The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged Syria
The Syrian Trauma

Sit yourself down to read, without distraction, this essay by our friend Peter Harling. It drives through, with unforgiving force, through the apathy that many of us who watch Syria from afar (and indeed those of us for whom Syria is a professional interest). There is a "Syria" out there that is synonymous with evil, misery, apocalypse and the collapse of a regional, or even global order. There is a "Syria"that is a "problem from hell" or an argument about i teventionism. And then there is Syria, the country, the complicated people, which is what Peter is reminding us to listen to:

Syrians don’t need more people lecturing them on what their future should be. There are plenty of them, none with any claim to knowing what is best until they do some demonstrable good on the ground. A mere ceasefire may be a start in principle. But it also has been, repeatedly, an alibi, for the US and the UN to pretend to have achieved something, and for others—such as Russia and the regime—to regroup and push their advantage militarily. Whenever gaining time is the only outcome, Syrians lose collectively.

Our massive moral failure has been a source of public embarrassment and personal unease for many officials involved in the conflict’s management. Gradually they have been gravitating toward a solution to their own psychological tension: “stopping the violence” to appease themselves, even at the expense of diminishing any prospect of closure for Syrians. Such self-centeredness has become, in itself, an obstacle to any progress: all the policy talk about “what can we do” will remain empty until its meaning becomes “what can we do for millions of Syrians” and not “what can we do to rid ourselves of the problem.”

Our moral stupor is not inconsequential, although many people would be tempted to say so, on the basis of some cynical view about archaic struggles between sects and tribes, the intrinsic ugliness of war, a lack of “national interests” in Syria, or foreign policy understood as the natural realm of unprincipled goals. A parallel with a molested child bluntly illustrates the callous logic that seems to apply to Syria: should a victim, raped by its relatives, stay silent? Is it more convenient than shame? Is it more cost-effective than years of an arduous process toward uncertain recovery? Why even take the trouble? How can such questions have obvious answers when applied to one person, yet meet only confusion when they concern millions?

AsidesThe EditorsSyria
The Zaatari refugee camp

Parastou Hassouri has written for the blog before. She has been living in Cairo since 2005, has worked in the field of international refugee law and specializes in issues of gender and migration. This is a detailed (and really engrossing) acccount of her experience working in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees currently reside. 

In March, the United Refugee Agency (UNHCR) announced that the number of displaced Syrians had reached one million (the real number is surely higher as many Syrians leaving for other Arab countries do not necessarily register as refugees). The UN’s announcement was accompanied by a plea for funding: Only one third of the funds needed had been received. Meanwhile, a number of non-governmental organizations concerned with the Syrian refugee crisis have issued reports, some focusing on the plight of children and women, detailing the urgency of the humanitarian crisis.

Having devoted a good deal of my professional career to refugee law, and yet never having worked in a refugee camp in the midst of an ongoing refugee crisis, I decided to respond to a call put forth by the UNHCR, and spend some time working at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. I only spent three months in Zaatari (November 2012 to February 2013) and what follows are my thoughts based on this limited time period and reflects only my experiences and opinions, and not those of the UNHCR.

First, a bit of background: The Zaatari refugee camp is about 70 kilometers north of Amman, near the town of Mafraq and approximately 30 kilometers from the Syrian border. The camp was officially opened at the end of July, 2012, as the numbers of Syrians coming to Jordan were rising. Prior to Zaatari’s opening, Syrians were housed in the Beshabsheh housing complex, near the town of Ramtha in northern Jordan. Once Zaatari opened, all Beshabsheh residents were transferred to Zaatari camp.

During the time I was in Jordan, two other sites hosting Syrian refugees, also near Ramtha, were King Abdallah Park (a flat, gravelly open space containing prefabricated single room units and shared kitchen and bathroom facilities), and Cyber City (a six-story, simple concrete building, dormitory style, with shared kitchen and bathrooms at the end of each hallway). Both of these facilities were much smaller (each held about 1,000 refugees), and at least half of the Cyber City residents were Palestinians who had fled Syria.

During my time in Jordan, there was talk that an additional camp was going to open east of the town of Zarqa. That camp has not opened yet. As for why Jordan decided to use camps to host Syrian refugees when they had not really done so for Iraqis, most people told me that it had to do with numbers and the fact that Jordan simply couldn’t afford to absorb more refugees. As long as refugees are in camps, the brunt of the expenditure is born by the international community.

When I arrived at Zaatari, the number of residents was estimated to be around 40,000. By the time I left Zaatari, the number had climbed to well over 75,000. The number of refugees in the camp, as of early March, had doubled again, to over 140,000. Of course the exact number of people in the camp on any given day was unknowable. Every day, some people would leave Zaatari: some would leave for other parts of Jordan, some would return to Syria (many only to return again).

Before coming to Zaatari, I had read quite a bit of the anti-refugee camp literature. The term used to refer to the practice is “human warehousing.” One objection (of many) to refugee camps is that they restrict freedom of movement. And yes, technically, once in the camp, Syrians were not allowed to leave the camp (except with permission, or if “bailed out” by a Jordanian). But in reality, there was a good deal of movement in and out of the camp.

Many would ask me if Syrians _had_ to live in a refugee camp in Jordan. The camp was actually set up for people who entered Jordan “illegally.” It is a bit confusing since Syrians do not need visas to enter Jordan. So, the term “illegal” doesn’t have so much to do with their presence in Jordan as it has to do with their manner of leaving Syria -- “illegally,” without the exit visas from government. The term used in Arabic is “tahreeb”. These persons have been escorted to the border by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and crossed the border on foot. Once in Jordanian territory they are met by the Jordanian army and taken to the Mafraq Screening Center where names are recorded, IDs are checked and taken, and the persons and their luggage are searched before the International Organization of Migration (IOM) transports them by bus to Zaatari camp, where they arrive starting between midnight and dawn (although by the time I left Zaatari, when daily arrivals were in excess of 2,000 refugees a day, the buses were coming at all hours). 

At the border, anyone holding a military ID is separated and sent to a different camp called Al-Rajhi camp. These individuals, who are presumably Syrian Armed Forces (SAF) deserters, are separated from the rest of the camp population, even if they have come with their families (so, the wife and children would be sent to Zaatari and the husband to Al-Rajhi). I was told that this was to preserve the “civilian nature” of the camp. More likely, it was to prevent any security incidents at the camp, since there are many Free Syrian Army (FSA) members at Zaatari. I was not able to understand how the presence of FSA in the camp was tolerated and did not threaten the “civilian nature” (especially given concerns about recruitment activity in the camp) when SAF were ostensibly excluded.

One problematic practice at the border was the fact that Jordanian authorities would turn away anyone without ID. The practice was so widespread and prevalent that apparently FSA even informed people of this before they crossed the border. Under international refugee law, the lack of ID should not preclude individuals from obtaining protection (consider that the circumstances under which refugees flee may at times prevent them from accessing IDs or other documentation prior to their flight). Nonetheless, the Jordanians were pretty steadfast on this and only made exceptions for minors. There were also reports of young single men being turned away. The authorities relied on broad “security reasons” for turning away single men. This very quickly led some men to “attach” themselves to families in order to enter (a fact we would learn later when interviewing new arrivals at the camp).

As for the camp itself, well, it was much like what you would expect a refugee camp to be. It is situated in a stretch of desert that was flattened and graveled, with one main paved road running the length of the camp, and rows upon rows of tents and prefabricated containers to either side of the paved road. People with far more experience than I have would tell me that it was a nice camp. One UNHCR photographer called it the “Hilton” of refugee camps (this only made me shudder to think what other camps are like).

Zaatari residents mostly resided in tents. The tents were “winterized” -- which as far as I could tell meant that they were covered in a tarp-like material meant to water proof it. An enclosed aluminum-type portal -- everyone called it a “zinko” -- was placed a the entry of tents (creating a vestibule of sorts) so that heaters could be placed there (so the heaters wouldn’t be taken directly inside the tent and the chances of fire could be reduced).

Of course even with winterization, the tents could not keep water out during the heavy rainstorms of January, which was one of the wettest months Jordanians could remember. And many Zaatari residents decided to use the zinko to make little kiosks on the main street of the camp, from which they sold everything from fruits and vegetables to saaj bread, falafel sandwiches, `awameh and other sweets, clothing, used mobile phones, and much, much more. As a result, heaters were used in tents, and there was the occasional tent fire which would result in injuries, and in a couple of cases fatalities.

A recent photo essay featured Syrian refugees showing the one item they were sure to bring with them when they fled their homes. Though undoubtedly many refugees have left Syria uncertain of when they would return, a good number of the refugees at Zaatari would make the trip back home to bring back provisions, or would call relatives who were on the way to bring them things. How else did the market at Zaatari sell items that my Jordanian colleagues swore were brands that did not exist in Jordan? On a number of occasions when I worked the night shift at the camp and saw people getting off the bus, I noticed them carrying large bushels with olives, makdous (pickled eggplant stuffed with walnuts), and other food items they insisted were superior to the Jordanian variety.

Some refugees were housed in pre-fabricated structures (called “caravans”) at the camp. At one point the Saudis donated about 1,500 of them. Allocating the caravans to the refugees became something of a nightmare. Some caravans were allocated to residents based on their length of residence at the camp - those who arrived earlier prioritized over later arrivals. Some were designated for “vulnerable” families (a term you come to hate after working in a refugee camp, because who is more or less vulnerable in situations like these?). So, “vulnerable” families came to be those with members who had serious medical conditions, very elderly persons, female-headed households where a mother has multiple children and no other relatives in the camp. Each day someone tried to make a case that they were more vulnerable than their neighbor who had been allocated a caravan.

The camp has shared bathrooms and shared kitchens, and watering holes. The World Food Program distributes dry foods on a bi-weekly basis (aside from a “welcome” meal refugees receive upon arrival). UNICEF runs the schools (the Bahrainis have also set up a nice school). And, there are some medical facilities – a French hospital, a Moroccan, a Saudi, a Jordanian-Italian one and a Jordanian clinic. And a number of UN agencies and other NGO’s operate in the camp.

As I mentioned before, movement in and out of Zaatari was a lot more fluid than what was technically allowed. Yes, there is a main entrance with Jordanian police regulating who gets in and out (there are visitation days for families who have relatives inside the camp to visit them. It is important to bear in mind that the majority of the Syrian refugees in Jordan live outside the camp. The total number of Syrians registered with the UNHCR, as of late March, was over 320,000 – a number that still does not represent all Syrians residing in Jordan. However, people were fleeing the camp every day. The real tragedy was that each day we also dealt with people seeking “re-admission” to the camp, because they could not cope outside the camp: Jordan is quite expensive for Syrians and assistance is even more limited outside the camps. Also, some Syrians who had entered Jordan “legally” and were authorized to live outside would seek admission to the camp because they could not survive in urban centers like Amman or Zarqaa or Ramtha.

Otherwise, the only “legal” way to leave the camp is either to be “bailed out” by a Jordanian (it’s a somewhat bureaucratic process, but not too cumbersome as a few thousand Syrians have been bailed out), or to officially put in a request to return to Syria. In both cases, whether seeking a “bailout” or “return,” to Syria, the process is overseen by the Jordanian authorities, and not the UNHCR. Unfortunately, the “bail out” process lent itself to exploitation. Although the majority of people were bailed out by friends or relatives, there were also those who discovered they were expected to work for little pay in exchange for a bailout. Or, in some cases, the “bailout” system became a way for men to try to marry Syrian wives.

As for returns to Syria, it was interesting to me just how fluid the situation at the border was. The UNHCR’s official position was that they do not encourage or facilitate return. But almost every day, a busload or two of Syrians would return to Syria. Some were going back to get more provisions or money. Some were going to retrieve a family member left behind. Some were going to attend funerals of relatives back home, or even sometimes for more joyous occasions like weddings. Some returned, saying camp conditions were difficult and they’d rather die in their homeland, but with their dignity intact. Some of the people who returned to Syria came back after finding their homes had been destroyed, or upon hostilities flaring up again in their area.

Some of those returning were men intent upon joining the fight, over the pleas of their anxious mothers and wives. Instructed by international organizations concerned about the issue of child soldiers, the Jordanian authorities were supposed to forbid any unaccompanied boys under the age of eighteen to ride on a Syria-bound bus. Many young boys would spend hours arguing with the authorities, trying to convince them they were older. In their eyes I saw their determination to avenge the death of an older brother. Sometimes I succeeded in talking them out of making the trip, only to learn three days later that they had somehow managed to get on a bus. The first few times this happened, I spent days worrying about what might have happened to these boys once back in Syria. But over the weeks, amidst all the other concerns and tragedies of the camp, my concerns about these young men became just one more thing over which I felt I had no control.

When I was in the camp, the majority of the camp residents were originally form the Dara`a governorate. There were also some people from Homs and surrounding areas and from Damascus and its suburbs. By and large, the people who were in the camp were those with no recourse but to live in a refugee camp. I noticed a marked difference between the residents who hailed from Dara`a and those coming from Damascus or Homs. The population from Dara`a was primarily rural, most having completed a few years of schooling (especially the women), and poor. The camp really highlighted for me the gap between urban and rural areas of Syria and also led me to see why Dara`a was the province where the uprising first took hold.

A significant portion of the camp (easily a third) consisted of female-headed households. Some had been sent by their husbands, who were staying behind in Syria to tend to their work or homes, or were actively fighting. Some of the women were widows, and some had husbands who had disappeared.

I was also taken aback by what large families they had, and how young women were when they got married. It was astounding how many women I met who, by the time they were in their 30’s, had already given birth to upwards of 7 or 8 children (and looked like they were much, much older). It was devastating to meet widows who were only 19.

The early marriage issue is one with which the UNCHR was and I imagine still is grappling. Under Jordanian (and international) law, girls under 18 should not be married. However, it was proving difficult, if not impossible to prevent early marriages in the camp, which were mostly being arranged through Sheikhs who just wrote out marriage “contracts” on a piece of paper. Most girls were married between the ages of 14 and 16. Once in a while, I would talk to families thinking about marrying their daughters, and when I advised them to wait until she was at least eighteen, they would look at me like I was insane. When I asked girls how they felt, they would just look at the ground, or say they would do what their parents thought best. I once spoke to a 19-year old who had been engaged in Syria and whose engagement was broken off when her fiancé (also her cousin) decided to join the FSA. She didn’t want to risk the possibility of widowhood. I was speaking to her because her family had initially arranged for her to be “bailed out” of the camp through marriage to a Jordanian man. They then decided against the bailing out after learning that the man in question was much older than they had initially imagined and already married and with children and expected his new bride to live with his first wife. I sat the whole family down and explained the importance of being vigilant, that some men would take advantage of the desperation of some refugee women and make such arrangements, that just because she was 19 and with a broken engagement, she shouldn’t “settle” for just any marriage.

But the problem is that with all the stories circulating about women being forced into prostitution and survival sex, lots of parents do see marriage as the most viable way to keep their daughters safe (and honorable).

The truth is that for the time being, with the refugee crisis ongoing and with new people arriving at the camp every day, the UNHCR and all other agencies involved in the camp are very much in “logistics” mode. They are dealing with registration, with distribution, with just making sure that people can survive. The luxury to develop programs, to think about income-generation projects for women (and men for that matter) is not there.

My biggest frustration at Zaatari was the amount of time I devoted each and every day (and I went to the camp six days a week, leaving Amman at 7:00 a.m. and returning to Amman at 7:00 p.m. or later) to dealing with logistical and bureaucratic issues driven by concerns about fraud, itself caused by the scarcity of resources. Basically, each family (or in the case of persons who are alone each individual) receives a ration card upon registration with the UNHCR which entitles them to the services in the camp (food rations, medical care, etc.). A lot of time is spent monitoring the ration card, dealing with people who fled the camp (maybe gave their ration card to a relative inside the camp) and are now returning and asking for a new card, or who returned to Syria and then came back to Jordan, again, seeking a new card.

It is common for media reports about Zaatari (or any refugee camp for that matter) to depict the refugees as hapless victims and the UN and international organizations there as the heartless bureaucrats for whom this is just another humanitarian catastrophe. And no question, there is a lot of suffering in the camp and UN agencies could be doing a better job. But these accounts also fail to consider the agency of the refugees themselves and the fact that there are those who try to manipulate the system. My thought on this was that when you place people in a position of total dependency, they are of course going to manipulate the system, the one area in life where they can exercise control. But, I also understood the UNHCR’s concerns. Resources are limited and ration card fraud harms everyone in the camp because some people end up taking the shares of others.

Most of the time, I found myself hating the fact that this was the way things had to be. I hated the fact that people who didn’t have much to begin with, lost what they had, now had to be reduced to trying to manipulate the system so they could get an extra bag of lentils or oil that they then tried to sell so they could buy fresh fruits and vegetables in the market. I hated the fact that I suddenly would find myself intervening between an aid worker and a refugee who were arguing over blankets. I hated the fact that I knew that if she got that extra blanket, there would not be enough for the new arrivals.

One day, one NGO that distributed diapers found that some people had broken into their storage facility and stolen a large quantity of them. For some reason, they decided to collectively punish all the refugees in the camp by halting diaper distribution for a few days. Imagine this in a camp full of children, where children were also being born every day. And then imagine sitting and listening to a Syrian woman crying in your office saying: “We expect Bashar to behave like a dog, but how could one refugee steal from another refugee?”

And I think for me this woman’s question epitomized the depth of the tragedy of Syria. It is tragic that tens of thousands of Syrians have lost their lives, their homes, their livelihoods. It is tragic that whole neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble, including neighborhoods and markets and buildings that were hundreds of years old. It is tragic that there is no easy political resolution to the conflict. It is also tragic that a million plus Syrians have become refugees and that some of them, in the desperation of exile, have turned against one another. And the more protracted this exile becomes, the more desperate, the more difficult becomes rebuilding the peace and harmony of what was once Syria.

A follow-up on the Syria arms report

In my recent post on the arming of anti-Assad rebels via Croatia and Jordan, Syria Comment’s Aron Lund raised several important points I’ve discussed in earlier articles, but not recently, about how label- and media-driven coverage of the fighting in the country has become - often at the expense of the non-military anti-Assad efforts still going on in the country that I interviewed Stephen Star on a few months ago.   Lund’s report in part builds off on a discussion he and I had over the piece, where he pointed out that “there isn’t an actual FSA organization” and that unless the FSA label is better explained, “[i]t serves more to confuse readers than to clarify organizational links.”  

Lund’s post is a good breakdown of the anti-Assad rebels’ organizations two years into the conflict, so I’d like to highlight a few points from the primer he has written for Syria Comment.  

The first part is a reiteration of how the “FSA” came to be:  

The FSA was created by Col. Riad el-Asaad and a few other Syrian military defectors in July 2011, in what may or may not have been a Turkish intelligence operation. To be clear, there’s no doubting the sincerity of the first batch of fighters, or suggest that they would have acted otherwise without foreign support. But these original FSA commanders were confined to the closely guarded Apaydın camp in Turkey, and kept separate from civilian Syrian refugees. Turkish authorities are known to have screened visitors and journalists before deciding whether they could talk to the officers. While this is not in itself evidence of a Turkish intelligence connection, it does suggest that this original FSA faction could not, how shall we say, operate with full autonomy from its political environment.

From summer onwards, new rebel factions started popping up in hundreds of little villages and city neighborhoods inside Syria, as an ever-growing number of local demonstrators were provoked into self-defense. The most important recruiting tool for this nascent insurgency was not the FSA and its trickle of videotaped communiqués on YouTube. Rather, it was Bashar el-Assad’s decision to send his army on a psychotic rampage through the Syrian Sunni Arab countryside. As the corpses piled up, more and more civilians started looking for guns and ammo, and the rebel movement took off with a vengeance.

While the new groups almost invariably grew out of a local context, and organized entirely on their own, most of them also declared themselves to be part of the FSA. They adopted its logotype, and would often publicly pledge allegiance to Col. Riad el-Asaad. As a branding operation, the FSA was a extraordinary success – but in most cases, the new ”FSA brigades” had no connection whatsoever to their purported supreme commander in Turkey. In reality, what was emerging was a sprawling leaderless resistance of local fighters who shared only some common goals and an assemblage of FSA-inspired symbols.

Then there’s the fact that different armed groups observed in the conflict use the Free Syrian Army moniker as a “brand name” when it suits them:

One can’t disregard the fact that many Syrian opposition fighters will casually refer to themselves as FSA members, or that some armed factions actually self-designate as ”a brigade of the FSA”. But that does not mean that they belong to some Syria-wide FSA command hierarchy: it’s still just a label, typically intended to market these groups as part of the opposition mainstream.

With time, then, the generally understood definition of the FSA term has gradually narrowed from its original scope, which encompassed almost the entire insurgency. Today, it is understood to apply mostly to army defectors (ex-Baathists), non-ideological fighters, and more moderate Islamists. But the dividing line is not really a question of ideology or organization, it is political. The FSA label is increasingly being used in the media as shorthand for those factions which receive Gulf/Western support and are open to collaboration with the USA and other Western nations.

That still doesn’t describe an actual organization, but at least it’s closer to a working definition of what the ”FSA” would mean in a Syrian opposition context – a definition that can’t really decide what it includes, but which clearly excludes most of the anti-Western salafis, all of the hardcore salafi-jihadis, and, for example, the Kurdish YPG militia. Further in, Lund includes a rundown of the main groups calling themselves “FSA” or some variant of that, either until recently or at this very moment, and advice on how to better explain what “FSA” means in the context of specific political initiatives and geographical areas of operations.

Lund also expands on one of the core problems facing the rebels now that they are receiving greater (though still limited) outside support, both military and non-military: distribution.

No matter how shallow and ephemeral their allegiance to Brig. Gen. Idriss may be, no other opposition figure can point to a similar show of support from the armed movement inside Syria. The reason for this widespread endorsement of Brig. Gen. Idriss isn’t his personal charm, good looks or presumed brilliance as a military strategist – it’s a lot simpler than that. See, there was an immediate payoff for attending the Antalya conference and pledging allegiance to Brig. Gen. Idriss and his General Staff: You got guns.

Just when the Antalya conference to create the General Staff was held, in December 2012, fresh shipments of weapons & ammo started pouring into northern Syria, secretly shipped in from Croatia and other sources (this has been well covered by bloggers like Brown Moses and correspondents like C. J. Chivers). And what do you know, both the General Staff’s Antalya conference and these Croatian guns seem to have been paid for by Saudi Arabia. Coincidence? Not likely. Judging from who’s been seen firing the weapons, they seem to have been distributed more or less among the commanders who endorsed the General Staff. And that was always the idea: The General Staff was set up as a flag to rally the Western/Gulf-backed factions around, and probably also a funding channel and an arms distribution network, rather than as an actual command hierarchy. Idriss’s foreign sponsors do of course hope that it will eventually solidify into the latter, but we haven’t seen it happen yet.   As Chivers has speculated on his own blog, it may be that this is how the pitch was made in Washington, but it’s very likely that on the ground, the distribution system is allowing those non-Syrian actors doing the legwork - for the most part, hired Iraqi and Turkish hands along with the intelligence services of the Arab monarchy, rather than the CIA or DIA - to play favorites better than the EU or US have.

It does not appear that the arms supply effort – whether it has been 4 or 75+ planeloads of ex-Yugoslavian Army gear flown from Zagreb to Amman – has been able to substitute for the lack of organization among rebel fronts (or, on the field, yet match Assad’s qualitative advantage in planes, artillery and armor). Lund concludes:

A unified rebel leadership would spare Syria much of the bloodshed that lies ahead. Not just because an organized rebel army would pack more of a punch in the struggle against Bashar el-Assad’s fascist dictatorship, and could put a leash on the most unpleasant salafi extremist factions. But also – and this matters a lot more than the fate of either Assad or al-Qaeda – because only a functioning opposition leadership will be able to minimize the period of Lebanon-style armed anarchy and sectarian bloodshed that lies ahead for Syria, and help reestablish a central government when Assad’s is gone for good.

US u-turn on Syria?

So says Abdel Bari Atwan in US U-turn on Syria:

Speaking in Oslo, the US secretary said: 'What the US and the world want is to stop the killing in Syria.' He added, 'Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should sit with the leaders of the Syrian opposition at the negotiating table to form a transitional government, according to the framework agreement concluded in Geneva.'

Such statements tell us that the US administration, during its second term, has turned to adopt a different position to the Syrian crisis, looking to achieve a political solution.

The US Secretary of State did not stipulate that the resignation of the Syrian president was a pre-condition condition for any political solution for the Syrian crisis during the press conference. He did not say that the Syrian regime or its representatives should sit with the Syrian opposition at the negotiating table, while he said Assad should negotiate with the opposition. The statement is essentially American recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian regime.

To be more clear, we should remind ourselves that for the last two years, President Obama told the world that President Assad had lost his legitimacy, stressing that he should leave the power. However, he has not said anything of the sort for the last five months.

He predicts "more harmonious relations between the Syrian regime and the US" in the future, as part of a Russian-US deal. I doubt it.

Do arms transfers represent breakthrough for Syrian rebels?

FSA fighters being instructed in the use of the ex-Yugoslav M79 anti-tank rocket launcher (YouTube)

The New York Times reported last week that “Saudi Arabia has financed a large purchase of infantry weapons from Croatia and quietly funneled them to antigovernment fighters in Syria.” The effort was reportedly known to the US, but nothing was said for or against it so that it might proceed under the radar of a European Union arms embargo on Syria.

Palettes of former Yugoslavian weapons are not game-changers in and of themselves, and the way they’ve been secured by the rebels shows that the US still refuses to place its bets on any specific group. That said, the arrival of planeloads worth of small arms is significant in that it demonstrates a greater investment in the rebels by their foreign backers. According to the Australian small arms expert Nic Jenzen-Jones, it is the quantity of the weapons that is the most significant development for the rebels: “a lot of people are discussing, ‘is x system effective against y armoured vehicle?’. What’s more important in this conflict is that we’ve seen an initial dearth of weapons and only recently have we seen supplies of anti-armour weapons significantly increase.” 

“It’s a long term thing, but I’m sure we’ll see the situation in Daraa look very similar to that in Aleppo in the coming months,” the Times’ Eliot Higgins told me, as Aleppo and other parts of northern Syria are falling under rebel control due to the capture of multiple Syrian military bases in the region. According to Higgins, the new weapons have given the rebels an "extra edge that has allowed them to start attacking checkpoints and bases, resulting in the capture of heavier equipment” from the Syrian Army.

Jenzen-Jones explained that three types of Eastern bloc anti-tank weapons – the M79 “Osa,” the M60 recoilless gun and the RPG–22 – now in use in Syria are “suitable for the type of hit-and-run urban warfare the rebels are conducting.” Suitable, but not “game-changing.”

Indeed, the conspicuous absence of a certain type of handheld weapon suggests that the supply effort is not quite an all-out effort on behalf of the rebels by foreign benefactors. “If we see [anti-air missile systems] being provided, I think that would suggest a shift in thinking in Washington,” Higgins explained, noting that rebels still mainly rely on captured Syrian Army stockpiles and a handful of heat-seeking Chinese-made missiles of unknown origin.

The rebels’ lack of air defenses in the face of aerial bombardment is partly why they have risked their columns to besiege Syrian military bases: capturing the airfields around Aleppo and in Idlib Province have reduced the scale of air attacks on targets in these places. Even if those jets and attack helicopters were grounded, however, the rebels would still lack the heavy weapons to exploit the situation.

The area where these weapons have been observed most is known as Daraa province, along the Jordanian border, and the weapons may help the rebels there carve out an enclave under their control. But where do the rebels go from Daraa, whose capital city they have already lost once before? That is less clear, because the flow of the Croatian pipeline is not and has never been a sure thing for the rebels.

A parallel with this situation can be drawn from the NATO and UN intelligence failures going into the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre in Bosnia. The international mission was divided against itself, with Western allies keeping secrets from one another, and of middlemen pocketing some of the spoils meant for the war effort. Small arms were shipped in en masse by international Islamic charities and the governments of several Middle Eastern countries with the official knowledge, (if not always actual complicity), of the US and several of its allies: Jordan, Turkey, Germany and the UK.

Indeed, the US embassy in Croatia was hit by backbiting over these arms transfers in the 1990s, with the CIA station chief and ambassador there falling out over the CIA man’s suspicious the State Department was keeping quiet about other nations’ (Iran) arms transfers in Bosnia because of an “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” rationale. 
Or rather, nothing was said for or against it because it armed a group the West wanted to see armed but didn’t want to associate with. Through Jordan, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, that seems to be the policy of the US, France and the UK.

So far, no amount of pro-opposition lobbying in these three nations has led to them granting the rebels substantial armed assistance, though trainings programs for Free Syrian Army soldiers and anti-Assad propagandists are reportedly ongoing in both Jordan and Turkey under US direction.

When the US moved to reorganize the Syrian National Council as the “Syrian National Coalition,” it was thought that Washington was signaling greater investment in Syrian opposition forces. Despite rumors that the White House will receive leaders of both the FSA and Syrian National Coalition, no one has demonstrated direct arming of the rebels … though Secretary of State John Kerry has revealed that the White House is far more “involved” with overseeing the Gulf states’ arms deliveries than previously admitted. 

Though the decision to increase “non-lethal” to US$60 million and to supply it directly to the FSA is being marked as a decisive change in policy, it will be at least three months before the arms embargo imposed on Syria by the EU is up for renegotiation, with the UK in the lead to have it relaxed. If there is one military benefit from it for the rebels, it is that now they are freed up to spend more on weapons with their consumables and medical kits being better taken care of.

According to Syria Comment’s Joshua Landis, one of the main reasons the US government continues to demonstrate great reticence in openly backing any rebel force diplomatically, let alone militarily is because “the sort of received wisdom in Washington today is that Syria is going to become Somalia because all of these groups are going to end up in an extended civil conflict once they get through Assad.” Landis explains that “the main groups from the Islamic front [rivals to the FSA, and likely the preferential recipients of aid from the Gulf states] are trying to find [more] common ground, and these Salafists are willing to push aside Jahbat al-Nusra” despite a burst of initial support for it when it was designated a terrorist organization by the US. The foreign fighters’ haughty disdain for their Syrian brothers-in-arms, it appears, are playing a large part in the increasingly negative response to their presence in Syria.

The Beltway calculus is, he says, that “to pick an effective winner in Syria, you need to be able to pick an Islamist” and the White House does not think it can sell anyone in Syria that way to justify a more direct role. Meanwhile, rebel supporters lampoon the US’s hesitancy, and representatives of the Free Syrian Army openly blame the Obama Administration for holding back Saudi arms transfers to them. At the same time, the FSA leader Salim Idris, “who is supposed to be heading all of these things,” says Landis, "denies that [arms transfers] are happening.”

“I don’t think he’s being sincere, but clearly, he’s trying to make a point that this is a drop in the bucket,“ Landis added, noting that making that point was probably the driving reason for Idris’s remarks, rather than an effort to distance the FSA from the Saudis. C.J. Chivers, the lead author of the Times report, has speculated on his blog that “[t]hese newly arrived weapons in Syria may well have been intended for nationalist and secular fighters,” ones favored by FSA top “commanders” who have very limited authority within Syria. That, believes Chivers, is how the operation might have been sold to US policymakers.

The Guardian’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad has written that foreign efforts to influence the course the FSA’s “officers” would take as the “armed opposition” began to come apart early on due to rivalries and the strength of Assad’s military: these failures to hold group in major cities such as Homs and Hama highlighted their limited popularity and poor supply situation. Jenzen-Jones notes that one of the biggest problems (and future challenges) for the rebels has been of ammunition supply and standardization: "you’ve got a lot of different calibers, and then within that you’ve got a lot of different types of ammunition, and you want to make sure the right ammunition is available so that you’re able to employ this range of weapons most effectively.”

The Salafist Ahrar al-Sham militia and the FSA’s “Farouq Brigades” were both named by Higgins as beneficiaries of the Croatian pipeline and seem well-placed to use and distribute the ex-Yugoslavian weapons to other groups.

While they can and do work together, the fact is that they belong to different militia alliances – al-Sham is part of an Islamist coalition and works with the extremist al-Nusra Front. They have been rivals for recruits and materiel because: “the fighters arm themselves and fund themselves as individuals or small groups,” Nir Rosen observed after several months inside Syria last year. While this is changing due to the influx of new weapons, and some groups do seem more interested in forming a centralized fighting front, there is a catch. With the Islamists the preferential choice of Saudi patrons, they may be in a stronger position to spread their influence in the FSA: as one of Higgins’ colleagues has remarked that ”if they’re making ideological conditioning [a prerequisite] for weapons training, would help explain growth of Salafists" – albeit those still loosely affiliated with the FSA.