Argument

Observing the Observers

The Arab League's monitoring mission in Syria has been a miserable failure, and no international white knight is waiting in the wings. Syrians are on their own.

Syria sits at the historical, geographical, and political strategic crossroads of civilization. That definition is etched into every Syrian child's mind from grade school through university. We are taught to believe we occupy the center of the universe and that our land matters on a global scale.

The last 10 months of the Syrian uprising have placed our blood-soaked country at another critical crossroads: with more than 5,000 dead, tens of thousands imprisoned, a brutal family dictatorship fighting for survival, a fragmented opposition, and a suffering people. There is no end in sight to the violence that escalates by the day and no clear vision of Syria's future.

In December, after months of stalling and facing enforced sanctions, the Syrian regime finally seemed to buckle under pressure from the Arab League and agreed to sign a "protocol" ostensibly aimed at quelling the uprising. The agreement called for the regime to remove heavy artillery from urban areas, halt the use of force against civilians, release all political prisoners, and allow independent media into the country. Late last month, an advance team of 15 Arab League observers arrived in Syria on a one-month mission to monitor the regime's compliance with the protocol. They have since increased to 153 observers; that number still falls far below the 500 observers that was part of the original agreement.

"Observe" is a banal word sucked of accountability, responsibility, action -- a fitting way to describe an Arab League mission. Monitoring abuses of power is a function one would not expect from the Arab League, which, let's face it, represents mostly dictatorships and absolute monarchies that have less-than-stellar human rights records. But observing Syria is an activity we have all become complicit in -- observing the meetings, agreements, conferences, opposition groups forming and reforming, while Syrians are killed every day. We debate the conspiracies, the Western/Israeli/American/Saudi/Sunni alliance versus the Eastern/Russian/Iranian/Shiite one, with Palestine strung taut in between. These discussions, devoid of action, build a cruel barrier between ruthless international power games and innocent people who are being played. This is why the Syrian people suspiciously view the Arab League as a protector of the regime and by extension its brutality.

On a personal level, we have taken to consuming our country in tweets, video clips, and Facebook pages -- observing from a distance. Until a brief Skype call sharply pushes you out of the virtual, the political, the abstract, into grounded reality.

His voice is heavy with sleep -- it's the middle of the night in Syria. He is an activist in the southern city of Deraa. He speaks of his city before the observers arrived, how life had been difficult but had become predictable, how the protesters and the shabbiha -- the armed thugs the regime uses to attack and intimidate the opposition -- had come to know each other, understanding and perfecting the game of cat and mouse, where and when to be and not to be.

The observers' arrival changed the rules of the game. The regime sends spies to take pictures of the protesters who dare speak to the observers. Before every excursion, the streets are secured in any way necessary, by bullets or arrests (for the safety of the observers or to preserve what's left of the regime's tarnished image?). The streets of Deraa have to be scrubbed clean of its people, silencing their voices and erasing any sign of dissent, to present an image of control, safely guarded by snipers lurking on rooftops.

The man from Deraa with his steady, unemotional voice knows no report will protect his family, his neighbors, his town, his country. He is too smart to have hope; he relies on steel determination instead.

"When the observers first arrived, the people were extremely optimistic," he tells me. "On the first day the team met with the mayor, so we couldn't do anything. The second day, we invited them to a protest at a martyr's funeral. They said, 'We don't have cars for transportation.' We asked, 'How could the team of observers not have cars?' So we postponed the protest. The third day, we asked them to come and observe the protest, but the regime took them somewhere else. Their work is not even at 1 percent. Nothing is happening. They aren't gathering testimonies from the families. They are witnessing the snipers and the army on the streets. They see this with their own eyes. A stranger walking in the streets would know."

So far, the regime has freed 3,500 prisoners, but an estimated 30,000 more still remain imprisoned, and according to Syrian activists, 5,700 people have been detained since the Arab League mission began. One week before the observers arrived, the regime escalated the crackdown, killing at least 250 people in four days. Since then, the casualties have gone down to an average of a couple of dozen people a day, according to numbers tallied by various human rights groups and local coordination committees.

The Arab League mission has been declared a failure for multiple reasons: the insufficient number of observers to cover all the "hot spots"; the questionable integrity of the head of the mission, Sudanese Lt. Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi; and the observers' heavily monitored movement by security forces, which limits their ability to "observe." As Qatar's prime minister and head of the Arab League committee on Syria, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, admitted last week, "There are mistakes, but we went there not to stop the killing, but to monitor." He cited the Arab League's inexperience with leading this type of mission as one of the main concerns.

Failure or not, there have been significant changes to the Syrian revolution's landscape since the Arab League mission began. The regime added tear gas, water cannons, and nail bombs to its arsenal of mass arrests, torture, live ammunition, and sniper fire used to attack protesters. Last Friday, Jan. 7, the people of Damascus awoke to news of an explosion in the Midan, the heart of the city. The location is especially significant as it's a meeting point between restive areas that have been protesting in larger numbers and was supposed to be the site of a large-scale protest later that day. The explosion, dubbed a suicide bombing by state media, killed 26 people and injured dozens more. It mimicked the twin explosions on Dec. 23 in the capital that killed 44 people at the time of the monitors' arrival. (The regime blamed al Qaeda cells operating in Syria for the attacks, reinforcing its story of "armed gangs" behind the uprising.)

The opposition insists these explosions are a sinister plot by the regime to convince the Arab League team of the official narrative and divert the observers from focusing on the deteriorating conditions on the ground. The official state news agency's (SANA's) live coverage of the attack inadvertently exposed signs of staging at the site of the explosion, such as pristine white plastic bags near the pools of blood, perhaps meant to suggest parcels of fruits and vegetables held by the victims before they were ripped apart by the blast.

Although no one has claimed responsibility for the explosions, they fit within the norm of the regime's scaremongering tactics that include inciting sectarian hate, spreading the "armed-gangs" theory, and misleading the observers. As outspoken activist Rami Jarrah, also known as Alexander Page, puts it, "The question isn't, are the observers being taken for a ride, but whether the observers and the Syrian government are taking the people for a ride."

Still, over the last two weeks, protesters have been emboldened to take to the streets in larger numbers. On Friday, Dec. 30, anti-regime demonstrations grew to more than 250,000 people in Idlib and Hama, with more protests erupting across the country, even in previously calm areas such as Aleppo and Damascus. The protests also seem to have preserved their largely peaceful nature, a quality thought to have been lost in the last months of increased violence between security forces and the defected soldiers who form the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA has claimed to have halted attacks on the government while the observers have been in Syria, though the defected soldiers continue to play an important role in protecting the protesters. The last two weeks have also witnessed larger numbers of defectors, including high-ranking Col. Afeef Mahmoud Suleiman, who defected with 50 soldiers.

One of the most important shifts in the revolution during the Arab League mission has been its coverage, not by the media but by citizen journalists. Protesters who have been filming demonstrations and atrocities for months have turned their lens to film the observers filming the regime's atrocities. Their powerful YouTube clips feature the monitors in their bright orange vests surrounded by the sounds of gunfire, confronted with dead bodies of children, and bombarded by protesters' complaints and grievances. Observing the observers has emerged as the people's powerful media weapon against the regime and its propaganda. Khaled Abu Salah, a prominent activist in Homs even confronted Dabi. "Our problem is not with you as individuals," he told him. "Our problem is with the protocol itself. The first article of the protocol is 'stop the killing.' When 15 people die in one day while you're here, then what have we benefited from your presence?" (The Russian Foreign Ministry later said Dabi's remarks about the situation in Syria were "reassuring." He has since claimed the statement as "unfounded and not true.")

But these tactics, while peaceful and successful, sometimes come with a heavy price. Another activist from Homs, Basil al-Sayid, who had filmed clips from the besieged Baba Amr neighborhood for months, was shot by a sniper while attempting to tape another sniper, thus filming his own death.

As part of the "Strike for Dignity," protesters in Homs held a "noise campaign" by banging pots in protest. Tanjara is Arabic for pot, but when transformed to a verb, it means to disregard. Disregard the regime, the Arab League observers, and the world, because the people on the street know they are running this revolution alone -- with chants, flags, cell-phone cameras, and now kitchen utensils.

As the people on the ground carry out these brave, witty tactics, Syrian opposition figures continue to display their disunity. Burhan Ghalioun, president of the leading opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), has asked for a no-fly-zone that a BBC reporter described as "on a smaller scale than the bombing in Libya." His comments came after a jointly signed agreement between the SNC and another opposition group, the National Coordination Committee led by Haytham Manna, which rejected any type of international intervention. According to activists close to the SNC, there is a current race for the next head of the council (the position is on a three-month rotation) between members George Sabra and Samir Nashar. Many Syrians doubt that a leadership change will fix the SNC's deepening credibility problem.

On Sunday, Arab League ministers met in Cairo to discuss the mission's progress. Opposition groups and activists hoped the league would admit the mission's failure to stop the continuing violence and refer Syria's case to the U.N. Security Council. Instead, Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby confirmed the mission would carry on as planned. Another Arab League meeting has been scheduled for Jan. 19 to re-evaluate the observers' progress. On the rejection of any kind of assistance from the United Nations, Elaraby said, "We do not live in an ideal world, and there is no country in the world that is willing to use force."

The Syrian regime, however, is perfectly willing to do so. It has resorted to games and deception, lies and theatrics, constructing mirrors of smoke that hide blood and bodies. In contrast, the Syrian people possess only their will. They express their desires in simple words: freedom, justice, death before humiliation. The world does not understand these concepts, just as it didn't historically understand similar aspirations of other people across the globe. Syria is just another one of those places, though cursed with its strategic location, at the crossroads of civilization and global (dis)interest.

Turning a strategically blind eye has become the norm to Syrians. Once again, the headlines tell the same story: "Arab League Asks Syria to Halt Violence" on a day when activists claim 26 people were killed, and the Syrian regime insists, observed or not, it's going to be bloody business as usual.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Argument

Iran's Kamikaze Hormuz Threat

Will Tehran really shut off one of the world’s most important oil chokepoints? Only if it is truly desperate.

When Iran's vice president, Mohammad Reza Rahimi, declared on Dec. 27 that "not a drop of oil will pass through the Strait of Hormuz" if Western countries followed through with threats of escalated sanctions over its nuclear program, the world sat up and took notice. Since then, tensions have run high in the Persian Gulf, with Iran holding naval exercises and U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warning Iran that closing the strait would be a "red line" for the United States.

Newspaper headlines are warning of a possible conflict breaking out over one of the most important shipping lanes on the planet, through which almost 20 percent of the world's oil passes each day. Analysts and commentators can't seem to decide how seriously to rate this risk: They have generally argued that Iran's military (and especially naval) capabilities are either insignificant or extreme threats to U.S. and allied forces in the region. So which is it? Is the Iranian navy as dangerous as it claims to be? Can Iran really shut the Strait of Hormuz?

The truth is that Iran does possess a number of tools to harass, challenge, and even harm opposing naval forces, but its overall arsenal is limited, ramshackle, and untested in combat. Iran's military commanders know that their naval capabilities are ill-suited for direct engagement with U.S. forces. Iranian traditional naval vessels and aircraft are no match for their American counterparts, and Iran possess too few of both to endure any extended engagement. Unable to challenge U.S forces with equal strength and firepower, Iran's military planners have designed "asymmetric" tactics that utilize the greater speed and agility of their maritime assets. Iran's small boats and midget submarines would be central to any Iranian naval engagement, and are likely the ones that would be the most difficult to initially counter. Iran has also produced thousands of naval mines, which could be littered throughout strategic sea lanes in the Persian Gulf or employed as defensive measures around key Iranian maritime infrastructure. The United States has the capability to effectively deal with naval mines, but their use by Iran would certainly complicate maritime traffic for a period of time.

This asymmetric approach to warfare, which is borne out of Iran's longstanding technological disadvantages vis-à-vis the United States and its allies, is the military basis for its particular threat to close the Strait of Hormuz. Iran cannot compete with U.S. forces directly, but the collective marshaling of its maritime assets (mines, small boats, midget subs, etc.) could severely test the United States' ability to maintain security in the Persian Gulf. Closing the Hormuz strait -- or more likely, creating a hostile environment in the Gulf that leads to a drastic decline in maritime shipping through it -- is probably the most extreme and certainly the most politically and economically damaging act that Iran's maritime forces could achieve. While the impact this would have on Iran, the United States, and Arab states in the region, is debatable, Iran understands that few if any would like to find out. This is Iran's answer to the United States' "all options on the table," and for all of its saber-rattling and exaggerated bluster, is something its forces could accomplish.

Yet, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey recently stated, Iran's ability to keep the strait closed or constricted would likely be short lived. Because of the military operations that would be involved, and the damage it would do to the economies of the region, closing the strait would likely be considered an act of war against the United States and its Gulf allies. U.S. retaliation against Iran would thus be a near certainty, putting at risk much of Iran's maritime and littoral military assets. The United States could end up destroying much of Iran's navy, air force, and land based artillery just to clear the way for re-opening the strait. The United States might also take the opportunity to target Iran's nuclear sites, if not move to topple the Iranian regime altogether. Regional opinion (especially that of the United States' Arab allies) will most likely support military operations in such a context, and the international community will be hard-pressed not to support military action against an Iran that is willing to jeopardize world petroleum and gas markets for its own political purposes.

None of this means Iran's bluster should be dismissed. Iran has the capability to challenge U.S. naval forces and the ability to close the Strait of Hormuz, albeit for a limited period. There is no question that U.S. commanders take the threat that Iranian forces pose seriously. However, while Iran might have an advantage in limited, asymmetrical attacks, that advantage quickly dissipates in an open and extended conflict. A war with the United States -- especially if it included an Iranian attempt to close the Hormuz strait -- would have devastating effects on Iran's economy, military, regional relations, and international standing. Thus, initiating a conflict with U.S. forces, particularly a maritime conflict, would be a last-ditch, kamikaze act by the Iranians. Iranian leaders understand this, which is why their strategy up until now has been focused on preventing outright conflict with the United States.

Some Iranian military commanders, however, express confidence in Iran's ability to control Persian Gulf waters in a conflict scenario. Admiral Ali Fadavi, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards' navy, recently pointed to Iran's naval engagements during the so-called "tanker war" of the 1980s as proof that its forces could be successful against the United States. Yet the historical record really holds the opposite to be true. Although Iranian forces were able to attack and damage civilian shipping vessels during that period, and obstruct maritime traffic with naval mines, they proved to be outmatched by the mostly defensive countermeasures of the United States. What is more, Iran was far more desperate during this period, and the tanker war was effectively the last gasp of Iranian military ambition during a nearly eight-year war with Iraq. The United States was also trying to limit its participation in the conflict, and did not deem Iran a big enough threat to enter into a full-scale war against it.

The situation is obviously very different today. Iran's domestic problems and the intense pressure of international sanctions appear to be rattling the nerves of Iran's decision-makers. The United States is leading the sanctions effort against Iran and has made clear that it will not allow it to develop a nuclear weapon. However, even now, when tensions are acute, an Iranian-initiated war looks like a distant possibility, as does a preemptive U.S. strike. Yet, as opportunities for compromise evaporate, and as relations continue to sour, the likelihood of war is steadily increasing.

AFP/Getty Images