The Middle East Channel

Syrian rebels release 48 Iranian hostages for 2,130 civilians

Syrian opposition forces released 48 Iranian prisoners on Wednesday. According to Iran's Press TV, the "Iranian pilgrims" were released in a deal between "the government and armed militants." Syrian opposition forces claim the hostages were members of Iran's Revolution Guards Corps and were carrying out a mission for the Syrian government. According to the Turkish Islamic aid organization, Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), the Iranians were released in exchange for 2,130 civilian prisoners, mostly Syrian citizens, but also four Turks and one Palestinian. The exchange, the first major prisoner swap since the uprising began in March 2011, was brokered by Turkey, including the IHH, and Qatar after months of diplomatic efforts. Meanwhile, Britain is holding a two-day meeting beginning Wednesday for academics and the leadership of the opposition Syrian National Coalition to discuss a political transition from President Bashar al-Assad.

Headlines  

  • U.S. defense contractor Engility Holdings Inc. has paid $5.28 million to settle an Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse case, in the first successful effort by lawyers for former inmates of the detention center.
  • Egyptian President Morsi plans to meet on Wednesday with the leaders from Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah for unity talks.
  • The only suspect held in connection with the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya's city of Benghazi has been released in Tunisia, reportedly due to lack of evidence.
  • A suspected militant group in the UAE has links to Yemen's al Qaeda wing, according to Dubai's police chief.
  • Iraq has closed its border with Jordan in the predominantly Sunni province of Anbar over anti-government protests.

Articles & Analysis

"Saving Syria from Assad" (Julian Lindley-French, Atlantic Council)

"an enduring Syrian peace will also only be possible if the conflict is detached from a wider regional Realpolitik. Iran has been supporting the regime with both expertise and munitions, with substantial evidence of direct involvement by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, whilst Russia and China have blocked any direct outside intervention. Indeed, the regional strategic ambitions of Iran and its proxy Hezbollah-led conflict with Israel have critically exacerbated the war. Equally, whilst an arms embargo has been formally imposed evidence abounds that it exists in name only. The Coalition has been receiving directly or indirectly both small arms and man-held anti-aircraft missiles from the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia to counter the regime's use of air power.

What would a 'credible' international presence on the ground look like and under what mandate? Arab League, UN, NATO, EU or a beefed up Contact Group? Experience of political transition in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya (hardly encouraging) suggests that early political reconciliation would be critical but only possible if reprisal killings are prevented and the humanitarian suffering of all alleviated. A new seat of government in Damascus would also need to be rapidly established and protected, committed to a political timetable for transition underpinned by the early disarmament and rehabilitation of combatants. The armed forces would need to be re-oriented and essential services and the judicial system preserved to provide stability. Critically, senior members of the Assad regime charged under law would need to get a fair trial and justice seen to work. National elections woven into a new constitution would also be vital with extreme elements in the opposition forced to face a choice; reconciliation or exclusion. Would Russia and China agree? Maybe this is the moment for a Tony Blair-type Sextet for Syria - America, Arab League, China, EU and Russia?"

"What if Assad Wins?" (Seth Mandel, Commentary Magazine)

"All throughout the Syrian civil war, analysts and human rights groups were at pains to point out the rising death toll and falling share of media and public attention. But underlying the legitimate frustration was a perhaps forced belief-straining under the weight of reality-in the conventional wisdom: the house of Assad will fall; the victims' deaths will not be in vain.

But the standard rule of conventional wisdom-that it may be the former but is rarely the latter-applies here as well. As Emile Hokayem writes in the wake of Bashar al-Assad's recent defiant speech:

More importantly, Western states should get off the sidelines. The illusion of a negotiated settlement is a consequence of Western indecision, not the cause for it. The United States in particular has squandered precious time and opportunities: The risks of greater involvement in Syria are certainly great, but the conflict has already overtaken the Iraq war in terms of regional and strategic impact, and Washington is at best marginal to its dynamics. U.S. Sen. John McCain only slightly exaggerated when he said last month: "In Syria, everything we said would happen if we didn't intervene is happening because we didn't intervene." Judging by Assad's speech, Syria's civil war is indeed about to become even more tragic as the world stands idly by.

That "illusion" is a Western creation, and more importantly it is not widely-and certainly not universally-shared. The "rebels" do not emit an air of encroaching victory, and to speak of patience and inevitability seems nothing less than vulgar. Can anyone explain why time is on the side of the rebels? It certainly doesn't feel that way anymore, does it?"

-- By Mary Casey

ZAC BAILLIE/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Time for a Syrian transitional government

Since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in March 2011, the Assad regime has transformed into a ruthless militia fighting a desperate battle against the Syrian people. The regime hasn't just murdered thousands of Syrians, but also wasted their wealth and, most significantly, destroyed the very fabric of Syrian society. The longer Assad stays in power, the harder and more painful the transitional period will be. Before it is too late, Syrians must form, and the international community must support, a Syrian transitional government based on liberated Syrian soil.

The actions of the Syrian government have forced the country into a hateful sectarian conflict and a horrifying civil war. The regime (or militia) has repeatedly violated the Geneva conventions and failed to follow any rules of war. For instance, live bullets have claimed the lives of some of Syria's finest young non-violent activists, such as Ghayth Matar, Tamer al-Sharey, and Hamzeh al-Khatib. Additionally, the regime has engaged in the monstrous and inhuman practice of targeting hospitals and bread lines. However, the Syrian people have steadfastly endured this horrible struggle for almost two years not only to protect their movement and determination, but also, and more importantly, to preserve their solidarity against a policy whose sole purpose is to break them apart.

Syria is already in the middle of a transition. Much of Syrian territory has been liberated and remains beyond the reach of Syrian troops. The following Syrian-Turkish border crossings have fallen into the hands of the opposition: "Bab Al-Hawa," "Assalamah," "Jarablus," and "Tal Abyad" border crossings. The fall of these border crossings means that Assad has lost his claim of sovereignty. In fact, Bashar al-Assad is no longer the president of Syria. He could be more aptly described as the governor of Damascus and some of its suburbs; Assad doesn't seem able to take a step beyond the walls of his palace without his gangs and militia proceeding beforehand. Additionally, with the government no longer in control of Syrian border crossings with Turkey and Iraq, Assad has lost the ability to preserve the country's sovereignty over strategically significant geographical regions. Certainly Assad can harm, bomb, or destroy these areas, but he cannot retake them.

Few of the liberated zones are geographically linked, however. The liberated areas remain vulnerable to regime airstrikes and cannot be considered "safe zones." In addition, none of the liberated regions are being managed by a central authority, which, in conjunction with regime bombardment, contributes to the instability in liberated areas. It is now of the utmost importance that all Syrians unite in running the transitional period in order to prevent chaos and ensure a smooth transition. The liberated areas require a central authority that can manage them politically, economically, logistically, judicially, socially, and legally. The Free Syrian Army must move to take over and open supply routes for logistical aid across these areas, and establish the ability to move within the liberated areas without the threat of Assad and his regime.

These military moves are not alone sufficient, however. Considering the basis on which such an authority will be established in the liberated areas is extremely important and requires us to be responsible in how we regulate the transitional process. Many Syrian opposition political forces still refuse to form an interim government on the ground, claiming that to do so would be premature. This may once have been true, but no longer. The preconditions which certain opposition members have demanded before forming the transitional government will never come to fruition. Therefore, the transitional government or government-in-exile should be formed immediately.

The transitional government should aim to achieve a number of key objectives. First, it should support the creation of a central authority for the liberated areas to maintain control and to prevent chaos. Neither the Syrian National Council (SNC) nor the Syrian Coalition is currently capable of establishing such an authority. However, the longer the forming of the transitional government takes, the more chaotic the situation will be, the more difficult it will be to establish a central authority, and the more difficult it will be to provide the liberated areas with social services, judicial institutions, health services, and humanitarian assistance.

Second: on a legal level, the legitimacy of the Assad regime can be undermined by granting control to the transitional authority over Syrian embassies, which can only be taken by government representatives and not by political entities. Syrian government positions in international institutions such as the United Nations and the Human Rights Council should be handed to a transitional government as well. Third, this in turn would pave the road toward international recognition, which would allow the new government to ratify the Rome Statute, allowing the Assad regime to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) with much greater ease.

Fourth, the formation of a government focused on an administrative level would help to leave behind the political disputes or disagreements among members of the SNC or the Syrian Coalition. These disputes were mostly over positions without discussing any matters related to the Syrian revolution such as: reinforcing the FSA or humanitarian assistance. Forming an administrative government would sidestep those disputes, while also making it easier to engage the international community at a functional level. The international community has constantly complained about the disputes within the SNC before, and the coalition now. This would respond to those complaints, and facilitate the management of things on an organizational level.

Fifth, and finally, a question: Who will succeed Bashar al-Assad? Who will take over to govern the transitional period after the fall of the Syrian government? Neither the SNC nor the Syrian Coalition would be able to achieve such a thing. Only a transitional government is capable of handling such a process on a temporary basis until legitimate and inclusive elections can be held.

The priority for the opposition now should be the formation of a transitional government or a government in exile. The transitional government should be formed via a national conference held on Syrian land. Participants of the national conference must include: the local revolutionary councils, local coordinating committees, the FSA, and independent brigades. These opposition forces should make up the majority of the newly-formed government and their role should be to determine the structure of the government during the transitional period. This would address many of the ongoing problems that the international community has perceived with the Syrian opposition, and accelerate the desperately needed process toward the end of the Assad regime and the creation of a new, free Syria.

Radwan Ziadeh is executive director of the Washington-based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

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