Syria's House of Cards

After two years, 1 million refugees, and more than 70,000 dead, some Syrians -- and one American president -- are still looking to protect their own interests rather than save a country.

Over a kebab dinner in the Turkish city of Iskenderun, Syrian physician and cleric Mahmoud al-Husseini explained why he has not yet visited the Atmeh refugee camp in northern Syria, just 55 miles south from where he now lived. "I'm too famous, I don't want to go to be photographed," he explained.

It sounded like a cop-out. Husseini is the former head of Aleppo's religious endowment, and although he left the country in the summer of 2011, he still boasts wide influence inside Syria. But this influence remained untapped. He says that he considers those who visit the camps to be "revolution celebrities," merely looking for the next photo op with a poor Syrian refugee child. So he avoids getting involved altogether.

Like many Syrians, Husseini has strong yet contradictory opinions on the disaster unfolding across the border. He believes that the Syrian opposition in exile is controlled by foreign agendas and paid off with "political money," and was convinced that the crisis could end with a single threatening "phone call from President Obama." Yet, he also holds that it's not time yet to counter the growing sectarianism within the ranks of the opposition fighters, because "the killing had to stop first."

And his plan to solve the bloody crisis? Forming yet another Syrian opposition group. He claims his exclusive group, the "Building Civilization Movement," is made up of 100 of the most important Syrian political and social figures in the country. He could only give one name, however, out of those elusive hundred. What was their plan? And why would he not announce the names? His answer: "They will be burned." (Figuratively, of course.)

It's a common response in Syria these days. Uncertain about how this bloody, two-year revolt will play out, many Syrians have essentially decided not to decide on their stance toward the conflict. When asked to give their reason, they repeat the same sentence: "I don't want my cards to be burned." Many prominent Syrians are sitting on the fence, waiting for the right moment to get involved -- but only when it is clear their personal interests will be protected.

The "don't burn your cards" saying became a joke between our group of Syrian journalists, writers, and activists as we moved back and forth across the Syrian-Turkish border area in January to meet with rebel fighters, refugees, and politicians. If you do "fill-in-the-blank," we would laugh, then you will burn your cards. This action could be almost anything -- take a picture with a refugee child, announce your true political beliefs, go into Syria, don't go into Syria.

And it's true -- in Syria's high-stakes political climate, certain choices define you: Do you support foreign intervention or not? Do you support arming the rebels or not? Do you support the bloody tactics of the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra or not? Even the distribution of humanitarian aid leads to a slew of questions: Why give money to the refugees when you should be helping people inside? Why help refugees in Jordan's Zaatari camp when you should be helping the displaced people in the camps inside Syria?

Hard-edged questions like these continue to fracture the Syrian opposition. Over the past month, the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), the internationally recognized opposition umbrella group, has been on a roller-coaster ride of statements and counter-statements, bold boycotts and instant reversals of boycotts. The Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council (SNC), the majority bloc within the coalition, has repeatedly undermined the group's plans to break the political stalemate between Assad and the opposition -- revealing personal interests taking precedence over national ones.

Last week, for instance, coalition leader Moaz al-Khatib announced a last-minute boycott of a "Friends of Syria" summit in Rome in protest of the Scud missile attacks on Aleppo, which left scores dead and leveled residential neighborhoods. When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry personally requested the coalition's presence and promised increased American support, Khatib changed his position. But the SNC resolved to uphold the boycott, leaving the coalition leader to attend alone and once again exposing a divided opposition front.

Khatib and the SNC have also sparred over the coalition leader's unilateral initiative --announced on his Facebook page -- to open negotiations with the regime. Some Syrians viewed the initiative as a sign of weakness, while others believed that beginning the dialogue process was the only way to move forward. But behind the scenes, it seems that some of the SNC's public outrage was just a show for the public. As one senior Syrian political activist confided, in explaining opposition to the plan: "Many in the coalition were afraid their cards would burn if they had openly backed Moaz al-Khatib's dialogue initiative."

Responses like these show that Syria's emerging political personalities are still riding their 15 minutes of media fame. They jet from conference to conference, proudly announcing this statement or that boycott as major accomplishments. Rather than working together, they snipe at each other on Arabic satellite news channels and social media. These ugly debates further disconnect the opposition from the very people they claim to represent.

Some Syrians are beginning to lose patience with this charade, and have begun harshly questioning the incompetence of their supposed leaders. Former U.N. official Samir Shishakli has sharply criticized both Khatib's habit of bypassing the coalition and the undermining tactics of his rivals. On Feb. 4, he posted a scathing critique of the state of the political opposition on his popular blog: "I can't imagine this new low that the opposition has sunk to, functioning without considering the revolution, despite their claim that the revolution is the only source of legitimacy," he wrote.

To be fair, Syria's anti-Assad forces face a conundrum. The overwhelming likelihood is that, in the short-term, the political opposition in exile will remain in exile. Asking it to establish its headquarters inside Syria while Assad's Scud missiles continue to target the north is a request to sign a mass suicide note.

And so we reach the Arab Spring cliché once again: Syria is not Libya. Without a protected zone inside Syria, it will be impossible to forge a united political and military opposition. Nevertheless, despite the difficulties, various opposition coalition members periodically enter northern Syria under rebel protection -- Khatib himself made a surprise visit to the town of Minbej in early March. The coalition has also taken a larger role in distributing humanitarian aid, assisting local civil councils and monitoring elections for local governments.

The discord, of course, is not only confined to the Syrian opposition. Over the last few weeks, disagreements between top officials in Washington over what to do -- or not to do -- in Syria have come to light. The heads of the CIA, State Department, and Defense Department agreed many months ago that the United States should arm the moderate rebel groups. But in the heat of his reelection campaign, Obama disagreed. An estimated 20,000 people have died since then --providing a stark reminder that the U.S. policy of inaction has real consequences.

How will Syria shape the legacy that Obama leaves behind? The Nobel Peace Prize-winning president may write off his inaction during what will later be called "the Syrian years" with a few lines of regret in his future memoir, but those lines will not erase the tragic fact that there were thousands of lives that could have been saved -- but weren't, because of an election, or a close ally's interests.

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime, as well as its loyalists and allies, has been steadfastly implementing only one strategy: Assad or we burn the country. The procrastination of the opposition's supposed international allies has given Assad time -- time to strategically leave Syrian borders open to the wolves at the door, who rushed in armed with weapons and ideologies foreign to the diverse fabric of Syrian society. Time to kill more Syrians.

And so Assad burned card after Syrian card, along with innocent people, children, homes, and cities. Along the way, he burned the cards of justice, liberty, and dignity held by hundreds of original revolutionaries like Kurdish leader Mashaal Tammo, young pacifist Ghiyath Matar, and leftist intellectual Omar Aziz.

Despite the international community's dismal track record so far, one cannot help but hope that this time, just maybe, someone will decide it's time to do the right thing. It's time to end the murdering of a country. It's time to use all the cards available -- to negotiate and to fight, to move the political opposition into a protected zone within Syria, to deliver aid to the people suffering from hunger, cold, and disease, to fight sectarianism and extremism, and to shake off the world's apathetic, paralyzing ambivalence. That would be a legacy that everyone from Husseini to Obama could be proud of.

Time is running out on Syria. Time has already run out for more than 70,000 Syrians. Two cruel years unfolded in front of our eyes -- and we still worry about legacy and personal interests, about power, about saving face and political feuds. We still worry about the worthless cards we clutch to our chest while hundreds of Syrians die every single week.

Burn the cards. It's time to go all in. 

Pablo Tosco/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Speak Softly and Let Others Carry the Big Stick

The problem with the 'light footprint' approach to U.S. military policy.

Facing smaller defense budgets and a public tired of massive military interventions, the Obama administration has declared an end to big-footprint wars. That is welcome news to many, but as the United States pulls its own troops back, it will increasingly rely on allies and partner states to serve as military proxies -- a situation that begs complex practical and moral questions. And at the moment, we don't seem to have good answers to them.

On February 14, Michael Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict, told Congress, "Building Partnership Capacity (BPC) is a fundamental aspect of our strategy.... BPC permeates the Department of Defense's activities, and is a critical enabler to every [emphasis mine] primary military mission." In the same hearing, Lt. Gen. Terry Wolff, director of strategic plans for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that BPC is "integral" to the "U.S. security strategy" and will be "a key component in how the United States will structure and employ military resources going forward."

Both men cited notable successes. U.S.-trained African Union forces have turned the tide against al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab, which previously controlled much of Somalia. And America's deep support for Colombian forces has -- over decades -- helped decimate the FARC rebellion and restore stability to our closest South American ally. But not all such projects are so successful. Moreover, often prospective partners -- including the Colombians and the African Union states -- have less than ideal human rights records.

Consider the case of the rebel group known as M23. Over the past year, M23, a Rwandan proxy militia, has committed large-scale atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Last November, in response, the United Kingdom suspended all assistance, military and civilian, to neighboring Rwanda. Fifteen major human rights groups called upon the U.S. government to "cut all military assistance and suspend other non-humanitarian aid" as well. Instead, President Obama chastised Rwanda's President Paul Kagame by phone, but only scaled back U.S. security cooperation by a mere $200,000 (out of $200 million) -- hoping that mild displeasure would allow it to maintain Rwandan support for U.S. interests and coax changes in Rwandan policy.

On December 1 of last year, as I was flying into the capital of Rwanda, M23 rebels were withdrawing from Goma, which hugs Rwanda's border. M23's key leader, Bosco Ntaganda, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court. Twice, the DRC government offered him both forgiveness for his atrocities and the rank of general to lay down his arms. Most recently, Ntaganda -- having accepted the second amnesty offer -- had been serving in Congo's army. But he broke ranks in April 2012, accusing Congo's government of marginalizing his fellow ethnic Tutsis within Congo's military. He then launched another of his blood-soaked campaigns across eastern Congo, displacing almost a quarter of a million people by late November 2012.

Such horrors have become almost routine over the past 20 years in Congo. Nonetheless, M23's depravity is notable. According to a Human Rights Watch report, on July 7, 2012, in one village M23 fighters broke down one woman's door, "beat her 15-year-old son to death, and abducted her husband. Before leaving, the M23 fighters gang-raped her, poured fuel between her legs, and set the fuel on fire." Despite these abuses, the Rwandan government remains patron to Ntaganda and M23, providing more than just supplies and weapons. Reports indicate that as many as 1,000 Rwandan troops crossed the border into Congo at different points to help M23 seize Goma.

Ironically, I was going to Rwanda to train Rwandan Defense Forces (RDF) officers in conflict resolution and civilian protection skill sets for peacekeeping in Darfur. This State Department-funded African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance program is the same program used to train African Union forces for Somalia. In early February, my RDF students led 3,200 soldiers in a "relief-in-place," sustaining Rwanda's contribution to United Nations/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), and providing an essential minimum of peace and security to the victims of wanton violence there. In part, their Darfur mission is to prevent the rape and killing of civilians in possibly the only corner of Africa that can rival Congo's violence and misery over the past decade.

In 2010, in response to U.N. criticisms of its DRC policies, Rwanda threatened to extract its troops from Darfur, where they play a critical role. Rwandan soldiers conduct themselves with far more professionalism than their African neighbors. RDF troops are disciplined and detail-oriented. Their American marksmanship instructors told me RDF troops significantly outperform their previous Afghan and Iraqi students. I served as a U.S. Marine Corps embedded trainer with the Iraqi Army, and I thoroughly agreed. Going into combat, I'd willingly trade two or three Iraqi infantry battalions for one from the RDF.

This discipline and combat effectiveness arguably constitutes UNAMID's backbone. But the RDF's continued high-level performance and deployment capacity significantly depend on foreign -- particularly U.S. -- assistance. ACOTA's three months of essential training is similar to that of Marine Corps Reserve battalions deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, which is also why other ACOTA-trained forces are defeating al-Shabab in Somalia. So by withdrawing American funding, the United States would likely hinder the most effective component of one of the world's most important humanitarian peacekeeping missions -- particularly if Rwanda pulled its troops in retaliation.

RDF officers told me that defending human rights is central to their mission in Darfur. They repeatedly asked questions about how they can protect civilians within their rules of engagement. They seemed to recognize that these values applied in Congo as well. One officer asked me if it was true that "French trainers told the Congolese Army that they can take sex from any women in the territory they liberate as payment for liberating the territory." When I responded that such conduct was rape, and so unacceptable, illegal, and forbidden, none of his classmates pushed back.

Nonetheless, M23 forces routinely commit such crimes within kilometers of RDF troops. Thus the human rights community wants the U.S. government to impose conditionality, withdrawing security assistance if the Rwandan government doesn't comply with international human rights standards. These groups want the United States to sanction Rwanda until it either forces changes in M23's conduct in Congo or renounces all support for Ntaganda and his men. These groups have an unambiguous moral case, but punishing human rights violations in Rwanda could exacerbate them in Darfur. What's more, it is unclear if cutting off Kagame and the RDF will induce behavioral change. Rwanda and its conduct are significantly driven by deeply-held fears drawn from the 1994 genocide.

Rwanda fears -- not unreasonably -- the return of extremist Hutu militias, particularly the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), perpetrators of the 1994 genocide, and their descendants. Rwanda argues that, by volition or omission, Congo's government has permitted the FDLR's continued operations. Thus Rwandans increasingly view Congo's government as aligned with these malevolent forces. RDF officers consistently asked me, "Do you know the atrocities the Congolese military has committed?" In courses on negotiation, RDF officers repeatedly asked me: "What should the Rwandan government do when Congo refuses to negotiate, and insists on the unilateral withdrawal of M23 from Goma?" These questions implied a justification for their own country's "defensive" actions.

Ironically, the fear of a Hutu-extremist threat has become a self-fulfilling prophecy over the past few months. In response to Rwanda supporting M23's Tutsi-dominated forces, the Congolese government apparently has turned a blind eye to the FDLR's reconstitution. The United Nations reported on December 17, 2012 that 4,000 new troops had joined the FDLR from neighboring countries, tripling its strength in Congo.

Nonetheless, there is a glimmer of hope. On February 6, the DRC and M23 signed a Ugandan-mediated agreement, in which both sides accepted responsibility for itemized violations of the previous peace agreements. Much work remains and current negotiations, that include many other parties, are wrestling over a number of key issues: passing a U.N. Security Council resolution establishing a combat-ready, peace-enforcement mission; vetting M23 troops and re-integrating them into Congo's military, and bringing leaders guilty of the worst of M23's crimes to justice. Resolving this issue will require international pressure on the Rwandan government, to force concessions from their client, M23.

Ideally, the Obama administration will retain ties with Rwanda precisely so that it has leverage at moments like this. The State Department is urging "a final settlement that includes a permanent cessation of hostilities, disarmament and demobilization of the M23, and accountability for human rights abusers." This then, can be a test-case -- on the human rights front -- of continued engagement with such abusive regimes.

Even if these talks fall through, though, terminating U.S. security support to Rwanda is still not a clear call. If Rwandan elites believe the world is abandoning them again -- just like in 1994 -- with Hutu-extremist militias rising next door, it will only entrench defiance of the international community. This could empower Kagame and encourage even greater support of Ntaganda and M23, and prompt him to withdraw from UNAMID. Thus, if the U.S. conditions its assistance on Rwanda's pressuring or abandoning M23, the consequence could be more suffering in Darfur, but no less suffering under the terrors of Bosco Ntaganda.

The United States regularly points to Colombia as a replicable example of security assistance success. The U.S. government has argued that, particularly through the advent of "Leahy human rights vetting," security cooperation can drive reform in partner-state security forces. This law, authored by Vermont's Sen. Patrick Leahy, bars U.S. funding for training of a foreign security force if there exists "credible evidence that [the] unit has committed gross violations of human rights." Supposedly, partner states will ensure proper behavior to receive U.S. training and funds. However, reports indicate that in Colombia and elsewhere Leahy vetting has drastic shortcomings and has not driven human rights reforms as well as its author had hoped.

Sometimes security assistance doesn't even improve security -- or worse, it backfires. Over the past decade the United States has sought to strengthen forces across northwestern Africa through the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. However, the militaries in three of the 11 participating countries have executed coups since 2008. And the United States invested tens of millions of dollars in the Malian military, but as Assistant Secretary Sheehan testified, they "got their butts kicked in northern Mali by the Tuareg rebellion.... Mali is clearly our biggest failure."

With looming budget austerity and zero domestic appetite for deploying troops abroad, often the United States will depend on allies and partner states to carry the combat load for our security. To ensure that is done right, foreign security assistance is becoming a core component of America's national security doctrine. But one thing is as clear now as it was the morning I flew out of Rwanda last December: There will be a long learning curve in how to effectively wield security cooperation to best guard American values and maintain our global leadership.

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