Looming civil war

Print edition : December 30, 2011

Supporters of President Bashar al-Assad demonstrate at a fountain in Damascus on November 16 against the Arab League meeting in Morocco. The League has suspended Syria for failing to accept its proposals. - MUZAFFAR SALMAN/AP

The West is trying to enforce a regime change in Syria through violence with the aid of insurgents and pro-West Arab states.

WITH the Western powers seemingly intent on implementing their plans for a regime change in Syria, the scope for a negotiated settlement to the crisis that erupted earlier in the year is receding by the day. United States Vice-President Joseph Biden, on a visit to Turkey in the first week of December, once again demanded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down. Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) member, has been providing a base and training for the so-called Free Syrian Army consisting of a motley group of army deserters and Islamist insurgents. According to the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister, Faisal al Mikdad, terrorist groups within Syria are being financed in an unofficial way by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Jordan. At the same time, Ankara is allowing the Free Syrian Army to launch attacks in Syria from Turkish territory.

The Turkish government has already imposed unilateral sanctions on Syria, one of its biggest trading partners. The sanctions, announced in early December, include a freeze on the Syrian government's assets and the suspension of all financial dealings with Damascus. Syria has retaliated by suspending the free trade agreement with Turkey and imposing a tax of 30 per cent on all goods imported from the country.

The West and its allies in the region are also upping the diplomatic ante in various international forums. The game plan is to not allow the Syrian government to implement the wide-ranging set of reforms it had announced in the middle of the year in response to a wave of protests. Multiparty parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held early next year, but the West seems to prefer to enforce regime change through violence.

The Turkish government is coordinating closely with Western capitals and the pro-Western Arab states to implement this policy. Turkey's Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, along with the French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, recently called for more international pressure to be exerted on Syria. Until early this year, Turkey and Syria had an extremely close political and economic relationship. Davutoglu seems to have abandoned his much-praised zero problems with neighbours foreign policy.

The leader of Syria's banned Muslim Brotherhood Party, Mohammed Riad Shaqfa, told the media in Istanbul that Turkey should intervene more actively in Syria in case the international community did not come to the aid of the opposition. According to the Turkish newspaper Sabah, which is close to the ruling AK Party, the opposition wants Turkey to set up a limited no-fly zone over Syria. There are also reports in the Turkish media that the government is preparing to set up a military buffer zone along the borders between the two countries. The U.S. has been supporting Syrian opposition groups financially since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

PRESIDENT ASSAD WAVES to supporters after prayers at the al-Nour Mosque in the northern town of Raqqa on November 6.-SANA/AP

Turkey and Syria were on the verge of a war in 1998. At that time, Turkey was angry with Syria for providing asylum to the Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan. Today it is Turkey that is hosting rebel Syrian leaders and at the same time threatening to go to war against Syria. The dream of the Ottoman empire remains vivid in some minds. Although they know that it is only a pipe dream, they exploit political parties raising religious slogans to boost their influence in the Arab world, President Assad said in a recent speech which was critical of Turkey's meddling in the affairs of Arab states that were previously part of the Ottoman empire.

The Arab League, in a repetition of the dubious role it played in Libya, is paving the way for Western military intervention. The Syrian government had earlier agreed to the proposals mooted by the Arab League in November to end the bloody cycle of violence that had gripped the country. The League's peace plan involved the despatch of hundreds of observers to the areas hit by the strife. According to reports, the Arab League also wants the Syrian government to announce an immediate ceasefire and move forward the date for the presidential election.

Damascus had no objections to the presence of outside observers but has insisted that the observers work in coordination with the government. The League wanted unfettered access for its observers in Syria. The Turkish Foreign Minister was a special invitee to the Arab League meeting that decided on giving Syria, a founder-member of the grouping, an ultimatum to accept the protocols or face consequences. Davutoglu said after the meeting in Cairo that the Syrian government had come to the end of the road.

The League had not thought it fit to impose any conditions on the violent opposition movement or its foreign backers. Syrian forces would have had to vacate the violence-prone areas, allowing the opposition to fill in the vacuum. The Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, said in the third week of November that the wording of the Arab League resolution totally ignores the Syrian state, even coordination with the state. Muallem has accused some Arab League members of pushing to internationalise the conflict. The Finance Minister of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Jabr al-Thani, has warned that Syria's refusal to cooperate with the Arab League's peace plan is bound to lead to an international solution of the crisis.

At the end of November, the Arab League announced sweeping sanctions on Syria. But Damascus refused to heed the November 25 deadline that the League had imposed. The sanctions announced include a travel ban on 19 Syrian officials to Arab states and the cutting of civilian flights to Syria by 50 per cent. Syria was also suspended from the Arab League for failing to accept its proposals. This is the first time that the Arab League has imposed sanctions of such a magnitude on a member-state. Punitive sanctions of this kind were not imposed on Iraq even after the invasion of Kuwait in 1991.

Cracks have already started appearing on the facade of Arab League unity. Iraq and Lebanon have said that they will not implement the sanctions on Syria. Reports from Jordan suggest that the government there is also reluctant to impose any sanctions on its neighbour. The volume of trade between the two countries was more than $400 million last year. Sanctions by the Arab League could only have a limited impact but may pave the way for further interventions into the internal affairs of Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticised the League's decision to suspend Syria and said it was a wrong and pre-planned move. Those who took the decision have lost a very important opportunity to redirect the situation in a more transparent way, said Lavrov.

On a parallel track, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) passed a resolution in the first week of December condemning Syria for the gross and systematic violation of human rights. Those responsible for the report on which the resolution was based have admitted that they have no clinching evidence about the crimes against humanity and killing of children by the Syrian army. They have only said that the report was based on conversations with reliable sources inside Syria. The Syrian government had not allowed independent monitors to enter the country. The UNHCR chose to ignore the targeting of the security forces by the armed gangs.

A significant number of the estimated 4,000 people who have lost their lives since the troubles erupted earlier in the year have been army and police personnel. The Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister said in the second week of November that 1,150 soldiers and security personnel had lost their lives as a result of the armed uprising. In recent weeks, the attacks on the armed forces have increased. Among the civilians killed by the armed protesters include professors, doctors and recently the son of the Grand Mufti of the Republic.

FOREIGN MINISTERS OF Arab states at an emergency meeting on Syria at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on November 12.-ASMAA WAGUIH/REUTERS

From the outset, the armed opposition has been trying to internationalise a domestic political issue. One of the main groups backed by the West, the Syrian National Council, recently urged Arab governments to take the demands of the opposition to the U.N. The U.S. and its European allies in the U.N. Security Council have failed so far in their efforts to impose sanctions on Syria because of the opposition from Russia and China. This has not stopped the West from implementing unilateral sanctions on that country. The British oil company BP has announced that it is stopping production in Syria because of the European Union's sanctions on the country's financial and energy sectors. Syria derives a significant amount of hard currency through the export of oil.

The Syrian National Council is calling for an international mandate that would allow the stationing of peacekeepers along with humanitarian monitors inside Syria. The West and its supporters in the Arab League are desperately seeking such an outcome. If such a move materialises, it could be a prelude to a full-scale war.

In an interview with The Telegraph of London in the last week of October, the Syrian President warned against foreign interference. Syria is the hub now in this region. It is the fault line and if you play with the ground, you will cause an earthquake, Assad said. Any problem in Syria will burn the whole region, he warned.

Syria is the cradle of the Arab civilisation. It is strategically positioned between Israel, Lebanon and Turkey. It has a close alliance with Iran and the Hizbollah party in Lebanon. The Hizbollah militia is stronger than the Lebanese army. If things go out of control, the sectarian violence that has hit Syria could spread to neighbouring countries such as Jordan.

The targeting of Syria, as many analysts have noted, is part of the larger plan to isolate Iran. A pro-Western, Sunni-dominated regime in Damascus would not be keen to continue the special relationship with Teheran. The Hizbollah in Lebanon, which has strong links with the Syrian government and Iran, would be under pressure if the present scenario changes dramatically. The U.S., which is leaving Iraq without having much to show after occupying the country for the past eight years, would like nothing better than to see a friendly regime in neighbouring Syria.

Iran's influence in Iraq is already stronger than that of the U.S. in Iraq. The Iraqi government is now among the staunchest supporters of the Syrian government. Russia, which has strong military and political links with the Syrian government, will also be a loser if the situation changes dramatically. Russia and China, chastened by their experience in Libya, have wisely not allowed the West to hijack the Syria issue and pave the way for military intervention.

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