A new year without hope

Print edition : February 08, 2013

Rebel fighters take positions in foxholes in the battle for the military airport in Taftanaz on January 6. Photo: Mustafa Karali/AP

Residents evacuate after forces loyal to Assad target their houses in Aleppo's al-Mashhad district. Photo: ZAIN KARAM/REUTERS

President Bashar Al-Assad waves to his supporters after speaking at the Opera House in Damascus on January 6. Photo: REUTERS/SANA

A march in support of Assad in the central city of Homs on January 6. Photo: AFP

U.N. peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi after a meeting on the Syrian conflict on January 11. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP

THE CIVIL STRIFE IN SYRIA, WHICH STARTED IN EARLY 2011, shows little sign of ending in a peaceful manner any time soon. The United Nations estimates that at least 60,000 people have died and half a million have been turned into refugees as a result of the conflict. Around half of those who perished are said to be civilians.

However, in his first public address in six months, President Bashar al-Assad said on January 6 that he was open to new reconciliation efforts. In a fiery speech delivered to a packed hall at the Damascus Opera House, the President proposed the drafting of a new Constitution and the formation of a new government that would include representatives from the opposition.

“Syria is living through an unprecedented attack, and the solution to this conflict can only be through popular participation,” the President said. He once again offered to hold an internationally supervised election and form a government that would represent all sections of Syrian society. Assad stressed that for a meaningful dialogue to begin, foreign assistance to the armed groups should first cease. He made it clear that he would order the army to cease operations only after the “terrorists” stopped fighting.

Iran’s proposal

Iran had earlier proposed a six-point plan to end the conflict. The plan urged all the parties to end all military action immediately so that a U.N.-monitored election could follow. The Iranian proposal also called for an immediate lifting of the economic blockade on Syria so as to facilitate the return of the refugees. The other recommendations were the resumption of comprehensive national dialogue between the opposition and the government to forge a national consensus and the formation of a transitional government. This would be followed by the holding of a free and transparent election and the framing of a new Constitution. However, the Syrian opposition has been quick to label Iran’s proposals as “a last-ditch attempt” to save the Syrian government.

Assad praised the efforts of friendly countries to find a political solution to end the bloody impasse. The National Security Advisers (NSA) of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping, which had a “stand-alone” meeting for the first time in New Delhi in the second week of January, were critical of the outside interference in the Syrian conflict. The NSA stressed the importance of the Syrian people themselves finding a lasting solution to the conflict.

President Assad said that there was no point in talking to the “puppets made by the West” and demanded an immediate halt to the funding and training of armed militants entering Syria in droves “to decapitate and dismember citizens”. The United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the leading backers of the insurgents, who have been infiltrating through Syria’s porous borders. Assad made an impassioned plea for a “full national mobilisation” to fight against “the terrorists who follow the ideology of Al Qaeda”.

A new report by a leading Western think tank, the Quillam Foundation, has concluded that the jehadist group Jabhat al Nusra, closely affiliated to Al Qaeda, has emerged as the “principal force against Assad”. In December last, the U.S. State Department had classified Al Nusra as a “terrorist group”. Washington said that the group had evolved from Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and was attempting “to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes”. According to the State Department, Al Nusra has claimed responsibility for more than “40 suicide attacks” in major Syrian cities, including the capital, Damascus. In December, the group briefly occupied part of a military base in Aleppo and in the second week of January led the fighting to briefly capture the Taftanaz airbase in northern Syria.

President Assad’s renewed dialogue offer was promptly rejected by the opposition and its international backers. They once again demanded the immediate resignation of the President. Russia has welcomed Assad’s latest peace initiative. A statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry said that the Syrian President’s speech “affirmed the readiness for the launch of an inter-Syrian dialogue and for reforming the country on the basis of Syrian sovereignty”. The National Coalition, the new opposition backed by the West, refuses to negotiate, demanding instead the immediate removal of Assad from office.

Dire predictions

Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. envoy to Syria, warned in early January that the death toll could further escalate. He said that the threat of balkanisation was hovering over the country and the situation “presents a grave danger not only to the Syrian people but to the neighbouring countries and the world”. The veteran Algerian diplomat said that a military solution was far away. “The government will not win. The opposition may win in the long term but by the time they do, there will be no Syria, so what is the victory in that?” he asked. Brahimi emphasised that the crisis should be solved before the end of 2013. Otherwise, he predicted “there will be no Syria”.

The Syrian government has dismissed Brahimi’s dire predictions and has alleged that his statements indicated a pronounced tilt towards the Western and the conservative Arab position on the conflict. Syria is unhappy with the U.N. envoy’s insistence on giving the Muslim Brotherhood a key role in a proposed transitional government. The party has been insisting on the resignation of President Assad, describing him as a “war criminal” who should face justice. This view has been echoed by the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt. The permanent members of the U.N. Security Council had agreed in June last year on the need to put in place a “transitional” government that would give representation to all the stakeholders in Syria. But the West and the Gulf states have insisted that Assad should not be part of the transition process. In his statement made in early January, Brahimi also seemed to rule out any role for Assad in a transitional government. “In Syria, what people are saying is that a family has been ruling for 40 years—and that is too long,” he told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The Syrian Foreign Ministry termed Brahimi’s opinion as “flagrantly biased”.

Misplaced confidence

The government is in control of the major populated areas of the country but the rebels have entrenched themselves in areas along the border with Turkey and Lebanon. The military bases scattered across the country are firmly in the hands of government forces. Joshua Landis, an expert on the region who teaches at the University of Oklahoma, noted recently that even after two years, the rebels “have not yet taken full control of a single major city or town. That’s a bad sign for the rebels.” He said that the confidence of the rebels that victory was around the corner was misplaced. “The regime has the unity, it has the heavy weapons. Many of the rebels operate on the assumption that the U.S. will intervene to tip the balance for them,” Landis wrote.

Brahimi, who met with senior American and Russian envoys in Geneva on January 11, said he was given assurances that there would be no foreign military intervention in Syria. He said both U.S. and Russia were committed to finding a peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria. A U.N. independent international commission of inquiry, in a report submitted in December, came to the conclusion that the conflict in Syria had turned from a fight for political change to one that was “overtly sectarian in nature”. The reports said that “entire communities are at risk of being forced out of the country or being killed”. As an illustration, the reports pointed out that 80,000 Christians had fled from Homs where Al Nusra had a large presence. Paulo Pinheiro of Brazil, who headed the commission, told the media that that there was no military solution to the conflict. “It is a great illusion that providing arms to one side or the other will help end it,” he said.

But the threat of foreign military intervention cannot be ruled out entirely. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported that the U.S. is strengthening its troop presence in Jordan and that the U.S. military planes carrying weapons for the Syrian opposition have been making frequent trips to Jordanian airports. The kingdom, a staunch ally of the West, shares a border with Syria. In the first week of January, U.S. troops started arriving in Turkey ostensibly to man the Patriot missile batteries placed near the Syrian border. The deployment of the missiles could be the first step towards imposing a “no-fly zone” over parts of Syria. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) will be in full control of the Patriot missiles, which will become operational by the end of January. There have been unfounded allegations that Syria is using Scud-type missiles against civilian targets. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO Secretary-General, tried to use the alleged deployment of Scuds as a justification for the deployment of Patriot missiles.

Israel, too, has strengthened its military presence along the border with Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in early January that the Syrian Army had moved away from the border, allowing “global jehadi forces to move in”. Interestingly, there are also reports that the Saudi Arabian government is having second thoughts about continuing its support to the Salafi groups fighting in Syria. With “regime change” in Syria a remote possibility as things stand now, Saudi Arabia is worried that the groups affiliated to Al Qaeda may turn their attention to the Gulf monarchies.