April 13, 2014

Syria: Armed Groups in Retreat

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE failure of the Geneva 11 talks, coupled with the deepening splits among the armed opposition groups, have further weakened the possibilities for a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Syria. The conflict, which has now entered its third year, has cost the lives of more than 140,000 people. A third of the country’s population have been turned into refugees. The motley collection of rebel forces has been steadily losing ground since last year. They are also increasingly turning against each other. The so called moderate groups, including the Free Syrian Army, preferred by the West, were sidelined much earlier on by the Al Qaeda backed radical Islamist groups like 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 the 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. Zara, situated along the border with Lebanon, fell to the Syrian army in the second week of March. DIALOGUE: A NON-STARTER The Geneva peace talks became a non-starter as soon as they began when the opposition representatives with the backing of their state sponsors in the West and in the region, refused to sign a document condemning terrorism in all its 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 like the 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 by both sides to let the 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 like Homs and the Yarmouk camp, populated by Palestinians in the outskirts of Damascus. Speaking in Geneva, the UN special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahmi, said that both sides have recognised that the conflict has imposed “immense and unacceptable suffering on the Syrian people.” The UN Security Council had 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 long as it did not adversely impact its 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” responsible for 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 counties that have played a big role in the exacerbation of the humanitarian crisis. The Syrian foreign ministry also noted that the Security Council resolution condemned the “extremist Al Qaeda linked terrorism” in their country. The Syrian government said the condemnation was “a step in the right direction.” SAUDIS SEEK TO INVOLVE ISLAMABAD 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 rebel groups in Syria, has requested its close ally Pakistan, to help in the efforts at regime change in Damascus. Reports appearing in the Arab and Pakistani media said that the Saudis have requested Islamabad to supply weapons on their behalf to the Syrian rebel forces. There have been high profile exchange of visits in February with the Pakistani army chief, General Raheel Sharif, visiting Riyadh and the Saudi crown prince and defence minister Salman bin Abdul Aziz visiting Islamabad in the last week of February. On the Saudi shopping list for their preferred Syrian rebel groups were Pakistani manufactured shoulder launched anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank rockets. Pakistani opposition leaders immediately demanded an explanation from their government after the news gained traction. Pakistan so far has chosen not to take sides in the Syrian conflict but it is undoubtedly under pressure from the conservative Arab regimes. The Pakistani foreign policy spokespersons have been 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 US 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 dollars in “non-lethal” aid for the Syrian rebel groups, many of them having links with and 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 seized by a coalition of Islamist fighters Meanwhile, piqued by the Obama administration’s refusal to order an all out attack on Syria, the Saudi monarchy, is encouraging Syria’s neighbours like Lebanon and Jordan to openly side with the rebel groups under their tutelage. Earlier in the year, Saudi Arabia announced that it was giving the Lebanese armed forces two billion dollars. It wants the Lebanese army to take on the Hezbollah militia. It was the intervention of Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict that decisively swung the military balance against the terrorist groups. Since late 2013, Hezbollah dominated areas in Lebanon have been specifically targeted by suicide bombers owing allegiance to Al Qaeda linked outfits. While feeling increasingly frustrated at its inability to bring about regime change in Syria, the Saudi monarchy is also wary about the growing clout of political Islam in the region. OPPOSITION BACKERS SPLIT In the first two years of the conflict in Syria, 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 officially announced that it was putting the Muslim Brotherhood on its list of “terrorist organisations” along with the Hezbollah. Observers in the region have noted that the Muslim Brotherhood is the biggest opposition party in Syria and that the Saudis continue to support them. The Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Al Malki, said in the second week of March that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are 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,” Maliki told a French television channel. “The two countries are primarily responsible for the sectarian, terrorist and security crisis in Iraq.” The move initiated by the Saudis against 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 figures that were close to Qatar. The Saudi anger with Qatar was further illustrated by the decision to withdraw its ambassador from the country. The UAE and Bahrain have also withdrawn their ambassadors from Qatar. Egypt announced that it would not be sending its ambassador back to Qatar any time soon. Egypt had withdrawn its ambassador to protest 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. Till recently, the GCC acted in unison while dealing with the Syria file after their success in ensuring regime change in Libya in coordination with the West. INTEREST IN REGIME CHANGE DWINDLING 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 their allies in the American political establishment are in favour of military intervention in Syria. Neo-conservative commentators in the US are calling for military intervention to secure humanitarian aid corridors. Commentators affiliated to think tanks close to the pro-Israeli lobbying group, AIPAC, have been writing articles in influential newspapers like the NYT and 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 UN and allow unfettered international access for the delivery of humanitarian aid. The Syrian government has been adhering to its commitment to the UN but transporting the deadly arsenal through areas under the control of the rebels is proving to be not easy. Some American politicians are even asking for American military intervention to save Syria from becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda affiliated forces like the Al Nusra and the ISIS. The National Security Adviser to the American president, James Clapper, 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 America’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 his agreement to remove the chemical weapons.”