Syria after Three Years of War
FINALLY, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel in Syria. The Geneva 11 peace talks are in all likelihood finally going to be held from January 22 to 25. More than 30 countries, including India, have been invited to attend the peace talks. The Syrian government and the opposition, which is under American pressure to attend, will be holding direct talks that will be chaired by the UN special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi. Ms Bouthaina Shaaban, the political and media adviser to President Bashar al Assad, who was recently on an official visit to New Delhi, said that India “would be playing an important role in Geneva” along with Russia and China. Ms Shaaban was all praise for the role Russia has been playing in trying to find a negotiated settlement to the conflict that has claimed more than a 1,00,000 lives. “Russia has been extremely consistent in its stance and has acted in accordance with criteria of international law and the UN charter,” she said. The Syrian 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.” FRANCE & ISRAEL The senior Syrian official was very critical of the coordinated role being played by Israel and France in the region. She said that Israel was trying to sabotage the prospects for peace in the region by obstructing a negotiated settlement on Syria and sabotaging the nuclear deal between the US and Iran. Shaaban 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, the French president, Francois Hollande, had readied his air force for bombing missions over Damascus. She pointed out that the French had played a prominent role in vetoing the holding of the Geneva 11 talks in November, as was scheduled earlier. Israel’s goal, according to 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. Shaaban was particularly scathing about the role being played by the Gulf states, saying that the monarchies there have sided with Israel against Syria and Iran, the two states that constitute “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 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,” said Shaaban. “The best humanitarian solution is to reach a political solution,” emphasised Shaaban. She said that the worst enemy of the Syrian people is “terrorism.” This fact is being glossed over by the West. “Countries giving the missiles and sophisticated weapons to the terrorists should be condemned. UN Security Council resolutions mandate action against states that encourage terrorism,” said Shaaban. OPPOSITION WEAKENED The Syrian opposition will be going to Geneva politically and militarily weakened. The Syrian army has at the end of the year scored a sting of battlefield victories in the Qalamoun mountain range near the border with Lebanon. 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. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), propped up by the West and its regional allies like Turkey, is in disarray. According to Shaaban, there are around 2,100 groups, big and small, that constitute the Syrian armed opposition. The Syrian army, she said, has made tremendous advances in recent months. The only supply route for the rebels is form the Turkish border has been cut. According to Shaaban, the Turkish government is trying to find an “honourable exit” from their involvement in the Syrian conflict. 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 being done by other “jihadist” forces like Al Nusra and the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). The fault lines in the opposition forces seems to have irrevocably widened 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 border with Turkey, in the first week of December. The Islamic Front is a new alliance of seven militias that have been cobbled up with the encouragement of Saudi Arabia. The Islamic Front also took over possession of the sophisticated weaponry the FSA had accumulated. According to reports, the equipment includes tanks and communications equipment of the American and British origin. The Islamic Front has now emerged as the sole credible rival to the Al Qaeda affiliated groups like 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. President Assad told the visiting Arab politicians in Damascus that the battle in his country would continue as long as Saudi Arabia continues to “back terrorism” and 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 dollars as a monthly salary to all those who take up arms on theirs side,” Assad told the visiting delegation. “Saudi Arabia,” he said, “is leading the most extensive operation of direct sabotage against the Arab world.” SECOND THOUGHT ON SUPPORTING THE REBELS With the FSA in disarray, the US and the UK governments took a decision in the second week of December to suspend the delivery of military aid to the opposition. The Obama administration now seems to be having second thoughts on continuing with its support for the rebel cause. Three years since the uprising against the Syrian government was engineered with the connivance of the West, more than a 1,00,000 civilians have perished and seven million Syrian forced out of their homes. The UN has estimated that the total cost of the war in Syria has exceeded 103 billion dollars. Industrial activity has almost completely stopped in Syria. More than half the population is food deprived. 49 percent of the students had to quit school. According to the UN 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 that the conflict has triggered now threatens the entire region. Washington seems to have belatedly recognised that Al Qaeda has used western backing of the campaign against the Syrian government to dramatically widen its sphere of influence in the region. The numbers of Al Qaeda linked suicide attacks have registered a significant increase. Neighbouring 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. The 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 are 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 is 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 the London Review of Books, based on leaks by American officials, stated that, while making preparations to attack Syria this year on the specious grounds that the government had used chemical weapons on the populace, the Obama administration was also well aware that the Al Nusra Front has 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 up by the UN weapons inspectors report, released in the second week of December, which said that apart from the Ghouta incident in August that was highlighted by the West, there were four other “probable” sarin attacks. In three of the 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 in favour of talks, not only with Syria but also its main backer, Iran. A former CIA chief, Michael Hayden, has said that he is now actually in favour of an outcome that would give victory to President Bashar al Assad. But the most probable outcome, according to Hayden, 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 had created in West Asia. The US 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” like the Al Qaeda and this fact “complicates our support” for the rebel groups.