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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 12, March 9, 2013

Syrian Crisis: Way Out of the Blind Alley

Sunday 10 March 2013, by Benjamin Todd

Western diplomatic circles are becoming increasingly pessimistic about what they term as the “Syrian revolution”. They are now contemplating changes in their policy of handling the Syrian crisis. Syria has turned out to be a headache for the US and its European allies of late with the project ‘Topple Bashir al-Assad’ having failed to succeed despite all efforts to ensure its success. The Syrian opposition (that is, those who are desperately seeking to destabilise the Syrian Government) has been frustrated in its attempt to control territories under its jurisdiction and the violent methods adopted by the militants guided by the opponents of the Assad regime have evoked widespread discontent in the local population.

Simultaneously some Western analysts are expressing serious doubts about the justification of the means employed to dislodge Assad from power. Of all persons it is former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who has warned of a “Somalisation” of Syria, while making a grim forecast of what could happen after Assad’s removal: the country could well be divided into spheres of influence of various groupings, thus sparking sporadic terrorist outbursts.

Actually the Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist organi-sation has become the main striking power of the rebels. Members of the group, which happens to be on the US blacklist, account for over 10 per cent of the opposition forces. Since May 2012 it has been enjoying direct support of Saudi Arabia’s foreign intelligence whose head, Prince Bandar, has taken personal responsibility in this regard and is generously financing this grouping while arming it as well. The special services of Qatar too are planning to begin cooperation with the Jabhat al-Nusra as they consider it the “only organised armed wing of the Syrian opposition”. Other Salafi-Jihadist groups linked to the Al-Qaeda—their total number constitutes 50-70 per cent of the opposi-tion’s war potential—are also coordinating with the Jabhat al-Nusra.

The armed opposition’s fighting efficiency as well as cruel onslaughts on the Syrian public are attributable to the multiplicity, skills and high percentage of these foreign mercenaries. What is more, a significant part of the armed opposition to Bashar al-Assad is represented by radicals from the Syrian wing of the Society of Muslim Brothers. In case the Assad regime is overthrown, it is the military personnel from among the Islamists who will take control of the country.

THIS frightening prognosis in the midst of the prevailing Syrian scenario has resulted in the Obama Administration reluctantly refraining from extending direct military assistance to the armed opposition in the country because it apprehends that the weapons supplied would in all likelihood fall into wrong hands. The Free Syrian Army, which is gradually transforming itself into a gathering of armed criminal groupings, does not also inspire confidence and credibility.

Moreover, Washington underestimated the roots of Damascus’ strength: the support of the Assad administration among the local population and Army. This is what has enabled the Syrian President to withstand the opposition’s offensive for so many months and effectively repulse foreign attacks. In view of the factors mentioned in the foregoing, there is no reason why Damascus would capitulate to a patchy union of immigrant groups. The opposition is now constrained to acknowledge that neither of the two sides in the conflict can get the upper hand in the current situation, and yet it is resisting any dialogue with Assad for fear of loss of face. The opposition is further bolstered in this respect by the full awareness that it would be impossible to enter into negotiations with Damascus unless it gets support from Doha and Riyadh, and both are blocking, with the help of the Islamist groups they sponsor, the initiative for a dialogue.

The meeting of the Executive Board of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (Syrian National Coalition), held in Istanbul on January 19-21, 2013, clearly pointed to the fact that the idea of consolidation of the anti-Assad forces was unfounded. The Free Syrian Army does not obey the Coalition, which is recognised by neither the Jabad al-Nusra nor other radical groups; it also does not have the backing of Kurds and the internal opposition represented by the National Coordination Committee. According to reliable sources, the Syrian National Coalition, set up in November 2012, will meet the fate of the Syrian National Council (SNC) which didn’t win general recognition. Considering this chaotic situation there is no point in trying to form a government-in-exile based on the Syrian National Coalition.

The Coalition is discrediting itself before its Arab and Western patrons. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others, which instigated and promoted the war in Syria, are starting to doubt if it is worth providing huge sums to the opposition without garnering any practical dividend in return. Besides, they are observing high-level corruption among the Coalition leaders who misappropriate most of the funds. On January 21, 2013 Syrian National Coalition leader al-Khatib returned from Doha where he had asked for $ 40 million to support the “new authorities” but had to return empty-handed.

It is obvious that the Coalition has split, and its leader Ahmed Mouaz al-Khatib finds the situation deadlocked. On the pretext of the “Swiftly worsening humanitarian situation” he has publicly claimed that the Coalition is ready to start negotiations with the Syrian Government. The statement drew a sharp negative response from the Syrian National Council. The Syrian Muslim Brothers, who control the SNC and thus occupy a number of seats in the Coalition, is a militaristic warlike party which is persuading all external opposition not to enter into negotiations with Damascus.

HOWEVER, this situation is highly beneficial for Israel. On January 31, 2013 it carried out an unprovoked air strike against a facility not far from Damascus demonstrating Israeli superiority in the Middle East. Under the pretence that “terrorists may get hold of the Syrian WMD” and to ensure its own security, Israel has reserved its right to conduct preventive military strikes against the neighbouring country. The inter-national community did not react to this blatant aggression against Syria. Only the League of Arab States and a number of countries with independent position condemned the action. Such a stance of the international community makes one wonder if the world has graduated to a new stage where an aggressor is allowed to carry out with impunity untrammelled military offensives against sovereign states breaching the UN Charter without any fear of retaliation.

The Israeli air strike is further proof of the veracity of media reports to the effect that Israel, Qatar and Turkey have settled for an exchange of views on the future Syrian Government they have in mind. The heads of the intelligence agencies of Qatar and Israel have already met in the presence of Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss speeding up foreign invasion into Syria. As those countries will benefit the most from Bashir al-Assad’s overthrow, they will do their best to undermine the peace efforts of international mediators and provoke further escalation of the crisis so that it snowballs into a regional conflict leading to unforeseen consequences. According to latest reports in the British media (The Sunday Times, BBC), Israel at the same time is getting ready to create a 16-kilometre “buffer strip” deep inside Syrian territory to prevent penetration into the country of militants from Islamist terror groups active in Syria. It is proposing to deploy two infantry brigades and one tank battalion of the Israeli Army in the area.

By providing military aid to the Syrian opposition, lobbying for foreign intervention and attempting to create a sort of “transitional government” based on the warring factions within and outside the Syrian National Coalition, the anti-Assad elements, both internal and external, will only help to protract the strife and enhance the hostilities, consolidate extremist positions and destabilise the entire Middle East. They will thus reach a blind alley.

In this setting the international community has a special role to play. It should do its utmost to prevent expansion of the humanitarian disaster in the region by giving a new impetus to the Brahimi Mission and encouraging the internal and external opposition groups as well as the present Syrian Government to initiate negotiations without preconditions on the basis of the Geneva Accord. Besides, radical extremists from the Jihadist groups should be debarred from aggravating the crisis and frustrating the prospects of a viable settlement.

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