Middle East

Update on the Crisis in Syria

Since the Arab Spring began in January 2011 various countries in the Muslim world have seen uprisings and Syria was is no different. The scenario that has played out in Syria is no different to the other countries. Bashar al Assad launched a massive crackdown on his own people employing shelling on towns, besieging them and sending in tanks. Assad’s security services continue to systematically torture, rape and kill people whom they believe are opposed to the regime. However the Assad regime has failed in quelling the uprising and has been on the receiving end of an increasingly armed resistance.

Why has there been an increase in violence in Syria?

Bashar al Assad and his father before him maintained their authority by support from a minority of the Syrian population – the Alawites, the Assad clan is also Alawi. This situation arose when the departing French, looking to continue their colonial influence in the country but without physically occupying the country, left Syria in the hands of the minority Alawites, who would always be dependent upon a foreign power for their own security. Soon after this the US was able to gain influence over the country as French influence waned.

The Alawites have maintained their control of Syria through ensuring the rulers are always from amongst them. Successive rulers have thereafter used brute force to deal with any dissent. In 1982 Hafeez al-Assad massacred the people of Hama when they rose up against him.

Ever since the Arab spring began Bashar al Assad has responded only with brute force. Assad’s security services even carried out massacres on funeral processions taking place due to the killings of Assad’s security forces.

The uprising in Syria has now passed its first year and to some extent is in a stalemate, the Syrian regime has failed to halt the uprising. This is leading to al-Assad carrying out more massacres and using tactics that would embarrass any dictator.

Is there any international aspect to the Syrian crisis?

The competition in the Middle East by the world’s powers has not spared Syria and is at the heart of the current massacres taking place in the country. The oppression and brutal rule over the Sunnis in the country is a legacy of colonial rule. Successive Syrian regimes have as a result remained loyal to various Western powers and played the role of surrogate.

Syria may be depicted as an international pariah state that supports Hizbullah and Palestinian militants. However, away from public scrutiny the US government views Syria as an important surrogate that is needed in the region. In Iraq the Syrian regime protected US interests by stemming the insurgency and constructing America’s political architecture. Syria played an active role in infiltrating the Sunni insurgents. After the fall of Saddam, many Iraqi’s fled Iraq and sought refuge in Syria. Syria set up militant training camps to recruit and train Iraqi refugees into fighters with the explicit purpose of infiltrating the Iraqi resistance, providing real-time intelligence to US officials.

On the Palestinian issue Syria has engaged with Israel on the two state solution, including the Golan Heights – a US solution for the region. Whilst such talks have been on and off, the Syrian regime nevertheless through peace overtures to Israel facilitated America’s stranglehold over the region.

Between September 2004 and July 2006, the Syrian and Israeli representatives reached a ‘formulation for peace’ through secret talks. The Assad regime was willing to sacrifice Hamas, its alleged ally, in an attempt to appease Israel in the agreement. These negotiations continued unhindered under Turkish mediation between 2008 and 2010, despite Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2009 that led to the death of more than a thousand civilians in Gaza. This willingness on the part of the Assad regime to make peace with Israel, normalise relations with it and recognise its existence paints an image contrary to the popular rhetoric of the Syrian regime. And it is for this very reason that Israel’s leading security and political officials have expressed great concern at the thought of the Assad regime collapsing. Israel’s prominent daily newspaper, Ha’aretz, ran an editorial immediately after the start of the Syrian uprising declaring Assad to be “Israel’s favourite dictator of all’ and that ‘it seems Assad has wall-to-wall support here, as though he were king of Israel”.

Since the Taif agreement in 1989 in Lebanon the Syrian military presence directly contributed to the protection of US interests, by weakening the other factions that were supported by Europe. The insinuation of Syrian officials in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005 and subsequent demands for Syria to withdraw its troops presented fresh challenges to American interests in Lebanon. Ever since, Syria has used Hizbullah to weaken pro-EU politicians, which subsequently protected US interests.

With such a loyal surrogate in Syria, for nearly all of 2011 when the Assad regime carried out systematic massacres against its own people the US merely called for restraint and the possibility of him reforming. Hilary Clinton explained the American stance in an interview with Lucia Annunziata of Italy’s ‘In Mezz’Ora,’ in May 2011″the difference between the situations in Syria and Libya is that the Syrian government might still come around and pursue a reform agenda,” Clinton was asked whether the US was applying a double standard when dealing with Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi and other Arab dictators who are killing their citizens, such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Clinton explained that she still held out hope that the Syrian government would institute reforms that could satisfy the demands of protesters and end the government-sponsored violence against civilians. There was no hope for that outcome in Libya, she said. “There are deep concerns about what is going on inside Syria, and we are pushing hard for the government of Syria to live up to its own stated commitment to reforms,” she said. “What I do know is that they have an opportunity still to bring about a reform agenda. Nobody believed Qaddafi would do that. People do believe there is a possible path forward with Syria. So we’re going to continue joining with all of our allies to keep pressing very hard on that.” Clinton argued that the United States and its international partners have acted aggressively in the case of Syria, but admitted that acting against the Assad regime is more complicated, in many ways, than organizing action against the Libyan regime.

Are America and the Western powers not also supporting the Syrian opposition?

After months of the US backing the Syrian regime through only calling for reforms, giving ample time for the Assad regime to end (kill) the revolution, Assad has failed in subduing the Ummah and it appears the US has started the process of his eventual demise. The US immediately called for the opposition to unify so that a new ruling council can be formed, with whom the US can deal with, just as what happened in Libya with the National Transitional Council. Mark Toner, the US State Department’s deputy spokesman, told the CNN that “a real opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was beginning to form after five months of pro-democracy protests. We have seen the Syrian opposition begin to take shape, begin to stand up and become more cohesive and become more broadly representative… of Syrian society.”

The Western powers are supporting the opposition in the hope that they will overwhelm the regime. However differences between the opposition factions have hampered progress and as a result the various strategies to deal with the Syrian crisis have come thick and fast but have not shown much progress.

The West very quickly backed the Syrian National Council (SNC), which was established and led by the Paris-based dissident Burhan Ghalioun and included the Muslim Brotherhood. This council is composed mainly of foreign dissidents who went into exile due to the Assad regime. The council is composed of various groups secular and Islamic with many vying for eventual power in a new Syria. The Syrian National Council (SNC) is in reality the Syrian Dissident Council. These exiles have been all too keen to spend time grandstanding in Western capitals and networking with Western diplomats. However after nearly a year of meetings in Southern Turkey they are as divided as ever.

The council’s primacy has been challenged by the National Co-ordination Committee (NCC), an opposition bloc that still functions within Syria and is led by Hussein Abdul Azim and other longstanding dissidents, some of whom are wary of the Islamists within the SNC. The NCC has not received the international recognition as the SNC.

Both factions have been reluctant to work with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group of army defectors seeking to topple the Assad regime by force. Based in Turkey, its fighters have launched attacks on security forces in the north-western province of Idlib, around Homs and Hama, and even on the outskirts of Damascus. In January 2012, residents of Zabadani, a mountain town 25 miles north-west of the capital, said it had been ‘liberated’ by FSA fighters. Days later, defectors seized control of Douma, a suburb six miles from Damascus, for a few hours. The FSA’s leader, Riyad al-Asaad, claims to have 15,000 men under his command, though analysts believe there may be no more than 7,000. They are also still poorly armed, and many have only basic military training.

The Arab league, which is composed of states that are as bad as al-Assad have attempted to protect their thrones thorough acting collectively against Syria. In November 2011 member states led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia voted to suspend Syria. The League later imposed economic sanctions when the Syrian regime blocked the deployment of an observer mission. Under intense pressure from the US Damascus eventually allowed in the observers in December 2011, but they failed to halt the crackdown.

It appears the US is utilising other countries and regional surrogates in creating the conditions that will eventually lay the ground for a Syria without al-Assad, but one which continues to serve US interests. The US has for the moment engaged in indirect efforts rather than direct military intervention and this may be due to it being election year in the US.

The US is supporting the embryonic opposition, who have been meeting for over 6 months in Turkey – a country that regularly implements US plans. Similarly France and Britain have also got involved in Syria by mediating between the opposition and the Assad regime. Recently Russia has also entered the fray to mediate between Assad and the Syrian opposition. All these powers are attempting to shape events in Syria where they are attempting to gain some influence.

The US appears to be doing exactly what is did in Egypt – wait and see if the existing regime will hold out, give it enough time to survive. At the same time cultivate links with the opposition to ensure it comes out on the right side as events descend to chaos.

What is the reality of Free Syria Army (FSA)?

The Free Syria army is composed of defected officers from the Syrian national army. Colonel Riad al-Asaad, the highest ranking officer who defected from the national army is the leader and has called for more officers to defect. The FSA is very similar to the Benghazi rebels who whilst originally successful in holding out against Gaddafi’s forces and even mounted attacks and captured some towns from Gaddafi’s forces, in the end they were unable to maintain any sustainable attack and lost most of the captured towns until Western involvement, training and arms came their way.

The FSA has until recently conducted armed struggle against the Assad regime and is also now being trained and armed by Western forces. Reports from British military sources confirm that: “British Special forces have met up with members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA)… The apparent goal of this initial contact was to establish the rebel forces’ strength and to pave the way for any future training operations. … More recent reports have stated that British and French Special Forces have been actively training members of the FSA, from a base in Turkey. Some reports indicate that training is also taking place in locations in Libya and Northern Lebanon. British MI6 operatives and UKSF (SAS/SBS) personnel have reportedly been training the rebels in urban warfare as well as supplying them with arms and equipment. US CIA operatives and special forces are believed to be providing communications assistance to the rebels.” Elite Forces UK, January 5, 2012

Of late it appears the FSA has conducted more specialised attacks including Improvised Explosive devices (IED’s) targeting security facilities and premises. In February 2012 two car bombs struck security facilities showing a high degree of sophistication. Such attacks are a first in Syria for any of the sides involved.

It appears the West is backing the FSA to weaken the hold of the Assad regime and is investing time and training to the FSA in order to achieve this. It is likely the Assad regime will respond in equally brutal fashion. This will lead to Syria descending into another Iraq where it may become impossible to distinguish between who is attacking who as such attacks will inevitably lead to mass casualties. It should be remembered that such a murky scenario was used in Iraq by the US to gain control over the country. Syria’s decent into civil war may eventually be the justification for military intervention by the West.

What was role of the Arab league observers?

The Arab league observer mission appears to have been another strategy amongst a number of strategies by the US to give al-Assad more time to quell the uprisings. Assad’s regime however continued its massacres even in the presence of the Arab League monitors. The Arab league monitors were provided transport and security by the Assad regime. It was the regime that escorted them around Syria.

The credibility of the monitors quickly evaporated after many in Syria were counting on it to expose the crimes of the Assad regime. In the end the Arab league monitors colluded with Assad by constantly arguing it needed more time to carry out its mission. Muhammad Ahmad Ad-Daabi the head of the delegation, whose hands are still dripping with the blood of the people of Darfur when he was the head of military intelligence constantly called for more time and concluded that Homs was not under attack – all of this was when images beamed around the world of the massacres taking place at the hands of the Assad regime.

Why did Russia and China Veto the UN vote?

It should be remembered that through the involvement of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) the resolution to the Syrian crisis has been taken from the hands of the Muslims and is now in the hands of the superpowers, who themselves are all competing with each other.

Sergey Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister said: “Russia was not going to accept any resolutions that might open the way to foreign intervention or that would pre-determine the political outcome in Syria.” It would appear Russia and China attempted to complicate the US plan in Syria by opposing attempts to pass a vague resolution and then using this as a cover for militarily intervention. It was under the guise of imposing no fly zones in Libya that the West armed the Benghazi rebels, trained them, France, Britain and the US then cultivated links with different personalities to maintain influence after the overthrow of Gaddafi.

Both Russia and China generally oppose the West and use the forum of the UN to oppose Western planes. Such positions are generally weak and the veto was no different. Aside from a naval refuelling facility in Syria, Russia lacks any political influence in country and so this stance is in reality a weak attempt to influence the Syrian crisis.