Assad’s troops close in on foreign mercenaries


A feature of the Syrian crisis which must please those ostensibly seeking the regime’s ouster is that it is turning out to be a long drawn one. So long drawn, in fact, that the world is beginning to develop an amnesia about the Palestinian issue. This must a happy enough state of affairs for some. It certainly provides respite, a digression with a potential to keep attention away from embarrassing themes even as the puppeteers improvise one crisis after another.

There are now journalists, ferried into Syria by reliable smugglers, testifying to “cross-border terrorism” from Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon into Syria. The “brutal” Syrian response makes headlines but “cross-border terrorism” does not. The expression should be in New Delhi’s recollection atleast.

Governments are sometimes secretive and muffle their responses. But cross-border terrorism does not echo even with the Indian media and those who imagine they trigger public discourse? Debate rages in the US whether assassinating Iranian scientists serves a useful purpose. But the intelligentsia in this mother of civilizations expresses no astonishment that the ethical dimension, whether organizing assassination of scientists is right or wrong, is nowhere in the discourse. Is this state of affairs an improvement on Anthony Trollope’s description of a Tasmanian settler who, when asked whom he would kill first if he saw a snake and an aborigine, replied with stunning candour: “the question should not arise!”

Already, the Syrian story has had many shocking twists. The Arab League sends a mission to Syria but its report is turned down because the “Sudanese” head of the mission is too “balanced” between state brutality and the protesters’ violence. That al Qaida and Taliban operatives from Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan have found their way into Syria has been reported even in the West. But Taliban from Qatar? Is Qatar, a hub for a dialogue with the Taliban, also beginning to double up as a recruitment center for Syrian operations? If so, these operations have the blessings from the highest al Qaida authority, Ayman al Zawahiri.

In other words the United States, Europe, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar are openly in al Qaida’s company in Syria. Launch a global war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan and set up al Qaida in new theatres like Libya and Syria! I suppose, the global war on terror will be redirected to these theatres once Afghanistan and Pakistan have been cleansed – a sort of second phase in a two-stroke operation.

Bana kar mitana
Mita kar banana
(Build, destroy, build again)

Meanwhile, the Syrian game has been immeasurably complicated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Damascus along with Russian Intelligence personnel. Photographic proof has been compared of all the outside build up of violent dissent inside Syria.

Evidently, Bashar al Assad has been given a fortnight within which to “clean up” such centers of rebellion as Homs, not far from the Lebanese border.

Espionage related diplomacy is proceeding parallel to the Homs operations. For example, the rebels captured nine Iranian pilgrims taking the land route through Alleppo to Hama and onto the Zainab shrine, in Damascus. At about the same time, the Syrian Army arrested 49 Turkish soldiers. Ankara asked Tehran to arrange for their release. Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu rushed to Moscow for help. To facilitate a swap, the free Syrian army (a rebel outfit) released the Iranian pilgrims on the Turkish side of the border. The pilgrims have returned to Tehran.

An infinitely more serious situation has arisen in a part of Homs where Foreign Mercenaries and special forces are surrounded by the Syrian Army. Rather than bomb the Baba Amro area, the Syrian strategy is to capture the foreigners alive and turn the tables on the Western media war. A clue to the veracity of this story came from French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe who is seeking Russian help to create “humanitarian corridors” to allow access to “civilians caught up in the violence”. In fact an effort is on to have the “corridors” idea included in a new Security Council Resolution the west is trying to rope the Russians into.

The Syrians meanwhile are keeping their eyes on the clock and hastening slowly towards tightening the cordon on the Baba Amro locality in Homs. As further good news for them, Jordanian sources confirm the arrest by the Jordanian army of seven terrorists crossing into Syria.

(Saeed Naqvi is senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

Open Letter to the PM by Lt General V.K. Nayar (retd) on ‘Age Controversy’

Respected Prime Minister,

Most people, including myself, believe that old soldiers should just fade away. Ever since retiring from the Indian Army as the Western Army Commander and subsequently having served as the governor of Manipur and Nagaland, I firmly held that we have had our innings and matters were best left to those who followed us. However, after giving it considerable thought, I take the liberty in all due respect of writing this ‘open letter’ to my Prime Minister for like hundreds and thousands of my brother officers— both retired and serving— I am deeply concerned about what today is talked about as the ‘Age Controversy.’

In my book, leadership, be it in matters military or otherwise, is based on three simple principles— righteousness, decisiveness and fairness. All three of these seem to have been vitiated in this particular case. There is no doubt that all records, both in the MS and AGs branch, until 2006 clearly reflected 1951 as the Chief’s date of birth. Based on an erroneous entry in the Army List, after the officer had already been cleared for the rank of Lieutenant General, first the MS branch records and then the AG’s records were tampered with. To my mind and understanding, this is the simple crux of the issue and I fail to understand what sort of message has been given to the rank and file of the Indian Army by your government’s inability to resolve it.

To hide behind the legal system— the retraction of the government’s rejection of the Statutory Complaint frankly left the Chief’s lawyers with no choice but to withdraw their petition— and for the media and your government to project this as a defeat for General V.K. Singh is indulging in theatrical politics. Like many of my brother officers, after the media blitz that reported on the Supreme Court’s deliberations, I too felt that the Chief should immediately resign in protest. However, once the Order of the Honourable Court came out five days later— without any TV channel or newspaper reporting it— the shoe seems to be on the other foot. By not resigning and continuing with his job despite what was widely projected as a ‘public humiliation’, V.K. Singh has shown a degree of personal courage that makes me proud of the man and by extension, the Indian Army. Had he resigned, it would have been a petulant act. We must not forget that there is a lot more to the office of the COAS than just the age issue.

Today, Mr Prime Minister, many would like to bury this issue and may accuse me of flogging a dead horse. However, it is my duty as an elder who has served my country to the best of my ability, to point out to you that once the smoke settles, you will be asked why you let this happen. In a system that is reeling from endless corruption charges, where many have learnt to bend with the wind, one man stood up for what he considered wrong. The ‘system’ may have closed in around him and, in the short term, defeated him by denying him justice. But you, Mr Prime Minister, are today being seen as the person who is not only shielding the perpetrators of this original crime, but also protecting the beneficiary of this blatant manipulation.

I have had the honour of interacting with you when you were the finance minister of our country. I have always found you to be a man who could quickly grasp the larger picture and resolutely follow your convictions. Since Independence, the civil-military equation in this country has evolved in its own unique way, perhaps creating certain imbalances which need to be looked at for like the ‘age issue’, these too cannot be wished away. In a fractured and fragmented country that came together in 1947 as the Union of India, I can say with great pride that the Indian Army managed to retain its secular and non-communal outlook. This has to be protected at all costs! In your watch, if all the lions were to get up and go, the wind will say, I told you so!

Lt General VK Nayar, PVSM, SM (retd)


Indian vote at UN notwithstanding, Syria not falling soon


Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Roshomon, is an examination of the same reality from different perspectives.

Syria today would lend itself admirably to the Roshomon treatment. Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and the supervising deity of all the Arab regimes who are most reliably in the US camp, Saudi Arabia, all have distinct perspectives on Syria, with some overlaps.

Powers arrayed against Bashar al Assad of Syria are exactly the ones which transformed a no-fly-zone into regime change in Libya.

In fact, like road repair gangs working on different stretches of a highway, one stretch at a time, the same gang of Arabs and their western minders are proceeding from Libya to Syria to…..sorry, hang on. Syria is proving to be a much tougher project than earlier imagined.

There are various reasons why Assad has to be brought to his knees.

The West and Israel obviously find it easier to manage a Mid-East without independent minded trouble makers like Qaddafi and Assad who had a history of being on the wrong side during the cold war. The Soviet Union is history but habits acquired during that period, the kneejerk anti Americanism for instance, will not go away unless these regimes are smashed and Israel plus energy interests are secured against their caprice.

The Israeli experience during the 2006 Israel-Hizbullah war has taught all friends of Israel a lesson: Hizbullah derives its muscle from Iran and Syria. This cannot be given the emotive label of a “Shia arc” because Iran, Syria, Hizbullah link up eventually with Hamas in Gaza, a patently Sunni outfit in Israel’s underbelly and which Israel dubs as “terrorist”.

The removal of Syria from this chain weakens Hamas, Hizbullah, Iran, all in one strike.

The removal of Assad, an Alawi (moderate variant of Shiaism) would result in power being distributed among the majority Sunni population of Syria. An enlargement of Sunni power has become an article of faith with the Saudi regime.

During the earlier phase of the cold war the Shah of Iran and the Saudi King sat on the same western lap. But with the coming of the Ayatullahs to power in Teheran in 1979, the Shia-Sunni divide resurfaced.

The most scary of Saudi nightmares materialized when American occupation of Iraq in 2003 resulted in the rise of Shia power next door in Baghdad. To check this turn of events, Al Qaeda type terrorism was introduced into Iraq on America’s watch to keep the new Shia rulers off balance.

In strengthening Sunni regimes, the Saudis are the most enthusiastic players but they have competition in the business. This competition comes from Turkey.

Until 2000, Turkey was comprehensively in the grip of secularism as dictated by the founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Pasha Ataturk. The west (unknowingly) helped weaken this secularism by allowing the five year siege of Sarajevo (no UN resolutions then), the massacre at Sebrenica and the unspeakable cruelties of the Bosnian war – all on live TV. Sarajevo derives from the Turkish word Sarai which means “resting place”. The region is part of Turkish nostalgia.

The consequence was the rise of the Islamist Refah party with Nikmetin Arbakan as Prime Minister. The Army, guarantor of Turkey’s secularism, scuttled the regime. A softer version of a tolerant, secular Muslim group, the Peace and Development party under Prime Minister Tayyep Erdogan has broken all records by increasing its vote share dramatically through three elections.

Naturally, Erdogan sees himself, (not the Saudis) as a model in the context of the Arab Spring. Hence Turkish pressure on Assad to accommodate the Muslim Brotherhood in the changes Syria must undertake. When Erdogan turned up in Tripoli to say his prayers after Qaddafi’s fall he was building up this Arab constituency.

There are three obstacles in his way. He must gain popularity in the Arab street if he has to offer himself as an acceptable model. For this he must stand upto Israeli-US polices on Palestine, a stance which has made Iran, Hizbullah and Syria Pariahs in West’s eyes.

The second obstacle is a deep seated Arab aversion to the Ottoman Empire which Turkey’s high profile would evoke.

The third is a very tricky one: Syria, Iran, Iraq all have Kurds which can be powerful pressure points on Ankara.

But where does all this lead to? In brief neither Syria, nor Assad are falling anytime soon, secure as they are in a strong, largely united Alawi Army, a two million strong Baath party, on all sides of sectarian divides, notwithstanding an Indian vote for a resolution seeking a repeat of Libya.

(Saeed Naqvi is senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)