Rebels in retreat

Print edition : April 04, 2014

Children play football in a damaged street in Deir al-Zor, eastern Syria, on February 14. Photo: KHALIL ASHAWI/REUTERS

Al Nusra rebel fighters killed on February 26 in an army ambush in the Eastern Ghouta area, east of Damascus. Photo: HASSAN YUSSEF/AFP

Palestinians in the besieged refugee camp of Yarmouk carry supplies given to them by the United Nations. Photo: AP/SANA

Friction between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has adversely affected the rebel forces, which are increasingly turning against one another.

THE failure of the Geneva II talks, coupled with the deepening splits among the armed opposition groups, has further weakened the possibilities for a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Syria. The conflict, in its third year now, has cost the lives of more than 140,000 people. A third of the country’s population has been turned into refugees. The motley collection of rebel forces has been steadily losing ground since last year. The rebels are also increasingly turning against one another. The so-called moderate groups, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which is preferred by the West, were sidelined much earlier on by the Al Qaeda-backed radical Islamist groups such as Al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). By the beginning of the year, it was the ISIS which had gained the upper hand over all the other groups, including the front led by Al Nusra. The Syrian army has pushed the terror groups out of most of the populated centres. Some parts of the suburbs in Damascus and the city centre in Homs are on the verge of being liberated. In the second week of March, the rebels lost control of their last stronghold in the east of the country when Zara, situated along the border with Lebanon, fell to the Syrian army.

The Geneva peace talks became a non-starter as soon as it began when the opposition representatives, with the backing of their sponsors in the West and in the region, refused to sign a document condemning terrorism in all forms. Instead, their entire focus was on the immediate setting up of a transitional government and the removal of President Bashar al-Assad. Battle-hardened groups such as Al Nusra and the ISIS had issued death threats against those participating in the Geneva talks. The only tangible gain from the talks was the agreement reached by both sides to let urgently needed humanitarian aid to be delivered to besieged areas. Much-needed aid has since reached the people, many of whom have been trapped in cities such as Homs and the Yarmouk camp, populated by Palestinians on the outskirts of Damascus. United Nations Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, speaking in Geneva, said that both sides had recognised that the conflict had caused “immense and unacceptable suffering on the Syrian people”. The U.N. Security Council passed a unanimous resolution in the last week of February calling for humanitarian aid convoys to be allowed access across the war-torn country. The resolution called on all parties to the conflict “to immediately lift the siege on all populated areas”.

Damascus was quick to accept the Security Council resolution as it did not impact adversely on state sovereignty. At the same time, Syrian officials said that it was important for the international community to take serious note of the “root causes” of the humanitarian tragedy. A statement from the Syrian Foreign Ministry emphasised that it was “foreign-backed terrorism”, coupled with the economic sanctions placed on Syria by the West and neighbouring countries, that had played a big role in the exacerbation of the humanitarian crisis. The Syrian Foreign Ministry also noted that the Security Council resolution condemned “extremist Al Qaeda-linked terrorism” in the country. The Syrian government said the condemnation was “a step in the right direction”.

But even before the ink was dry on the resolution, there were reports that Saudi Arabia, which has now emerged as the main backer of the rebel groups in Syria, had requested its close ally Pakistan for help in its efforts at regime change in Damascus. Reports appearing in the Arab and Pakistani media said that the Saudis had requested Islamabad to supply weapons on their behalf to the Syrian rebel forces. There have been high-profile visits between the two countries in February, with the Pakistan Army Chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, visiting Riyadh and the Saudi Crown Prince and Defence Minister, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, visiting Islamabad. On the Saudi shopping list for their preferred Syrian rebel groups were Pakistan-manufactured shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank rockets. Opposition leaders in Pakistan demanded an explanation from their government after the news gained traction. Pakistan has chosen not to take sides in the Syrian conflict so far, but it is undoubtedly under pressure from conservative Arab regimes. The Pakistan foreign policy spokesperson is denying reports that Pakistan has agreed to let its weapons be used in the Syrian conflict or that it has changed its position on the Syrian conflict.

The Obama administration has indicated that it is against the supply of heavy weapons to the rebel forces, especially now, as most of the fighting is being done by Al Qaeda-affiliate groups. The Wall Street Journal, however, has reported that “it is unclear to what extent the United States would move to block the Saudis if they insisted on going ahead with the deployment of the weapons over Washington’s objections”. Washington has been providing the rebels with light arms, training and cash. In early 2013, the Obama administration had sanctioned $60 million in “non-lethal” aid for the Syrian rebel groups, many of whom had links with and were fighting alongside Al Qaeda-linked terror groups. At the end of 2013, the Obama administration belatedly suspended its “non-lethal” aid after having finally concluded that much of the aid was being seized by a coalition of Islamist fighters.

Meanwhile, the Saudi monarchy, piqued by the Obama administration’s refusal to order an all-out attack on Syria, is encouraging Syria’s neighbours, such as Lebanon and Jordan, to openly side with the rebel groups under their tutelage. Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia announced that it was giving the Lebanese Armed Forces $2 billion. It wants the Lebanese army to take on the Hizbollah militia. It was the intervention of Hizbollah in the Syrian conflict that decisively swung the military balance against the terrorist groups. Since late 2013, Hizbollah-dominated areas in Lebanon have been specifically targeted by suicide bombers owing allegiance to Al Qaeda-linked outfits. The Saudi monarchy, while feeling increasingly frustrated at its inability to bring about regime change in Syria, is also wary about the growing clout of political Islam in the region.

In the first two years of the Syrian conflict, it was the tiny but extremely rich kingdom of Qatar which was bearing the bulk of the expenses in the arming and training of the rebels. But last year, the Qataris were elbowed out by the Saudis, who consider themselves the senior partner in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The Saudis did not like the Qataris sponsoring groups who they thought were inimical to the monarchy. The Saudi establishment was particularly angry with the open support the Qataris were providing to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt even after it was banned by the military-backed government in Cairo. In the second week of March, the Saudi government announced that it was putting the Muslim Brothers on its official list of “terrorist organisations”, along with Hizbollah. Observers in the region have noted that the Muslim Brothers is the biggest opposition party in Syria and that the Saudis continue to support them.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in the second week of March that Saudi Arabia and Qatar were backing rebel forces in Syria and Iraq. “They are attacking Iraq through Syria and in a direct way, and they announced war on Iraq, as they announced it on Syria, and unfortunately it is on a sectarian and political basis,” al-Maliki told a French television channel. “The two countries are primarily responsible for the sectarian, terrorist and security crisis in Iraq.”

The friction between the Saudis and the Qataris may further accentuate the divisions within the opposition in Syria. The Saudi-Qatari split has already caused divisions in the FSA. Its commander, who was on the payroll of Qatar, was replaced by a Saudi loyalist. The Syrian National Council (SNC), which is supposed to be an umbrella opposition grouping, has also been purged of persons who were close to Qatar. The Saudi anger with Qatar was further illustrated by the decision to withdraw its Ambassador from the country. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain have also withdrawn their Ambassadors from Qatar. Egypt has announced that it will not be sending its Ambassador back to Qatar any time soon. Egypt had withdrawn its Ambassador to protest against the continued Qatari backing for the ousted civilian regime led by the Muslim Brotherhood. The unfolding events could have an adverse impact on the GCC, of which Qatar is a member. Until recently, the GCC countries acted in unison while dealing with Syria after their success in ensuring a regime change in Libya in coordination with the West.

The Saudi establishment is still giving the impression that it is unwavering on the issue of regime change in Syria. Many of its allies in the region are no longer that keen. Only the Israeli government and its allies in the American political establishment are in favour of military intervention in Syria. Neoconservative commentators in the U.S. are calling for military intervention to secure humanitarian aid corridors. Commentators affiliated to think tanks close to the pro-Israeli lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) have been writing articles in influential newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post, calling on the Obama administration to issue a new military ultimatum to make the Syrian government stick to its schedule for handing over its chemical weapons to the U.N. and allow unfettered international access for the delivery of humanitarian aid. The Syrian government has been adhering to its commitment to the U.N., but transporting the deadly arsenal through areas under the control of the rebels is not proving easy. Some American politicians are even asking for U.S. military intervention to save Syria from becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda-affiliated forces like al Nusra and the ISIS. James Clapper, National Security Adviser to the U.S. President, recently said that Syria “is becoming a centre for radical extremism and a threat to the homeland”. He glossed over his administration’s role in encouraging extremism in Syria and the region. Many of the U.S.’ allies in the region have been engaged in funding the “takfiri” groups in Syria and Iraq. Clapper admitted in early February that the Syrian government’s hold on power had “strengthened” in the past one year “by virtue of its agreement to remove the chemical weapons”.