1) Why are they staying away?
Yesterday the New York Times reported Syrian Opposition’s Complaints Shadow Kerry’s First Official Trip:
Mr. Kerry and foreign ministers from Europe and the Middle East are scheduled to meet in Rome on Thursday with opponents of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, including Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, who leads the opposition. But they are threatening to boycott the conference to protest what they see as fainthearted international support.
To try to rescue the meeting, Robert S. Ford, the American ambassador to Syria and chief envoy to the opposition, was sent to Cairo on Sunday to implore opposition leaders to attend the session in Rome.
Today, the Times reports Kerry Vows Not to Leave Syria Rebels ‘Dangling in the Wind’:
After the Syrian opposition signaled that it would boycott the Rome conference to protest what it sees as negligible help from Western nations, Mr. Kerry called Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the Syrian opposition coalition, and persuaded him to attend. Vice President Joseph R. Biden called Mr. Khatib later to thank him for agreeing to go and to emphasize the importance of the meeting.
American officials have said that their goal in supporting the Syrian resistance is to build up its leverage in the hope that Mr. Assad will agree to yield power and a political transition can be negotiated to end the nearly two-year-old conflict.
Why does it appear that the Syrian rebels erre reticent to meet with the new Secretary of State? Could it be that it wasn’t so long ago, that then Sen. Kerry was pretty close with Syrian President Assad? Phillip Smyth sent me links to two news stories.
In 2009 the Associate Press reported Kerry to travel to Syria to meet Assad:
Kerry spokesman Frederick Jones said Wednesday that the senator will be part of a congressional delegation headed to the Middle East, stopping in both Israel and Syria. Jones called the meeting planned between Kerry and Assad “part of a continuing dialogue he’s had with the Syrian government.”
Jones said the Obama administration is aware of Kerry’s plans, and the State Department is helping arrange the trip.
Kerry traveled to Syria in late 2006 where he said he told Assad he had serious concerns about the flow of “money, weapons and terrorists” through the country into Iraq and Lebanon. Other senators, including Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, made similar trips despite the Bush administration saying such visits were inappropriate.
And in 2010 the AP reported U.S. Sen. Kerry: Syria is committed to peace:
United States Senator John Kerry said Thursday that Syria is committed to achieving peace in the Middle East and is essential to the process.
“Syria is an essential player in bringing peace and stability to the region,” Kerry said.
However, the Democratic senator, who is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters after a three-hour meeting with Syiran President Bashar Assad in Damascus that Washington is concerned about the flow of weapons from Syria to Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Kerry’s very public support of Assad and his good intention may not make him the ideal interlocutor with Syrian rebels. Briefly that’s the point Jonathan Schanzer makes here.
2) To what end
The New York Times is reporting Saudis Step Up Help for Rebels in Syria With Croatian Arms:
Saudi Arabia has financed a large purchase of infantry weapons from Croatia and quietly funneled them to antigovernment fighters in Syria in a drive to break the bloody stalemate that has allowed President Bashar al-Assad to cling to power, according to American and Western officials familiar with the purchases.
The action also signals the recognition among the rebels’ Arab and Western backers that the opposition’s success in pushing Mr. Assad’s military from much of Syria’s northern countryside by the middle of last year gave way to a slow, grinding campaign in which the opposition remains outgunned and the human costs continue to climb.
Washington’s role in the shipments, if any, is not clear. Officials in Europe and the United States, including those at the Central Intelligence Agency, cited the sensitivity of the shipments and declined to comment publicly.
Why arm Syrian rebels? Let’s start with Iran. The faster Syrian dictator Bashar Assad falls, the faster Iran loses its closest ally in the region and its main conduit for shipping weapons to terrorist groups that attack Israel and other U.S. allies. A Syria without Assad will further isolate Iran and could help force it to the nuclear negotiating table.
Second, the war in Syria is destabilizing an already volatile region. Armed conflict has spilled into Iraq and Turkey. Refugees are creating tension in Jordan, Lebanon and other neighboring states. Syria’s chemical weapons are hard to track—and the longer the civil war rages, the greater the risk that Assad will use them on his own people, or that they end up in the hands of terrorists.
Meanwhile, the rebels aren’t waiting for Washington to decide. They are getting arms where they can—often from private individuals and Gulf countries that support the most radical Islamists within the rebel factions.
Judith: So is it a foregone conclusion that a victorious rebellion will mean an Islamist Syria?
Jonathan:Well, I think it is more and more looking that way now. I’m not sure if that was the case right at the beginning. To some degree, what’s happened now — and I stress to some degree, I don’t want to say this is the whole picture, but to some degree what’s happening now is the result of Western policy. The United States clearly wanted to stay out of the whole issue of the Syrian revolution and then the Syrian civil war. What it hoped to do, what it has done, is to effectively contract out the job of arming and supporting the Syrian insurgency to regional players, specifically the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. It’s not surprising, then, that if you contract out the arming of the insurgency to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, what you will get will be an Islamist insurgency. Those will be the kinds of elements which those countries will feel most inclined to support. And that is indeed what they have done, with the result that the insurgency is now very much dominated by Islamists and it’s hard to see, if the rebellion wins, any result other than the emergence of an Islamist Syria of one type or another.
I want to stress that that’s only part of the picture. I don’t want to say that only outside forces have brought this about. Because we must understand I think also that we are living through a particular historical moment in which Sunni Islamism is having its day in country after country across the region. In Egypt, and Tunisia; among the Palestinians, and also in Syria. To a certain extent there’s sort of a bottom — a from-below dynamic here as well. The Islamists have proved to be the most determined fighters. They’ve proved to be the ones most willing to make sacrifices, and they’ve also proved to be among the most honest and non-corrupt of the fighting elements. And as a result of all that, plus the money from outside, both organizations and individuals have gravitated towards them. With the result that the Islamists now very much dominate the military scene among the rebels, and also the political scene.
It isn’t clear from the New York Times report if the United States is, in any way, involved in facilitating the Saudi arms shipments, though the denials suggest that it is. But will helping the rebels allow the United States to influence them in any way? It doesn’t appear so.
3) Ceasefire broken
In the past when a Hamas rocket has been fired into Israel the media use language to describe it as “endangering the ceasefire.” So let’s give the New York Times credit for calling it like it is: Rocket From Gaza Hits Israel, Breaking Cease-Fire:
The Israeli police and military reported that a single Grad rocket landed in a road outside the city of Ashkelon, causing damage but no injuries.
The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the military wing of the Palestinians’ Fatah faction, said in an e-mailed statement that it had fired the rocket in “an initial natural response to the assassination of prisoner Arafat Jaradat,” a 30-year-old Palestinian who died in an Israeli jail on Saturday. The statement also said that Palestinians “should resist their enemy with all available means.”
Palestinian officials have blamed Mr. Jaradat’s death on what they described as “severe torture” during interrogation after his arrest Feb. 21 for throwing rocks at Israeli settlers in November. The Israeli authorities said that an autopsy conducted on Sunday could not determine the cause of death and that the bruising and broken ribs the Palestinians cited as evidence of torture could have been caused by resuscitation efforts.
When the PA incites against Israel, many ignore it. Here, whether or not Abbas told the “military wing” of Fatah to attack or not, his charges – and those echoed my many PA officials – certainly played a role in encouraging this attack. Hamas is calling the report of the rocket “lies,” suggesting that they’re scared of the consequences.