Promise of peace

Print edition : January 10, 2014

(Right) Ban Ki-moon, U.N. Secretary General, and Ake Sellstrom (centre), head of the U.N. Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria, at the U.N. headquarters in New York on December 12. Photo: LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS

President Bashar al-Assad. Photo: AP

Syrian soldiers after capturing the town of Nabak, north of Damascus, near Syria's border with Lebanon, on December 9. Photo: AFP

Hopes for an end to the conflict in Syria are high as the Geneva peace talks are announced and the U.S. decides to abort war plans after investigations find that the rebels used sarin.

FINALLY, THERE SEEMS TO BE SOME light at the end of the tunnel for Syria. The Geneva II peace talks are going to be held from January 22 to 25. Thirty countries have been invited to attend the talks. The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council will be there along with Iran and Saudi Arabia. The number of invitees is bound to increase as countries such as India are keen on participating. The Syrian government and the opposition will be holding direct talks, which will be chaired by the U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

Bouthaina Shaaban, the political and media adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was recently on an official visit to New Delhi, told this correspondent that India “would be playing an important role in Geneva” along with Russia and China. She was all praise for the role Russia has been playing in trying to find a negotiated settlement to the conflict, which has claimed more than a 100,000 lives. “Russia has been extremely consistent in its stance and has acted in accordance with the criteria of international law and the U.N. Charter,” she said. The official said that it would have been “good for us if India is more proactive and at least condemn the killing of innocents and the attack on children”. Bouthaina Shaaban was critical of the coordinated role being played by Israel and France in the region. She said Israel was trying to sabotage the prospects for peace by obstructing a negotiated settlement on Syria and a nuclear deal between the U.S. and Iran. She accused the French government of acting at the behest of Israel and being “subsidised” by Saudi Arabia.

French armament companies have been getting huge contracts from the Saudi Arabian government. Saudi Arabia and Israel were the two countries that were intent on ensuring that Syria was militarily targeted by the West. In fact, French President Francois Hollande had readied his air force for bombing missions over Damascus. Bouthaina Shaaban pointed out that the French had played a prominent role in vetoing the holding of the Geneva II talks in November.

Israel’s goal, according to Bouthaina Shaaban, is to break up the existing states in the region. “Israel feels that it will emerge even stronger if it breaks up the Arab states,” she said. She was particularly scathing about the role played by the Gulf states, saying that the monarchies there had sided with Israel against Syria and Iran, the two states that constituted “the axis of resistance” against Israel. She described the current struggle in Syria and the region as a new “war of independence”. The West, according to Bouthaina Shaaban, has been looking for new excuses to intervene in Syria after the government gave up its chemical weapons arsenal. “Now the West is raising the humanitarian issue,” she said. “The best humanitarian solution is to reach a political solution,” Bouthaina Shaaban said. She said that the worst enemy of the Syrian people was “terrorism”. This fact was glossed over by the West. “Countries giving the missiles and sophisticated weapons to the terrorists should be condemned. The U.N. Security Council resolutions mandate action against states that encourage terrorism,” she pointed out. The Syrian opposition will be going to Geneva politically and militarily weakened.

The Syrian Army scored a string of battlefield victories in the Qalamoun mountain range near the country’s border with Lebanon in December. The rebel forces are being driven out from the outskirts of many towns and cities, including Damascus and Aleppo. The latest victories will allow the government to open the crucial Damascus-Homs highway and also cut off the supply lines for the terror groups from Lebanon.

FSA In disarray

The Free Syrian Army (FSA), propped up by the West and its regional allies such as Turkey, is in disarray. According to Bouthaina Shaaban, around 2,100 groups, big and small, constitute the Syrian armed opposition. The Syrian Army, she said, had made tremendous advances in recent months. The only supply route for the rebels is from the Turkish border, and this has been cut off. The Turkish government was trying to find an “honourable exit” from its involvement in the Syrian conflict, she said. The Saudis are making a last-ditch attempt to reverse the tide by creating a new rebel force—the Jaysh al Islam, consisting of 43 rebel groups. Syrian officials say that Pakistan is helping in the training of the force. Until now, most of the fighting was done by other “jehadist” forces such as Al Nusra and the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

The fault lines in the opposition forces seem to have widened irrevocably after fighters from the Islamic Front, a newly formed alliance of Salafist and Takfiri forces, threw out the FSA from its military headquarters in northern Syria near the country’s border with Turkey, in the first week of December. The Islamic Front is an alliance of seven militias that have been cobbled up with the encouragement of Saudi Arabia. The Front took possession of the sophisticated weaponry the FSA had accumulated. According to reports, the equipment includes tanks and communications instruments of American and British origin.

The Front has now emerged as the sole credible rival to Al Qaeda-affiliated groups such as the ISIS and Al Nusra. All the fighting now is being done by Sunni fundamentalists. Many of the combatants are foreigners hailing from neighbouring countries. The West is particularly worried about the presence of many of its nationals fighting a “holy war” in Syria. Assad told visiting Arab politicians in Damascus that the battle would continue as long as Saudi Arabia continued to “back terrorism” and kept up the flow of extremist fighters, money and arms into Syria. “Saudi Arabia and other countries are strong backers of terrorism. They have dispatched tens of thousands of Takfiris to the country, and Saudi Arabia is paying $2,000 as monthly salary to all those who take up arms on their side,” Assad told the visiting delegation. “Saudi Arabia,” he said, “is leading the most extensive operation of direct sabotage against the Arab world.”

With the FSA in disarray, the United States and Britain decided in the second week of December to suspend the delivery of military aid to the opposition. The Barack Obama administration now seems to be having second thoughts about continuing with its support for the rebel cause. In the three years of uprising against the Syrian government, which was engineered with the connivance of the West, more than 100,000 civilians have perished and seven million Syrians have been forced out of their homes. The U.N. has estimated that the total cost of the war in Syria has exceeded $103 billion. Industrial activity has almost stopped in Syria. More than half the population is deprived of food, and 49 per cent of the students had to quit school. According to the U.N. report, 2,994 school and college buildings have been destroyed in the fighting so far. Most of the hospitals have also stopped functioning after they were targeted.

The sectarian divide triggered by the conflict threatens the entire region. Washington seems to have recognised belatedly that Al Qaeda has used the Western backing of the campaign against the Syrian government to dramatically widen its sphere of influence in the region. The number of Al Qaeda-linked suicide attacks has registered a significant increase. The neighbouring countries, such as Iraq and Lebanon, have been particularly affected. A terrorist attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut in the third week of November killed more than 23 people. An Al Qaeda-affiliated group claimed responsibility for the attack. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that the world was witnessing the “consequences of the activities of extremist forces in Syria”. He said that the same groups were killing people on the streets of Baghdad. “It is a very serious problem and I believe that once we see a flare-up of the tensions that are boiling in Syria, there is hardly a possibility of stopping it on the Syrian border,” said Zarif.

A recent report by the reputed investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in London Review of Books, based on leaks by U.S. officials, said that the Obama administration, while making preparations to attack Syria on the specious grounds that the government there had used chemical weapons on its own people, was also well aware that the Al Nusra Front had access to the dreaded sarin gas in bulk. The Hersh report also concluded that the Obama administration never had any evidence to prove that the Syrian security forces used chemical weapons against the civilian populace. Hersh’s reportage has now been backed by the U.N. Weapons Inspectors Report, which was released in the second week of December. The U.N. report said that apart from the Ghouta incident in August highlighted by the West, there were four other “probable” sarin attacks. In three of these attacks, the victims were Syrian Army soldiers, while in the fourth, civilians were affected. None of the attacks targeted the rebel forces.

The Obama administration, of course, made an eleventh-hour decision to abort the plans for war against Syria. Instead, for the time being at least, it has opted for talks not only with Syria but also with its main backer, Iran. A former Central Intelligence Agency chief, Michael Hayden, said that he was actually in favour of an outcome that would give victory to Assad. But the most probable outcome, according to him, is a break up of Syria. He predicted that this would in turn trigger the break-up of the other artificial states that the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 had created in West Asia.

U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told the media in Washington that the “moderate opposition” in Syria had suffered a setback. He admitted that there were “very dangerous elements” in the “fractured opposition”, such as Al Qaeda, and this fact “complicates our support” for the rebel groups.

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