30 October 2011

Al-Asaad vs Al-Assad

I know it is a lame joke but with Tintin opening this week, I couldn't resist.

In all seriousness, this is the story of two sides waging an information war and maybe even covert operations against each other.

In This Corner: Al-Asaad

At the end of July a Syrian Colonel by the name of Riad Al-Asaad called Agence France Press to declare that he has formed the Free Syrian Army with the aim to topple the Al-Assad regime.

My reaction was: Really? Who tips a government that they are coming after them?

In September the same guy provided a nice quote to BBC's Panaroma program:
In a safe house in a bordering nation, I met one of the highest ranking defectors from the army - Colonel Riad al-Asaad, a Sunni like most people in Syria. (...)
The colonel and other officers have defected to form the Free Syria Army. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, he is not confident that Syria's regime will fall without bloodshed.
"We are counting of defections and there are large numbers occurring every day," he said during our meeting. "But this regime cannot be taken out except by force and if they do not agree to go peacefully we will have to take them out by force." 
When it became clear that the "bordering nation" was Turkey, on 4 October, the Turkish media reported his statements about Free Syria Army and BBC quoted him  on the same day about France's unhappiness with Syria.
On Tuesday, Turkish media reported that a colonel who had defected from the Syrian army was calling for a united front against Mr Assad. 
"Opponent forces in Syria should get united and close ranks until the regime collapses," Col Riad al-Asaad, who is sheltering in Turkey, told the Anatolia news agency.  
At that point, I made a note of him, as I thought he was someone with great media contacts waging a war of perceptions.

Subsequently, there were some reports that Turkey detained him and handed him over to Syria. But early this month, the Colonel surfaced again to talk to the Turkish Anatolian New Agency to let them know that the Turkish government was supportive of their struggle against Syria:
Col. As'ad, who defected and fled to Turkey about three months ago, leads Syria's main military defectors group, the Free Syrian Army, after merging it with another dissident army group last month, said Omar Idlibi, a spokesperson for the Local Coordination Committees, an activist network. (...)
Col. As'ad said Tuesday that he was living unmolested in Turkey, Anadolu reported. "Turkish authorities have not applied any pressure or violence on us," he said. 
Army defectors have multiplied in recent weeks and are increasingly claiming responsibility for attacks on security forces. Last week, activists said defectors in al-Rastan, a town north of Homs, destroyed about a dozen tanks. 
A few days later, on 10 October, the Independent (the home of the formidable Robert Fisk) reported that a Syrian Colonel by the name of Riad Al-Asaad has formed a Free Syria Army in Turkey and he was plotting guerrilla attacks against the Al-Assad regime.
The most senior officer to defect from Syria's armed forces is plotting a series of guerrilla attacks and targeted assassinations from self-imposed exile in Turkey in an attempt to topple the regime.
Colonel Riad al-As'aad, 50, is the head of a newly formed Syrian Free Army – a force made up of defectors from the Syrian military – devoted to overthrowing the regime of Bashar al-Assad by military force in apparent connivance with his Turkish protectors. "They [the regime] forced us to respond," he told The Independent. "We are organised inside. We are soldiers, we are working. Our power is slowly growing."
On 25 October, Robert Ford, the American Ambassador to Syria left the country citing security concerns.

And three days ago, on 27 October, the New York Times announced to the world that "In Slap to Syria, Turkey Shelters Anti-Assad Figters."
“We will fight the regime until it falls and build a new period of stability and safety in Syria,” Colonel As’aad said in an interview arranged by the Turkish Foreign Ministry and conducted in the presence of a Foreign Ministry official. “We are the leaders of the Syrian people and we stand with the Syrian people.”
The interview was held in the office of a local government official, and Colonel As’aad arrived protected by a contingent of 10 heavily armed Turkish soldiers, including one sniper.
It is quite clear to me that Col. Al-Asaad and his supporters (notably Turkey and possibly the US) have been pushing a narrative to suggest that, if properly supported, they too could be victorious as NTC's army was in Libya and another Arab tyrant could be removed with little cost to third parties.

In That Corner: Al-Assad

While the Colonel was working the media to insinuate that Turkey was fully backing his Free Syria Army, Al-Assad was working to undermine that discourse. It began with Hussein Al-Harmoush, a Lieutenant Colonel who defected to Turkey at the same time as Col. Al-Asaad. Harmoush disappeared in  late August and two weeks later he showed up on Syrian TV denounce Al-Asaad. Syrian sources claimed that the Turkish government handed him over in exchange for 9 PKK officers:
On September 23, the Free Officers Movement officially merged into the Free Syria Army, led by Colonel Riad al-Assad. The leader of the Free Officers Movement, Lt. Col. Hussein Harmoush, disappeared on August 27 after meeting with Turkish officials. He was later seen on Syrian state television parroting the regime’s propaganda. The Erdogan government has been accused of handing him over to Assad in exchange for nine members of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which Turkey denies
Given the fact that a similar story was leaked for Col. Al-Asaad, it wouldn't surprise me if this was a Syrian intelligence plot to lure both men back to Syria to reinforce the idea that Turkey could not to be trusted. If, indeed, it was a clever disinformation campaign as the Turkish government claimed, it was brilliant coup that must have demoralized the remaining Syrian refugees in Turkey and sow the seeds of doubt and double dealing on Turkey's part.

A few weeks later, to the consternation of everyone involved, PKK attacked army and police posts in south eastern Turkey to kill 24 officers. Unsurprisingly, they led to a massive Turkish incursion into northern Iraq, jeopardizing the recent economic boom in the region and the tentative openings made by the Turkish government to Turkish Kurds. As a Kurdish move, it made no sense. It served no Kurdish purposes and furthered no Kurdish goals.

Worse, it fueled the rising nationalism in Turkey, making a future regional Kurdish autonomy arrangement a much harder sell. It also added to the recent surge of antisemitism shared by both the government and opposition supporters because of the general belief that PKK is being sponsored by Israel. Many people assumed that this attack was the fulfillment of an earlier Lieberman threat (which apparently wasn't true but that denial was lost in the shuffle).

At the time, I thought it might have something to do with Assad. As illustrated by the Lieberman case, using PKK to undermine Turkey is a familiar refrain in the region. And the Syrian Kurdish minority is quite nervous about a potential sectarian civil war and their place in it. At least some of them might be open to government coaxing to reach out to some faction within PKK to pull such a stunt. In short, the PKK attack made more sense from a Syrian point of view: it delayed the announcement of Turkish sanctions, it forced troop movement away from the Syrian border and changed the terms of the daily political agenda.

This morning, Al-Assad made his latest move and in a rare interview to a British newspaper he said:
 "Syria is the hub now in this region. It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake … Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?
"Any problem in Syria will burn the whole region. If the plan is to divide Syria, that is to divide the whole region." 
He was clearly warning Western powers that Libya is not a good blueprint for Syria (that is true) and there is a genuine chance of a protracted civil war along sectarian lines (also true).

Since Syria does not have oil to make a Libya style intervention he was telling them that they have everything to lose and nothing to gain by pretending that the Free Syria Army of Colonel.Al-Asaad can duplicate NTC's victory in Libya.

I assume, after the departure of the American Ambassador, Bashar Al-Assad got nervous and wanted to appeal directly to the Western public. He was saying, do you want to lose thousands of your sons and daughters in a quagmire scenario that is no concern of yours.

Col. Al-Asaad has been saying the opposite, that is Syrians will do the fighting, just like the Libyans and all the rest of us do is to provide some support to them.

I am curious to see which narrative will win.

And since I am convinced that there will be a regime change in Syria in the near future, I am curious to see how that will take place.

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