Spillover effect

Print edition : October 19, 2012

The Syrian rebels are on the back foot after months of fighting, and the consequences of the conflict are now being felt in the entire neighbourhood.

There are increasing signs that the armed rebel groups, despite the sophisticated weaponry that has been provided to them in recent months, have once again failed in their attempts to establish a permanent military foothold in any of the major cities of Syria. It was the takeover of Benghazi by rebels that gave the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) the excuse to establish a no fly zone over Libya. Western governments had resorted to the right to protect doctrine, arguing that only outside military intervention would save the lives of civilians in the city from the wrath of the central government. The armed militias in Syria, masquerading as the Free Syrian Army despite their military failures, are now demanding the imposition of a similar no fly zone over their country. A no fly zone in NATO parlance means the right to bomb Syria into submission, as was recently done to Libya. The first step will be to deploy armed dronesnow the favoured killing machine of the Barack Obama administration.

Abdel Basset Sida, the head of the Syrian National Council which is backed by the West and the Gulf monarchies, said recently that there was an urgent need to set up safe havens patrolled by foreign forces along the Syrian border and the proclamation of a no fly zone over Syria. Sida told Western news agencies from Ankara that safe havens along Syrias borders with Turkey and Jordan would send a signal to the Syrian government that its power is diminishing bit by bit. Sidas request came just a day after United States Secretary of State Hillary Clintons visit to Turkey. Hillary Clinton had announced during the visit that the U.S. and Turkey were considering a range of measures to enhance the fighting capability of the rebel groups. American media reports say that the Obama administration has sent in more intelligence agents and diplomats to advise the rebel groups along the Turkey-Syria border. U.S. officials have said that the increase in their numbers has helped improve the organising skills and fighting capabilities of the rebels.

Hillary Clinton said that a no fly zone was among the measures being considered but hastened to add that major decisions were not imminent. It is one thing to talk about all kinds of potential actions, but you cannot make reasoned decisions without doing intense analysis and operational planning, she said after her meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Davutoglu, the one-time proponent of Turkeys zero problems with neighbours, is now in the forefront of those advocating military action against Syria.

SYRIAN PRESIDENT Bashar al-Assad.-HUSSEIN MALLA/AP

After a few years during which Turkey enjoyed good relations with all its neighbours, the country has reverted to its old role of being the Wests trusted ally in the region. A recent opinion poll in Turkey revealed that only 18 per cent of the population favoured the governments support for the Free Syrian Army. With the Turkish government focussing its energy on regime change in Syria, the separatist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) has become more active. In the first two weeks of September, around 20 Turkish security personnel belonging to the army and the police died in attacks staged by the PKK. The last 12 months have been the bloodiest in Turkey since the conflict peaked in the early 1990s.

Conflict creates problems in neighbourhood

The conflict in Syria has created huge problems for its other neighbours, too. The United Nations says that around 20,000 Syrians have lost their lives in the 18 months of fighting so far. Many of those killed are government supporters and security personnel. Twenty-one captured Syrian soldiers were executed by rebel fighters in Aleppo in early September. Around 500,000 people have fled Syria. Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan have been seriously affected by the ramifications of the conflict. Turkey and Jordan have been forced to house thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting. Sectarian clashes involving opponents and foes of the Syrian government have broken out with alarming frequency in Lebanon. Incidents of sectarian violence, including deadly suicide bombings, have increased in Iraq since the beginning of the year. Because of its policies relating to Syria, Turkey now faces a hostile neighbourhood. Iran has said that it will not be a passive bystander if Turkey gets involved in military action inside Syria. The Alawite population inside Turkey, numbering around 15 million, is getting increasingly restive. A recent article in The New York Times reported that posters and rugs bearing the portrait of the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, were selling like hot cakes in areas dominated by Alawites. Recently, in Istanbul, there were angry protests against the Turkish governments policy on Syria. According to media reports, some demonstrators even carried portraits of Assad. Because of an upsurge in violence, Turkey has put many parts of the north-eastern Hakkari province under military rule. As many as 116 Turkish Kurds have been reportedly killed in the area as a result of military strikes. Turkey is also threatening to invade north-eastern Syria to suppress the Kurdish separatists based there.

Hillary Clinton, during her visit to Moscow in the second week of September, said that the U.S. and like-minded states had the option of circumventing U.N. resolutions to pursue the goal of regime change in Syria. The West has been imposing one punitive sanction after another on Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the sanctions had failed to dislodge the Syrian government and therefore the West was blaming Russia and China and other states for hindering the unity of the world community. A special U.N. Security Council meeting on Syria is expected to be held in late September as world leaders head for New York to attend the annual U.N. meet. Russia, together with China, has already vetoed three Western-sponsored resolutions in the Security Council. A senior Chinese Foreign Ministry official said that some Western countries had hindered and even sabotaged the diplomatic process by pushing for regime change in Syria.

In the first week of August, the Syrian army announced it had captured 200 anti-government fighters during the fighting centred on one suburb of Aleppo. According to reports, those captured by the Syrian Special Forces include Turkish and Saudi officers leading the anti-government militias in Aleppo. The names and ranks of the officers have been published. In the same week, the Syrian rebels kidnapped around 48 Iranian pilgrims, among them women and children. Syria is a major pilgrimage centre for the Shia faithful from all over the world, including India. The Iranian government has said that the responsibility for the safety of the hostages is on countries supporting the armed groups fighting inside Syria, notably the U.S., Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The Iranian Foreign Ministry has sent a formal diplomatic note to Washington stating that due to its open support for Syrian terrorist groups the U.S. government is responsible for the safety of the hostages.

A REBEL FIGHTER RESTS during a break from fighting, at the rebel headquarters in Marea on the outskirts of Aleppo.-MUHAMMED MUHEISEN/AP

The U.S. government has openly acknowledged that it is providing non-lethal support to the Syrian militant groups, many of them affiliated to Al Qaeda. The State Department has set aside $25 million in funding for the rebels and supplied them with secure communications equipment. The United Kingdom, France and Germany are some of the European powers helping the rebel forces. The Saudis and the Qataris have been even more lavish with their spending; they started giving sophisticated weaponry to the armed groups in the beginning of 2011. It is now being said that Washington is getting increasingly involved in the Syrian uprising in order to ensure that the help from the Gulf monarchies does not fall into wrong hands, meaning the jehadi groups that have been leading the terror attacks and suicide bombings. In the second week of September, the head of the Syrian Salafi Jihad, a close ally of Al Qaeda, pledged more deadly attacks in the country. They are fighting side by side with the Free Syrian Army aided and armed by Washington and its allies in the region.

In the recent upsurge of fighting, the specialised training, command and control, communications and logistics available to the armed groups have very much been on display. Powerful anti-tank weapons are used. There are reports that the rebels are now getting portable anti-aircraft missiles and hand-held launchers for rocket-propelled grenades. Turkey makes the Stinger missile under licence from its U.S. manufacturers. The Syrian rebels are now undergoing training near the U.S. military base of Incirlik in Turkey, near the border with Syria.

President Assad accused Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar specifically of propping up the rebels. They suddenly saw money in their hands after a long period of poverty and think that they can buy history and play a regional role, Assad told the Egyptian daily Al Ahram in the third week of September. He described Saudi Arabia as a mediator of the West that does not appreciate the axis of resistance against Zionism advocated by Syria. Qatar, he said, uses the power of money and revolves in the orbit of the West by providing weapons and money to the terrorists to repeat the scenario of Libya. He alleged that the Qataris were the quickest to fuel the violence in Syria. Assad was of the view that the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, while neglecting the interests of the people, had an agenda that included the creation of a new Ottoman empire.

Kofi Annans warning

In the last week of July, the U.N. peace envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, threw in the towel and announced his resignation. His successor is the veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi. Annan warned in his resignation letter about the dangers the escalating conflict posed to Syria as a nation state. He accused a divided international community of turning the civil conflict in Syria into a proxy multi-state war. He said the best solution to end the fratricidal conflict was to ensure a regional solution based on consensus instead of a solution imposed by the West and its allies. India is also in favour of the solution proposed by Annan. For the first time India abstained on a resolution on Syria that was put to vote in the last week of July. The Saudi-sponsored resolution demanded that Assad step down.

India for solution through dialogue

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI, the new U.N.-Arab League peace envoy, at a Syrian refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Altinozu in Hatay province.-ADEM ALTAN/POOL/REUTERS

Indian officials say that there is no change in the countrys policy on Syria. India, which sided with the West in earlier Security Council resolutions, is at pains to stress that it wants the crisis to be resolved through dialogue and that it is against outside military intervention. But it may be too late for a negotiated settlement in the light of recent events. It is our destiny to fight Al Qaeda and jehadists the West has sent to our country. We have no option but to fight them to the finish, a senior Syrian diplomat told this correspondent.

In a war, you either win or lose. Syria is battling it out. Syria is at the epicentre. What happens there will decide the future of the region, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro told Frontline. He said that the U.S. and Turkey were openly arming and training Sunni jehadists to fight in Syria. Al Qaeda fighters who fought in Libya are now in Syria, Maduro pointed out. The Western intervention in Libya, he pointed out, had left the country in turmoil and its treasury had been looted. He said that $200 billion in Libyan government funds deposited in Western banks had gone missing.

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