Monday, 5 December 2011

Guardian: Syria flexes military muscles

News today, reported in The Guardian and several other outlets, that Syria has turned to a good old-fashioned display of its armed forces in action (this time, not against its own people....). The Syrian regime seems to be relying on classic deterrence in making this show of its military capabilities.
Syria's embattled government has flexed its muscles with live-fire exercises involving long-range missiles, armoured units and helicopters at a time of rising regional tensions over the repression of its uprising.

Official Syrian state media reported on Monday that the combined exercises were held on Sunday to test "the capabilities and readiness of missile systems to respond to any possible aggression".

Analysts suggested the timing may have been chosen to underline Syria's strategic capabilities to Israel, which is concerned about Syria's relationship with Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, warned in October that the Middle East would "burn" if the west intervened – and threatened to turn the region into "tens of Afghanistans". Syria insisted the exercises were planned. The publicity could also be intended to signal that the armed forces remain loyal, despite some defections largely from the lower ranks.

In Damascus, meanwhile, the foreign ministry announced that Syria was now prepared to accept a delegation of observers from the Arab League, after the pan-Arab body announced unprecedented sanctions because of its refusal to comply earlier. The league has expressed concern about the need to protect civilians as the Assad regime has cracked down on protests.

A spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, said the foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, had "responded positively" to the league's demand and sent a letter to the organisation's chief, Nabil Elaraby. But Syria did not appear yet to have signed the diplomatic protocol agreeing terms for the mission.

Recent similar moves by Damascus have come to nothing while its critics complain Syria is simply seeking to buy time and exploit divisions in Arab ranks while repression continues unchecked. According to the UN some 4,000 people have been killed since March. Syria says it is facing "armed terrorist gangs" backed by a conspiracy of its Arab and western enemies, not unarmed popular protests.

Opposition activists reported that 40 people had been killed on Sunday, including five defectors from the armed forces. The local co-ordination committees, which report on protests, said that 22 people, including two children, had been killed on Saturday. They claimed 848 people had been killed in November, including 59 children, making it the deadliest month since the uprising began. Restrictions on access for foreign press make it difficult to independently verify activists' reports.

In a related development, meanwhile, an Israeli newspaper quoted unnamed Palestinian sources as saying that Iran was pressuring the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas not to abandon its headquarters in Damascus. Haaretz said the Hamas activists were those responsible for the activities and funding of the organisation's military wing, as well as some members of the political leadership. Most have left with their families to Gaza, Sudan, Qatar and Lebanon.

But the claim was denied by a member of Hamas's political bureau, Salah al-Arouri. "The organisation's top officials are here in Damascus; our relations with the state and Syrian people are excellent," he said. "We respect all Syrians whoever they are. We have no intention of interfering in Syria's internal affairs."

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Observer: Top British commander says West must see job through in Afghanistan

The Observer today broadcasts the opinion of the ranking UK commander of British armed forces working with ISAF regarding the West's Afghan encounter:
The most senior British commander in Afghanistan says the Taliban cannot "assassinate their way to power" and too many lives have been lost over the last 10 years for the west to flinch in its campaign against the insurgents.

In an interview with the Guardian, Lieutenant General James Bucknall said the UK had made "an investment in blood" and that now was not the time for western nations to turn their back on the country.

He claimed that the Taliban had been pushed back everywhere and that relentless special forces operations are killing 130 to140 insurgent leaders every month. He conceded that too often over the last decade the military had "over-promised and under-delivered". Bucknall said he understood why politicians, the public and the armed forces themselves felt war-weary. Mistakes, he admitted, had been made.

"We almost owe it to those who have gone before to see the job through," he said. "Having made this investment in blood, I am more determined. If I didn't think we could do this I would take a very different view but I am confident we can do it."

Bucknall's comments come on the eve of an international conference in Bonn to discuss the future of Afghanistan. There is mounting concern about the amount of aid that Afghanistan will receive and a growing political clamour in the US and UK for western forces to speed up their withdrawal. But Bucknall said critics of the military campaign should ask whether the Taliban leader Mullah Omar had been able to achieve any of his goals over the last two years.

"Let's mark [his] work. If he was serious about overthrowing the government and grabbing a portion of Afghanistan for his own, you have to do three things. You have to secure your own heartland in Kandahar and central Helmand. Is he doing that? No. They lost their safe havens around Kandahar in 2010 and they didn't take them back in 2011. They are not holding their own heartland.

"Secondly, you have to spread your influence around other areas. There is absolutely no evidence anywhere in Afghanistan that they are doing that. Thirdly, you have got to affect the seat of government. There have been lots of headlines, but Kabul has about 20% of the population and less than 1% of total violence in the country. Not only is the seat of government unaffected, but Kabul is a flourishing capital city that is much safer than Karachi."

The Taliban had been reduced to a terrorist group, adopting terrorist tactics, said Bucknall.

"I have not seen any insurgents who have assassinated their way to power. One hundred and forty [Afghans] have been assassinated this year. In the press that is painted as the government cannot survive this. But we are taking out 130-140 mid-level Taliban leaders every month. Sometimes it is worth turning the egg-timer on its head. They have been driven to this much vaunted tactic of assassinations."

He said that the idea the Taliban would sit and wait until western forces had left suited Nato well because it would allow Afghan police and army more time to get up to strength.

Bucknall has just finished an 18-month tour in Kabul, during which he was in charge of all British forces, and second in command of the International Security and Assistance Force – the military coalition now commanded by the American general, John Allen. Bucknall oversaw the "surge" last year in which an extra 30,000 American troops began an offensive to push back the insurgency – a tactic that reduced attacks in some areas, but raised questions about whether progress could be sustained by Afghan police and army when NATO forces began to pull out.

The West has said none of its forces will be fighting after 2014.Bucknall admitted that Afghanistan's security was still fragile and expressed frustration that certain factors that would determine Afghanistan's future – such as diplomatic efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table – were out of the military's control.

The western coalition had to stick together over the next two years during the pull-out – a coded warning to countries that might want to "run for the exit door". Pakistan had to be "part of the solution in one way or another", said Bucknall.

"These are the two top ingredients. We have to stick together. We went in together, and we go out together. Managing a coalition in a draw down requires an awful lot more work than managing a coalition during a surge."