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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 25, June 14, 2014

Threat to Syria Averted

Saturday 14 June 2014, by Harish Chandola

This piece was sent before the election to Syria’s presidency.

President Bashar Assad of Syria will soon be seeking a new term of office. He appears to have overcome the threat to his regime from military intervention from the United States, Britain and France. The threat to it posed by foreign-supported Sunni jihadists, who have been waging an armed struggle to oust him since 2011, is diminishing. It caused much devastation, killed thousands and rendered millions as refugees, now living in neighbouring countries. His opponents, financed, armed and supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and encouraged and helped by the United States, Britain and France, have largely been beaten in the armed conflict started by them to remove him from office and establish a jihadist government there, like the ones set up in Libya and Egypt, following what was called the Islamic spring.

The American threat of an attack on Syria with missiles and bombs and the support for that from Britain and France, following Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its opponents in the middle of last year, has ended after the reluctance of the US Congress and British Parliament to approve the move and the reluctance of France in that direction.

The West is coming to understand that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), founded by the Al-Qaeda, to wage war in Syria, is a very dangerous organisation, which can start similar armed fights in other states as well, if supplied with arms it had been seeking from the West. It has already started armed fights in Lebanon, taken control of Syrian border crossings into Turkey and can create problems in Jordan and elsewhere and therefore it would be dangerous to provide it anti-aircraft weapons and missiles it has been seeking from the West. It has assembled more than 7000 jihadists from all over the world and is increasing their number. In neighbouring Iraq, it has seized parts of Falluja and Ramadi areas, on the Syrian border. It has been attacking employees of Western organisations like Medecins Sans Frontieres, a French charity, which had been providing medical help inside Syria. It has got involved in a conflict with the so-called Free Syrian Army, which has itself been fighting the Assad Government, in Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, and in Raqqa, northern Syria’s big town, controlled by the Opposition. It used car bombs in Aleppo, killing 50, and is capable of doing the same anywhere else.

Witnessing its increasing activities, Western governments have become cautious in providing it arms and other help.

A settlement with President Assad is becoming a possibility, now that his forces have ousted the rebels from much of the capital, Damascus, and some other areas. A Peace Conference on Syria had opened in Montreux in the last week of January, co-sponsored by the United States and Russia. The Conference had then moved to Geneva on January 24, with the purpose of establishing a transitional Syrian administration, and to bring to an end the three-year-old conflict. Syrian rebels attended it, demanding the removal of President Assad. But the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, had announced two days earlier: “No one can grant or withdraw the legitimacy of the President other than the Syrians themselves.” President Assad had earlier told a news agency that the Geneva Conference was about fighting terrorism in Syria and it was “totally unrealistic” to suppose that he would ever share power with the Opposition. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said his government was looking for a settlement that preserved the Syrian state and prevented a takeover by the jihadists. Russia and Iran are fully supporting the Assad regime. Russia has meanwhile provided Syria with aircraft, armoured vehicles, surveillance equip-ment, radars, electronic warfare systems, spare parts for helicopters and various weapons including guided bombs. Russian experts and advisers are reported to be running unmanned aircraft (UAVs) to help Syrians track rebel positions and carry out precision artillery and air strikes on them.

The Geneva Conference held out hope that a settlement may be possible through negotiations. As things stand, it will be impossible for the rebels to capture Damascus and oust President Basar Assad, who wants the Western countries to believe that the jihadists are terrorists threatening both the region and the West. He also wants to tell the West that he can be a vital source of intelligence against the jihadists. Meanwhile, some influential Western persons are coming round to believing that.

Ryan Crocker, a former American ambassador to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, said some time ago that it was better to have President Assad in Syria than the country becoming an Al-Qaeda stronghold. Some way of doing business with him, he stated, should be quietly found. That view is gaining ground.

President Assad has meanwhile freed some 1000 jihadists and Al-Qaeda members from his prisons as part of the amnesty he declared.

The Syrian regime and the rebels had met face-to-face in Geneva under the chairmanship of Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN Special Envoy to Syria. The Syrian Government officials were in favour of opening a few corridors for humanitarian assistance and offering ceasefires to let food and medicines into the troubled areas of Yarmouk, Maodamiya and Eastern Ghouta, suburbs of Damascus.

The author is a veteran journalist who has written extensively on West Asian developments.