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Syria: "Caesar" and the Way Forward

Thursday 7 August 2014



The man credited with smuggling 50,000 photos said to document Syrian government atrocities, a Syrian Army defector known by the protective alias Caesar (disguised in a hooded blue jacket, C), listens to his interpreter as he prepares to speak at a briefing to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington July 31, 2014. (Photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

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The July 31 testimony of "Caesar," the former Syrian military police photographer who spirited out of Syria part of the Assad regime’s photographic archive of detainees it has tortured and starved to death, stunned members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Although no one hearing Caesar’s story evinced surprise that functionaries, deriving their authority from the President of the Syrian Arab Republic, engage in widespread torture and murder, the stunningly graphic and heartbreaking photos accompanying the briefing drove home the point. As the Assad-Makhluf clan—with the support of Iran and Russia—struggles to stay in power, there is literally no atrocity, no outrage, and no abomination the clan and its employees see as beyond the pale. Although it is clear that the Caesar episode ends forever any thought of collaborating with the Assad regime against the ersatz caliphate of the misnamed Islamic State, the way forward for US policy remains, in terms of an executable strategy, murky.

The Obama administration deserves credit for meeting with Caesar. The National Security Advisor to the Vice President Jake Sullivan and President Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes met with him on August 1. For those counseling the White House to work with the Assad regime, elements of the statement issued in the names of Sullivan and Rhodes must have been galling:

"The images that “Caesar” has shared with the world paint a picture of unimaginable suffering – gouged eyes, abrasions in the silhouette of metal chains, and the emaciated corpses of men, women, and children – and offer some of the most heart wrenching evidence of the unconscionable tactics Bashar al-Assad employs to cling to power.

"Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Sullivan told “Caesar” that he has done a service not only to the Syrian people, but to the world, in bringing this evidence to light. The United States remains deeply disturbed that because Russia and China vetoed a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) that was supported by every other member of the United Nations Security Council, the perpetrators cannot be held to account in the ICC. Nevertheless, the United States will continue working through other avenues with our international partners to pursue accountability for the perpetrators of these crimes against the Syrian people."

In terms of policy implications, the Sullivan-Rhodes statement said the following:

"More broadly, the United States will continue to be the largest international donor to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis faced by the Syrian people. We are also providing increased support for the moderate Syrian opposition, which is fighting both the Assad regime and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Finally, we will continue our efforts to achieve a negotiated political resolution to the Syrian conflict that leads to Assad’s departure and finally ends the nightmare facing the Syrian people."

As a statement of policy, the Sullivan-Rhodes formulation is noteworthy in several respects: it upholds the departure of Bashar al-Assad—mandated by President Obama on August 18, 2011—as the cornerstone of US policy; it acknowledges that the nationalist (a far better word than "moderate") opposition to Assad is fighting both the regime and the bogus caliphate; it claims that this opposition is the recipient of increased US aid; and it asserts the continuation of "efforts" to achieve, through negotiations, the desired departure of Assad and his regime.

Obviously, the eruption of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from bases in eastern Syria and the flow of ISIS fighters into Iraq has raised the salience of Syria in the eyes of President Obama and his White House foreign policy-national security team. The declaration of a caliphate by a hardened, Rolex-wearing career criminal would be laughable were it not for the expert manner in which ISIS has fully exploited two politically abysmal individuals: Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In Iraq, the re-branded "Islamic State" (IS) remains the spearhead of Iraqi Arab Sunni discontent, turning its attention now to the periphery of Kurdish-dominated areas. In Syria, it contests the regime for the control of oil fields, but exerts most of its effort against Syrian nationalists that it and the regime both wish to erase. In Iraq and Syria, according to US intelligence officials, ISIS represents a transnational terror threat to the region, to Europe, and to the American homeland.

The information brought to the United States by Caesar and the testimony he has offered have killed the notion of US collaboration with the Assad regime against the "caliphate." And yet, notwithstanding the positive statement by Messrs. Sullivan and Rhodes, it is still not clear that an executable strategy involving specific actions exists. Indeed, this may be a charitable characterization of the situation. One hears that military planners trying to put flesh on the bones of the administration’s $500 million "train and equip" proposal are being jerked back and forth by conflicting guidance emanating from interagency meetings.

That which may be needed is a clear expression of the commander-in-chief’s intent. President Obama’s caution, hesitancy, skepticism, and even indecision with respect to Syria have been thoroughly documented and are totally understandable given the complexity of the problem, the unavailability of discrete, silver-bullet solutions, the emergence of Iraq as a one-size-fits-all analogy, and the general lack of interest of the American public in Syria’s woes and their implications for US interests. But ambivalence is no longer defensible.

The removal and suitable replacement of the Assad regime remains the central, stated US objective with respect to Syria. Invasion and occupation are off the table. Negotiated political transition remains the ideal means to the end. Yet the regime—fully backed by Iran and Russia—is indisposed to cooperate. How then—and ideally short of directly applying US firepower—to dispose it otherwise? How does one change the calculation of a regime that calculates everything based on results brought about through the application of brute force?

Clearly, and in full coordination and cooperation with friends and allies, the way forward for an administration that used the Caesar visit to reiterate longstanding policy objectives involves four lines of effort designed to change the calculation of the Assad regime:

near-term, meaningful lethal assistance (including tightly controlled anti-air assets) for nationalist forces inside Syria fighting the regime and ISIS; near-term consultations with and assistance for efforts by the opposition Interim Government to establish itself inside Syria; longer-term work outside Syria to build a Syrian National Stabilization Force for eventual peace-enforcement activities inside Syria; and serious consideration of strikes on ISIS forces inside Syria to relieve pressure on the nationalist opposition, facilitate humanitarian relief for Syrian civilians, and blunt the effectiveness of de facto collaboration between ISIS and the regime.

A clear expression of the commander-in-chief’s intent along these lines would give direction and a sense of purpose to an interagency largely in the dark and ready to act. If the Caesar visit can inspire such an outcome, it will have exceeded its purpose significantly. By having killed the outrageous notion of collaborating with a regime steeped in war crimes and crimes against humanity, it accomplished plenty.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.


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