Syrian conflict ‘approaching decisive stage’?

The newly unified Syrian opposition is insisting that it should be the sole conduit for channeling logistical and financial assistance to the in-country rebels.

The credibility of the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (above) will hinge on it securing “the buy-in of as many Syrian stakeholders as possible, as well as a concrete mechanism for governing the country and bringing the civil war to an end,” observers suggest.

“The burden of proof is still upon the SNCORF to show Western countries that it can deliver and use its expanded mandate to reach out to all armed groups in Syria,” writes Qatar-based analyst Michael Stephens.

Why, given all the money previously invested in the opposition – which after one year produced no concrete steps in either moving toward a unified political position or in hastening the demise of Bashar – should Western nations keep funneling in more cash and resources?” he asks.

The demise of the regime may come soon than many observers think, says Jeffrey White, an analyst at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Syria’s internal war appears to be approaching a decisive stage,” he writes. “Barring a major change in Bashar al-Assad’s approach or massive intervention by Hizballah and Iran, the regime’s military situation will likely continue to deteriorate, perhaps dramatically, in the weeks ahead.”

“The rebels may not yet have a unified political structure, military command, or national strategy for their war against the regime, but the cumulative effects of their operations are significant and mounting,” says White, a defense fellow specializing in the military and security affairs of the Levant and Iran.. “Furthermore, they hold the military initiative in key areas of the country.”

Western states’ refusal to arm the opposition is a mistake that will play into the hands of extremist forces.

“Outside military assistance to the rebels could shift the situation even more quickly and decisively in their favor, potentially preempting any regime move toward extreme measures,” White contends in a new policy brief:

[M]ilitary aid provided soon to the right groups — namely, ones that are politically acceptable to the West and militarily effective — could help shape the post-Assad situation in a way favorable to U.S. interests. It could also enable these groups to play a more decisive role in the outcome of the fighting and claim a more central role in bringing down the regime. This would better position them for the post-Assad struggle with other groups, especially Islamist extremists.

But other analysts believe the Assad regime remains resilient and that the new coalition’s leadership may be as dysfunctional as its predecessor, the Syrian National Council. 

Unlike in other Arab countries, where autocrats were brought down by citizen uprisings, the Assad regime shows no signs of fading into oblivion soon, writes Randa Slim, a scholar at the Middle East Institute.

There are four reasons Assad remains in power, she argues in Foreign Policy:

1. The regime’s inner sanctum has not cracked. …This core appears to consist of more hawkish figures who see the struggle in existential terms. As the inner circle gets smaller, the regime’s response only becomes more determined and bloodier.

[T]he regime is calculating that it can hold on to power and deny the armed opposition the ability to deliver tangible results on the ground — making it increasingly likely the rebels will lose steam.

2. The Syrian military is not close to a breaking point [as] the attrition rate in the Syrian army is at best around 5 to 10 percent — not enough to seriously erode its fighting capacities. …..Assad’s losses in military personnel have been made up for by the increase in the ranks of the paramilitary shabiha.

3. Syria’s Alawite community remains hostile to the uprising. Political dissent among Alawites, the religious minority to which Assad belongs, has so far been extremely limited — despite a few military and civilian defectors:

The opposition — especially the exiled leadership — has utterly failed in reaching out to the Alawite community. No opposition figure has yet made a convincing case to the Alawites that their future in a post-Assad Syria will be safe from revenge killings, that they will enjoy equal rights as their Sunni brethren, that their economic interests will be safeguarded, and that they will not be treated with suspicion for years to come. Even worse, there is no serious thinking going on inside the opposition of how to develop such a narrative.

4. The Syrian opposition remains fractured. Although different groups have been working on a “Day After” agenda, there is not yet a common political vision of how to get from now to the day after Assad’s fall.

In short, there is a political vacuum and an organizational vacuum at every level of the Syrian opposition.

On the other hand, “the militarization of the conflict has sidelined the activists and civic groups that launched the uprising,” writes Slim, a research fellow at the New America Foundation.

“The failure — and the unwillingness — of the political opposition to articulate a credible road map for a solution ensures that military conflict will be the uprising’s default course in the short to medium term, plunging the country deeper into chaos and violence.”

The new opposition coalition elected Maath al-Khatib, a Damascus-based imam, as its president. He has been described as a “dynamic and progressive” moderate Islamist, but the country’s Alawites and would-be Western backers may not be reassured by some aspects of his politics.

“Khatib has sounded the right notes, which superficially at least bode well for an inclusive coalition. His demand for ‘freedom for every Sunni, Alawi, Ismaili, Christian, Druze, Assyrian … and rights for all parts of the harmonious Syrian people,” notes the RUSI’s Stephens.

But statements posted on the cleric’s website,, paint a different picture, writes Mohanad Hage Ali, a researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science:

While Khatib used his post-election speech to call for equal rights for “all parts of the harmonious Syrian people,” his previous rhetoric toward his country’s minorities has been nothing short of virulent. One of his articles describes Shiite using the slur rawafid, or “rejectionists”; he even goes further, criticizing Shiites’ ability to “establish lies and follow them.”

Khatib’s website also features anti-Semitic rhetoric, he notes:

In one of his own articles, he writes that one of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s positive legacies was “terrifying the Jews.” He has also published others’ anti-Semitic observations on his site: In one article, written by Abdul Salam Basiouni, Jews are described as “gold worshipers.” Finally, in an obituary of a Gaza sheikh copied from IslamSyria, Jews are dubbed “the enemies of God.”

But other observers suggest that such rhetoric is unfortunately all too common even in ‘moderate Islamist’ discourse; that the choice of prominent dissident Riad Seif, female activist Suhair Atassi, and a yet-to-be-named Kurd will provide reassurance to funders; and that Khatib brings considerable credibility to the opposition.

“Many of the leaders in the past who were involved with the initiatives were accused of being comfortable in the opposition from their luxury hotel rooms,” writes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Ed Husain:

But this man has been arrested many times inside Syria since the year 2000, when the first Damascus Spring happened after the death of Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current leader Bashar. …. And having Suhair Atassi, a prominent female activist, as his vice president, a woman who’s not veiled, helps reassure others inside the country that maybe this new formulation has a vision for Syria that’s different. To Khatib’s credit, he has repeatedly spoken about minorities and been reassuring about minority rights, and despite being a cleric, he has not framed the entire discussion in religious and sectarian terms.


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Lantos hearing on Russia’s ‘steadily deteriorating’ human rights

In May 2012, Vladimir Putin was re-elected president after mass protests over alleged electoral fraud in the December 2011 parliamentary elections. Since that time, the human rights situation in Russia has continued to steadily deteriorate 

Anti-government protests have been met with a series of repressive laws restricting freedom of expression and association. Civil society is experiencing a crackdown, while opposition figures and human rights defenders are facing frequent harassment and intimidation. There has been little progress in investigating and prosecuting attacks on journalists and whistleblowers, while violence and impunity in Russia’s restive North Caucasus region remain a major problem.  

Please join the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission for a hearing on human rights in Russia. In addition to assessing these systematic human rights abuses in Russia, this hearing will evaluate U.S. policy towards the country. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012. 2:00 PM– 4:00 PM Longworth 1300 HOB, Capitol hill, Washington, DC.

The following witnesses will testify: 

Panel I

Senator Benjamin L. Cardin

Panel II

Ms. Susan Corke, Director for Eurasia Programs, Freedom House

Mr. William Browder, Chief Executive Director, Hermitage Capital Management

Ms. Tanya Lokshina, Deputy Director, Human Rights Watch (Moscow)

Ms. Fatima Tlisova, Correspondent, Voice of America’s Russian Service

If you have any questions, please contact the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission at 202-225-3599 or

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Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe

At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union to its surprise and delight found itself in control of a huge swath of territory in Eastern Europe, and Stalin and his secret police set out to convert a dozen radically different countries to Communism. In the long-awaited follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag, acclaimed journalist Anne Applebaum delivers a groundbreaking history of how Communism took over Eastern Europe after World War II and transformed in frightening fashion the individuals who came under its sway.  

In Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-56, Applebaum describes how the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe were created and what daily life was like once they were complete. She draws on newly opened East European archives, interviews, and personal accounts translated for the first time to portray in devastating detail the dilemmas faced by millions of individuals trying to adjust to a way of life that challenged their every belief and took away everything they had accumulated.  

Today the Soviet Bloc is a lost civilization, one whose cruelty, paranoia, bizarre morality, and strange aesthetics Applebaum captures in the electrifying pages of Iron Curtain. Among other questions, she will discuss how studying the repressive tactics employed by the Soviets in the immediate post-War period can help to illuminate the challenges faced by civil society in today’s authoritarian regimes. 

The International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy cordially invites you to celebrate the publication of Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-56, featuring Anne Applebaum, Columnist, Washington Post and Slate, Director of Political Studies, Legatum Institute. Moderated by Christopher Walker, International Forum for Democratic Studies.

Thursday, November 29, 2012. 4:00–5:30 p.m. NED, 1025 F. Street, N.W., Suite 800, Washington, D.C. 20004 Telephone: 202-378-9675 RSVP here (acceptances only) with name and affiliation by Tuesday, November 27. 

Anne Applebaum is the Director of Political Studies at the Legatum Institute. She is also a columnist for the Washington Post and Slate, and the author of several books, including Gulag: A History, which won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction as well as other awards. Since 1989, her journalism has frequently focused on the politics of transition in Russia, central Europe, and other former communist states, but she has also written extensively about British, American, and European politics and international relations. She is a former member of the Washington Post editorial board, a former deputy editor of the Spectator magazine, a former political editor of the Evening Standard, and a former Warsaw correspondent of the Economist. Her work also appears regularly in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the Daily Telegraph, and many other UK and US publications. She is married to Radek Sikorski, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland.

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West must arm Syria’s rebels, says new opposition group (and Kissinger)

The world must provide Syria’s new opposition coalition with “quality weapons” to help it oust President Bashar al-Assad, one of its leaders said today.

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said it would be in the strategic interest of the US to arm Syria’s rebels.

“Until now Western powers have been reluctant to give overt military backing to insurgents lacking a disciplined command structure,” Reuters reports:

They fear sophisticated weapons might reach Islamist militants, who could later use them against the West or Israel. … Sunni Muslim jihadi groups are now prominent in the fighting and Syria risks being engulfed in all-out sectarian war that could destabilize Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey…..But Suhair al-Atassi, vice president of the coalition forged in Qatar at the weekend, said the absence of outside military aid for the rebels had only swelled Islamist militancy.

“When the international community turned its back on the Syrian people fearing the rise of the Islamists, they encouraged this extremism,” the pro-democracy activist said.

The new Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces represents “the real weight of the revolutionary forces” and must now prove it has legitimacy on the ground, Atassi told Reuters.

“The ball now is in the international community’s court,” she said. “There is no more excuse to say we are waiting to see how efficient this new body is. They used to put the opposition to the test. Now we put them to the test.”

The new coalition should be the sole conduit for financial, humanitarian and military assistance, said Atassi, to prevent foreign donors from selectively backing preferred factions on sectarian grounds.

“There is no reason now to keep quality weapons away from the (rebel) Free Syrian Army. Now there is a unified, responsible body through which the army and revolutionary forces can be organized,” she said.

A spokesman for the new coalition that the group had been led to expect military assistance from the West would be forthcoming.

“We have assuaged a lot of the concerns and fulfilled a lot of preconditions on the Syrian armed opposition in terms of accountability and unity,” Yaser Tabbara told the UK’s Guardian, “and I believe the international community is ready to invest in the opposition both militarily and politically. That is the sense we got in Doha.”

Arch-realist Kissinger endorsed a cautious, calibrated arming of the opposition, but warned against inadvertently bolstering jihadist elements.

“When I ask myself what is the American national interest in Syria, it is certainly in our national interest that the support of the Shia in Lebanon via Syria be interrupted, and that Syria not become a base in the projection of Iranian power,” Kissinger said. “So from that point of view an Assad victory in the civil war would be against the American national interest. And from that point of view some arming of the rebels is desirable.”

“If you look at the performance of the rebels up to now, we have to be careful not to repeat in Syria what we did in Afghanistan of arming groups which, if they achieve total victory, could represent a significant threat of their own,” he said. “So it’s an extremely complicated balance. I am opposed to using American ground forces or American military forces except for the objective of weakening the Iranian position…”

Washington should “engage in diplomatic activity” with the aim of establishing a power-sharing arrangement among Syria’s diverse ethnic and religious groups along the lines of pluralistic institutions in neighboring Lebanon.

The US administration announced a further $30 million in humanitarian aid and welcomed the formation of a new opposition coalition, but Washington remains reluctant to provide lethal assistance.

“We have long called for this kind of organization. We want to see that momentum maintained,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters. “As the Syrian opposition takes these steps and demonstrates its effectiveness in advancing the cause of a unified, democratic, pluralistic Syria, we will be prepared to work with them to deliver assistance to the Syrian people.”

France and six Gulf Arab states have recognized the new coalition, and Paris will consider providing arms once an interim government is formed, but the US, UK and other states say it needs to demonstrate its credibility on the ground.

London will recognize the coalition “if it is inclusive and Syrians support it,” said Jon Wilks, the U.K.’s Special Representative to the Syrian Opposition. But the new coalition must first demonstrate its accountability. “It’s not enough to ask for suitcases of money or opening up of a fund,” he said. “We need Syrian technocrats trusted by both the coalition and donors.”

According to the New York Times: Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the new coalition would have to create a secure zone in Syria to be successful, and that such a step would require support from the United States, which was instrumental in the negotiations that led to the group’s creation but has not yet committed to giving it full recognition. What the French have done, Mr. Tabler said, is significant because they have started the process of broader recognition, putting pressure on the group to succeed.

“They’ve decided to back this umbrella organization and hope that it has some kind of political legitimacy and keep it from going to extremists,” he said. “It’s a gamble. The gamble is that it will stiffen the backs of the opposition.” 

But some analysts believe foreign states’ role in forging the new coalition could backfire. 

“It’s obviously a great step forward for the West and the Syrian opposition,” says Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma. “This group has great purchase among upper-class urban Sunnis, particularly those who have spent a lot of time in the West. But the key question will be whether or not it is able to unify rebel military groups on the ground, which haven’t been particularly involved in this process.”

As Time’s Tony Karon notes: Its leader, Moaz al Khatib, former Imam of the famous Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, is considered a moderate, as are his two deputies, businessman Riad Seif and Suhair al-Atassi, an anti-Assad activist whose appointment also signals the new group’s willingness to put women in leadership roles.

 “The leadership of the new Coalition seems straight out of Central Casting,” warns Landis. “Many of those on the ground know that this is a foreign-massaged operation. It looks great, but there’s a danger of this initiative falling apart because it’s too obviously stage-managed.”

There are new indications that Syrian rebels are securing more sophisticated weaponry without Western help, The Times reports:

The Brown Moses blog, considered an authoritative source on arms used in the conflict, reported new images showing insurgents armed with SA-16 and SA-24 shoulder-fired heat-seeking antiaircraft missiles, apparently captured from the Syrian military. Both systems are newer generations of weapons than rebels have been seen carrying before, and pose a new threat to Syrian military aircraft.

A growing chorus of voices, including Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US envoy to the UN, and former State Department policy planner Anne-Marie Slaughter, has called on the administration to provide not only nonlethal technical assistance, but to arm Syria’s pro-democratic opposition in order to counter extremists.

Khalilzad and Slaughter are both board members of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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New Authoritarians and the Challenge to Democracy

The world has changed and today’s autocrats are changing with it. Demonstrating resilience and a keen ability to adapt, leading authoritarian regimes are developing more subtle and sophisticated methods to retain power.  To suppress dissent, mass brutality has been replaced by selective safety inspections and tax investigations, as well as arbitrarily applied regulations designed to undercut the activities of independent civil society and opposition groups.

New economic resources at the disposal of regimes in Beijing, Moscow, and Caracas have enabled them to bolster their authoritarianism. Meanwhile, the democratic world has been slow to acknowledge and respond to the emergence of these new, more nimble regimes.

Please join a discussion featuring William J. Dobson, author of The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy, and Joshua Stacher, author of Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria, as they discuss how leaders in China, Egypt, Russia, Venezuela, and other countries have adapted to suppress democratic movements in their countries. Despite the initial excitement surrounding the recent upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa in particular, continuity—not wide-ranging political change—remains the hallmark of many of the world’s autocracies.

 The International Forum for Democratic Studies

at the National Endowment for Democracy 

cordially invites you to a presentation titled 

New Authoritarians and the Challenge to Democracy 


William J. Dobson



 Joshua Stacher

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Kent State University

moderated by 

Christopher Walker

International Forum for Democratic Studies

Thursday, December 6, 2012
12:00–2:00 p.m.
(lunch served from 1212:30pm)

1025 F. Street, N.W., Suite 800, Washington, D.C. 20004
Telephone: 202-378-9675

RSVP (acceptances only) with name and affiliation by Tuesday, December 4.

William J. Dobson is the politics & foreign affairs editor for Slate and author of The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy. Previously, he served as the managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine. Under his editorial direction, the magazine was nominated for the National Magazine Award five years in a row, and in 2007 and 2009 Foreign Policy won the overall award for General Excellence. During the height of the Arab Spring, the Washington Post editorial page commissioned Dobson to write daily online pieces on modern authoritarianism.

Joshua Stacher is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where he is starting a book project on Egypt’s political transition. He is also an assistant professor of political science at Kent State University. Stacher is the author of Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt & Syria (Stanford UP, 2012). He is a regular contributor to and editorial board member of MERIP’s influential Middle East Report. Stacher has made media appearances and written commentary for NPR, CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera, Foreign Affairs, Jadaliyya, and The New York Times, among others.

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