Holding out

Published : Jun 01, 2012 00:00 IST

Kofi Annan's peace plan for Syria seems to be making headway against heavy odds.

in Damascus

DESPITE the hostility of the armed Syrian opposition and key Western powers, the United Nations-mandated Annan Peace Plan for Syria is on track. The Syrian government agreed to a ceasefire under the plan along with the deployment of 300 U.N. peacekeepers. This was to be followed by talks between the government and the opposition on the country's political future. The Syrian government and most of the internal opposition have agreed to the Annan Peace Plan, but the opposition groups based in Turkey and France have virtually rejected it as unworkable and as a ploy by the government to buy time. They want the Annan mission to fail and lead to foreign military intervention. But their hopes seem to be misplaced. The head of the U.N. observers' mission in Syria, Major General Robert Mood of Norway, told the media in the first week of May that there was a good chance and opportunity to break the cycle of violence that had continued for more than a year now.

In the last week of April, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon struck a discordant note when he blamed the Syrian government for widespread ceasefire violations. The Syrian government was infuriated by the timing of his comments, which came immediately after suicide bombers killed 10 people in Damascus. The state-run media called the comments outrageous and accused Ban of wilfully ignoring the crimes and terrorist acts against Syria. The U.N. has estimated that more than 9,000 people have been killed in Syria so far. Syrian Vice Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad told an Indian media delegation that 6,000 civilians had been killed by terrorist and armed opposition groups. He also said that around 2,000 civilians were killed in the crossfire between the security forces and the militants and added: We regret that.

The government has agreed to the stationing of 300 U.N. observers in the country. The U.N. expects most of the observers to be inside the country before the end of May.

The government has adhered to the commitment given to Kofi Annan, former U.N. Secretary-General, on the withdrawal of troops and heavy weaponry from trouble-prone pockets in cities such as Homs, Hama and Idlib. We are committed to the agreement, Mekdad emphasised. But the armed opposition, with the encouragement of its foreign backers, seems bent on upping the ante by once again regrouping and staging hit-and-run attacks and suicide bombings in cities like Damascus and Aleppo, hitherto relatively unscathed by the violence.

Until the end of April, the government reported more than a thousand instances of violation of the ceasefire by the armed opposition groups. The government had made the mistake of allowing the armed opposition fighters to regroup and reinforce their bases in cities such as Homs, Idlib, Damascus and Hama when the Arab League observer mission was in the country late last year. This time, the government appears determined to stop the militant groups from once again reinforcing pockets of resistance in a crowded urban environment.

Senior Syrian officials say that they have found enough evidence to show that the Baba Amr suburb of Homs was turned into a command-and-control centre by the rebels with the help of French, Turkish and American officials. According to Syrian officials, Turkey had got ready camps to host Syrian political refugees two months before the crisis erupted. Armed groups forced families to leave for Turkey, said Mekdad.

The Obama administration has been supplying the rebels with sophisticated electronic surveillance and telecommunications equipment. The Turks have been providing most of the training, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar are funnelling in huge amounts of money.

The Qatarese and the Saudis are spending billions of dollars killing Syrians, said Mekdad. He recalled the role of the Arab League, under Qatar's chairmanship, in the conflict. The Arab League's observer mission, under the former Sudanese military chief General Mohammed Ahmad al-Dabi, had submitted an even-handed report, which apportioned blame to both sides for the violence. But under Saudi and Qatari pressure, Dabi was forced to resign and the report was given a quiet burial.

The Arab League, along with its friends in the West, rushed Syria's case to the U.N. Security Council in a bid to re-enact the Libyan regime-change scenario. It was the timely veto by Russia and China that prevented Syria and the region from descending into more violence and chaos. The regional group which was formed to foster Arab unity now wants to destroy a fellow member. The Arab League has been made into an instrument for meddling in the affairs of sovereign countries. They support the bombing of Syria, said Mekdad.

Now that Iraq has taken over the rotating chairmanship of the Arab League, Syria expects a more even-handed approach. Syria has been suspended from the Arab League, but Mekdad said that his country had support from many of the member-countries. He asserted that if Syria overcomes this crisis, there will be major changes in the Arab world.

Mekdad listed the three groups threatening the government. The first consists of Al Qaeda and its affiliates. The Minister said that this group was small in number, had come in from outside, and was lethal and determined. The second group comprises the Muslim Brothers and their supporters. They don't have much support within Syria, he observed. The third group consists of drug smugglers and criminal elements. The Minister said that around 70,000 people with criminal records had been very active. The first secretary of the Syrian Communist Party (SCP), Hunein Nemer, told this correspondent that the influence of the political opposition was diminishing and that it was ceding space to criminal elements. He said that they were increasingly resorting to hit and run terror tactics. The government can't protect everybody, conceded Nemer. The SCP, along with a splinter communist party, is part of the national coalition government.

Nemer said that the plan to make another Libya out of Syria had failed. The veteran communist leader said that the plan was, at first, to set up a liberated zone along the border with Jordan with foreign support, in an effort to replicate the Benghazi scenario in Libya. When this failed, the rebels shifted their base to Latakia and Baniyas in late 2011. A German ship fitted with electronic intelligence-gathering equipment was anchored off the coast to assist them. When this failed too, the armed groups shifted first to Idlib, along the border with Turkey, and then to Hama. Their last throw of the dice was in the Baba Amr suburb of Homs. After the takeover of Baba Amr by the security forces in late March, the rebels now have no command and control centres. However, according to Nemer, 10,000 to 15,000 armed fighters still remain inside the country.

The mountainous border with Lebanon continues to be an area of concern, but the Lebanese armed forces have succeeded in foiling large-scale infiltration and arms smuggling. In late April, the Lebanese helped in capturing a boatload of fighters and arms heading for the Syrian coast. The government in Iraq remains friendly, but the long and sparsely populated border between the two countries facilitates the infiltration of militant Sunni groups, including Al Qaeda. Turkey remains a strong backer of the Free Syrian Army based on its territory.

There have been misgivings within Turkey on the confrontationist course adopted by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, abandoning, in the process, the zero problems with neighbours foreign policy that stood the country in good stead in the last decade. Many Turkish commentators have written that the country should have positioned itself to play the role of a mediator instead of becoming one of the chief protagonists in the conflict. Erdogan, given his earlier close relationship with President Bashar al-Assad, was uniquely placed to play that role. But he seems to have miscalculated: he must have thought that the Syrian leader would follow the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya into the dustbin of history. Erdogan is trying to be the leader of all Muslims trying to inspire revolutions, observed Mekdad. He said that Syria was the only country in the region that was not under the influence of the West. Mekdad blamed the West and its proxies for fomenting the turmoil sweeping the Arab world. Why is it that former colonial powers and the Gulf countries are supporting the Brothers? he questioned. The Gulf monarchies, Mekdad pointed out, were also the strongest supporters of the Taliban.

Syrian officials are confident that the U.N. observers' group, like the Arab League observer mission, will truthfully report the situation and the insidious role of the armed groups operating with outside support. The Syrian government has ensured that the U.N. mission is not dominated by peacekeepers from countries that have been demanding regime change. The Annan Plan will be supported on the basis of national sovereignty, not because of outside influence, the Syrian Information Minister, Adnan Mahmoud, remarked during his interaction with the Indian media delegation.

Nemer said that the success of the Annan Plan depended on Washington. The U.S. knows that Syria cannot be defeated. It also knows that in case of any war, Israel too will pay a heavy price, he said. The aim of the U.S. now was to weaken Syria and further undermine the anti-imperialist front. He said that the U.S. had undermined the war on terrorism by encouraging jehadists from Afghanistan and elsewhere to come and fight in Syria. Among the Arab countries, Saudi Arabia is outspending Qatar to bolster the faltering morale of the armed rebels. Nemer said that the opposition leaders based in Istanbul had said that they were spending $1 million every five days to finance the operations in Syria. It is not only the Baath Party that is being targeted. It is Syria as a state that has been targeted. They want sectarian warfare, the SCP leader said.

In the meantime, ordinary people are carrying on with their lives, although they cast anxious glances over their shoulders these days whenever they venture out. The major cities of Damascus and Aleppo have witnessed suicide bombings, increasing use of improvised explosive devices and targeting of senior officials and sympathisers of the government. Armed foreign terrorist cells have been operating within Damascus city. This correspondent saw a flat in the posh Mezze neighbourhood that was the hideout of foreign fighters. They were taken out after an exchange of fire with the Syrian security forces. Huge caches of arms were found in a basement shop of the building. The presence of the U.N. peacekeepers has not deterred the armed groups or the opposition based outside from carrying out terror attacks on government buildings and places frequented by ordinary people.

The Governor of Damascus Province, Hossein Makhlouf, said that the armed groups had not spared even ambulances and fire engines. The government has captured many Libyans, Turks and fighters from other countries who had infiltrated into the country. Bombs have exploded in old Damascus, one of the most ancient inhabited areas in the world. Latest reports suggest that the historical sites of Palmyra and Crac de Chevaliers have been infiltrated by armed opposition fighters. The government fears for the safety of the historical monuments.

The sabotaging of gas pipelines by the armed groups has had an adverse impact on the electricity grid. People now go without power for hours. The depreciating Syrian currency has added to the common man's woes. Prices of basic necessities have increased and unemployment shows an upward spiral. The government's embrace of neoliberal economic policies in 2000 had already increased the gulf between the rich and the poor. The SCP chief admitted that social problems have come to the fore and that the Baath Party did not comprehend the gravity of the situation.

The tourism sector, which brought in 10 million visitors, has been the most affected. Tourism brought in about 30 per cent of the country's foreign currency earnings. The Tourism Ministry is making concerted attempts to revive the once booming industry. The focus now seems to be to attract religious tourists from the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere. Besides the famous historical sites, Syria has popular pilgrimage centres for Shia Muslims and Orthodox Christians. The oldest churches and monasteries in the world are located in Syria. Aramaic, the language spoken during the time of Jesus Christ, can still be heard in the picturesque town of Malula near Damascus.

On the political front, the government is sticking to its deadline for the transition towards multiparty democracy. After the approval of the new Constitution in March, parliamentary elections were held in the second week of May. Syrian officials admit that the concept of multiparty democracy is only in a formative stage, but they proudly point out that their country was among the first in the region to scrap the draconian emergency laws. Mekdad said that even Egypt and Tunisia, where the Arab Spring notched up its first successes, still had emergency laws on their statute books. The streets of the major cities are awash with hoardings and posters of candidates contesting elections. There is no denying that the ruling Baath Party continues to cast a long shadow over Syrian politics. It will take some time for a credible opposition to emerge.

According to Syria's Information Minister, Adnan Mahmoud, the parliamentary elections are the continuation of the reform process initiated by the government to provide a multiparty system through the ballot box. He said that nine new parties had registered for the elections, which would be supervised by an independent election commission. The elections will be a true expression of the will of the people, who include the national opposition, he told the media in late April. He said that one of the greatest challenges the country faced was the coordinated media attack that had been launched from the West and the Gulf. This was the first time that a country had been singled out for an all-out media onslaught in which truth and non-biased reporting had been the first casualties, he said. They [the West and its local allies] have put all their media at the service of the terrorists.

His ire was particularly focussed on two Arab television channels that have wide viewership. These channels, the Minister said, had filmed terrorists committing violent acts and then claimed that government forces were responsible for them. They have become terrorist' channels and are out to sabotage the Annan Plan, the Minster alleged.

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