually get the boot out of ME. (Guess FP team has forgotten the lessons of 1979.) The eventual arrival of that day would be the reckoning of the terminally ill dollar to hit its end a lot sooner that any one expects.

  8. Tyler says:

    Some of the observations may be correct, but the sum is silly. Why is Geneva II considered an ‘acceptable’ outcome?
    The only acceptable outcome I can think of is the US minding its business and Syrian forces smashing the Salafists once and for all.

  9. turcopolier says:

    There is no doubt that this is “the wish.” The US government says so. pl

  10. Mark Kolmar says:

    I appreciate the perspective in this essay. Could we zoom out? Obama explains U.S. policy about as clearly as it ought to be spelled out on 2 major points, and a 3rd, related point of subtext that I read into it. Or, if you prefer, maybe I want to hear what I hear.
    US and Western governments, coarsely, will acommodate peaceful demonstrations and avoid heavy measures against civil disobedience. The Assad regime, in the thick part of the Arab Spring wave, disqualified themselves on that count. An almost-critical mass of internal and external interests are attempting to remove the top of the regime. Some would like to preserve what can be recovered from the civil institutions as they used to exist. I am not convinced that the U.S. has only recently started to provide weapons to vetted “rebels”. Russia evidently reserves the right to crush misbehavior. China seems to want to keep the option.
    Chemical weapons have no legitimate purpose, according to this view. In the last 90 years or so, use of chemical weapons is an illegitimate projection of brutish, physical power – unsophisticated, desperate, and on-the-cheap. It’s as if anyone with a legitimate reason to destroy things or to kill people would develop technology to target as narrowly as possible.
    On the subtext, the U.S. now has plain fingerprints on the mess in Syria. My fear is that U.S. or Western fingerprints can be used in the future as a basis for doubt against new or reformed institutions, new leadership, new elections, or new borders.

  11. cloned_poster says:

    Excellent discussion.

  12. turcopolier says:

    Mark Kolmar
    “Some would like to preserve what can be recovered from the civil institutions as they used to exist.” I do not think that is possible. Syria is not Tunisia or Egypt where the population is effectively all the same ethno-religious sect. The Copts in Egypt are politically unimportant and there is virtually no non-sunni population in Tunisia. The civil society (civil service) is intimately tied up with the alawis and other minorities in Syria and they see the present government as their only defense against what someone here called the takfiri head-choppers. IMO it is not possible to decapitate this government and have anything other than chaos. pl

  13. IMO the US has no expertise to provide any so-called Peace Conference and lacks patience needed in any event!

  14. jonst says:

    Yusuf al-Misry wrote: “The declared objective of the administration from its decision to arm the Syrian rebels is to recalibrate the balance of power on the ground in order to facilitate a negotiated settlement. That sounds good so far as it remains on written policy and strategy papers submitted by the NSC officials”.
    No, in my take, it sounds bat shit crazy, on paper, or in gauzy dreams of R2P’ers/neocons/media go alongs/and think tank careerists. It is–mostly– devoid of any grasp of recent history of American involvement in the ME….And it is utterly devoid of any appreciation or empathy of what most people are facing economically in the US. (surprise there, right?) It is a decision proposed by a tiny minority, locked in the DC triangle, listening to their own echos, eyes on gaining funding for a Presidential run, this minority in DC is aided and abetted by small sections of NYC and LA, funding it and backing for their own overseas reasons.

  15. Charles I says:

    This seems to be the recently recurring fatal flaw in U.S. dreams: there is no realistic conception of who will operate the state and maintain order – the new democratic liberal human rights order where it hasn’t been lately to boot.
    Bremner in Iraq. Wasn’t there an Iraqi National Council gonna run the place?
    Afghanistan went from realistic – get bin Laden/oust Taliban – handily achieved via the Northern Alliance, B 52’s & bags o cash – to crazy – protecting women’s rights and building a self-sustaining democracy – both in the same environment of warlordism, corruption & tribalism that Iraq degenerated to.
    Hizbullah and Hamas are on the ground social services amidst the rubble, not just effective fighters so even when despised or feared post fighting, they are organized and indispensable, seen as natural and native even before the smoke clears.
    Libya seems now just an incohate militiadom of many colors whatever oil deals were signed.
    One assumes al-Nusra has a better grasp of this then Kerry, whom I’ve just heard on the radio announcing more material support for the rebels from Qatar – gotta compete with the $5bn for Egypt I guess – and once the battle is ramped up with antitank manpad attacks to victory under a no fly zone, they must figure they have a shot at kinetic if not negotiated or electoral success whatever goes on in Geneva.
    Is it possible the brainiacs believe either the Syrian Army could be retained and directed in service after a regime change, or that an army is not required?

  16. Lord Curzon says:

    I’d like to examine a possible endgame where Assad has won, having crushed the Salafists and seen off anyone else – whither the US, UK, Saudi and Qatar? After having invested a substantial amount of capital, political and financial, what do they do? What can they reach for next beyond thinking,”Oh bollocks!”
    And conversely, having notable influence in Iraq and defended their interests in Syria, what will Iran’s mindset now be?

  17. Fred says:

    Could we ‘zoom out’. I agree that is a great idea, here’s my take:
    “US and Western governments, coarsely, will acommodate peaceful demonstrations…” Right, like Occupy Wallstreet and (as was recently remarked upon by some commenters here) that fine bit of police work at UC Davis.
    “Some would like to preserve what can be recovered from the civil institutions as they used to exist. ” Yes indeed. Specifically the Constitution of the United States.
    But Obama needs to power to spy on all citizens all the time. The Governor of Massachusetts and the Mayor of Boston need the power to order all citizens off the streets; to search without warrant or probable cause; the Governor of Michigan, well he’s got the power to remove elected local governments and put ’emergency managers’ in place to rewrite contracts and sell assets; Billionaire Mike Ilitch is working his way towards getting $300 million to fund a hockey arena- because he sure isn’t going to risk 100% of his money – and the police, fire fighters, teachers and other employees of the CIty of Detroit – they get to keep their 20% pay cuts. They will get the tax bill for that billionaire’s bailout though. So will the retirees who are soon to experience the same thing as those fine folks in Greece just received. Great equality there. Elsewhere in the USA KennyBoy Lay’s left hand Mr. Skilling just got his prison sentence cut. At least Bush had the attorney general go after some financial crooks; but not to worry – Obama will bring ‘democracy’ and freedom to Syria. Let me know if I missed the important points.

  18. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Democracy – loosely used here – is not corrupt but it can be corrupted.
    So, from time to time, a Dictator must be empowered to clean the mess up.
    Detroit is no different in that regards than Bridgeport.
    The interesting question, in my opinion, is who or how one to appoint a Tyrant when Democracy has been corrupted in an entire country.

  19. kxd says:

    “…A Dictator must be empowered to clean the mess up”
    hmm, this sounds like the “Caesar” option.
    I can’t speak to non-western civilizations but I believe we’ve come too far to even comtemplate such an avenue in the West. Just because it was once upon a time part of the cycle doesn’t mean it can revisited today. There are a lot more Brutuses in thought among the citizens and we would sooner give our lives in defiance than accept a tyrant.
    I personally think devolution is the real logical choice to be taken. While I am not an American(so forgive my arrogance if I am not allowed to speak as such), I did live for a time in Texas and consider myself a ‘volunteer'(forgive my arrogance if – I would eventually like to see myself return to that part of the world – so I would favor the individual states reclaiming their eroded rights. The tenth amendment surely was written with purpose.
    As for the UK and Europe at large, I still think devolution is the answer. But the history over here presents an even bigger obstacle to that end.

  20. Fred says:

    I believe we could loosely describe these ’emergency managers’ as dictators. They were put in power by the Governor of Michigan after the state legislature passed a second emergency financial manager piece of legislation. The first had already been rejected by the citizens of this state. (Proposal 1 of the November 2012 ballot).
    I think the more important point is how one gets rid of a tyrant. The folks in charge now are just ensuring the rewards to the ‘usual suspects’ with a few Quisling locals to provide some camouflage. The billionaire sports team owner who’s wife owns the Motor City Casino is already a recipient in millions in tax breaks as is his wife. They don’t need another $300,000,000 from the taxpayer when the later is being told there is a ‘financial crisis’.

  21. Babak Makkinejad says:

    I think that an ounce of prevention is better than a ton of cure.
    I think rather than worrying about getting rid of the Emergency Manager (the Financial Dictator) one has to ask how did these cities get into the mess that they did: in Michigan, in Connecticut, in New Jersey, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
    In regards to the Emergency Manager laws; the alternative is to let the city die.

  22. Babak Makkinejad says:

    The problem with devolution is that it creates local parochial cliques that see no further than their own noses.

  23. Fred says:

    It took a long time to get here. The alternative you mention isn’t the only one. We give $3billion a year to Israel, zero to Detroit. There’s plenty of money to prevent the ‘cure’ currently being peddled. Putting a few more politicians in jail would be a good step.

  24. Tyler says:

    The Founders thought democracy the lowest form of government, the ‘tyranny of the mob’. I am agreement with kxd though. We need to leave the empire behind, and think/act smaller.

  25. kxd says:

    Perhaps, but the current alternative is allowing a far-removed, centralised government to determine what is good for local regions, in areas where local government themselves are much better suited in running their own affairs.
    Yes, Prime Minister said it best:

  26. Babak Makkinejad says:

    I think under Clinton Detorit recived $ 400 million – to no avail.
    They should have taken that money and given it to young enterpenurial people regardless of race, sex, national origin etc.

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