Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 23, 2012

Seeing Syria

Filed under: International HLS,Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on February 23, 2012

Screenshot of inteview with a reporter in Homs who has since been killed

Today both the New York Times and USA Today give above-the-fold attention to Syria:

Ghastly Images Flow From Shattered Syrian City (New York Times)

Activists ensure that the world sees Syria’s bloodbath (USA Today)

Each newspaper is also running related stories.

This week, for the first time, I perceive American media is beginning to give the situation in Syria the attention it deserves.  If and how this might influence American public opinion and policy is yet to be seen.

Beginning last May I have made regular references to Syria in this blog.  At first I was restrained.  This is a homeland security blog, after all. Since September I have been less and less restrained.  For the last few weeks I have been preachy and insistent.  Some have complained.

Last week Arnold Bogis asked the obvious question, “What would you have the U.S. do?” (See last two comments in the linked chain for his question and my answer.) A short version of my answer:  We should at least pay attention.  We dare not fail-to-notice the murder of thousands.

Finally our media has begun to notice.  As a result, I will again adopt a more restrained approach to referencing Syria at HLSWatch.

Arnold did not follow-up on my answer, but he could have — quite fairly — asked again, “But what would you have us do?”

I do not have an adequate response.  Some self-righteous bluster would, probably, make me feel better.   But that would help no one else, certainly not those being bombarded in Homs.

It is helpful that more will now see what is happening.  I hope wiser, perhaps braver men and women will find an effective way to really help.

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Comment by Philip J. Palin

February 23, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

Just in case, two more substantive links — hard to break the habit, I guess:

Earlier today the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights released a 72 page report on the situation in Syria.

Tomorrow will be the first meeting of the Friends of Syria, an international effort to find a solution. The meeting will be held in Tunisia. There should be plenty of attention in the main stream media, if you look.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

February 24, 2012 @ 12:41 am

To be clear, I would like to point out that my comment was in response to your particular framing of the issue:
“To be explicit: I consider this a homeland security story because the Syrian situation is a hot house for potential radicalization.

If it can be credibly argued (or just persuasively positioned) that the United States was passive in the face of Syrians being slaughtered, our own risk is increased. We will be perceived — again — as enablers (or worse) of mass murder.”

My “what would you have the U.S. do” query was premised on this concern about radicalization. How does one make the case that we’re “concerned?” Especially to the degree that those potentially susceptible to radicalization will perceive that we cared just enough not to be angry with us?

That is a fuzzy line compared to the narrative that is likely to emerge following any sort of armed intervention.

Divorced from the issue of fanning the radicalization fire, I still don’t know what we should do in terms of the Syrian situation. But GWU professor and Middle East expert Marc Lynch has a few ideas:

Comment by Arnold Bogis

February 24, 2012 @ 12:50 am

The question of attention and concern is also not straightforward in my view. We are past the era of three network news shows, a few national “papers of record,” along with a robust number of local news sources. Instead, we have cable news (likely to be not heavily reporting on the situation in Syria, but to be honest I don’t watch much), plus too numerous to catalog online sources and blogs.

Perhaps because of the methods I choose to enlighten myself about the news of the day, I have not lacked for coverage or analysis of unfolding events in Syria. It may not be pushed into every living room and pounded home until it becomes water cooler talk, but the information is readily available for those with an international outlook.

An even trickier question: why is Syria more important than Sudan? Or ________ [insert horrible situation here]? What events deserve our attention more than others and who is to judge? And is our attention span and focus now any different than in past eras?

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 24, 2012 @ 1:51 am

I would recommend the US stick to multilateral organizational solutions in Syria! Why? Overall the dynamics of MENA [middle east and N. Africa] are beyond the key of the USA foreign policy elite due to lack of past interest, knowledge of cultural issues, religions, and languages. The US is capable one area of the time in focusing its efforts. My focus would be on South and East Asia where right now Japan continues to collapse, Taiwan policy is uncertain, N. Korea regime change is destabilizing, and China itself continues to have signs of huge internal stresses. YUP! Academics and government specialists just don’t have the horsepower to understand current complexities on the international scene. Iraq and Afghanistan should be our priorities given past efforts. Iran will be a huge issue but only after the fall elections.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

February 24, 2012 @ 5:45 am

Arnold, I watch cable in the morning while exercising and I “pull” on cable sources via a custom-generated news feed. In my judgment until this week US coverage of Syria has been spotty and insufficient… especially in comparison with European coverage.

Certainly non-mainstream (or non-US mainstream) sources are easily available. But the big three networks and their cable cousins and a few major newspapers continue to frame much of the water cooler agenda… and I am of the opinion Syria deserves a shot at that agenda.

I agree that choosing which calamity is tricky and it would be impossible for any of us to give “sufficient” attention to all. (This is a big part of Bill’s comment.) I am self-aware my own attention to Syria is, in part, motivated by a personal failure to give enough attention to Somalia… when more attention might have mattered. In these kinds of things, early is much better than later.

In terms of why Syria and not another: in my judgment this is the top-flight calamity most likely for direct blow-back on the United States. So… after all my seeming sympathy I am being self-interested.

I don’t disagree with Marc Lynch. A military response is not, by any means, our only option. Nor is government action the only US response available. Whether or not what Lynch recommends is enough to mitigate radicalization, it at least avoids the moral and practical hazard of ignorant disregard.

Perhaps to this last point, on Wednesday I was flying from Los Angeles to Miami. Next to me were two men reading Al Watan — an LA based Arabic newspaper and speaking to each other in a language I did not recognize. It might well have been a form of Arabic I have not heard before.

The older man at the window fell asleep. The younger man in the middle seat was clearly in some distress (might have been the middle seat), sighing deeply and occasionally muttering to himself. Somewhere over Texas (probably) the man in the middle began a conversation with me. Mostly I wanted to finish some tasks, but I was polite. Longer story short, at his initiative we spoke briefly about what was happening in Syria. He was not anymore decisive than me. He fell asleep. I returned to work.

As we were standing in the aisle waiting to disembark in Miami he turned and said, very tentatively, something like, “Thank you. Sometimes being an Arab in America can seem lonely. It helps to know others are paying attention.”

Comment by Philip J. Palin

February 24, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

Would a redux of Operations Vittles — the Berlin Airlift — be a potentially constructive step the “Friends of Syria” (or even private parties) might take to support the residents of Homs and other Syrian cities? As I understand it, in 1948 the decision to focus on a purely humanitarian operation was undertaken while recognizing the potential for a Soviet military response. Clearly there are important differences between landing at Templehof and parachuting supplies into a city under active bombardment. But what impresses me is how in the face of significant risk, a brilliant political and logistical effort was conducted on short notice. Can we imagine a similarly creative step? Can we find the will to take the risk?

Can drones deliver supplies?

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 24, 2012 @ 8:47 pm

Apparently there are WMD in Syria!

Comment by The Doomsayer

February 24, 2012 @ 11:24 pm

Get out of the Middle East…now! Let the Germans handle this and the Europeans – Get out now! The dysfunctional and generational stone wall disputes are no place for a financially bankrupt US and void of any Winston Churchill leadership.

Get out now! Cuit the spending and support of this decades long – charade – get immigration in order quickly. Identofy folks here who are illegal. If they are not here on proper Visa or otherwise, boot them out. This WH regime has not a clue in leadership qualities….sure, porganizing the kids on the Chicago back streets, however a Middle East to explode and with it…as I have said for months….soaring gasoline prices!

Get out now! Bring the flights in and cover your back and board the planes and get out….Remember Hamburg. 45,000 killed and after the bombing runs, the foolhearty people were no longer so cocky and the same in the Middle East when We leave in the middle of the night and the next morning…Arabs and tose professing a peaceful Islam everywhere will wish thye had Americans with boots on the ground.

While you’re at it…tell the Assaryians – the Germans that we have decided to take them up with their request to remove our nuclear warheads from European soil….let them figure it out.

We are headed for War! Stand shoulder to shoulder with the Brits. They, too must impose a very strong immigration policy ridding tehmeslves of anyone who is not to be on the street.

Get out now! We are headed for war! Get prepared….Egypt will soon fall completely to the Islamic fundamentalist. Turkey already has itshand full and the Arab league, no clout or any….indecisive as the “good ‘ol belteay bandits” who are gridlocked and don’t give a care for our beloved Republic, just their self-serving ways….

Get out now! My fellow Hellenes in Greece…they will never pay back andy commitments….As far as they are concerned….they, too have been hoodwinked.

Syria is firing and killing innocent Syrians much like the Iranians have done in the past willing to shed rich innocent Persian blood…a disgrace to the richness and contributions Persians have made to society and today boast such an educated populace. The Palestinian copped up and treated as a pawn. The israelis…here to stay despite whatever armies are mustered for the covenant Israel has in handshake to God…well, good luck to anyone who chooses to break this covenant as they will be so punished….

Let the German led EU and its cohort, the ever powerful Vatcican deal with lands far closer than we are to this Bible and Qura’an burning crowd who just does not underatand that God is witness to all and this intentional kiling of innocents…not a good idea! Despite the promise of Virgins…Lucifer waits….

Arabs, Jews…whomever. Rally around and put a stop to this killing on a massive scale and unacceptable in the eyes of humanity. Get the US troops out of harm’s way. We are encountering economic and political issues here at home in this bankrupt Republic where our US Constitution is under duress from government within that We need to get law and order within our structure..not this liberal left who bends everything if to their liking…

To the wonderful people of the Middle East…many of who I see when travelling to your respective and wonderful country and now many years have passed….immerse yourself in yoru government and demand transparency and clarity…We here in the US have been hoodwinked by Barry Obama et al, however election time is drawing near and I keep a vigilant eye open for Winston Churchill!

America can no longer poilce the world. We have law breakers here, immigration issues in particular which must be addressed and full ahead with drilling and implementing a National Energy Policy! A policy not one out of eight sitting Presidents and a host of Congressional meetings have been able to address. We have plenty of oil and gas. No need to further knock on anyone else’s door. We have plenty of a supply.

Christopher Tingus

Comment by Philip J. Palin

February 25, 2012 @ 7:12 am

From the Saturday, February 25 New York Times:

Syria’s Horrors

More than 5,000 Syrians have died from President Bashar al-Assad’s butchery. The international community finally has a sense of urgency, but it has yet to come up with a strategy to end the killing. It needs to try harder.

There should be no illusions. This is an incredibly difficult problem. Most countries, the United States included, have rightly ruled out military intervention. Mr. Assad is determined to resist, no matter what the cost. The Syrian Army is far stronger and better armed than that of Libya’s under Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. There is legitimate fear that a foreign intervention would unleash an even bloodier civil war and possibly spread beyond Syria’s borders.

The only hope is that the Syrian people are determined to resist and Mr. Assad’s isolation is growing. At a meeting in Tunis on Friday, more than 60 governments and organizations agreed to intensify diplomatic and economic pressure on the Syrian leader and vowed to find ways to support opposition forces trying to depose him.

On Monday, the European Union plans to freeze the assets of Syria’s central bank. The meeting called on all nations to impose additional sanctions, including travel bans on all of Mr. Assad’s cronies and a wider embargo on purchases of Syrian oil. But Syria still has far too many powerful protectors.

Russia and China have blocked any action at the United Nations Security Council. Russia and Iran are selling arms to Syria. The United States and Europe need to use all of their powers of persuasion and shaming to get Moscow and Beijing to cut all ties. Iran is obviously a lost cause.

At the meeting, countries also pledged millions of dollars worth of food and medicine to help people in Syria’s besieged cities. Officials suggested the aid could be distributed from border areas in Turkey, Jordan and, possibly, Lebanon. Mr. Assad is unlikely to let that happen.

Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, has been under a fierce government bombardment for three weeks. Scores of people have been killed in the shelling, and desperate residents are facing severe shortages of food and medical supplies. It is time for the United States and others to take a serious look at proposals by Turkey and others to create humanitarian corridors linking besieged communities to neighboring countries or safe zones along those borders. Both would require air cover and would be risky.

The meeting also called for the creation of a joint Arab League-United Nations peacekeeping force to be deployed if a cease-fire is reached. Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, has been appointed to pursue that solution. There is no sign whatsoever that Mr. Assad will cooperate.

The worsening violence — and the mismatch between the 200,000-member Syrian Army and ragtag rebel forces — has accelerated calls, especially from the gulf states, to arm the opposition. Some countries are already quietly doing that. The United States this week opened the door to the possibility. At a minimum, Washington and its allies should consider providing communications equipment, intelligence and military training.

This will amount to little if the opposition — divided along ethnic and sectarian lines — fails to unite and offer a credible vision of a post-Assad future in which the rights of all Syrians will be respected. The leader of one group, the Syrian National Council, offered encouraging words on Friday, but there is a very long way to go. The United States and its allies will have to work hard to help them get there. The horrors and the death toll keep mounting.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 26, 2012 @ 2:59 am

So what are the UN rules for intervention in a nation-state’s actions against its own people? Could this be the underlying reason Russia and China support Assad and don’t want Syria as a precedent? Is this a civil war [Viet Nam?]; an insurrection [Libya?]; a rebellion [Egypt?]; a religious war [Taliban and Nigeria?]; an ideological/political system struggle [Naxalites in India?]; a separatist movement [Kurds in Iraq and Turkey?]; a genocide [Ivory Coast?]; etc.etc.?

Should there be consistency in US foreign policy and foreign relations when events are labeled any of the above or should it purely be based on some direct impacts on the USA [real politik?]?

Is there any doubt that all these situations are based either on USA actions, reactions, or hoped for intervention through the UN or otherwise?

Is the real history of the 21st Century going to be the aberrational behavior of the USA in its picking and choosing winners and losers internationally on the basis of which political party is in power and the personality of a President?

Can issues of business and commerce and finance really be treated as separate from international relations? Is continued election of foreign policy ignorant governors is the long term best interest of the USA?

When exactly will the Sovietologists pass by as the dominant influence on US foreign relations?

What is USA Grand Strategy in MENA [Middle East and N. Africa] and is it based on religion?

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 26, 2012 @ 3:27 am

An article worth reading:


Comment by Philip J. Palin

February 26, 2012 @ 6:00 am

Another article worth reading, the contents are more nuanced than the headline:

Syria: Will anyone dare stop the Syrian slaughter?

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 26, 2012 @ 9:46 am

Thanks for the article link Phil!

And now on my blog at http://www.vacationlanegrp.wordsmith.com I have flatly predicted US intervention in Syria this year with or without UN sanction. It will be interesting to see Congressional reaction. The Administration is desperately looking now for cover but it is clear to me that Russia and China will stand firm on their Security Council vetos. Why? Because the one thing they fear as nation-states is the US adopting a posture of interventions against nation-states that mistreat their population.
So it may take some time to have the Administration get its ducks in a row politically, legally, and militarily. But hey as to the latter, the US Navy and US Airforce are feeling really really left out as the days of the manned piloted aircraft dwindle and Syria is much more accessible to US air attack by piloted aircraft than say Iran.

Turkey is of the most interest to me. Will they allow US usage of INCIRLIK airfield, and US access through Turkey to Syria? My guess is yes if the US is willing to toss the KURDs again on the scrap heap of history and the Wilsonian theory of self-determination, never really bounded by Wilson in his time or any foreign policy analyst since then.

Well after all. WILSON was elected to the Presidency a 100 years ago this year so perhaps restoration by the Administration of his foreign policy might just resonate with some.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 27, 2012 @ 7:40 am

According to those in the know, the US has almost no clue as to who exactly is the opposition to ASSAD! Perhaps the MOSSAD?

Comment by Arnold Bogis

February 27, 2012 @ 6:08 pm

Not to be a Debbie Downer, and I appreciate the zeal in finding some plausible actions, but the Berlin Airlift is likely not a good model.

First off, according to treaty the West had control over certain parts of Berlin and safe ground and air passage to them (through Soviet controlled East Germany). So the Soviets were testing our commitment to our treaty obligations but were not exerting sovereignty. We basically dared them to stop us, and they demurred. In Syria, the present regime still holds sovereignty over it’s territory and any attempts to fly materials in will be seen as an attack on that sovereignty. Never mind that the U.S. military wouldn’t likely start flying in cargo airplanes without first controlling the airspace, which would mean strikes.

In terms of drones, Robert Farley (http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2012/02/drone-airlift) has a good explanation of why that isn’t feasible:
“Opinions about using UAVs for aerial resupply differ, but the prospects of a drone driven Berlin Airlift in Syria are pretty grim. Andrew Betson has an article forthcoming in Army Sustainment magazine (no direct link) that lays out some of the problems. The biggest is capacity; conventional extant drones have a carrying capacity that maxes out in the scores of pounds, which makes them essentially useless for any large scale resupply effort. The KMAX remotely piloted helicopter can do a bit better (~2 tons), but they’re in very short supply. That the Syrians would presumably have no compunctions about shooting down a supply UAV exacerbates the problem. “

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September 6, 2015 @ 9:55 am

[…] be self-critical: In 2011 and early 2012 here at HLSWatch I gave continuing attention to Syria.  But then I chose to pull-back.  This was an intellectual, ethical, and professional […]

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