Friday, November 27, 2015

An assured Assad

By Roula Khalaf and Anna Fifield–
Not long ago, the Damascus regime of Bashar al-Assad was shunned as a dangerous pariah, a troublemaker that meddles in Iraq, provokes unrest in Lebanon and cheers at the Middle Eastern misfortunes of the west.

The Syrian president, who inherited his rule from his father in 2000, was ostracised even by Arab friends infuriated by his tightening alliance with Iran and by the repeated promises of co-operation that were never kept.

These days, however, it must feel like the “Bashar Spring” in Damascus. The 43-year-old Mr Assad is enjoying a rare run of fortunate events that are easing the international pressures and offering a chance at rehabilitation.

With a new US administration determined to turn the page on the policies of George W. Bush and transform past enemies into friends, Syria has emerged as a test case for American policy. If Washington can find a way of convincing Damascus to work with it rather than against it, the bigger goal of defusing other tensions in the region would gain a significant boost.

With its ties to militant groups across the region such as Hizbollah and Hamas, and its resulting ability to undermine western interests, a more co-operative Assad regime could facilitate policy towards Iran as well as the pursuit of Middle East peace.

Although it remains far from clear that the Assad regime will change its behaviour, Washington has already changed its tone. US officials now travel to Damascus for talks; they even show up at the national day celebrations of the Syrian embassy in Washington. European and Arab governments have also been warming to Mr Assad, hoping that engagement will prise him away from the clutches of Tehran.

Mr Assad’s luck has recently also been good on other fronts. An alliance of the Syrian exiled opposition that had grouped Islamists and a leading regime defector has broken up, further weakening a feeble dissident movement.

Most recently, four pro-Syrian former Lebanese generals jailed for the 2005 killing of Rafiq Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon and Syrian opponent, were released amid a lack of evidence. Though a United Nations investigation into an assassination that was widely blamed on Damascus continues, the release of the four men was a boon to Syria, which had denied involvement and had sought to bring an end to the probe.

“It’s a remarkable run for a guy who had his back against the wall,” remarks Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Syrian officials are basking in self-confidence as a result. Imad Moustapha, the country’s ambassador in Washington, told the Middle East Institute this month that he had been “overjoyed” by Mr Obama’s election, describing the change in Washington’s attitude towards Syria as dramatic. “Now, instead of pointing fingers at us, they are telling us how can we work together to address this and that issue. The tone is friendly and respectful and the style is different,” he said. Syria, he added, was not changing. Instead, it was the US that had recognised its mistakes and was seeking to correct them.

“The Syrians now believe they are the centre of the Middle East,” quips Andrew Tabler, a political analyst who spent years in Syria. “They think nothing can be done without them.”

Yet Damascus should not rejoice yet. A better relationship with the west largely depends on how the Syrian ruler plays his hand. US officials fear that Syria might be overestimating the change of tone of the Obama administration and misreading its intentions. To stress that point, a day after a senior US envoy was in Damascus at the end of last week, the administration renewed its unilateral sanctions against Syria, citing the regime’s support for terrorism and weapons trade.

“We want to see a change in Syria’s outlook, away from being a spoiler and more towards being a constructive problem solver, at least willing to deal with some of the problems in the region,” says one US official. “It is not that we want them to cut off relations with Iran but to recognise that the west can offer things that Iran can’t – like economic prosperity and peace with Israel.”

A country of 20m people, with a weak economy and dwindling oil reserves, Syria has always  been a hardline state in the region, determined to punch above its weight. Under the late Hafez al-Assad, it was adept at manoeuvring diplomatically and shifting strategies when the international environment demanded it – most famously during the first Gulf war in 1990 when Syria joined the US-led alliance to free Kuwait.

This ability, however, appeared to have been lost when the younger Mr Assad took over the presidency on the death of his father. Tall and given to grandstanding – much to the annoyance of older Arab leaders – the trained eye-doctor was ill prepared to rule over the Baathist regime, concentrated in the hands of the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shia Islam dominant in the Latakia region on the Mediterranean, and underpinned by a web of competing and corrupt intelligence agencies. It was, after all, his brother Bassil who had been groomed to take over but was killed in a car accident.

Fearing that he would be next on the list of US targets for regime change following the 2003 fall of Baghdad, Mr Assad drew closer to Tehran, backed Iraqi insurgents and used Syria’s support for Lebanon’s Hizbollah and the Palestinian Hamas to undermine western interests in the region.

The cost has been high, and not always obvious. Mr Assad consolidated his power internally, sidelining the old guard and promoting trusted members of his family. He has kept a firm grip on society, repressing pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders.

Damascus also has taken blows: in 2007, Israel bombed a suspected nuclear site in the Syrian desert, which the US said had been built in collaboration with North Korea. A top military aide to Mr Assad was assassinated last August; and Imad Moughniye, Hizbollah’s military chief, was killed a year earlier by a bomb in Damascus. Both killings remain unexplained, with Syria never directly accusing Israel.

Economically too, Damascus has suffered. A trade association agreement under negotiation with the European Union has been frozen since 2005. The killing of Hariri turned large parts of Lebanon against Damascus, forcing it to withdraw its troops – the end of a nearly 30-year presence from which the military establishment had profited financially.

Despite the setbacks, Syria considers that it has been vindicated, with its diplomatic clout enhanced by the Bush administration’s failures in Iraq and the decline of American influence in the Middle East. Iran’s authority in the region has been boosted. In Lebanon, meanwhile, Syria’s allies, including Hizbollah, remain powerful and could win next month’s legislative elections. “The Syrians are convinced that by resisting the [last] US administration they survived, they won,” says a western diplomat in Damascus.

The self-satisfaction could lead to Syria holding out for US concessions but giving little in return. “In absolute terms, Assad is in a weak position, in the region and economically, but not in relative terms,” says Mr Alterman of the CSIS. Damascus, he argues, has no intention of changing its foreign policy, but even a modest correction could give it a different relationship with the US. America’s troop withdrawal from Iraq, scheduled to be completed in two years, could represent an opportunity if Syria is willing to crack down on insurgents who pass through its territory – a big US complaint. Arab officials who have dealt with the regime say engagement with Damascus has a better chance of success if the economic benefits are made clear.

While the US explores prospects of improved bilateral relations, it is also making clear that it would be willing to mediate in peace talks with Israel in order to secure Syria’s main demand – a return of the Golan Heights, occupied since 1967. George Mitchell, the US envoy for Middle East peace, recently added to his team an expert in Syrian-Israeli negotiations.

Quick progress is, however, expected by no one. A day before the US officials arrived in Damascus last week, Mr Assad hosted Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the Iranian president. “We have strategic ties…which…serve the stability and strength of this region,” Mr Assad insisted. “Our duty is to strengthen these kinds of ties.”

“I think that we will see a very gradual, cautious, sceptical approach on both sides,” says Peter Harling, a Damascus-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, a think-tank. Syrian officials, he argues, are fully aware that although Mr Obama’s election might have been revolutionary, his Middle East policy may not be.

The fate of US engagement, more­over, will be closely linked to that of Syrian-Israeli talks. The Israeli defence establishment sees the strategic benefit of peace with Syria but Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s new rightwing prime minister, appears to have little enthusiasm for reviving negotiations. Analysts predict that talks will eventually start, though they will prove hard to conclude with a peace deal.
Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst, says that while confidence-building between Washington and Damascus is important, there will come a stage when concrete actions are required. “Unless the Golan Heights issue is given a high priority on Obama’s regional agenda, sooner or later we will be back to square one. There has to be something concrete related to the peace talks.”

One US official meanwhile outlines a bewildering list of conditions for the success of American engagement. “I think that in the next year, if Syria is in negotiations with Israel, if there is a stable government in Lebanon, if there are better relations between Syria and Iraq, if the Palestinians are working towards elections, the conditions for Syria to play a more positive regional role will be largely in place,” he says.

The Bashar Spring could prove enduring. But it does well to remember the fate of the so-called Damascus Spring, the flourishing of democratic debate that Mr Assad tolerated when he took over – but then suppressed.


Shaky Pakistan Is Seen as Target of Qaeda Plots


WASHINGTON – As Taliban militants push deeper into Pakistan’s settled areas, foreign operatives of Al Qaeda who had focused on plotting attacks against the West are seizing on the turmoil to sow chaos in Pakistan and strengthen the hand of the militant Islamist groups there, according to American and Pakistani intelligence officials.

One indication came April 19, when a truck parked inside a Qaeda compound in South Waziristan, in Pakistan’s tribal areas, erupted in a fireball when it was struck by a C.I.A. missile. American intelligence officials say that the truck had been loaded with high explosives, apparently to be used as a bomb, and that while its ultimate target remains unclear, the bomb would have been more devastating than the suicide bombing that killed more than 50 people at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in September.

Al Qaeda’s leaders – a predominantly Arab group of Egyptians, Saudis and Yemenis, as well as other nationalities like Uzbeks – for years have nurtured ties to Pakistani militant groups like the Taliban operating in the mountains of Pakistan. The foreign operatives have historically set their sights on targets loftier than those selected by the local militant groups, aiming for spectacular attacks against the West, but they may see new opportunity in the recent violence.

Intelligence officials say the Taliban advances in Swat and Buner, which are closer to Islamabad than to the tribal areas, have already helped Al Qaeda in its recruiting efforts. The officials say the group’s recruiting campaign is currently aimed at young fighters across the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia who are less inclined to plan and carry out far-reaching global attacks and who have focused their energies on more immediate targets.

“They smell blood, and they are intoxicated by the idea of a jihadist takeover in Pakistan,” said Bruce O. Riedel, a former analyst for the C.I.A. who recently led the Obama administration’s policy review of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It remains unlikely that Islamic militants could seize power in Pakistan, given the strength of Pakistan’s military, according to American intelligence analysts. But a senior American intelligence official expressed concern that recent successes by the Taliban in extending territorial gains could foreshadow the creation of “mini-Afghanistans” around Pakistan that would allow militants even more freedom to plot attacks.

American government officials and terrorism experts said that Al Qaeda’s increasing focus on a local strategy was partly born from necessity, as the C.I.A.’s intensifying airstrikes have reduced the group’s ability to hit targets in the West. The United States has conducted 17 drone attacks so far this year, including one on Saturday, according to American officials and Pakistani news accounts, compared with 36 strikes in all of 2008.

According to a Pakistani intelligence assessment provided to The New York Times in February, Al Qaeda has adapted to the deaths of its leaders by shifting “to conduct decentralized operations under small but well-organized regional groups” within Pakistan and Afghanistan. At the same time, the group has intensified its recruiting, to replace its airstrike casualties.

One of Al Qaeda’s main goals in Pakistan, the assessment said, was to “stage major terrorist attacks to create a feeling of insecurity, embarrass the government and retard economic development and political progress.”

The Qaeda operatives are foreigners inside Pakistan, and experts say that the group’s leaders, like Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, appear to be wary of claiming credit for the violence in the country, possibly creating popular backlash against the group.

“They are trying to take an Arab face off this,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.

“If you look at Al Qaeda as a brand, they know when to broadcast the brand, as the group has done in North Africa,” Mr. Hoffman said. “And they know when to cloak the brand, as it has done in Pakistan.”

As a result, it is difficult for American officials to assess exactly which recent attacks in Pakistan are the work of Qaeda operatives. But intelligence officials say they believe that the Marriott Hotel bombing was partly planned by Usama al-Kini, a Kenyan Qaeda operative who was killed in Pakistan by a C.I.A. drone on New Year’s Day.

According to Mr. Hoffman, Al Qaeda may be trying to achieve a separate goal: getting the C.I.A. to call off its campaign of airstrikes in the tribal areas. A wave of terrorist violence could foment so much popular discontent with the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, he said, that Pakistan might then try to pressure the Obama administration to scale back its drone campaign.

For now, however, Obama administration officials say they believe that the covert airstrikes are the best tool at their disposal to strike at Al Qaeda inside Pakistan, which remains the group’s most important haven, but where large numbers of American combat forces would never be welcome.

The April 19 strike that hit what appeared to have been a truck bomb in a compound used by Al Qaeda set off an enormous secondary explosion, intelligence officials say. A second, empty truck destroyed in the same attack may also have been there to be outfitted with explosives, they say.

In another significant attack, on April 29, missiles fired from a C.I.A. Predator killed Abu Sulayman al-Jazairi, an Algerian Qaeda planner who American intelligence officials say they believe helped train operatives for attacks in Europe and the United States.

Still, officials caution that Al Qaeda has not abandoned its goal of “spectacular” attacks in the United States and Europe. According to one American counterterrorism official, the group continues to plan attacks outside its sanctuary in the tribal areas, aiming at targets in the West and elsewhere in Pakistan.

“They are opportunistic to the extent they perceive vulnerabilities with the uncertain nature of Pakistani politics and the security situation in Swat and Buner,” said the American counterterrorism official, who like other officials interviewed for this article was not authorized to speak publicly on intelligence issues. “They’re trying to exploit it.”

In meetings this past week in Washington, American and Pakistani officials discussed the possibility of limited joint operations with American Predator and Reaper drones.

Under one proposal, the United States would retain control over the firing of missiles, but it would share with the Pakistani security forces some sophisticated imagery and communications intercepts that could be relayed to Pakistani combat forces on the ground.

C.I.A. officials for months have resisted requests by Mr. Zardari to share the drone technology. In a television interview broadcast Sunday, the Pakistani leader said he would keep pressing to get his own Predator fleet.

“I’ve been asking for them, but I haven’t got a positive answer as yet,” Mr. Zardari said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“But I’m not giving up.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of drone strikes that American officials say the United States has conducted against Al Qaeda so far this year. It is 17 strikes, not 16.

Source: The New York Times

President Karzai visits Washington for second trilateral meeting

Second Trilateral Summit of Afghanistan-Pakistan-United States in Washington, DC

On Wednesday, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan met with President Zardari of Pakistan and President Obama of the United States in Washington, DC, in the second summit of the trilateral contact group established in February. The Afghan and Pakistani presidents also met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Members of the Afghan and Pakistani delegations, including Ministers of Agriculture and intelligence professionals, met with their counterparts as well.

(President Barack Obama (center) with Afghan President Karzai and Pakistan President Zardari walk along the Colonnade following a US-Afghan-PakistanTrilateral meeting in Cabinet Room May 6, 2009. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

(President Barack Obama (center) with Afghan President Karzai and Pakistan President Zardari walk along the Colonnade following a US-Afghan-PakistanTrilateral meeting in Cabinet Room May 6, 2009. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Karzai arrived in Washington, DC on Monday for a four-day visit, and on Tuesday he spoke at the Brookings Institution, where he said that the fundamentals of the US-Afghanistan relationship are strong, despite reports of tension in the press. He spoke of the ambitions of Afghans to build a strong, stable country in partnership with the United States and other Western allies.

During Wednesday’s day-long summit, the Afghan delegation, which included the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Agriculture and Finance, as well as the Director of National Intelligence, met and discussed issues of security, trade, agriculture, development and justice with their Pakistani and American counterparts, and attempted to find areas of cooperation. In an important step, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Pakistan and Afghanistan signed a Memorandum of Understanding on trade-transit issues and agreed to discuss the issue further.

Much of the focus of the summit was on the shared threat from al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other militant extremist groups. President Obama, in his remarks after the trilateral meeting, said, “The security of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States are linked.” President Karzai expressed his commitment to fighting this threat, and to working with the Americans to improve development and governance in Afghanistan.

  1. Click here to read the transcript of the press conference held with President Karzai, President Zardari and US Secretary of State Clinton.
  2. Click here for video of the press conference.
  3. Click here to read the statement delivered by President Obama after his trilateral meeting with President Karzai and President Zardari.
  4. Click here for video of President Obama’s remarks.
  5. Click here to read the press briefing on the trilateral meeting by National Security Advisor Jim Jones.
  6. Click here to read the statement delivered by President Hamid Karzai at the Brookings Institution.