Syria: Military and political stalemate

Aftermath of the Assad regime's shelling of the city of Homs.

By Tony Iltis

January 14, 2013 -- Green Left Weekly -- The latest United Nations figures put the death toll from the conflict in Syria a third higher than previous estimates by the UN and anti-government activists.

“We can assume that more than 60,000 people have been killed by the beginning of 2013,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a January 2 statement. “The number of casualties is much higher than we expected, and is truly shocking.”

The UN has compiled a list of 59,648 named individuals reported killed between March 15, 2011, and November 30, 2012.

She said both government and anti-government forces were responsible for what could be considered war crimes, a January 2 Associated Press report said.

On January 9, Al Jazeera reported: “About one million people inside Syria are going hungry due to the difficulty of getting supplies into conflict zones … The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) is handing out rations to about 1.5 million people in Syria each month, still short of the 2.5 million deemed to be in need, Elisabeth Byrs, WFP spokeswoman, said.”

Conflict static

While the humanitarian situation worsens in other ways, the conflict is strangely static. Most of the north of the country is under the control of anti-government forces. For the past six months, the regime and its opponents have been battling for control of the largest city, Aleppo, and the capital, Damascus.

UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s frequent peace plans have been routinely rejected by all parties to the conflict.

President Bashar al-Assad’s January 6 speech, in which he offered the same level of reform as he did when the first mass protests happened in February 2011, seemed delusionally confident given he has lost military control of most of his country. For their part, anti-Assad commanders have not been able to follow through with frequent claims of impending victory.

The inability of the opposition to finish off the regime reflects the fact they have alienated many Syrians who previously supported them.

Initially the uprising was, like those occurring in other Arab countries, against the tyrannical political system and the results of neoliberal reforms ― unemployment, loss of infrastructure, inflation, decreasing educational opportunities and increasing inequality.

Chants and placards stressed the unity of Syrians across religious lines, countering the regime’s claim to be the secular defender of religious minorities from Sunni Muslim communalism.

In a sign of how this situation has shifted, a rebel commander, Abu Ahmed, told the December 15 National: “Our first goal is to get rid of Assad. Then we want a state where the Quran is the only source of law. Sharia is the right path for all humanity ― all other laws make people unhappy.”

He advocated the prohibition of alcohol, tobacco and cinema.

One reason for the rise of Islamism within the opposition has been Western support. The October 15 New York Times said: “The United States is not sending arms directly to the Syrian opposition. Instead, it is providing intelligence and other support for shipments of secondhand light weapons like rifles and grenades into Syria, mainly orchestrated from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

“The reports indicate that the shipments organized from Qatar, in particular, are largely going to hard-line Islamists … Many rebels have grown the long, scraggly beards favored by hard-line Salafi Muslims after hearing that Qatar was more inclined to give weapons to Islamists.”

The more secular armed opposition groups falling under the Free Syrian Army umbrella have also changed. An opposition activist writing as “Rita from Syria” on on September 4 said: “In response to regime attacks on peaceful protests, members of the FSA took on the responsibility of protecting the protest movement [keeping] watch in the alleys and alert us to the coming of regime forces …

“However, with rumors of considerable sums of money transferred to the private bank accounts of some FSA colonels via foreign parties, there is a mounting suspicion amongst activists … that the goals and policy of the FSA have changed ...

“The sound of gunfire and mortars is the loudest voice on the ground. The voices of the diverse protest movements, which made up the opposition on the ground in Syria, have been drowned out by the FSA …”

An article by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in Aleppo in the December 28 Guardian noted that looting distracted many FSA units from fighting and causing them to turn on each other.

However, while FSA criminality has caused some to become disillusioned with the revolution it has also boosted the Islamists, particularly Jubhat al-Nusra, a group linked to Sunni extremists in Iraq.

“‘The FSA are thieves … We don’t want them. We want Jubhat al-Nusra to rule,’ a crowd chanted during a demonstration following Friday’s midday prayers,” Al Jazeera said.

Revolution not dead

Despite this, the revolution is not dead. On January 1, “Rita from Syria” wrote on about a protest where “Jubhat al-Nusra combatants fired live bullets in the air and attempted to arrest an activist because the protesters were heard shouting ‘all armies are thieves: regime, FSA and Islamists’. The FSA failed to intervene despite being present at the protest.” written by a Syrian socialist, has posted many recent pictures of anti-regime protesters with placards denouncing religious sectarianism and Western interference ― and calling for an inclusive, democratic Syria. There are still armed FSA groups that support these ideals.

A December 25 post said: “The Gulf states in fact fear a spread of the revolution in the region that would threaten their power and interests. The transformation of the nature of the revolution into sectarian war would also enable them to frighten their own populations …

“The armed popular resistance groups of the Free Syrian army which are following the principles of the revolution and defending its principles are … most often not financed or assisted by the International Community and/or the Gulf countries.”

Western interference includes setting up the Syrian National Council as a government-in-waiting at the start of the uprising, although this was mostly ignored by groups inside Syria.

In November, at a meeting in Qatar, the US and its allies created a broader group uniting the SNC with groups inside Syria, the National Coalition. On December 12, 100 countries led by the US officially recognised this group.

However, the previous day the US listed Jubhat al-Nusra as a terrorist group, angering many of the National Coalition’s sectors and undermining its credibility. Other Islamist groups responsible for sectarian violence have not been blacklisted by the US and continue to receive Qatari and Saudi support.

That Western powers have not yet militarily intervened reflects that military interventions are good for projecting power, but less effective at installing stable, pliant regimes.

The West has been largely unconcerned about the anarchy in post-war Libya. However, Syria’s geographical location, in particular its border with Israel, has made the West hesitant about creating similar anarchy there.

Western intervention threat

However, the option of military intervention remains. Furthermore, while Assad’s alliance with Russia and Iran and some material aid to anti-Israel resistance in Palestine and Lebanon, has caused Western hostility, an anarchic or Islamist Syria could be viewed with equal hostility. A democratic Syria would be a greater threat.

The blacklisting of Jubhat al-Nusra, as well as ominous references to Assad’s alleged chemical arsenal (and the danger of it falling into Islamist hands), are creating pretexts that could be used for a military intervention in a post-Assad Syria.

The January 7 Guardian reported that Israel had announced it was building a wall to separate the Syrian Golan Heights (which it has occupied since 1967) from the rest of Syria, similar to the walls it has on its Egyptian border, surrounding Gaza and dividing the West Bank. Announcing this, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu cited the spectre of chemically armed Islamists. During more than 40 years of Assad family rule, the Israelis never felt the need to build such a wall.

On January 4, Al Jazeera reported that NATO was deploying patriot missiles to Turkey and up to 400 US, German and Dutch troops. Turkey, a NATO member, also used the chemical weapons “threat” as a pretext for requesting this. However, the Turkish regime is likely to be more worried by developments in Kurdistan.

Kurdistan is divided between Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. In July, the Assad regime withdrew most of its troops from Syrian Kurdistan to use them to defend Damascus and Aleppo from the armed opposition. The Syrian Kurdish population set up a democratic militia, the Popular Protection Units (YPG), who took control and have maintained it, despite clashing with regime forces, FSA units and Jubhat al-Nusra.

The Kurdish National Council, loosely aligned with the pro-Western Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, is part of the coalition which formed the YPG. But the largest and most militarily important component is the left-wing Kurdish Democratic Union Party. It is aligned to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has led a long running resistance against Turkey in the part of Kurdistan it occupies.

From GLW issue 950