Saturday 26 January 2013

A cacophony of sound bites pounds Syria

Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki al-Faisal yesterday called for Syrian rebels to be given anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to “level the playing field” in their fight to remove President Bashar al-Assad.
“I’m not in government so I don’t have to be diplomatic. I assume we’re sending weapons and if we were not sending weapons it would be a terrible mistake on our part,” he said in a televised debate at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
Prince Turki, co-founder of the King Faisal Foundation and board chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, is the son of the late King Faisal and brother of the kingdom’s foreign minister. He studied at Princeton, Cambridge and Georgetown universities before serving in succession over the years as adviser to royal court, intelligence chief, ambassador to the UK and Ireland, and finally ambassador to the United States.
“You have to level the playing field. Most of the weapons the rebels have come from captured Syrian stocks and defectors bringing their weapons,” he said.
“What is needed are sophisticated, high-level weapons that can bring down planes, can take out tanks at a distance. This is not getting through.”
But Prince Turki said foreign powers should have enough information on the many rebel brigades to ensure weapons only reached non-extremist groups.
Extremists are flowing into Syria from North Africa, Europe and other regions to fight with opposition forces, he said.
“Stop the killing and you won’t have these terrorists, they won’t have any place to go in Syria,” the Saudi prince said. Their presence was predicted from day one in the event of a prolonged crisis. The answer is to channel funds to “the good guys” among the opposition.
"You can select the good guys and give them these means and build their credibility," he said. "Now they don't have the means, and the extremists have the means and are getting the prestige."
“Sixty thousand people have been killed already,” Prince Turki said. “Do we have to wait for double or triple that number to die before Assad leaves?”
Pressed on the thorny issue whether the opposition’s allies are sending weapons into Syria, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said: “The Turkish people have helped the refugees with their humanitarian needs and also the Syrian people to defend themselves by the best means… The Syrian people know what we are doing, how we are helping.”
Panelists agreed there must be a political solution in Syria.
Syria has become a “proxy war” with different countries trying to defend or impose their own interests, said Ghassan Salamé, Dean of The Paris School of International Affairs. Any solution could take many years unless one of two things happens, he said. Either one side must prevail militarily, or a political solution must be imposed on the various players from outside. “I don’t see another way out of this,” he said.
“Europeans, Arabs, Chinese, Russians: we’re all committing a crime by watching people in Syria die,” Salamé said, warning the worst was yet to come if the battle for Damascus begins in earnest. That is likely to be devastating and send many thousands more refugees into Lebanon and Jordan.
Jordan’s Abdullah
Also speaking yesterday in Davos during a panel appearance with CNN's Fareed Zakaria, Jordan’s King Abdullah warned, “Anyone who says that Bashar’s regime has got weeks to live really doesn't know the reality on the ground."
“They still have capability. ... So (I expect) a strong showing for at least the first half of 2013,” he said.
Nonetheless, fears are growing Syria may implode as the protracted conflict gets nastier.
Any fragmentation of the country into small states would be “catastrophic and something that we would be reeling from for decades to come,” Abdullah said.
He also warned of the threat of foreign jihadist fighters now in Syria.
Al-Qaeda has been established there for the past year and is getting support “from certain quarters,” the king said.
“They are a force to contend with, so even if we got the best government into Damascus tomorrow, we have at least two or three years of securing our borders from them coming across and to clean them up,” he said.
Comparing the militant threat with that seen in Afghanistan, Abdullah said: "The new Taliban we are going to have to deal with will be in Syria.”
Abdullah appealed for greater international help for more than 300,000 Syrian refugees who have already fled over the border into Jordan and are suffering in the grip of a cruel winter.
He also urged the stockpiling of humanitarian supplies that could be taken across Syria's borders, to try to keep people from leaving -- and to win hearts and minds.
“If these people start to starve and they don't have fuel and electricity and water, and hospitals are not running, that's when radicalization comes in and take advantage,” the king said.
Henry Kissinger
Richard Nixon, Hafez Assad and Henry Kissinger (
Also touching on Syria in his wide-ranging address to business leaders at the Forum in Davos earlier on Thursday was the Nixon Administration’s secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who brokered the Syria-Israel disengagement agreement with Bashar’s father Hafez Assad in March 1974.
Kissinger called on Washington and Moscow to work together to solve the Syria crisis.
He counseled “an American-Russian understanding as a first step towards defining what the objective is,” adding: “The Syrian problem would best be dealt with internationally by Russia and America not making it a contest of national interest.”
The Syrian conflict, initially seen as a fight of democracy against dictatorship, has transformed into a conflict between various ethnic groups, leaving the international community with a dilemma. “The outside world finds that if it intervenes militarily, it will be in the middle of a vast ethnic conflict; and if it doesn’t intervene militarily, it will be caught in a humanitarian tragedy,” said Kissinger.
While a number of outcomes are possible –- Assad staying in office, a total “Sunnite” victory, or an emergence of a loose federation of various ethnic groups –- what is clear is that “the more the outside world competes, the worse it gets,” he said.
John Kerry
John Kerry, the incoming secretary of state who met several times over the years with Bashar, did not mention Syria in his opening statement at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday.
But when pressed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., about getting more directly involved in helping the Syrian rebels, Kerry said he needs time to understand the situation better.
McCain, part of a bipartisan group of senators which just got back from a trip to the Middle East and visited Syrian refugees camps, told Kerry they feel “an anger and frustration” and believe the United States is indifferent to their suffering.
One Syrian teacher told McCain and the other senators, “This next generation of children will take revenge on those that did not help them.”
McCain added, “We are sowing the wind in Syria and we are going to reap the whirlwind.”
He said, “We can do a lot more, without putting boots on the ground” – such as a no-fly zone – and he complained that “all I get, frankly, from the (Obama) administration is the fall of Assad is, quote, ‘inevitable.’ I agree, but what about what happens in the meantime?”
Another member of the delegation that toured the Middle East, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., complained to Kerry that U.S. humanitarian aid intended for Syrian refugees “has not reached the people on the ground.”
Kerry and McCain at the confirmation hearing
In response to both Coons and McCain, Kerry said “if you have a complete implosion of the state” in Syria after Assad’s fall, it would greatly increase the risk that Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal would fall into the wrong hands.
Asked about the personal bond he once had with Assad, Kerry said there was a moment where Syria reached out to the West but that the moment has long passed.
“Sometimes there are moments where you may be able to get something done in foreign policy, and if the moment somehow doesn’t ripen correctly or get seized, you miss major opportunities,” he said.
"History caught up to us. That never happened. And it's now moot, because he (Assad) has made a set of judgments that are inexcusable, that are reprehensible, and I think is not long for remaining as the head of state in Syria," the senator said. "I think the time is ticking."
Kerry also said: “We need to change Bashar Assad’s calculation. Right now President Assad doesn’t think he’s losing -- and the opposition thinks it is winning.”
Kerry said the goal of U.S. policy is a peaceful transition to a new government.
He said he hoped to confer with the Russians and with others and “increase the readiness of President Assad to see that the die is cast, the handwriting is on the wall….”
“I don’t want inquisitiveness or curiosity about what possibilities might exist with the Russians to be translated into optimism. I don’t have optimism. I have hope,” the senator said.
Coons told Kerry, “We frankly face a very narrow window to make a difference on the ground in support of the opposition.”  
“I get it,” Kerry answered, but he said he was worried about who would control the country if Assad were forced out of power.
Laurent Fabius
In Paris, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in his annual New Year's address to the press there was no sign the Syria war was going to end anytime soon, in contrast to his prediction last month that the end was near for Assad.
"Things are not moving. The solution we had hoped for, and by that I mean the fall of Bashar and the arrival of the [opposition’s National] Coalition to power, has not happened," he said.
France was the first to recognize the Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
Fabius told RFI radio in December "the end is nearing" for Assad. On Thursday, he said international mediation and discussions about the crisis were not getting anywhere.
"There are no recent positive signs," he said.
He said National Coalition leaders and representatives of some 50 nations and organizations would meet in Paris on Monday to discuss how to fulfill previous commitments. He did not elaborate.