Syrian opposition’s ‘significant inroads’ against regime prompts fresh calls for Western aid

The Sunni-led opposition appears in recent days to have made significant inroads against the government, threatening the Assad family’s dynastic rule of 40 years and its long alliance with Iran,” writes Neil MacFarquhar for the New York Times:

If Mr. Assad falls, that would render Iran and Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon, isolated as a Shiite Muslim alliance in an ever more sectarian Middle East, no longer enjoying a special street credibility as what Damascus always tried to sell as ‘the beating heart of Arab resistance.

The assassination of prominent Sunni imamMohammad Said Ramada al-Bouti is “a great blow to the regime and the remaining Sunni supporters of the president,” says a leading analyst.

“He was the most important Sunni clerical supporter of the Assad regime,” said Joshua M. Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of the Syria Comment blog:

Landis said the sheik had been reviled by some Syrian revolutionaries when he came out early in the conflict to denounce the uprising. He was known for having a prodigious memory, was the author of at least 40 books and was ranked 23rd on a list of the most influential 500 Muslims in the world.

But the moderate secular forces within the Syrian opposition are still being outflanked and marginalized by better-funded radical Islamist groups, raising concerns about the nature of a post-Assad transition.

“For the longest time we spoke about the Free Syrian Army, but the FSA has gone from being a something people hoped would become a structure to a concept that with every day is just a shadow of its former self,” said Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The reality is that the economics of warfare have exposed them to corruption and have exposed them and the folks who support them to warlordism,” he told USA Today:

Among Western nations, one of the biggest concerns has been the emergence of radical Islamist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which the U.S. classified as a terrorist organization because of its ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The Islamist groups have grown in large part because of their access to outside funding, much of which comes from donors in the Arabian Gulf according to numerous reports from Arab news media. Most opposition groups have struggled to operate amid shortages of supplies, relying largely on equipment captured from the Assad army.

“This has become a resource-driven conflict,” said Joseph Holliday, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “Most important above all is the ability to provide enough money for salaries for your fighters and have enough weapons.

“It’s increasingly a problem for the opposition to have enough money to provide services for the civilians in the areas they control,” he said. “The biggest driving factor behind the Islamization of the opposition is that they have access to resources.”

The disparity in resources and empowerment of radical Islamist forces, and concern that the West is losing its chance to shape the post-Assad transition are prompting renewed efforts to push the Obama administration to arm more mainstream factions of the Syrian rebels.

House Foreign Affairs ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (D-NY) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) this week introduced a new bill calling on the administration to provide lethal assistance, Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin reports.

“The United States has special capabilities that should be used to help facilitate and prepare for a post-Assad transition,” Rogers told The Cable. “As the Assad regime deteriorates and loses control, the chaos created will create a serious humanitarian crisis. This slow-motion nightmare will quickly turn into a fast paced reality for thousands. The transition will undoubtedly be turbulent and painful, which is why we must prepare immediately.”

If the administration’s policy does change it may well be due to a change of heart on the part of Benjamin J. Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser.

His “influence is being put to the test again on the issue of Syria, where the president has so far resisted more than modest American involvement,” the New York Times reports:

After two years of civil war that have left 70,000 people dead, Mr. Rhodes, his friends and colleagues said, is deeply frustrated by a policy that is not working, and has become a strong advocate for more aggressive efforts to support the Syrian opposition.

Rhodes has evidently changed his position after opposing a joint proposal from the State Department, Pentagon and CIA to arm the Syrian opposition, and he is now in a position to influence the president’s decisions.  

“He became, first in the speechwriting process, and later, in the heat of the Arab Spring, a central figure,” said Michael A. McFaul,* the US ambassador to Russia, who worked with Rhodes in the National Security Council.

The protracted conflict is raising the likelihood of a fracturing of the Syrian state, says Mona Yacoubian, a senior Middle East adviser at the Washington-based Stimson Center.

“As we watch sectarian violence unfold, and the ways in which various Syrian communities are increasingly isolated, there is some degree–and it’s hard to document–of soft partition, where various minorities go back to places where they feel more safe,” she recently told the Council on Foreign Relations.

“One wonders: Are we watching the beginning of the unraveling of the post-Ottoman order in Syria? And maybe even in the Levant? This would be a shift of historic implications,” she said.

*… and a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.

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Exposing the real NGO ‘foreign agents’

While the Kremlin is forcing overseas-funded NGOs to register as “foreign agents” in an attempt to undermine entirely legitimate, transparent and locally-driven civil society programs, Eurasia’s post-Communist states have proven adept at using GONGOs and similar fronts to exert influence in the United States, reports suggest.  

“A range of post-communist governments, in particular, with money to burn and no particular love of transparency” are exploiting an “increasingly popular loophole in the federal law intended to regulate foreign activity,” allowing them “to follow the minimal disclosure practices required of domestic corporate lobbies, not the extensive ones demanded of registered foreign agents,” writes Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray:

The trick is this: Any entity controlled and funded by a foreign government is formally required to be registered as a foreign principal. But as long as the entity is formally a nongovernmental organization and isn’t funded by a government — a chamber of commerce, an advocacy group, or some other entity — the law does not apply…..

“For better or for worse, it’s legal,” said Joseph Sandler, a Democratic lawyer and expert on FARA law.

The erosion of those requirements began around the fall of the Soviet Union, says Bill Allison, editorial directorial of the Sunlight Foundation, a lobbying watchdog group.

“One of the problems with the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 is it weakened the requirements for foreign entities and gave an awful lot of them the ability to register under the LDA when they should be filing under FARA [the Foreign Agent Registration Act],” he said.

FARA established extremely detailed disclosure requirements, which have recently shed light on everything from Georgian lobbyists’ hors d’ouevres to a stealth Malaysian campaign to plant propaganda articles in American media outlets.

A case in point, writes Gray, is an organization variously called the Fund Forum or Forum of Culture and Arts of Uzbekistan Foundation, which is run by Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbekistan’s dictator Islam Karimov.

“It’s a philanthropic organization that allegedly does a few genuinely good things, it’s allegedly a front for some of Gulnara’s shady business dealings, and most of all, it’s ground zero for Gulnara PR, a way that she can promote herself as a ‘philanthropist’ and gain a following among Uzbekistan’s youth,” said Sarah Kendzior, a Central Asia expert.

Read the rest.

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Tunisia’s civil society feeling empowered

The recent nomination of Interior Minister Ali Laarayedh by Ennahdha’s decision-making Shura Council for the post of Prime Minister was interpreted by many as a sign that the radicals are asserting dominance over the ruling Islamist party at the expense of the moderates, writes Mohamed Bechri, the former president of Amnesty International’s Tunisian Section. At the same time, the appointment was a challenge to the opposition parties, which regarded Laarayedh as the man who, as interior minister, failed to reform his ministry, prevent human rights violations and excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators, and reign in the Salafi violence.

Ennahdha’s vulnerability should not be understated, Bechri writes for the Fikra Forum. Its secular partners in the ruling troika lost half of their 49 members in the Constituent Assembly due to infighting and resignations. Meanwhile, the political opposition and civil society feel empowered in the aftermath of the murder of leftist leader Chokri Belaid (above). According to a recent opinion poll by 3C Etudes, Belaid’s Popular Front nearly doubled its supporters (from 7% to 12 %). Measured in the same poll, Ennahdha and main secular opposition party, Nidaa Tounes, are now neck and neck in their shares of public support, receiving 29.4% and 29.8%, respectively.

Therefore, it was no surprise that Ennahdha’s “cabinet broadening” project failed miserably as no party outside the troika agreed to accept it. In the end, the ruling coalition had no choice but to surrender its control over the so-called sovereign ministries of Interior, Justice, and Foreign Affairs, a particularly difficult move for Ennahdha’s leadership, making the manipulation of upcoming election results nearly impossible.

Pressure is expected to mount for the remainder of this year, or at least until the parliamentary elections in October or November. Secular opposition forces will likely unify around two separate and somewhat antagonistic blocs: the liberal Nidaa Tounes, which includes remnants of the old regime, and the large progressive leftist Popular Front, which benefited from the assassination of its leader Chokri Belaid, and which may soon absorb the Joumhouri Party and the whole socialist left, including the ex-communists.

As a result, Ennahdha’s rule will be shaken in the coming period, and the loss of their majority status with the coming parliamentary elections is a possibility, even though it is unlikely that it will suffer the kind of collapse that will make it irrelevant in the Tunisian political scene anytime soon.

This is a brief extract from an article at the Fikra Forum.RTWT

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