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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 7, February 8, 2014

Many Faces of the Syrian ‘Peace Process’

Monday 10 February 2014, by M K Bhadrakumar

The New York Times report that President Barack Obama is planning a visit to Riyadh in another six-seven weeks from now, towards the end of March, signals an American move to mollify the Saudi feelings over the situation around Syria and Iran. The Saudis have been angry that Obama did not attack Syria and help remove the regime and, more important, engaged Iran in direct talks.

Obama is making a smart move to pay his respects to King Abdullah who ‘lost’ face over Syria and Iran. Two developments involving Turkey show that over Syria, a major regional realignment is under way, which weakens the Saudi position—the Turkish air strike on January 28 at a convoy of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated extremist group operating in northern Syria, which reflects a major shift in thinking in Ankara, and, secondly, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s visit to Iran, signifying a new page in the bilateral ties that were frayed in the most recent year due to differences over Syria.

Turkey and Iran are the two most powerful countries today in the Middle East and their bonhomie puts the Saudis at a disadvantage. Riyadh understands this perfectly well.

Equally, although no one expected the Geneva 2 Conference on Syria to generate a break-through, the fact remains that a peace process is beginning.

PRIMA FACIE, Washington professes satisfaction with the Geneva 2 process and pledges to work closely with Russia to carry the positive impulses forward as well as is nodding approvingly of the upcoming visit of the head of the ‘moderate’ Syrian National Coalition leader Ahmad Jarba (who incidentally is regarded as a Saudi protege) to Moscow.

Interestingly, an unnamed senior US official was willing to speculate on recent reports of a rethink in Moscow regarding the Assad regime.
He said: “Now they’re seeing Jarba, and that, to me, indicates that the Russian side also recognises that the Opposition Forces Coalition also has a role to play in resolving the Syrian conflict. I don’t know that it signals a huge change in the Russian position. But I do think it’s positive that the Russians hear very clearly what are the concerns from the Opposition Forces Coalition, an organisation which the US and approximately 90 other countries have recognised as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”

There is of course an ‘information war’ going on and it is difficult to take anyone at face value. Russia, in fact, has made a ‘counter-offer’ that it could arrange meetings between Washington and Damascus! It’s difficult to know who is serious and who’s smirking in a proxy war.

Clearly, the Obama Administration is juggling not three but at least four balls in the air. One, last week it came to be known that despite public denial, the US Congress had indeed secretly approved Washington’s transfer of weapons to rebel groups in Syria and such supplies of arms have been going on.

Two, nonetheless, on January 29, at an important hearing at the US Senate Intelligence Committee, the US spy chiefs warned about the danger of the extremist groups in Syria planning attacks on the US and European countries.

Three, on the other hand, the US has issued a stern warning of “consequences” to follow if the Syrian regime continued to drag its feet on the implementation of the agreement to destroy the country’s chemical weapons. Finally, Obama in his State of the Union speech in Washington on January 28 referred to the regime change agenda in Syria.

Meanwhile, the US has introduced a new dimension altogether, alleging that the Assad regime “may be able to produce biological weapons”. And all this within the space of some 72 hours. In fact, if Obama is in a jolly mood, a good case can now be made for him to order some dramatic drone strikes on Syria. Turkey may have set an important precedent on January 28.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.