Syrian syndrome

Print edition : November 30, 2012

Buildings and cars damaged during clashes at Juret al-Shayah in Homs on November 1.-YAZAN HOMSY/REUTERS

Even as the U.S. wants a new leadership to take command of the disparate forces fighting the Syrian government, the escalating conflict is having a ripple effect in the West Asia region.

THE Barack Obama administration seems to be having second thoughts about the rebel leadership it is backing in the internecine war that has been raging in Syria for more than a year. However, though the civilian casualty has been rising and new graphic evidence of gross human rights violations has emerged, the United States and its allies in the region are in no mood to arrive at a compromise and find a negotiated end to the conflict. They continue to insist on a wholesale regime change in the West Asian country. The country, meanwhile, is burning. The fighting has severely impacted on the ancient city of Aleppo. Its centuries-old souk and its famous citadel are among the world heritage sites that have been damaged badly. Homs is another city where the fighting is unabated. Sections of the city have been reduced to rubble. In the process, the sectarian fault lines in Syrian society have further widened.

Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State, perhaps shocked by the new evidence of atrocities committed by the rebel forces, said in the last week of October that Washington wanted a new leadership to take command of the disparate forces fighting the Syrian government. Speaking in the Croatian capital of Zagreb, she said the U.S. wanted the opposition to resist attempts by the extremists to hijack the revolution in Syria and rally wider support among the Syrian people.

Libya, which was liberated with American help, has been witness to jehadi groups running amok. These groups were also supplied with weaponry sourced from the West and purchased with money obtained from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The U.S., including the late Christopher Stevens, who had been the State Departments point man in Libya, was quite aware that many of the Islamist militias it was funding and training had close affiliation with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The U.S. is aware of the fact that a significant amount of the lethal aid it dispatched to Syria has gone to Salafist and jehadi elements. The New York Times reported in October that U.S. intelligence agents had acknowledged that most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jehadists and not to the more secular groups that the West wants to bolster.

A protest against President Bashar al-Assad at Qareh near Damascus on November 2.-REUTERS

Hillary Clinton is now demanding that the rebel leadership get its act together and overhaul its leadership by bringing in new faces. The U.S. has signalled that it wants to sideline the extremist groups. Hillary Clinton snubbed the Syrian National Council (SNC), an exile group based in Paris, which is claiming the sole leadership role in the fight against the Syrian government. She said the group could no longer aspire to play a meaningful role. There cannot be an opposition represented by people who have many good attributes but have in many instances not been inside Syria for 20, 30 or 40 years, she said. Hillary Clinton went on to add that the U.S. and its allies have recommended names and organisations that we believe should be included in any leadership structure.

The Obama administration seems to have finally realised that the rebels have alienated not only the minority communities, which constitute around 40 per cent of the Syrian population, but also secular and liberal-minded Syrians, who are not committed to the Baathist party, which has been ruling the country since the 1960s. Hillary Clinton has emphasised that there should be an opposition that speaks to every segment and every geographic part of Syria. It is expected that Alawite, Kurdish and Christian figureheads will now figure prominently in the U.S.-sponsored list of opposition leaders.

The opposition leaders, acting under pressure from their patrons, met in Qatar in the first week of November under the banner of the Syrian National Initiative. Washington wants a 50-member leadership council with the majority from inside Syria. Some rebel groups have, however, chosen to stay away from the U.S.-led initiative. Some prominent group in the opposition, including the SNC, have criticised the U.S move and have said that they cannot be dictated to.

Only the people of Syria can decide who represents them and who doesnt. No one else has a say in that, said Abdelbaset Seida, the outgoing president of the SNC, who is based in Turkey. Hillary Clinton had previously described the SNC as the leading and legitimate representative of Syrians seeking a peaceful democratic transition.

The United Nations envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has been trying his best to calm the situation and prevent the conflict from spreading to the neighbouring countries. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, while stressing that his government would not change its position on the crisis, warned that the violence in Syria could spread more terrorism in the region and lead to more bloodshed. There was a sliver of hope for a possible peace accord after Brahimi succeeded in persuading the Syrian government to agree to a truce during the Id festivities in late October. But the relative calm lasted less than a day as sections of the rebel forces refused to accept a ceasefire. A gruesome video showing 20 pro-government militiamen being executed in cold blood by Syrian rebels emerged even as the Id festivities were concluding.

Abdelbaset Seida, the outgoing president of the SNC, at a meeting outside Istanbul, Turkey, on October 29.-AP

The U.N. has said that the video could be evidence of a war crime. The footage shows gunmen first beating and then shooting dead a group of prisoners near the town of Sarageb on the main road linking Aleppo and Damascus. A spokesman for the United Nations Human Rights Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said that it appeared that the victims were no longer combatants and, therefore, at this point, it looks like a war crime.

A few days before this incident, a Greek Orthodox priest, Fr. Fadi Jamil Haddad, was tortured and killed after being kidnapped for ransom from his parish near Damascus. Minority groups, especially Christians, have been specifically targeted by the rebels.

Rebel groups have also been accusing government troops and allied militias of carrying out summary executions. Some 20 journalists have been killed so far, many of them by sniper fire. In the ongoing Syrian conflict, taking of prisoners is no longer considered an option in most cases. The numbers of those killed, according to U.N. agencies, has crossed 48,000.

Turkish tanks take position near the border with Syria in Sanliurfa.-AFP

Meanwhile, the ripple effect of the conflict in Syria is already felt by its neighbours. In Lebanon, the sectarian schisms have been further exacerbated. A massive explosion in the third week of October in the capital, Beirut, killed eight people, including the influential Internal Security Forces official, Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan. Hassan was identified with the anti-Syrian faction in Lebanon and was known to be close to Saad al-Hariri, the leader of the opposition. The government in Lebanon is dominated by Hizbollah, which is a close ally of the Syrian government. Hassan, before his death, had accused Michel Samaha, a Minister in the Lebanese government, of being hand-in-glove with Syrian officials in organising terror attacks inside the country. The Minister denied the allegations. Lebanese politicians opposed to Syria and belonging to Sunni parties were quick to blame Syria for the killing of Hassan.

Syrias Information Minister Omran al-Zouchi condemned the killing, describing it as a cowardly and terrorist act. Hizbollah also expressed its great shock over the terrible crime. Those countries opposed to Syria and Hizbollah were quick to blame Damascus for the terror attacks in Lebanon. Soon after the explosion that killed the Lebanese intelligence chief, another explosion in a predominantly Christian neighbourhood of Beirut claimed the lives of 13 more Lebanese civilians. The Lebanese city of Tripoli witnessed violent clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian government. If there is open foreign military intervention in Syria, Hizbollah is not expected to remain a passive bystander. The Hizbollah leadership is fully aware that after Syria, it is next in the Wests firing line.

Effect on neighbours

The U.S. has a big troop presence in Turkey. In October, the Obama administration announced that American troops were being deployed in neighbouring Jordan. Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich told the media that this deployment, done without congressional approval, had brought Washington immeasurably closer to being overtly involved in the war raging in Syria.

Israeli soldiers patrol the border with Syria in the Golan Heights.-REUTERS

In Turkey, a recent poll showed that the majority of the population there was against a war with its neighbour. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been exhorting his people to be prepared for an open military confrontation with Syria. Turkey has also been calling for the introduction of U.N.-mandated buffer zones along the border between the two countries. Such a move would constitute an infringement of Syrian sovereignty. The Turkish army has increased its shelling across the borders. The shelling started after Syrian artillery fired a few shells into the small Turkish town of Akcakale, which was a conduit for arms smugglers and opposition fighters. The sizable Alevi population in the areas bordering Syria is anyway sympathetic to the Syrian government.

All these areas were part of Syria until the early 20th century. The Alevis in Turkey and the Alawites in Syria share a close cultural and religious bond. The Alevis are unhappy with their government for playing host to jehadi elements and the more than 100,000 refugees on their lands. In the past few months, the Kurds in Turkey, led by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), have increased their attacks on the Turkish military. Ankara is blaming Damascus for aiding the PKK. Soli Ozel, who teaches international relations at an Istanbul university, had in an interview pointed out that Turkey is engaging in a proxy war with Syria through its support for the Syrian rebels and, therefore, it cannot complain too much if its neighbour retaliates.

The Brookings Institute has described in a report how Turkeys stationing of weapons and troops along Syrias border in coordination with Israels efforts in the south of Syria could facilitate a regime change in Syria. On November 4, Israel alleged that Syrian army tanks had crossed into the demilitarised Golan Heights area. Israel had seized the area from Syria during the 1973 war. In addition, Israels intelligence services have a strong knowledge of Syria, as well as assets within the Syrian regime that could be used to subvert the regimes power base and press for Assads removal. Israel could posture forces on or near the Golan Heights and, in so doing, might divert the regimes forces from suppressing the opposition, the Brookings report said.

Free Syrian army fighters use a catapult to launch a home-made bomb during clashes with pro-government soldiers in Aleppo on October 15.-ASMAA WAGUIH/REUTERS

Turkeys much-vaunted zero problems with neighbours policy is now in absolute tatters. All its immediate neighbours, such as Iran, Armenia and Syria, have been alienated. Russia is especially angry after the Turkish Air Force F-16s forced a commercial Syrian Air flight from Moscow to Damascus to land in Ankara in the second week of October. The Turkish authorities had alleged that the commercial flight was carrying banned cargo for the Syrian military. They have not been able to provide any evidence to prove their allegations but have chosen not to deliver a formal apology for what has been described in the Russian media as an act of mid-air piracy. Turkeys growing stature in the Arab world has diminished considerably as a consequence of its interventionist policies. At the same time, Europe, too, is moving away from Ankara, with the prospects of full-fledged European Union membership for Turkey diminishing by the day.

Iraq is another neighbour that has been affected seriously by the snowballing crisis in Syria. It is no secret that many of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders and fighters are Sunni jehadists from Iraq who, until recently, were fighting sectarian battles in their own country. The Americans are angry with the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad for tacitly supporting the government in Damascus and having close ties with Iran. There are reports that battle-hardened Shia fighters have been pouring into Syria across the porous border to help the beleaguered government there. The government in Baghdad realises that a regime change in Damascus would create significant problems for it as that would bolster Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq. As it is, ever since the trouble flared up in Syria, suicide attacks and bombings have registered a sharp increase in Baghdad and other cities of Iraq.

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