Clinton’s Warning To Al Assad And The UN – The Gloves Are Coming Off. But What About The New Jihadists?
Jan Weatherhead writes from Washington: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is opening talks with Syrian rebel leaders and pooling intelligence and military assessments. This is the first stage of the US and its allies dumping United Nations methods of getting some sort of cease-fire in Syria. Mind you, President Barack Obama has already signed an order authorising covert operations in Syria.
The first sign that the new US policy towards Syria is shaping up nicely is the fact that Arab League heads have cancelled their scheduled Sunday summit meeting in Saudi Arabia. Top of its agenda was the replacement for the UN-Arab League peace envoy to Syria Kofi Annan. Mr Annan resigned from the job earlier this month after what was an ill-disguised failure of his six point peace plan.
The man most likely to replace Annan is the Algerian Lakhdar Brahimi, but no date has been set for his appointment. Exactly why the quite excellent Mr Brahimi would be expected to succeed where the equally excellent Mr Annan miserably failed is unclear. The peace envoy’s role is either a huge hoax to show that diplomacy is intact or someone believes that the civil war has reached a stage where both sides want a truce at the very least. That is as much wishful thinking as anything diplomacy has come up with thus far.
Sunday’s Arab League’s meeting should also have discussed another fast approaching deadline: the mandate for the 150 or so UN Observer Missions in Syria. It expires in a week’s time. Ironically, the Observer Mission is worth mandate renewal. Its function is not to act as military peace maker. Its role is to give military intelligence summaries known as INTSUMS to the UN Secretary General and the UN Security Council.
Those INTSUMS will mainly give updates on army deployments where known, weaponry used and in reserve, states of readiness, names of army commanders down to quite small deployments, signs of held-back weaponry such as chemical warfare systems and the deployment and state of the rebel forces.
That is quite a large military brief from so few people with very limited access. However, it is fed into the overall intelligence picture from special forces on the ground, near earth satellites and electronic monitoring of everything from mobile phones to military command and control plus of course, diplomatic traffic.
This is why the public leader-voice of those seeking an outside solution to the Syrian civil war, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, insists that the Observer Mission mandate should be renewed and discussed when the Security Council meets Thursday (16 August). Ban Ki-moon may not get support from the Americans on this. He thinks the Russians may say ‘yes’ to renewal.
The Americans, without publicly dismissing the frailty of the UN route, are setting up a multi-national working group to gauge what practical roles the military, the intelligence agencies and supply groups can achieve particularly by bringing in the mostly-exiled rebel groupings.
Two unknowns will add to the overload at these discussions: the chemical weapon capabilities of the Syrian army and the increasing difficulty in assessing jihadist groups now operating in Syria.
At the start of this conflict Syria was a no-go area for jihadists. Today the Jabhat al Nusra Li-Ahl al-Sham is fighting and killing Syrian government forces. Al-Nusra rightly claims affiliation to al Qaeda. It matters not how close is that affiliation and the extent of its support because there is no doubt that al Nusra is running as a guerrilla army and, relatively successfully so especially in the urban areas – for examples, Damascus, Derra (the starting point of the rebellion) and Aleppo.
The unmistakable irony of jihadist intervention is that they do not do so in support of the rebellion. The jihadists want control of Syria and so the Free Syrian Army commanders are as much concerned at the operations of perhaps six distinct groups (with funding coming from private sources in Saudi Arabia) as are the US and of course, the al Assad commanders.
Where does all this leave the diplomatic effort?
There is every sign that the American-Turkish initiative to bring together, in military and humanitarian terms, a coalition of the willing to supply weaponry in all its definitions, as well as economic aid to the rebellion, is a distinct expression of its frustration with the UN-led efforts thus far to stop the war.
The decision has been taken to attempt a pull-together of the opposition groups and leaders. Washington wants one man at the top with whom they and others may negotiate and then work. When they did something similar in Libya last year, the war began to turn in the favour of that revolution. More than 200 US drone attacks helped, so do not be surprised if the same happens in Syria and that the so-called legitimate targets will be Chemical Weapons (CW) units.
Thus this week, we are seeing a steep turn in the willingness of the Americans and British at the least to attempt to end the war by outwitting the Al Assads with low intensity military means as well as the direction of a newly structured opposition council of war against the Syrian regime. That’s the message coming out of Hillary Clinton’s tour of the region these past few days. The Syrian leadership will heed what is being said, but is virtually powerless now other than to fight on in what may be for them a fight to the death.
Ms Clinton et al should also take care on a single aspect of the current thinking: they may be trying to put into power a disparate group that will display a horrendous appetite for blood revenge. Certainly they will not be able to satisfy the expectation of those who supported the uprising and have paid such a high price for that support. Debatable? Look at Iraq. Look at Libya. Also, listen into Thursday’s Security Council debate and take note of the pro and anti-Clinton speakers. Don’t dismiss the Russian and Chinese speeches. They have more support than is generally reported. That, of course, has been the problem for the UN since this conflict began.