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Imperial stamp

Print edition : Jan 11, 2013 T+T-
Foreign Ministers Prince Saud al-Faisal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (left), of Saudi Arabia, and Laurent Fabius, of France, at the Marrakesh meeting.-FADEL SENNA/AFP

Foreign Ministers Prince Saud al-Faisal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (left), of Saudi Arabia, and Laurent Fabius, of France, at the Marrakesh meeting.-FADEL SENNA/AFP

In what is seen as an open declaration of war, the West, led by the United States, recognises the ragtag National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Groups as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

THE WEST, LED BY THE UNITED STATES, SEEMS EVEN more determined to effect a regime change in Damascus, despite evidence of the crucial role being played by Al Qaeda-affiliated groups in the ongoing fighting in Syria. In the second week of December, U.S. President Barack Obama recognised the main Syrian opposition coalition group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Groups, as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Britain, France and the Gulf monarchies had already given the Syrian umbrella opposition group the stamp of legitimacy.

The Syrian opposition, which is far from united, was arm-twisted by their sponsorsthe rich Gulf monarchies and the Westto come together on the same platform, at a meeting in Qatar in November. In another meeting held in Marrakesh, Morocco, in the second week of December, representatives from over 100 countries, including the Gulf monarchies, the U.S., Britain and France, assembled under the Friends of Syria banner and reaffirmed their support for the Syrian armed opposition.

President Obama, while bestowing the imperial stamp of recognition on the Syrian opposition, said he expected the parties to act in a more cohesive manner and to commit themselves to a political transition that respects womens rights and minority rights. Washingtons recognition of the opposition coincided with the U.S. State Departments blacklisting of the Jabhat al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate, which is doing much of the fighting in Syria and has been involved in the suicide attacks that have resulted in the death of hundreds of innocent civilians.

The Al Nusra Front has claimed credit for 40 suicide attacks since November 2011. The U.S. State Department labelled the Al Nusra Front as a terrorist group having very close links with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). A State Department official accused Al Nusra of staging more than 600 attacks in major city centres all over Syria in which numerous innocent Syrians have been injured or killed.

U.S. officials have been saying that radical Islamists are planning to take control of the opposition. The West has tried to rectify matters by restructuring the command of the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA). The new command structure includes senior figures who have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood but are people with whom the West hopes it can do business. However, many rebel fighters have rejected the new military command imposed on them by the West. Muslim Brotherhood officials in Syria told the Western media that the terrorist label given to Al Nusra was unjustified and that the only terrorist in Syria was Assad.

Islamists in control

The fact of the matter, according to most observers, is that the Islamists are already in control and are also doing the bulk of the fighting. Yet, the West has found it opportune to give the motley opposition group the stamp of legitimacy along with even more funding and sophisticated arms. The Obama administration, it seems, has not learned any lessons from the recent Benghazi episode. In Libya, the Islamist groups armed and funded by the West played a crucial role in the overthrow of the government led by Muammar Qaddafi. It was one such group that was responsible for the assassination of the U.S. envoy to Libya. Al Nusra, although it now figures in Washingtons terror list, is a member of the rebel Syrian National Coalition that the U.S. has recognised.

The recognition has also been interpreted as an open declaration of war against Syria by the West. Many North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) countries have pledged to supply more heavy weapons and trainers to the rebel groups. There are reports that the U.S. is on the verge of supplying weapons like the SA-7 missiles for the first time. The missile can shoot down planes. Almost on cue, the opposition fighters declared in the second week of December that Damascus International Airport was a legitimate military target and that civilian planes should no longer fly to the Syrian capital.

Psychological warfare

Patriot missiles supplied by the U.S. and its allies are on the verge of being deployed on Turkeys border with Syria. The Syrian government described the move as part of the psychological warfare the West was carrying out against it and stressed that it would not impact its determination to wipe out the terror groups. All this seems to be a prelude to the establishment of a no-fly zone over parts of Syria. The Patriot missiles are to be deployed ostensibly to stop incoming missiles, but their real purpose seems to be to deny the Syrian Air Force the ability to fly in the northern part of the country. This will in effect create a no-fly zone where the rebel groups can operate in relative freedom. Russias ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko, criticised the deployment of Patriot missiles on Syrias borders. He said it was proof that NATO was getting involved in the conflict after all on the pretext of provocations or some incidents on the Turkey-Syria border.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed surprise over Washingtons official recognition of the Syrian opposition. He said Washington was apparently betting on a military victory for the rebels. Lavrov went on to add that the Obama administration had seemingly reneged on the road map agreed to earlier in the year in Geneva, which had envisaged a negotiated end to the conflict. As of now, the key Western countries involved in the regime change mission, like the U.S., France and the United Kingdom, have said they will not be putting boots on the ground in Syria. They will instead continue training the armed groups in Turkey. French papers have reported that France has sent military officers into Syria to assess the situation on the ground. The main task was to know who controls the battlegrounds around Damascus, Le Figaro reported. In any case, blatant military intervention inside Syria, without United Nations authorisation, will be difficult to sell to the international community.

Chemical weapons

Before giving formal recognition to the rebels, Washington raised the bogey of the Syrian governments imminent use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) on its own people. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said a desperate government in Damascus could resort to chemical weapons onslaughts to save itself, while Obama sanctimoniously warned of a red line on chemical weapons, saying that its use would not be tolerated. The Western media were full of stories of how the government in Damascus was preparing to wage chemical warfare on its own people. The stories were sought to be bolstered by references to the 1982 massacre in the Syrian city of Hama where more than 10,000 people died when the army put down an armed rebellion. The stories appearing in the Western media alleged that the Syrian government used chemical weapons at that time. Western reporters who were on the ground then, like the veteran correspondent Robert Fisk, have said that there was no truth in these allegations. Fisk said Syrian troops had resorted to heavy-handed measures in Hama after the Muslim Brothers briefly took over the city and massacred government sympathisers and their families.

Allegations that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of unleashing WMDs on his own people were a prelude to the invasion of Iraq. A chemical weapons expert, Jean Pascal Zanders, senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, has said that the Syrian chemical weapons threat is being ratcheted up to justify military intervention in the not-too-distant future. The Syrian government, on its part, has pledged that it will never, under any circumstance, use chemical weapons on its own people. At the same time, Damascus has warned the international community that the Al Nusra-led militants have seized a factory, the Saudi-Syrian Chemicals Co., near the city of Safira and they now may have the ability to engage in chemical warfare and put the blame on the government.

Human tragedy

The insurgency, fuelled mainly by West and its Gulf allies, has already claimed the lives of over 40,000 people. Half a million Syrians have become refugees. The prices of essential goods have escalated dramatically and hunger stalks a land that was until recently self-sufficient in food. The state-run factories producing bread have been pillaged by the rebels in cities like Aleppo. Half of Syrias 88 public hospitals have been damaged by the fighting, leading to shortages of life-saving drugs and essential medicines like insulin. Pharmaceutical factories that met 90 per cent of the countrys drug needs now produce only one-third of what they were producing until last year. Many of the factories were directly targeted by the opposition fighters. The other factor that has led to an acute shortage of medicines is the punitive economic sanctions imposed by the West, which prevent the import of raw materials.

These developments have only made the average Syrian even more sceptical about the armed rebel groups that have descended on the country like locusts. According to reports, the support for President Bashar al-Assad among the common people remains steadfast. Even those opposed to the government are having second thoughts about the opposition. Mohammed Zein, a 64-year-old vegetable vendor, told the Al Jazeera channel: Our country is being destroyed. If this is revolution, I dont want it. I have to stress that I am not a supporter of the regime because they used to oppress us. But now we are being oppressed a hundred times more.

According to the British paper Daily Telegraph, the majority of the people in Damascus are still solidly behind Assad. One of the reasons that Bashar al-Assad has not been toppled like the Arab Spring dictators of Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen is that he has a strong base of support, a recent article in the paper stated.

The military situation, according to a senior Syrian diplomat based in New Delhi, is still very manageable. He said the government so far had only deployed less than 10 per cent of the armed forces to combat the insurgency. Another senior Arab diplomat, also based in Delhi, said the government in Damascus would face no serious threat for another two years. However, public alienation will increase if the fighting continues beyond that period, he predicted.

Many governments in the region are still firm in the belief that there is no alternative to the present government in Syria at the present juncture. Most observers believe that if the government in Damascus falls, the entire region will implode into a cycle of sectarian violence.