The New York Times has finally come to the realization that jihadist groups fighting in Syria against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are likely to be more dangerous than the “secular” Assad himself. In a front page article on December 4, 2013, with the sub-heading “Officials Say Militants in Syria Could Threaten U.S. and Europe,” the “paper of record” at long last went on record to state the obvious.
The Times quoted Ryan C. Crocker, an experienced diplomat with service in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, who said flat-out that “We need to start talking to the Assad regime again” about counterterrorism. He added that “bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadists who would take over in his absence.”
Syria is not just a localized problem. It is fast becoming an incubator for jihadist violence spreading throughout the Middle East, parts of Africa and beyond.
Ironically, the Times article repeated the narrative put forth by Syria’s United Nations Ambassador H.E. Bashar Ja’afari just the day before the article was published regarding the potential terrorist blowback from European and American jihadists fighting in Syria who come back to their home countries. “They know nothing but killing,” he said. Ja’afari told me that he was pleased with the Times article.
The Obama administration still harbors the illusion of regime change in Syria without Assad in its future. However, the administration lacks the leverage to make that happen, not to mention any idea of who would have the clout to keep the jihadists out of power once Assad is gone. Moreover, in order for the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons to continue on the smooth path it has taken so far with the cooperation of the Syrian government, President Obama has little choice but to play nice with Assad, and with Russia, which brought Assad around on the chemical weapons issue and let Obama save some face over his blurry “red line.”
The current plan is to transport the chemical agents to a Syrian port city, to be placed on commercial vessels for shipping and then loaded onto a United States ship and destroyed at sea using a technical process known as hydrolysis.
“The functional destruction of critical facilities and weaponry has taken place… We’re in full swing to prepare for the removal of the most critical chemical agents out of the country,” Sigrid Kaag, the Special Coordinator of the joint mission of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) and the United Nations, said on December 4th. The Syrian government is cooperating so far. In response to my question regarding the extent of cooperation from rebel forces which control parts of Syria through which the chemical agents might be transported, she said she had met with some opposition representatives in Turkey who endorsed the joint mission’s work but conceded that there are others who “have a very different agenda” and view the UN as a “target.”
Meanwhile, attempts to find a political solution to the overall Syrian crisis have gone nowhere. This is the principal area in which the UN Security Council remains deadlocked, with Russia and China continuing to support the Assad regime and the United States, United Kingdom and France still seeking Assad’s removal.
Last month, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced the next round of Syria peace talks set for January 22, 2014 in Geneva. “For the first time, the Syrian Government and opposition will meet at the negotiating table instead of the battlefield,” Ban exclaimed. “This is a mission of hope. We go with a clear understanding: The Geneva conference is the vehicle for a peaceful transition that fulfills the legitimate aspirations of all the Syrian people for freedom and dignity, and which guarantees safety and protection to all communities in Syria.”
However, in reality, this conference, known as Geneva II, which is supposed to implement the broad vision for a transitional plan contained in a communique that came out of the first Geneva conference in June 2012, is little more than vain hope and a photo opportunity.
The al Qaeda affiliated groups that have become the dominant opposition fighting forces will not participate, even if they were to be invited. The opposition groups that indicated a willingness to attend continue to insist on Assad’s ouster as a precondition for any political resolution of the conflict, a demand rejected out of hand by Assad whose military has been gaining ground against the rebels.
Iran so far has not been invited to attend because it has refused to accept the June 2012 communique as the basis for moving forward with a plan for a transitional government. However, Russia and UN officials including Secretary General Ban Ki-moon support Iran’s inclusion in the Geneva II conference no matter what Iran thinks its mission should be. Iranian President Rouhani said that the Geneva II conference should focus on expelling the foreign-backed terrorists from Syria, conveniently leaving out the foreign Hezbollah terrorists fighting alongside Syrian and Iranian forces in Syria.
Amidst the political stalemate and continuing fighting, more than 125,000 Syrians have died so far in the 32-month old conflict according to some estimates. The war has had calamitous humanitarian consequences, including forcing millions of people from their homes and overrunning the resources of neighboring countries with refugees; severe shortages of food, medicine and doctors; and the destruction of schools, medical facilities and vital infrastructure. Civilians are caught in the cross-fire.
In dealing specifically with the humanitarian crisis, the UN Security Council has displayed some unity of purpose in calling for more open access for humanitarian workers to reach people in need and removal of government red tape. There has been “some modest progress in terms of administrative procedures that had been put in place over time,” said Valerie Amos, the Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator following her latest report to the Security Council. She mentioned the Syrian government’s decision to issue more visas, approve the establishment of additional relief hubs, and allow cross-border transit of humanitarian goods from Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan (but not Turkey, which the Syrian government accuses of aiding and abetting the jihadists). Millions of children have been reached for vaccinations, and millions of people now have clean water.
“However, I did remind the Council that on some of the more difficult areas – protection of civilians, de-militarization of schools and hospitals, access to besieged communities and also cross-line access to hard-to-reach areas – we have not seen any progress,” Ms. Amos remarked. “Of course the issue is what is the best means to reach people in need? For me, the unity of the Security Council is the key here.”
In short, Syria is infested with and an incubator of the spread of jihadism as the fighting continues with no viable political solution in sight, while the international community has been able to deal to some extent with two aspects of the crisis – removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons and some limited easing of the humanitarian consequences of the war. And through it all, the New York Times is finally waking up to the danger that a jihadist Syria would pose not only to the region, but to international peace and security.
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