Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The damage of high-level intelligence leaks

As we await Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s next move, he and United States President might have more in common than they believe.

In recent years high profile intelligence leaks have rocked the international stage. From Wikileaks itself to the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, the intelligence community is suffering from a constant threat of leaked information. 

At a time of increased classification of government communications, perhaps some information might be expected to slip through the cracks. But there is something of a sea-change towards leaks and leaking, so it is vital to recognise the importance of government secrecy and why it exists.

In November 2010, the whistle-blower website Wikileaks was given an enormous collection of secret United States diplomatic cables. The website uncovered sensitive information belonging to the United States and other countries in these documents, although only a few were actually classified confidential. 

The Wikileaks cables painted a mostly responsible picture of the governments involved, something that surprised many in the international community who perhaps expected revelations of deep corruption and widespread abuses of power. 

Instances of dastardly deeds were indeed found, but these were by far the exception.

There are a few schools of thought on intelligence leaks. The first maintains that transparency of a government system must be enforced rigorously. 

A responsible government will not withhold secrets from its constituents. The public should be allowed to monitor them by having access to sensitive information. If money is being spent on keeping secrets, the argument goes, then those secrets must be sinister. 

After all, who will guard the guards themselves?

Others emphasise the importance of ensuring sensitive information is hidden from view. Not to deliberately deceive the population, but to protect a country from military or economic rivals. The amount of classified information should be kept to a minimum. In other words, if you try to classify everything, you classify nothing.

Still others wish to uphold a rigid standard of classification of all government traffic. Any information is deemed sensitive if it offers an insight into the government. 

It is unwise to leave the curtains open even a sliver, lest light escape. You never know which fragment of information a competitor might find useful.

Overall, the importance of government secrecy is directly related to proper statecraft. It is generally agreed that a corrupt, runaway, totalitarian supervision should be resisted. But a certain level of secrecy is incredibly important for a healthy administration, this is the way the game is played.

A private diplomatic discussion between two countries cannot function while being blasted all over the media. The trust of secrecy is an integral part of the diplomatic experience. Often a dialogue of strategically critical or economically sensitive topics requires extreme sensitivity for all parties involved. 

Any agreements thus prepared rely on an implicit understanding that full details will not be disclosed to protect each country from manipulation by a third party. Diplomacy relies on the ability to leverage and manipulate the constraints of geopolitics, this is not the same as deception. It should not be surprising that a nation says one thing but acts in another.

For instance, the on-going saga in the Middle East between Iran and the West depends on high level, tremendously sensitive discussions. Because the Iranians are bargaining for indigenous nuclear energy (and perhaps nuclear weaponry), and the West needs unfettered access to Arabian fossil fuels, each side has much to lose should these talks leak. 

If they were made public, negotiating compromises might be revealed and critical respect for the leaders would diminish in their respective countries. Human lives would potentially even be lost and diplomacy thrown back months if not years.  

What the leakers and whistle-blowers generally do not realise is that secretive discussions occur constantly around the globe. The policy makers of the world dictate what they wish to happen, but the intelligence officers are the ones who make it happen.

This week, somewhere in Jakarta, Cairo, or Lima intelligence officers sit quietly discussing highly sensitive bilateral issues that will change the direction of their governments. 

The same is occurring in an anonymous Arab or European city, except the participants are intelligence officers from Iran and the U.S. or the U.K.

One day soon, far away from the ceremony of international conferences, a decision will be made or deal struck to decide the nuclear issue in the Persian Gulf. The exact details of this d├ętente will be unclear, but that is the way it should be.

If those full conversations were somehow leaked prematurely to the world, would it be useful information for the common citizen? It would be juicy international gossip but the crucial confidence in these important back-channels would dissipate. Such channels must remain open for governments to function, bringing them down under the misdirected name of government transparency would be folly.

The allure of a leak can often blur the act’s ethics. Usually it is the leaker’s personal ethics driving them to release the information. But leaking intelligence can sometimes be the unethical action. There are many times the leak does more harm to a constructive diplomatic process than it alleviates.

This is even the case for government-level leaks, those disclosed to the public in pre-prepared statements. Most incumbent administrations are guilty of using intelligence or secret diplomacy to further their own careers; it is a rare and delicate specimen indeed that refuses to use such insightful snippets for power.

Case in point, directly after the raid on al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound in 2011, United States President Barak Obama leaked the mission’s success in an official address to the world. While it is understandable that such a significant mission be considered immediately newsworthy by the White House, intelligence officials were stunned.

The amount of material recovered by the Special Forces team at bin Laden’s home could have led to the arrests of other al Qaeda members if bin Laden’s death had remained quiet for just a while longer. Using the confusion of bin Laden’s death to flush out other militants, or exposing other leads may have resulted in even larger intelligence hauls.

Also, an unprecedentedly thorough detailing of the extremely sensitive bin Laden mission was released to the public, so remarkably soon after the raid itself. The code name of the Special Forces group involved, the real unit name of the group, the tactics and mission plan, and even the equipment used was all released.

A new stealth-helicopter apparently in service with the U.S.  Military for a number of years but completely secret, was divulged by White House officials with careless candour. The crash of one helicopter at the mission site may have eventually led Washington into coming clean, but the secrecy of the helicopter, and therefore its ultimate usefulness, could have been maintained for much longer had it not been discussed.

Appreciatively, some crucial details were not released about the mission. Just how it was that the U.S. helicopters were made to disappear from Pakistani air-defence radars during the raid, even though the air controllers tracked them taking off from their bases in Afghanistan may thankfully never be known. 

Not all aspects of the raid were divulged but many critically sensitive details were, and there is a good chance it was done for political gain. In other words, personal gain.

Intelligence agencies and diplomats produce their product for whatever government is in power. There should never be a political motive to the intelligence gathering processes. A certain level of trust is needed for this relationship to thrive. 

That the consumer of intelligence will not abuse their position for political gain must be assumed for the channels to function properly. No singular government will ever be immune to temptation or human error, but a watchful eye is needed. After all, who will guard the guards themselves? Let it not be the whistle-blower.
Secrecy is important for a healthy government. 

And whistle-blowers are sometimes a healthy external calibration, keeping the people in charge honest. But sometimes, just occasionally, a leak does real harm to real people. It pays to remember that humans work in secret to make the world a better place far more regularly than those who wish to sow disorder. 

Those important and unnoticed diligent workers mostly deserve our recognition, not our scorn, for maintaining intelligence secrecy.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Expecting a smooth transition in Ethiopia after leader's death

The Ethiopian parliament is holding an emergency session to swear in Hailemariam Desalegn as the country's new prime minister following the death of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi earlier this week.

The government in Addis Ababa announced the death of 57 year-old Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on August 21. His ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has been in power since 1991. Zenawi’s death has been somewhat expected due to his poor health, although the illness itself has not yet been identified reports indicate he finally succumbed to complications resulting from infection.

Zenawi dismissed the idea that foreign aid was entirely effective in alleviating poverty and encouraged domestic industry instead. While Zenawi’s human rights legacy may not be as strong as his economic successes, his tenure is being mourned by thousands in the streets of Addis Ababa. Of these successes, Zenawi achieved a double-digit growth rate in 2006, an enormous milestone for any country, especially sub-Saharan. A close trading relationship with Chinese construction businesses and other industries opened Ethiopia up to a willing Asian investment market.

His successor, Desalegn, has had extensive foreign and internal government experience in Africa’s second most-populous country. Ethiopian officials are posted throughout rural Ethiopia without quick travel options into Addis Ababa, so post of Prime Minister may take some days to fully transition to Desalegn. A party election will ensure the final decision is ratified, but this may take some weeks. Desalegn is likely to make an uncomplicated entrance nonetheless.

Ethiopia is one of the most stable countries in East Africa. The reaction to Zenawi’s death inside the country has been measured, some would even say calm. As in many developing countries, the capital is the seat of power but the rest of the country is largely autonomous. The diverse ethnic landscape makes it difficult for any one ruling party to entirely represent the majority of Ethiopians; many simply recognise regional governors of tribal chiefs rather than central authority directly in Addis Ababa.

The altitude of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa offers brilliant clear blue skies for much of the year. The sun beats down but is not unbearable, as other sub-Saharan countries can be. Poverty is still present in the city but affluence and education is noticeable. Freedom of the press may not meet Western ideals, but many people own updated and current Facebook accounts. Africa considers the city to be the political capital of the continent and many international agencies and embassies are based there.

In fact the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa is one of the most heavily guarded facilities in the city, its perimeter walls jutting out rudely onto the street hundreds of meters from the building. After September 11, 2001, U.S. Embassies across the world were given extra protection. So although the omnipresent blue and white taxis can pass right outside the gates, any militant attack would struggle to do significant damage.

This imposing, fortified structure reflects the unique relationship between the United States and Ethiopia, one not replicated anywhere else in East Africa.

Since the collapse of the Communist regime Addis Ababa has worked closely with Washington. The United States backed Zenawi’s military interventions in Somalia and Ethiopia has agreed in turn to host U.S. drone aircraft in many of its airfields. It is the instability in Somalia, and the threat of spreading Islamic militancy, that binds the two countries together.

Interestingly, statistics suggest that Zenawi’s own ethnic group, the Tigray, make up roughly the same percentage in the country as Ethiopia’s present belligerents, the Somalis. The percentages hover around 6.5% each, minorities in any stretch of the imagination, but the difference between the two groups could not be starker.

Ethnic Somalis in Ethiopia are generally refugees. They come across the border into Ethiopia looking to escape the fighting ravaging the Horn of Africa. Taking up residence in Ethiopian cities, the Somalis generally gravitate to certain suburbs creating pockets of Somali-majority shanty towns.

It is not uncommon to hear ethnic Ethiopians speak disdainfully of such suburbs. They will suggest, as tourists, you do not travel through these areas due to high crime and cultural strains. Somali refugees are considered a dangerous warrior-race in Addis Ababa; Ethiopian citizens find it difficult to trust them and there are overt simmering tensions.

Indeed, the 2006 invasion into Somalia by the Ethiopian military was in a sense a move to address the instability in Somalia forcing thousands of refugees across the border. This operation was meant to eject the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) from Somalia, the precursor to the Islamic militant group al-Shabaab. The invasion has been followed up with various Ethiopian military forays into western Somalia in the years proceeding.  

Somalia has been an open wound for Ethiopia for many years. As al-Shabaab imposed a strict form of Sharia law onto south-eastern Somalia, attacks inside Somalia near the capital Mogadishu increased markedly and the group quickly seized more territory. However as the group conducted bombings against Ethiopian and Kenyan targets, and began sending militants further abroad, the African Union and the United Nations fast-tracked a military intervention known as African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Assisted by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the operations in Somalia in conjunction with Kenya, Uganda and other African countries has seen limited but sustained success. Recently chasing the militant group from their stronghold in the southern Somali city of Kismayo, AMISOM have been able to establish a working transitional government in Somalia that appears to be holding together.

This relative calm in Somalia leading up to Zenawi’s death is likely to ease the power transition in the next few weeks. His legacy will be controversial but the man himself will be missed, by his people and his international partners.

Ethiopia is fast becoming a critical diplomatic player and a responsible East African nation in a dangerously unpredictable region. Whether or not the Somali instability continues to boil, the new Ethiopian Prime Minister Desalegn will be entering an office well prepared by his predecessor to deal with both internal and external issues in the short to medium-terms.

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Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Egypt and Israel test historic Sinai treaty

The Israelis have lived with danger and threat for their entire existence. Depending on how far back their history is traced, talk of their existence could imply over half a century or even thousands of years. During that time Israel has come under attack almost constantly, by nation-states and stateless actors.

Israel has had to contend with these issues largely by itself and has developed an infamously thick-skin when it comes to international criticism. The steps Jerusalem takes in protecting its people are sometimes harsh and careless, but they are always swift and their retribution is complete. What can drag on over decades between other countries and involve huge national resources is completed, impressively, by a tiny state roughly double the size of New Zealand.

This last year has been a relatively peaceful period for Israel. During the so-called “Arab Spring”, many of its traditional enemies such as Egypt have been distracted by their own domestic politics, and have put aside their differences with Jerusalem for the time-being.

The United States, long a generous patron of Israel, has itself begun the natural process of shifting away from Jerusalem and is relying less on the state as a critical strategic ally in the region. Israel was an important ally for the U.S. during the Cold War as it was the only true democratic government in the Middle East and Levant.

To contain the Soviets and deny the deployment of Russian military hardware and energy extraction, Israel played a critical role for the West. Protection of Israel was in U.S. interests therefore military hardware and intelligence sharing became the norm. Israel was almost overrun on a few occasions by its Arab neighbours, so the economic and military assistance from Washington helped Israel ensure such an existential catastrophe could not happen in the future.

When the Berlin Wall fell, Israel began to lose its relevance for the United States. It has taken many years to see this play out, but as larger and more natural regional hegemons such as Turkey develop extremely quickly Washington is changing its focus away from Israel. The small state is now almost entirely self-sufficient and this current period of calm seems to be continuing.

Rockets have still been fired into Israel from the Palestinian territories and from Lebanon, but these crude weapons are not causing the same damage as in years past. Jerusalem has used the quiet regional situation to finish the development of an indigenous missile-defence shield named Iron Dome. This expensive system has already proven itself in distress by protecting Israeli cities from militant-launched Qassam rockets and other crude devices.

Because of the tranquillity Jerusalem has its eyes on the larger region. Israel has rarely had the opportunity to assess the region’s political trajectory without having to divide their attention at home. The political movements in Iran and their on-going nuclear program appear to be something of an obsession for Jerusalem.

Stories seem appear each month breathlessly hinting at the latest covert action undertaken against Tehran by Israeli intelligence. Scientists and military members from Iran become sudden victims of bombings or suspicious accidents, sometimes as far away as Europe and East Asia. The Palestinians and Lebanese militants have been unable to keep any momentum in striking Israel recently, perhaps because their regional Arab and Persian patrons are busy maintaining their interests elsewhere. Israel would like to keep it that way for as long as possible, but the calm in Israel’s near-abroad could be about to change.

Peace with Egypt, the most important of Israel’s neighbours, is critical for the survivability of the Jewish state. Whether Israel perpetuates or perishes depends in a large part on Egypt. Since Mubarak was ousted in what can most closely be described as a military coup, the country has fluctuated between chaos and a tentative, democratic stability. The military regime, of which Mubarak was host, managed skilfully to retain much of their power but the democratically elected Egyptian government is increasing its grip on Cairo.

Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) electoral candidate and eventual winner of the June elections, made it clear that he intended to honour the treaties with Israel when he took office. As odious as the Mubarak leadership may have been, the Israelis knew they could trust him to uphold such treaties as the 1978 Camp David Accords. Both countries relied on a binding non-aggression pact for peace, although Egypt would benefit more today from such a treaty than would a more militarily robust and technologically advanced Israel.

However, the turmoil in Egypt through 2011 and 2012 did worry Jerusalem. Mubarak was a known entity, he was predictable and Israel knew what strings it needed to tug in any discussions. The Muslim Brotherhood of 2011 offered less room for forecasting. The MB had a poor reputation for both militancy and radical Islamism, a volatile mix that has plagued the region for many years. Their political wing was untested and Jerusalem became increasingly nervous as it was clear this group would win the Egyptian elections. A large section of Egypt has been unhappy with the current agreements between Cairo and Jerusalem for many years, and they’re vote went largely to the MB in June.

Morsi initially allayed Israeli fears of a destabilisation in Egypt-Israel affairs because he did not inherit a clear supreme control from the military regime. This is how the military skilfully designed the new government to be, Morsi’s power was diluted and a fresh constitution not completed yet will likely reflect this.

But in a remarkable power play August 14, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi ordered five top members of the Egyptian military to resign while announcing the abrogation of procedures by the military to restrict his power. Currently the Egyptian military has not opposed Morsi’s moves, which were in part a response to the military’s failures around the recent killings of 16 Egyptian soldiers during terrorist violence in the Sinai Peninsula on August 5. Morsi's actions to gain greater power from the military probably surpass his legal authority, and the Egyptian Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) probably had control over the dismissals anyway. 

As the MB moves to gain greater political control in Cairo, Morsi is turning his sights on Israel and the Sinai, overtly suggesting August 13 that he will revise the 1978 Camp David accords. This treaty presently makes it illegal for Egypt to position certain troop concentrations on the Sinai Peninsula especially within 30 kilometres of Israel. As a strategic buffer offering valuable time and early warning for each nation, the Sinai Peninsula has been effectively off-limits for decades. Reviewing the accords would certainly help Morsi and the MB at home, but would strain the Egypt-Israel relationship.

If Egypt is going to deal with an increase in militancy in the Sinai Peninsula then it will need to position larger concentrations of troops there. Currently it is unable to do this with the present structure of the Camp David accords. During 2011 Egyptian military equipment was allowed into the Sinai buffer zone, but the necessary amounts for control are not present. Morsi needs to discuss treaty changes with Israel if the Peninsula is to be cleaned up. Such a discussion, if undertaken by Morsi, will offer him significant leverage over the military junta but both the SCAF and Egyptian presidency must work together.

Egypt badly needs to kick-start its economy following the very disruptive demonstrations. It has dropped almost 22 billion dollars of foreign reserves since before 2011, gaining only a fraction of this back with donations from some Gulf States. Cairo has relied on U.S. financial aid to survive (a central part of the Camp David accords) and Morsi’s plan to revise the Camp David accords is probably aiming to entice Washington to restart that flow of aid once more.

The MB is trying to attain more control over Cairo by dealing with Israel and the United States directly, sidestepping the military council (SCAF). But there are deeper reasons for Morsi’s plans with the accord. The Egyptian populace have felt the treaty was against their interests from the start. As sensitive as the issue of nullifying the military’s tight grip on power might be, the inequality Egyptians feel compared with Israel stings more. Regaining sovereign control over the Sinai would be a huge boost to both Morsi’s ratings and to ordinary Egyptians.

It’s unlikely the MB wish to cancel the treaty altogether, doing so would raise tensions with Israel unnecessarily in a sensitive government transition period. But the Sinai issue is treated as strategic for both Israel and Egypt alike, so this will catch the attention of leaders in Jerusalem. The two countries are facing an uncertain decade ahead where many geopolitical fractures will occur, some occurring already. Even though more Egyptian troops in the Sinai may not immediately threaten Israel, and they might just solve the shared Egyptian-Israeli problem of militancy in the Sinai, it could set a dangerous precedence of free military movement on the peninsula once again.

The Muslim Brotherhood will use the Sinai as a three-way lever. It will draw Washington back into aid donations, challenge the military’s rule on foreign affairs and create an affirmative climate for the MB amongst their constituency. It could be that the democratically elected government in Cairo is dangerously awakening sleeping Sinai dogs, but their political manoeuvring is untested as yet and could well prove competent and ultimately benign.  Israel, jumpy as it might be, will watch Morsi’s movements closely even if he is on a short leash.

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Tuesday, 14 August 2012

High-level defections in Syria add to already deep tensions

Syrian President Bashar al Assad's government welcomes discussions with Syrian opposition groups, Syrian Ambassador to Iran Hamed Hassan said August 13. Discussion, as always, is a good thing, but the Syrian leader is not willingly choosing to enter into talks. Events are forcing al Assad to consider his future and that of his country. A future he may not a part of.

Meanwhile in Turkey, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Turkish officials and opponents of al Assad in Istanbul on August 11 to discuss options and a closure to the internecine fighting in Syria.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Syrian President Bashar al Assad will probably not make it through his country’s unrest unscathed. Not only has the fighting extended to over a year without resolution, al Assad’s generals and supporters appear to believe their interests might be better served apart from him.

Some, like Brigadier General Nasr Mustafa, prefer to abandon ship by directly leaping into the adjacent vessel. On August 2, Mustafa announced his defection to the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA is the simple acronym used, somewhat confusingly, to describe the disparate and belligerent Syrian rebel groups.

Mustafa’s defection is significant, because he is an Alawite. Mustafa’s decision to defect hints at al Assad’s quickening loss of control over his core Alawite kin. As a critical element to his power, al Assad has needed to fortify the Alawite community behind him. Being part of a minority, as the Alawites are, is a serious weak-point in most governments and one al Assad is determined not to break. Losing a heavy figure such as Mustafa may encourage other Alawites to defect, although only a few have done so at this point.

But other high-level defections among other ethnic groups are putting more pressure on the incumbent regime. The Tlass family was the most important Sunni regime loyalist to leave al Assad before Mustafa. Turkish officials are treating the Tlass family respectfully, indicating the family still has clout in the region. In discussions around whom or what will replace al Assad, Manaf Tlass will be high on the list of candidates.

So each passing week without resolution brings al Assad closer to doom. Not because of any self-imagined invulnerability of the rebellion, but because the mounting distrust within his cabinet in Damascus will overflow. The Syrian regime doesn’t depend strictly on al Assad as a figurehead; many others in the government are just as important. However, the fall of al Assad would do measurable harm to the continuity of his Baath Party regime.

Despite all this internal tension, the regime troops continue to fight the opposition throughout the country. Aleppo, Syria’s largest city has been ground-zero for a large troop deployment over the past week. Since the battle began on July 19, rebels have held some neighbourhoods securely and retreating from others. Losses on both sides are surely mounting as artillery fires and armour rolls in, but neither seems to be gaining the upper hand. Indeed, the logistics of both sides are straining and fresh supplies into the city could be drying up.

Al Assad’s troops have been drawn from other towns inside Syria to attend the surge against rebel-controlled Aleppo. This strategy has lowered security in other sectors and could result in the amorphous opposition quietly spreading back in. Having removed these fighters before, the Syrian military would again find these towns occupied.

This latest siege on Aleppo also brings foreign intervention into question again. The United States said August 13 that it has detected an increase in Syrian regime air attacks on opposition elements. The White House and the Pentagon appeared undecided on the potential imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria. Pentagon spokesman George Little said there has been an increase in air attacks perpetrated by the Syrian regime on its own people, but he did not comment on the possibility of establishing a no-fly zone. Officials in the White House said the current path of economic sanctions and international pressure leveraged against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad is the "right course."

Some foreign reports (veracity not guaranteed) indicate the FSA may have acquired heavy weapons including surface-to-air missiles and anti-tank munitions. If this is true then it would go some way in explaining the stalemate in Aleppo and lend some credence to a recent FSA claim of shooting down a Syrian MiG fighter. Regardless of whether the opposition is deploying new weapon systems, the limited size of the rebellion and their lack of tactical knowledge is limiting their ability to bring defeat to al Assad.

The Syrian regime considers Aleppo to be of extreme importance. Both as a strategic asset and a psychological milestone, the loss or retention of Aleppo will be a turning point for the regime. The repositioning of troops and concentration of firepower in and around the city are leaving vulnerable critical supply routes in the West and South. Many ambushes have occurred as these troops move towards Aleppo.

The Syrian military do appear to be willing to continue the fight for now, but their ambition and motivation may be dimming. It must be difficult to fire on your own countrymen, yet they have managed to do just that for the past 12 months or more. Yet at the rate that Syrian generals and regime supporters defect troop morale is in jeopardy of failing. The longer the fighting continues and the more discredited al Assad becomes the less the troops will want to fire their weapons.

Al Assad showed strength by downing two Turkish reconnaissance jets last month and pushing out a concerted attack on Damascus. He has demonstrated that the Syrian army can deploy wherever it wishes without impediment and lay siege to whichever town it pleases with impunity. He has also received on-going implicit, and in some cases explicit, support from both his Iranian patrons and their Lebanese proxies Hezbollah.

Yet not being able to quell the rebellion in the early or even middle stages, al Assad has displayed he cannot win this struggle through violence.

The generals around al Assad realise this and are making plans for a post-al Assad reality. It will come soon and given the retributive history of Syria and the Levant, it would be wise to ensure one is on the winning side. These generals are currently happy to associate themselves with al Assad’s regime, so long as it is winning. But as is expected from positions of power, no loyalty is forever binding.

Given the recent bombing that killed top regime members and the recent defections of Alawite loyalists al Assad will be quietly questioning which amongst his supporters are trustworthy. It is common for a regime to collapse internally long before any outside pressure could achieve it. Indeed if the external threats continue to simmer in the countryside without resolution then those too impatient or those already contemplating defection will play their hand.

The Syrian regime now faces its greatest test. No longer does the rebellion unite the regime members in nationalistic pride. Kofi Annan, the United Nations consul to Syria, suggested to a mostly receptive international community before departing the country that an amalgamation between FSA and regime supporters would be prudent. The solution, Annan said, was not in one side finding victory over the other, but in moving into the future together.  

Al Assad may still have a role to play in the end, but his options are limited. He may find a country willing to grant asylum or one to escape the long arm of the International Criminal Court (ICC). But a man cornered is a vicious prospect. The ICC has many benefits, but it does not encourage a government head accused of crimes against humanity to turn himself in. Perhaps al Assad will escape to northern Lebanon where his Alawite sect largely resides, although it is doubtful such a final measure would save him from an incensed, and by then victorious, new Syrian government.

The crisis in Syria is creating an unstable environment for al Assad and his supporters. However the fighting in Aleppo ends, it will have a lasting effect on the durability of the regime as elite members of the Syrian intelligence community and top-level military defections continue.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

UPDATE: Propaganda and truth in Syria

There is a pattern connecting most reporting on the conflict in Syria. A sharp picture is painted of a despotic regime attacking its own people out of capricious, violent self-preservation. We are told the Syrian opposition are fighting for their freedom, to be free of a hated tyrant and to usher in a new democratic government that promises greater human rights for Syria.

One might disagree with Syrian President Basher al Assad’s actions this past year, but it becomes more difficult by the day to discern a clear “good” side from a “bad” side in this horrible internecine conflict. Curiously, the media insists on portraying all of the Syrian regime’s violence as simply human rights atrocities, instead of as authority clamping down on terrorists and revolutionaries.

Consider how any government would respond to an armed insurrection. These rebel groups have trudged throughout a sovereign nation-state for over 12 months, stagnating the industrial sector and absorbing government attention. Explosions have ripped apart top Syrian leaders, while widespread fighting causes hundreds of deaths each month.

The Syrian regime, as an independent secular state, considers itself authorised to do whatever is necessary to end the insurrection. If one includes the covert (but now barely veiled) assistance from foreign powers helping the Opposition then the Syrian regime understandably feels greater justification for aggressive action.

Yet if this is the case, and it is hard to tell exactly what is going on, then how do the Western powers justify supporting the Syrian rebellion? Surely if armed groups rise up in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia (as happened in 2011 and early 2012) driving those regimes to brutally clamp down killing hundreds, then for consistencies sake, Western intelligence should move against them.

But they didn’t, and geopolitics explains why. There is a greater game being played in the region in which Syria is a proxy battleground. To justify toppling the al Assad regime, an enormous propaganda machine emphasises and embellishes any terrible story emerging from the Syrian conflict zone.

And as the discerning international public consume their media an ever-worsening presentation of Syrian horror is displayed. Al Assad is portrayed as a growing monster, a powerful despot with no regard for human rights. He might be, but the reporting from Syria doesn’t necessarily support this hypothesis.

The focus seems to be on the imminent collapse of the al Assad regime. The rebels, say all the papers, have struck “significant blows” to the regime and are “gathering momentum”. With rebels pouring out of dark alleyways to visit death upon dwindling regime figures, al Assad is surely grasping at legitimacy as power falls away from him.

Indeed it was Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmed Davutoglu who proclaimed recently that no-one believes Syrian President Bashar al Assad will keep his position. Davutoglu and other regional leaders are already preparing for a post-al Assad reality. Who that might be is as yet unknown, but even the Syrian Opposition cannot agree on a rightful successor. And if they cannot agree, then a smooth transition is out of the question.

International leaders announce weekly that Opposition fighters are quickly overwhelming Syrian government forces and closing off strategic routes. And yet, Damascus was able to position thousands of troops, drive tons of armour and fly squadrons of aircraft towards Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, a few days ago. Fighting is now isolated to some neighbourhoods of Aleppo.

Such a deployment requires a long, but direct route north through western Syria. Bringing the troops close to Homs, Hama, and Rastan (three towns that have seen heavy fighting between rebels and government forces over the past year) should have been near impossible. Such a route would surely be overrun by Opposition forces. Yet the Syrian troops managed to move past these towns with ease and launch a siege on Aleppo within hours. Clearly something is not quite right with reporting from Syria.

Of course, for many months the international media has been denied official access to Syria. They instead have to rely on snippets of camera-phone videos smuggled from Syria. When replaying these videos, the viewer is reminded that they cannot be independently verified. This is obvious, but exactly how the media justify replaying them without verification of sources is a mystery.

Videos of vicious artillery shelling and helicopter gunship strafing understandably cause international uproar. It is said al Assad has clearly lost control of his nation, using Syrian troops as death-squads instead of soldiers. Footage of massacres where children were targeted by government artillery has emerged supposedly showing how monstrous the al Assad regime really is.  

Yet only recently, alongside Arab League observers has the international media gained any real access to Syria. Inside they are finding the situation less gratuitous. The wanton destruction and wholesale murder by al Assad’s troops is not happening as expected.

Indeed, it appears many of the ‘massacres’ may not have occurred as first described. Closer inspection in Houla reveals people killed, not by artillery shelling as first explained, but by close-range small-arms fire. Reports suggest Opposition members may have committed the atrocities. Government troops may not be guilty for the massacre in Houla after all. Although it is unlikely we will ever know for sure.

Yet the propaganda depicting al Assad as a monster was released into the world’s consciousness, and the damage was done.  No one will now remember a correction of these stories, even if the New York Times issues one.

Western powers do have a strategic goal in supporting the Opposition. Removing al Assad undermines a growing Iranian hegemony in the region. To spread the idea of al Assad’s immanent collapse, Western intelligence agencies are cleverly seeding the world’s media with half-truths and exaggerated stories, alongside legitimate stories.

So if the Syrian leader is as critically threatened as the media says, why does he still maintain complete control over his armed forces? Why was he able to drive rebels out of Damascus and launch a siege on Aleppo? How then is the Syrian government still functioning, even sending regime officials abroad to attend meetings in Iraq?

Al Assad is moving quickly and violently to stamp out the insurrection. No country would find this policy alien. China uses force, Israel uses force, Thailand uses force, and even the United States during their civil war and in Iraq used force. An armed insurrection must be broken early and hard, otherwise more people die the longer it drags on.

Not every explosion captured on video is a nasty attack from Syrian government forces. Of course, horrible things are done by both sides in war, regardless of who occupies the “good” side. War is never fought by perfect angels; there is always carnage and stray bullets. Truth is the first casualty in war and Syria is not different.

If Syria can teach us one thing, it is that the more complex a conflict the greater the responsibility of news agencies to verify their sources and separate fact from fiction without recourse to sensationalism. If they fail to do this, journalists become the mouthpieces for external powers by broadcasting the conflict as propaganda would have it reported rather than how it really is.

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