The Economist reports that Syria is looking increasingly like a movie saloon fight where one man swings at another, hits a third provoking a response from a fourth. “The bloodshed in Syria has taken a nasty turn, as Syrian rebels fighting against Bashar Assad’s regime clash with their Kurdish compatriots. Worries of an ethnic war between Syria’s Arabs and its 3m-odd Kurds have increased. Kurds on both sides of the border are pointing the finger of blame at the government of Turkey.”
The trouble began on November 8th when Syrian rebels attacked a small group of Syrian soldiers loyal to Mr Assad in Ras al-Ayn, a town close to the border with Turkey. Despite being bombed by the Syrian air force, the rebels took the town, which lies just across the border from the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar.
Syria’s best armed and most powerful Kurdish group, the Syrian Democratic Union Party (known by its Kurdish initials, PYD), which controls the Kurdish districts of Ras al-Ayn, says it feared retaliation from the Assad forces if it was seen to connive at their expulsion, so it asked the Syrian rebels, who are said to have been Salafists, to leave. When they refused, the ensuing battle left at least five Kurds and 18 rebels dead. Thousands of angry Kurds are said to be heading for Ras al-Ayn to offer support to their kinsfolk.
In such an atmosphere of mistrust things can be misinterpreted. Meanwhile Iran has warned Turkey not to deploy Patriot missiles, “as fears grow of the Syrian civil war spilling across frontiers.”
Syria has called Turkey’s request for the Patriot missiles “provocative”, and Russia said the move could increase risks in the conflict …
Turkey’s missile request may have riled Damascus because it could be seen as a first step toward implementing a no-fly zone over Syrian airspace.
Syrian rebels have been requesting a no-fly zone to help them hold territory against a government with overwhelming firepower from the air, but most foreign governments are reluctant to get sucked into the conflict.
Turkey fears security on its border may crumble as the Syrian army fights harder against the rebels, some of whom have enjoyed sanctuary in Turkey.
In other news the Chechens have joined the fight. “International Sunni Islamists are flocking to Syria in increasing numbers.” The Guardian reports that “Jihadi veterans of Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan” are operating in Syria now. It describes units so ethnically diverse that its commander has to give orders in a babel of languages.
Abu Omar gave an order in Arabic, which was translated into a babble of different languages – Chechen, Tajik, Turkish, French, Saudi dialect, Urdu – and the men retreated in orderly single file, picking their way between piles of smouldering rubbish and twisted plastic bottles toward a house behind the front line where other fighters had gathered.
Their Syrian handler stood alone in the street clutching two radios: one blared in Chechen and the other in Arabic. Two men volunteered to stay and try to fetch the young injured man.
The fighters sat outside the house in the shade of the trees, clutching their guns and discussing the war. Among them was a thin Saudi, dressed in a dirty black T-shirt and a prayer cap, who conversed in perfect English with a Turk sitting next to him. He had arrived the week before and was curious about how the jihad was being reported abroad.
Was he “curious about how the jihad was being reported abroad”? He would have been surprised to learn that American readers thought it was all about a reaction to a YouTube video and that the American ambassador to the UN and the Secretary of State were adamant on the point, at least until recently.
Meanwhile the Washington Post reports on the struggle over who will be named the new Drone Czar, a mission that is now rivaling the CIA’s former task of intelligence gathering. Dianne Feinstein is increasingly worried the agency has now been sidetracked into the assassination business.
“I think this is the time for transition,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an interview. Counterterrorism will remain the agency’s top priority, Feinstein said, but the recent attack on U.S. compounds in Libya and mounting concerns about cyber conflicts underscore other vulnerabilities.
“We have to strengthen human intelligence in key areas,” Feinstein said, “and transition from the kind of Pakistan-Afghanistan intelligence gathering” that has dominated the agency’s agenda since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Former agency officials, including those who worked in counterterrorism, cited similar concerns over the need for a balance between paramilitary operations and intelligence collection and analysis.
“As much as there remains a terrorism threat, that can’t be the preoccupation of the director of CIA 99 percent of the time anymore,” said Bruce Riedel, a former agency analyst and adviser to Obama. The fundamental question for Obama, Riedel said, is: “Should the agency be looking to be the principal player in a global drone war versus its more traditional role as the principal collector and analyst of foreign intelligence?”
It’s turned into the Air Force. Well maybe this is what happens when the normal processes of war, diplomacy and intelligence are subverted and put to uses for which they are not intended, as when “war” is abolished by the simple expedient of banishing the military to Central Asia and turning the State Department and the CIA into instruments of kinetic military action. When you can’t use the Air Force because the anti-war Left objects, then you the use the CIA. And to engage in espionage you turn consulates abroad into intelligence stations. What could go wrong?
Then you get neither war, nor diplomacy nor intelligence. But who needs them, when you’re too smart for that.
However the State Department is at least playing the role of the saloon piano player to the hilt. It has sent “Andrew W.K. will head to the Middle East on behalf of the State Department to promote peace … as a Cultural Ambassador he will travel to Bahrain next month and visit elementary schools, the University of Bahrain, and music venues “all while promoting partying and world peace.”
That ought to liven things up.