Iraq, again

Barack Obama announced on September 10th the new US counter-terrorism strategy against the Islamic State (IS, ISIS or ISIL), the Sunni radical group that has gained territorial strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

As Talking Points Memo put it, he is the fourth consecutive American president to deliver a prime time speech to the nation about Iraq. All of them, to announce military actions.

The strategy to degrade and “ultimately, defeat” ISIS involves a few critical elements. First, a dramatic expansion of the bombing campaign in northern Iraq to the rest of the country and Syria. Second, the provision of support, training and weapons to local allies (mainly the Iraqi Army, Kurdish troops and selected Syrian rebels). Third, the creation of an international coalition against ISIS to provide legitimacy to the effort. And all this, while avoiding direct US military engagement (no boots on the ground) and alliances with Iran and Syria.

The current US Administration has undergone a rapid evolution in strategic thinking about ISIS, driven by their territorial gains including control of Fallujah and Mosul, and the establishment of a Caliphate on June 29. Violence against civilians and the beheading of American journalists (massively propagated through social media) may have added urgency.

This video by Vox explains ISIS «in Obama’s own words: from a joke to war in 9 months.”


This is the territory controlled by –or with substantial presence of- the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria by September 10th, according to the Institute for the Study of War:

The discourse might have been carefully calibrated but contradictions emerge as a result.

Spencer Ackerman, of The Guardian, has done an amazing work in his annotated version of the speech. Juan Cole, of the University of Michigan and author of the blog Informed Comment, attributes discourse variation to internal politics: “He went back and forth between trying to reassure the left wing of the Democratic Party that he had not suddenly been possessed by the ghost of Dick Cheney and assuring the skittish American people that he was going to make mincemeat of the terrorist American beheaders.”

But there is more involved than the rhetoric. The references to Yemen and Somalia as successful examples of the kind of campaign coming out are legitimate causes of concern. The use of drones to carry on targeted killings of group leaders «has not defeated Al Qaeda but strengthened it», says Rosa Meneses in El Mundo.

Absent again is a comprehensive political strategy. Phyllis Bennis suggested this week six steps short of war to address the problem posed by IS. The pre-condition is attention to the political and social factors that enabled the rise of this movement, particularly the fate of the Iraqi Sunnis after the 2003 invasion and the subsequent political turmoil and sectarian violence.

Mariano Aguirre, director of NOREF, stated in El País that a pact among Iraqi actors for decentralization and protection of minorities, negotiated with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US, is as important as difficult to achieve.

This points to another deep problem: the allies. John Kerry has already visited Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in his effort to build support for a coordinated campaign.

Saudi Arabia has allowed the training of Syrian rebel forces opposed to ISIS in its territory. But apart from the democracy and human rights record, this country has had a prominent role in funding jihadist groups for years, if not decades. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in 2009 in a cable released by Wikileaks that “While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia takes seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.”

Last March, a resolution of the European Parliament called this country to improve control over funding of radical militant groups abroad (including Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, among others) and reclaimed a halt to any financial, military and political support of extremist groups in Syria.

This is hard language for a strategic ally.

Of course, we could also mention Egypt, or Bahrain.

Robert Fisk, the Middle East correspondent of The Independent and author of The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, points to a non-existent American institutional or national semantic memory when it comes to this region. Remember Lebanon 1983? Remember Gaddafi? “All these forces of evil being vanquished over and over again, and then – bingo – there’s another force of evil to vanquish.” Or, in his words, confronting the greatest crisis in the Middle East since the last greatest crisis in the Middle East.

Will we ever see a US President announcing a truly different strategy?

This is the whole video in case you missed it.

New Report: Organized Crime Trends in 2014

The Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime has presented the annual report ‘What to Watch in 2014”. Traditionally considered an internal issue, to be addressed with the tools of law enforcement and criminal justice, organized crime is step by step being included in analysis about global trends in conflict and peace. What we have here is the inverse situation: an analysis of organized crime shows several points of contact and friction with instability, weak governance and conflict.

Given the transnational scope of many networks; the multiple crimes in which they are involved (from drugs to trafficking in persons and human smuggling, counterfeit goods and documents, weapons and wildlife, among other valuable items), and the huge financial profit they attain, it is no surprise that TOC may add to threats to governance, peace and democracy in a number of regions and countries.

And what are the forecasted trends for 2014? Let’s centre in a few of them for their potential significance and impact:

Organized crime has taken advantage of conflicts, instability and social unrest in some North Africa and Middle East countries, particularly Libya and Syria. These territories have been incorporated into criminal routes (and markets) for drugs, arms and other items, and in the way these operations contribute to fund parties in conflict and supply arms. Southern Libya is a case in point, as well as states surrounding the area.  Libya is a gateway to Europe and part of the corridor East-West (and vice-versa). Militia violence in some areas has to do with control over routes and a nascent market for protection services. Syria has become a market for arms and for smuggling of food, medicine and people.

The markets for illicit drugs are soaring in Gulf countries, accounting for over 60% of the world methamphetamine consumption and growing rates for heroin and cocaine. Trafficking finds the way there through the weakest points and routes. This means more vulnerability for North African states such as Lybia and Egypt.

International missions face a breadth of new challenges. One case in point is the double French-UN mission in Mali, where local conflict, organized crime and terrorism are present. Most peacebuilding missions are not designed to understand (not to mention address) the local and regional dynamics of illicit economies and their actors, and often fail to provide communities with alternatives, as well as to address corruption.

Psychoactive Substances, prominently including amphetamines, are booming: they are cheap, easy to manufacture and highly addictive. Consumption is on the rise in East Asia and the Middle East (Gulf countries). But the next hotspot is expected to be Africa, already home of key trafficking routes and increasingly involved in meth production in countries like Nigeria.

Piracy is no longer a Somalia issue, but has increased and expected to do so in the Gulf of Guinea and East Asia. Coastal densely populated areas with availability of weapons, scarce economic opportunities and little if any state control, provide the most likely hubs for maritime crime.

Despite international and national regulation and law enforcement efforts, poaching and traffic in wildlife (particularly those species highly valuable in affluent markets) continues to feed organized crime and put in danger some of the most vulnerable species over the planet (and in the way, feeding corruption and undermining governance).

Last but not least, new approaches are being tested in Latin America after decades of punitive strategies. The first outcomes could be seen this year: 1) Levels of homicide due to gang territorial fights have led Honduras and El Salvador to negotiate and seek a truce with gangs to lessen levels of violence; 2) Uruguay (as well as the US states of Colorado and Washington) have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, among other factors to curb the power of illegal networks and put the issue under state control.

Interested in those trends? Here is the full report by the Global Initiative against Organized Crime.

For a challenging study on the role of illegal criminal networks in current affairs in Mali, and the challenge for international missions, check Illicit Trafficking and Instability in Mali: Past, present and future, January 2014.

For an innovative approach to criminal actors in conflict, check James Cockayne, Strengthening Mediation to Deal with Criminal Agendas, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, Oslo Forum, 2013.

Syria (3 of 3): Geopolitical Games

The Syrian uprising started in spring 2011 with peaceful anti-government demonstrations claiming for legal, economic and political reforms. Influenced by similar events in other Arab countries at the time, it was met with violence and repression by the Army and pro-government militias. President Assad announced limited steps towards reform but violence grew, and has done steadily up to now. 

There is no possible understanding of the events in Syria without having in mind the myriad of regional and international interests and agendas being played here and strongly influencing the course of events.

Syria is the scenery of a geopolitical game that has transformed this country in a proxy war similar to those of the Cold War. Foreign agendas have transformed Syria in a zero-sum game in which each actor fights fiercely for strategic interests and contribute with diplomatic, financial and even military support to exacerbate the conflict and to polarization of all sides on the ground. 

graphic_1378382738Map of the conflict, June 2013. Source: Syrian Needs Analysis Project

Given the complexity of the interests at stake, I don’t pretend to cover the whole range here. This is just a brief approximation that hopefully serves to have a first insight into internal and external players and their agendas. At the end of this post you fill find a list of official documents about this conflict.


The regime and the President, Bashar al-Assad

Following his father 30 years term, Bashar al-Assad assumed power in 2000. Commander of the Syrian Army and president of the Ba’ath Party, he was expected by some as a reformer who would undertake political reforms towards more rights and freedom. The Assad rule in Syria is secular and autocratic, maintaining the country strategic role in the Middle East through regional alliances with Iran, Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The regime has been politically repressive but religiously tolerant in a traditionally secular country. Holding power for the Alawite Muslim minority, it is largely supported by other religious minorities and by large parts of urban middle classes. Other supporters of the regime include the Army, public sector, some business constituencies and professional unions.

What is appalling for many Syrians is the need to choose between the regime and a divided and polarized opposition, while facing a humanitarian crisis and a disastrous economic situation. Religious factors have come to play a role as seculars and some minorities fear the political intentions (and potential retaliation) of some rebel groups.

The opposition

Opposition groups (armed and not) are far from sharing opinions with regards to the political future. Rivalries have soared among those who oppose the government:  local leaders and exiles, militia commanders on the ground, and between those who seek accommodation with elements of the current structures and those who seek to bring down the entire regime. Islamist and secular activists at odds, while Kurd groups seek autonomy and armed extremist groups gain military strength on the ground.

Although even the main groups are far from unified, there have been attempts to create a united opposition front. The Syrian National Council (SNC) was formed in 2011 in Turkey and included a variety of groups, mainly with ideological ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. In November 2012, the US and other countries facilitated the creation of the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, an umbrella of groups seeking to overthrow the regime through political means and armed struggle and to become a transitional governing body after the regime’s collapse. Recognized by the Cooperation Council of the Gulf, the Arab League (except for Iraq, Algeria and Lebanon) and NATO countries such as France, UK, the US, and Turkey.

The Free Syrian Army is the main armed group, born in June 2011. Formed by Army defectors it was later joined by local militias and civilians, but apparently remains a loosely collection of scattered militias lacking unified structure and a coherent ideology. It is thought to have around 100,000 troops.

The Al Nusra Front emerged at the beginning of 2012. Still a minority among the opposition, it includes religious militant groups and foreign jihadist fighters. It has links with Al Qaeda in Iraq and recruits at home and abroad to fight for an Islamic State. Blacklisted as a terrorist organization by the US State Department in late 2012, their ruthlessness and brutal tactics have raised the stakes in the Syrian groups. Other Salafist groups have emerged later in this complex landscape.

Finally, a number of Kurdish militias joined the Democratic Union Party in mid-2012 and began taking over majority Kurdish towns in the north and east of the country, raising tensions with the Turkey government. Recently they have rallied against armed Islamist groups.


The US, UK and France

Syria has been seen as a danger for US interests since its independence. Syria supported the Palestinian cause, fought three wars with Israel and have kept tensions open for the Golan Heights. The alliance with the Soviet Union added to this rivalry that has expressed more recently by affairs in Lebanon (with Syrian support for Hezbollah) and Palestine (with support for Hamas). Political circles have long considered Syria a main rival for the US interests in a key political region as the Middle East. The Economist takes position here in an illustrative way. Even clearer this analysis of the Hoover Institution.

Current geopolitical interest and historical reasons merge even more in the UK and France cases (both were at any time colonial rulers over Syrian territory”. The UK and France share with the US the Western interest over the Middle East and geopolitical competition with Russia and China, and seek to replace the Assad regime with a pro-Western one (a movement that would also serve to weaken Iran). For the UK there is also the “strategic alliance” with the US. And France seeks long-term interests and a need to boost its international image. In May 2013 France and the UK successfully lobbied for the EU’s arms embargo to be lifted (so as to allow further supplies to the rebels).


One of the most important international backers of the government, it has extensive trade and strategic interests many of which go back to the Soviet Union era. Syria, at odds with the West since independence in 1946 and feeling vulnerable in face of some neighbors (the US backed Israel, among others) got Moscow support.

Russia exports large amounts of weapons to Syria and increasing amounts of small arms. Trade ties are linked to oil, grains and technological equipment, among other supplies. The Syria port of Tartous is the only Russia navy outpost in the Mediterranean, now a permanent base. Defending Syria is also part of a general principle of non-interference in internal affairs that also serves Russian internal interests.

Russia supported the peace plan presented by the joint UN-Arab League envoy KofiAnnan as a way to reach a political solution, has explored other options, and has finally reached an agreement with the US about the Syrian chemical arsenal.


China has joined Russia in blocking resolutions critical of Syria at the UN Security Council. It was also critic of the prospect of military strikes. Although it has no strategic interests in Syria, it may have taken a stand for a mix of reasons, including a more assertive foreign policy; concern over the Islamist component among the rebel groups; outrage about past events in Syria (were NATO intervention went far beyond what the UN had authorized) and a shared concern with Russia about Western interference in Middle East affairs.


Turkey had peaceful but distant relations with the Syrian government for years and attempted to convince al-Assad of the need to initiate reforms. Since the beginning of the conflict it has been one of the most prominent critics of the government. Heavily affected by violence at the border, the Parliament authorized cross-border action as a response at the end of 2012. It hosts political refugees and some of the political and armed opposition groups (especially those linked to the Muslim Brotherhood). Developments associated with the situation of Kurdish minorities in Syria are another fact in this equation. Public opinion is reluctant to openly intervene in Syrian affairs.

Saudi Arabia

For years, one of the main rivals of the Syrian government with regards to regional preeminence. Very active in pursuing and advocating military action against the regime it supports armed opposition groups, mainly the Salafist ones. Being Iran its main rival in the fight for geopolitical hegemony in the Gulf and the Middle East, the Saudi objective is breaking up the Syria-Iran alliance. They also compete in support for opposing groups (with Syria supporting Hezbollah) and Palestine (where Syria supports Hamas while Saudis hold those groups, like Fatah, in favor of a negotiated peace deal with Israel). Finally, the Saudi regime sees itself as a defender of Sunnis in the Muslim world against Shia (ruling Syria and Iran and also an important internal minority in Saudi Arabia).


Main supplier of weapons to Syrian rebels, it is thought to have provided them around 1-3 billion dollars in aid. The Qatari single-minded support to anyone with a possibility to bring down the House of Assad has negatively impacted the legitimacy of opposition groups. Saudi-Qatari rivalries, rooted in the their different experiences with the Muslim Brotherhood and their different reactions to the 2011 pro democracy uprisings across the Arab world, have further helped to fragment the Syrian opposition coalition. Opportunistic Jihadist groups have exploited this access to arms and money.


Hostility with Syria goes back to the creation of both countries in late 1940s due to Syrian support for the Palestinian resistance and subsequent wars (1948, 1967 and 1973). Israel holds control of Syrian Golan Heights. Over years Syria has maintained pressure over Israel not by direct confrontation but by supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.

Israel was expected to be a beneficiary of the fall of Assad but the current composition and ideological orientation of some opposition groups makes the future look uncertain. It is no good news for Israel if Syria becomes a safe haven for extremist and Islamist militant groups.

The Army considers limited cross-border incursions to secure a buffer zone and prevent the shelling of Israeli territory from Syria. By early 2013, clashes between Syrian rebels and government troops spread to the Israeli border, with artillery shells frequently falling on the Israeli territory. Israel retaliated with an air strike.


There is deep division in the country between supporters and opponents of President Assad. The Syrian war has potentially deep impact here. The Shiite majority, mostly represented by Hezbollah, has in Assad its closest ally, while many Sunnis sympathize with the rebels and Christian population is divided. Due to the power system in Lebanon that holds posts shared by the three main religious groups, the Syrian situation impacts in Lebanese political balances.

The north of the country is a host for Syrian refugees, deserters and rebel groups, mostly welcomed by the Sunni population. At times tensions rise as in the city of Tripoli, between Sunnis and the Alawite (pro-Assad) minority that also resonate in the south. But the majority of Lebanese Sunnis are secular and only some Islamists have joined the fight in Syria. The Lebanese Army remains neutral.


Jordan has received half a million Syrian refugees. The government has called for a political solution but is also believed to have provided weapons to rebel groups in early 2013. Fear for spillover of the Syrian conflict and internal destabilization domains. When international intervention was in sight, the government backed a limited military action if the use of chemical weapons was proved, although limited to the arsenals.


Iran has been for a long time the main regional Syrian ally. Both countries share a wide range of interests: support for Palestinian group Hamas; support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Israel as a common enemy, as well as geopolitical preeminence in the Middle East. More recently, when the US invaded Iraq in 2003, both countries wanted to avoid the establishment of an US dependent regime in Baghdad. Iran developed a close relationship with Shiite political parties (and later with the government) in Iraq.


The changing and unstable internal political situation in Egypt has a deep impact in regional alliances. The now overthrown government of Mohammed Morsi stood against the Syrian regime, cut off relations with the country and called for a no-fly zone (remember the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syrian rebel groups). But after the coup, the military-backed current government seems very wary of any to rebel groups and has rejected intervention without UN authorization. The changing Egyptian position mirrors changes in internal politics.

The United Nations 

The UN monitors the situation in Syria with the deployment of peace envoys and inspectors of disarmament. The Security Council has been unable to agree on how to stop violence for the different interests held by its five permanent members (UK, France and the US on one side, and China and Russia on the other).

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was appointed as the UN-Arab League Peace Envoy and presented a peace plan in May 2012. The proposal included a Syrian-led political process; UN supervision of the cessation of armed violence by all parties; allow the provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas; intensify the release of persons arbitrarily detained; access to the whole country for journalists and respect for the rights of association and demonstration. The document was presented in March 2012 and by April there was a ceasefire. The UN Mission on Syria was deployed then, but it lacked leverage over the parties and the agreement was soon broken.

The plan was a political compromise that seek to stabilize the situation to allow Syrians to advance political negotiations. But 2012 was probably too late for Syrian parties to agree on anything, as polarization had soared (and has not stopped up to now).

Annan resigned in August 2012 and was followed in this position by the Algerian diplomat LakhdarBrahimi. Neither of them have succeeded, although both have probably offered the most realistic and comprehensive analysis of the situation and of the possible solution (recognized as a necessarily regional political process and agreement).

One additional reflection: Is this a religious conflict?

According to experts, the answer is no… at the beginning. The question at stake was the continuity of the regime. But some minorities were more supportive of it than others and this factor influenced political alignments. The religious factor coupled with those political positions has been used to fuel intolerance in some parts of this (formerly secular) country. The emergence among the rebel groups of Islamist and Salafist militias (both Syrian born and foreign fighters), and even Al Qaeda linked groups, that fight for an Islamic state, have further polarized positions. The roles of Saudi Arabia and Iran in the regional setting, exploiting the Sunni-Shia factor, only added complexity. Nowadays, the religious element must not be discarded.

It is well explained here: “This is not a fight purely or even primarily about Islam; it is a war about the future of the Middle East. Unfortunately, however, all the talk about sectarian war is fast becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.” 


It may seem a hopeless conclusion for this post series but, after reviewing the Syrian humanitarian situation, the possibilities of (and some reasons behind) a military attack, and the complex game of interests that are at stake in Syria, one main question comes to mind. Who cares for the Syrian people?

A few official documents 

U.S. Government: Assessment of Syria’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013, The White House

Statement by Secretary of State Kerry on Syria, August 30, 2013

Statement by President Obama on Syria, August 31, 2013

U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations: “Hearing: The Authorization of Use of Force in Syria,” September 3, 2013

Draft Senate Resolution Authorizing Syria Strike, September 4, 2013

House Committee of Foreign Affairs: “Hearing: Syria: Weighing the Obama Administration’s Response,” September 4, 2013

Letter from the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) about reported chemical weapons use in Syria, Cabinet Office, United Kingdom, August 29, 2013

French National Executive Summary of Declassified Intelligence, September 2, 2013

France: Synthesis of declassified national intelligence on Syrian chemical program, past uses and 21 August attack

UK: Position on the legality of military action

UK: Joint Intelligence Organization’s assessment of allegations

Syria (2 of 3): On the brink of a military attack

The Syrian conflict has caused a huge civilian suffering since spring 2011 with battles, massacres, widespread torture and forced disappearances, displacement of populations and a break-down of important structures like the health and education systems. More than 100,000 people have dead and more than one third of the population has been displaced, and tensions in the region have soared. 

The military attack seems to be (hopefully) on hold now, after the US and Russia agreement over the Syrian chemical weapons program. However there are reasons to keep this conflict this conflict now and for the future, due to an array of reasons. Firstly, the conflict is far from resolved and internal, regional and international actors continue (and will do so in the near future) playing their interests there. Violence is far from gone. This welcomed agreement cannong make us forget that we (the world) have been on the brink of another potentially catastrophic intervention in the Middle East. And issues of international legality, external intervention, power, management of arms control and proliferation, and humanitarian responsibility, are still here.

Why was an external intervention considered now?

Last year, the US president Barack Obama signaled that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be a “red line” in the face of the international community. It was after the August chemical attack with about 1.000 people dead when statements and negotiations about a strong (military) international response soared.

Military action was first proposed by the US, UK and France to deter further actions by the Assad regime. The underlying arguments are: the regime has crossed the ‘red line’ and it is imperative to deter it and other actors from eventually using those weapons; International Law bans chemical weapons and action is imperative; we must protect the Syrians from further massacres; the credibility of the West is at stake, etc.

Finally the British Government could not go ahead due to the rejection of military action by the Parliament, on August 29, and president Obama spent time seeking approval from Congress. France said it was still prepared to take action at any moment.

Different military options were considered and finally the decision involved the use of limited air strikes to enforce a no-fly zone, control the arsenal of chemical weapons and further support for the rebel groups although not to the point of ‘regime change’.

In the first days of September the US Government seemed to rush towards getting Congress approval. But a new Russian diplomatic initiative has apparently allowed to gain (at least) some time as it proposes a 4 step plan to put Syrian weapons and chemical program under control of international observers.

Russia and the US reached an agreement about the Syrian chemical arsenal and disarmament on September 14.

In short: The Syrian chemical weapons program

Syria possession of a chemical weapons arsenal has never been in doubt, although its location and size have been subject to high degrees of speculation. Syria has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) neither ratified the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). It has never formally admitted the stock or made a formal declaration about it (similar to Israel with its nuclear program).

A recent report from the US Congressional Research Service says Syria began stockpiling chemical weapons in 1972 or 1973, when Egypt gave the country a small number of chemicals and delivery systems before the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Later it got the help of the Soviet Union. According to a French intelligence assessment published in September 2013, Damascus has more than 1,000 Tm of chemical agents and precursor chemicals, with stockpiles dispersed across some 50 different towns and cities. The exact size is not known despite statements.

Main analytic and legal arguments

Pro Military Action

A military intervention is legal or legitimate when facing crimes against humanity because there is a moral reason to act; Law needs to evolve to address new situations

  • President Obama and allied leaders should declare that international law has evolved and there are compelling moral reasons to bomb Syria even without Security Council approval. 
  • Jurist Geoffrey Robertson argues that «the Security Council is an unsatisfactory tribunal to decide urgent moral questions because it can be rendered ineffective by politics» (as, some authors suggest, is happening now with the Russia and China positions).

An attack with a widely forbidden weapon as chemicals needs an international response as a way to end impunity and to prevent further use

  • President Obama: “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?” “What is the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the government of the world’s people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?”
  • Richard Haas argues that «chemical weapons, like any weapon of mass destruction, including biological and nuclear, cannot become a normal weapon, cannot be used. The taboo, the barrier cannot in any way be diluted. This far transcends Syria.»
  • If United States does not act decisively now, it will be revisiting same issue months later when conflict worsens and Assad uses these weapons again.

It is necessary to defend American and Western interests in the region

  • American interests in Syria are clear: preventing terrorists from acquiring chemical weapons; depriving Iran of its most important ally and staging-base in the Middle East; and preventing al Qaeda from establishing an uncontested safe haven in the Levant. Reasonable people can disagree about the extent to which President Obama’s proposed “limited strike” will secure these interests, but not about whether the interests are real or vital.
  • If Congress does not agree to conduct military strikes, United States will have closed door on having any serious influence in Syria.

It is a decision on limited strikes, of last resort, and taken without further desire to involve in more wars

  • Secretary Kerry: “I remember Iraq. Secretary Hagel remembers Iraq. General Dempsey especially remembers Iraq…And so we are especially sensitive, Chuck and I, to never again asking any member of Congress to take a vote on faulty intelligence.”

 Against Military Action

External military intervention is not legal nor ethical

  • The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has insisted the use of force will only be legal if it is self-defense or undertaken with authorization from the UN Security Council, as set out in the UN Charter. He is probably the most prominent voice heard in this regard.
  • An attack on Syria without UN Security Council authorization sets a more dangerous precedent than Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
  • Syria is not a signatory of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and the essence of the 1925 Geneva Protocol was to ban use of chemical weapons in international war, not in civil conflict or use against non-combatants.
  • U.S. enforcement of international law is selective and invoked only when it serves its aims. How can a leading international law breaker seek to hold Syria to a higher standard than it sets for itself?

The main objective of any action undertaken should be the safety of the Syrian population and a political solution for the conflict. Both would be undermined by an attack

  • International Crisis Group: At best, the impact of a military strike would have “unpredictable” consequences for Syrians. Only a ceasefire and political solution can secure the “welfare of the Syrian people.”
  • African Forum: Multilateralism and the Rule of International Law are the best and only ways to achieve a political way out of the Syrian crisis.

Why a red line on chemical weapons now?

  • Red lines have been crossed more than once”: Iraq used them both on war with Iran and at home; and during the 2003 Iraq war, the US itself used white phosphorous (considered a chemical weapon when used directly against soldiers).

Why the red line only affects chemical weapons?

  • Why this red line? With over a hundred thousand dead, over five million people displaced by civil war, and atrocities of diverse kinds, why focus on chemical weapons?  Is it that deaths by chemical weapons are somehow more appalling and outrageous? Why is it that a death toll greater than 5,000, 10,000 or 100,000 does not cross a red line, but the deaths from chemical weapons do?

There is not enough evidence about authorship of the attack

  • Intelligence pointing toward Assad’s culpability in August 21 chemical weapons strike is not compelling enough. Having in mind the red line set up by the US it is difficult to see the advantages of their use for the regime, and Russia had warned before about other possibilities.
  • The rebels also have chemical weapons, obtained from different sources.

Limited aerial strikes would not affect (except for worse) the situation on the ground and will reinforce the regime 

Intervention would lead the US to go deeper in this conflict and possibly become trapped there

  • If it doesn’t work, if there is another atrocity—chemical or otherwise—can the Administration sit back and not do more?

Syria (1 of 3): A catastrophic humanitarian situation

Syria has grabbed headlines of international media for months but especially after the August chemical weapons attack that raised the stakes of an international (US) retaliation to punish the supposedly responsible Syrian regime. The roots and development of the crisis, the multiplicity and changing composition of the actors involved, and the complex international alliances and power games played around this conflict make Syria one nightmare scenario, especially for the situation on the ground but also for the level of difficulty for understanding and analysis.

In the last weeks most media have centered around arguments pro and against the intervention, with analytical lines based its legality (or lack thereof) under International Law; the application of normative principles as the Responsibility to Protect; the adequate response for a chemical attack (and only for some voices, doubts around who perpetrated it); and strategic considerations about potential regional shifts in this already unstable environment if an external action takes place.

In this this The Making of War and Peace series about the Syrian situation, I’ll try to find and show here the most useful resources to follow this conflict and understand different positions. The series will unfold like this:

  1. The first post (this one) focus on a few aspects of the catastrophic humanitarian situation created and the responses undertaken as well as in a brief summary of this complex crisis and its evolution.
  2. Time of actors: international powers (the US, UK, France, Russia, China) and regional countries (Iran, Lebanon, Israel, Saudi Arabia). What are their interests and strategic calculations? What are their positions and/or doubts and what is behind them? September 16th
  3. Key debates: legality/illegality of intervention according to international Law; relevant Law regarding chemical weapons; relevant approaches and doctrines for the protection of civilians. And, is there a responsibility to protect (and if it is the case, why is it so selectively applied)? September 18th

Just hope it is useful.


The conflict started in the spring 2011 with popular protests that matched others in the region under the Arab Uprisings. The regime undertook a few changes in security and political structures and engaged in repression, something that triggered more protests and demonstrations and later armed responses in some cities and regions. International sanctions and diplomatic moves took place throughout the year, although action by the UNSC was restricted by Russia and China positions on behalf of the regime, while the US, UK and France opposed. Opposition groups joined the Syrian National Council as the main opposition body and fighting intensified. The Council was recognized as a legitimate representative of Syrian people at an international conference held in Turkey by April 2012.

By the end of 2012 violence had exploded long time ago and reached regional levels affecting places in Turkey and involvement by Israel. The opposition formed the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The UNSC estimated around 70.000 the civilians killed in this conflict by then. US support (weapons) to the rebels intensified, but also did doubts and evidences about involvement of jihadist foreign fighters in violence, with their own interests and political goals.

In June 2013 the first allegations of chemical weapons use arose, and also US support for rebel groups. A ‘red line’ for the regime was set up by the US in the use of those weapons. But in August 21, Syrian anti-regime activists claimed that the Government used chemical weapons in an attack on civilians. According to those sources, more than 1,300 people were killed in the attack. Evidences of use were found (there were UN inspectors in the country before the attack that were allowed to conduct investigations). However, conclusive evidence about the responsibility for the attack proved more difficult to find. At any case, the international trumps of war began.

The humanitarian situation

Syria is facing a huge humanitarian crisis, with about one-third of its 21 million population in situation of refuge or internal displacement. Humanitarian actors and UN agencies estimate that 4.25 million people have fled their homes although remaining in the country, while 2 million more have reached one of the neighboring ones. Around 5.000 persons are fleeing every day according to RELIEFWEB, the humanitarian news service of the UN that provides useful updates.

Two million children have left school only since the end of the last academic year. The situation deteriorates every day and the upsurges of violence result in further displacement and increase the vulnerability of the whole population. Civilians throughout the country become trapped in areas surrounded by violence. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), around 4 million people are at risk of food insecurity and more than half of the public hospitals have limited or no capacity to address needs. The health system is in the point of collapse.

Syria is probably nowadays the most compelling international crisis and (for sure) the one with more media attention and coverage. Real and potential Western involvement plays an important role here. However, and as happened in the past, attention and debate about international options does not automatically translate into attention for people in need. Many humanitarian organizations and UN personnel (not to mention the local Red Crescent volunteers that are paying a huge prize in death and personal injury) are fighting to address the needs and reach new areas.

The international humanitarian response is scarce from the part of donors. The UN system has requested 1.5 billion dollars for the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP), of which only a 45% has been funded. The Financial Tracking Service (FTS) informs that a lower 42% is the funding reached for the Regional Refugee Response Plan (RRP), budgeted in 3 billion dollars. The figures can be better seen in this graphic:

Source: Financial Tracking System, UN (

Source: Financial Tracking System, UN (

There is a sheering scale of attention that gives preeminence to high level political figures and leaders, especially when war-talk is in the room. At other moments, when diplomacy and negotiation are on their way, attention lowers although remains high when (as now) the crisis is unfolding.

It is ok to pay attention to grandiloquent statements, and even more to negotiations and to people figuring alternative paths to find political solutions. What is at odds with any supposed preoccupation with the protection of civilians is not responding to the immediate circumstances of people in need.

What do you think that Syrians need more?

Looking for additional resources?

The CNN provides here a useful timeline of this conflict and episodes or regional and international involvement. Some basic (or as they say, the “very very” basic) facts about Syria can be found in this Washington Post blog. For interesting historical, cultural and political information, check this piece by The Guardian.

If you need additional information, the BBC World Service provides a complete dossier about the Syrian conflict with background, basic facts, actors involved, international alliances and the forth. A useful resource is this page by the Syrian Needs Analysis (SNS) project, by ACAPS, including maps. For live updates, don’t miss the Syria Live Blog at Al Jazeera.

Next post: The actors (2 of 3; Monday 16th)