'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Sunday, 26 February 2012

James Clapper and the Syrian power vacuum

It's been an interesting couple of weeks for the Arab Spring.

"And the award for best supporting role goes to": James Clapper flanked by Robert Mueller and David Petraeus, 31 January, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, told Congress' Senate Armed Services Committee that al-Qaeda in Iraq could infilitrate the power vacuum in Syria should the Assad regime fall. That, said Clapper, could give AQI access to Syrian WMD stockpiles - known to be at least chemical weapons. That raises quite a security concern for the US as it one again joins AQ to the WMD threat, which has proved resilient and enduring in the American national psyche. After all, it was Saddam and his "links" to AQ, and Saddam's "WMD stockpile" that prompted the 2003 invasion. Before that of course, AQI didn't exist - now it is a well-trained though fractured terrorist entity. Clapper's statement covered old ground and was near identical a statement he gave six days earlier. The Syria comments were in the questioning that came after the statement:

Senator Webb:
[...] We had General Dempsey up here 2 days ago. I asked him a
question about the nature of the opposition in Syria, the question
going not to what the Assad regime would be capable of doing
which, by the way, Director, I thought you laid out in very understandable
specifics, but really what is on the other side of the picket
line. Who are they? How much of this is domestic? How much
of it is foreign? What is the regional dynamic?
And he made one comment. I am going to give you a partial
quote. He said, Syria is a much different situation than we collectively
saw in Libya. It presents a very different challenge in which
we also know that other regional actors are providing support as
a part of a Sunni majority rebelling against an oppressive regime.
We all know this. I think you made some comments about this as
I asked him about the reports in the media last week that al
Qaeda was involved in some of the assassination attempts in Syria.
He would not reject it out of hand. He said he did not know [...]

Director CLAPPER. Let me take a stab at that and then I will ask
General Burgess to amplify or correct, as the case may be.
As I indicated earlier, the opposition is very fractionated. There
is not a national movement even though there is a title of the Syrian
National Council, but a lot of that is from external, exiles and
the like. But there is not a unitary, connected opposition force. It
is very local. It is on a community-by-community basis. In fact, in
some communities, the opposition is actually providing municipal
services as though it is running the community and trying to defend
itself against attacks from the Syrian regime-controlled military.
The Free Syrian Army, which is kind of a blanket, generic name
that is sort of applied to the collection of oppositionists, is itself not
unified. There is an internal feud about who is going to lead it.
Complicating this, as you implied, of course, are sort of the
neighborhood dynamics. The Iranians are very, very concerned
about propping up Assad. So they have sent help in terms of trainers,
advisors, and equipment, mostly riot suppression equipment,
that sort of thing.
AQ. Another disturbing phenomenon that we have seen recently
apparently is the presence of extremists who have infiltrated the
opposition groups. The opposition groups, in many cases, may not
be aware they are there.
We have had the two attacks that you alluded to, the two bombings
in Damascus in December I think it was and then the two additional
bombings in Aleppo, both of which were targeted against
security and intelligence buildings and had all the earmarks of an
al Qaeda-like attack. And so we believe that al Qaeda in Iraq is
extending its reach into Syria.
Complicating all this is—this is another contrast with Libya
where we had one or two or three sites that had chemical warfare
components. It is a much more complex issue in Syria which has
an extensive network of such installations, although to this point—
and we are watching these very carefully—they appear to be secure.
So many complexities here involving the opposition which I am
sure will affect any discussion about coming to some assistance [...]

Clapper has predicted the end of the Assad regime and has given a substantial statement before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, in which he argued that AQ were still potent mainly through regional affiliates (Clapper named AQIM and the Shabaab) were growing in reach and stature:

"Absent more effective and sustained activities to disrupt them, some regional affiliates—particularly al-Qa‟ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Shabaab in Somalia—probably will grow stronger. The result may be that regional affiliates conducting most of the terrorist attacks and multiple voices will provide inspiration for the global jihadist movement.
These regional affiliates will continue to focus on local agendas, but also will pursue international terrorist attacks.

Adding to the chord, Leon Panetta, Defense Secretary observed that the AQ spectre made the Syria situation that much more important for America.

The spectre of AQI in Syria demonstrates the fluid nature of the allegiances of non-state actors in the region. At the height of the Iraq conflict, Syria (the Assad regime) was criticised for allowing in foreign fighters to the Iraq theatre. Of course, as Thomas Hegghammer has observed (International Security, Winter 2010/2011), few foreign fighters are affiliated to AQ, though of course AQ leaders want us to believe the affiliated numbers are larger. But AQ and Syria were not in conflict - now the US authorities would have us believe AQI is fighting against the Assad regime.

So why is the tide turning against Assad? Popular discontent is a powerful potion. Hamas have now publicly disclaimed Assad and sided with the rebels. In the light of continuing human rights abuses, Russia and China may feel increasing pressure, if not to act then at least be passive. But the US will consider a power vacuum or an unknown quantity assuming power, or Clapper's "fractionated" power landscape as probably less attractive alternatives to the strongman control of Assad. Better the devil you know. Egypt isn't a particularly pleasant experience for Americans currently. Certainly, there are no pro-American sentiments espoused in Homs nor a particular push for democracy - just a rebellion against continual oppression. It's something that would resonate with us all.

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