The Great Syrian Risk Game

Posted on 11/24/13
By Vijay Prashad | Via The Hindu
A taxi drives past Syrian soldiers manning a checkpoint at the entrance of al-Karama area in the Bab Amro neighborhood of Homs on May 2, 2012. (File photo by FreedomHouse)
A taxi drives past Syrian soldiers manning a checkpoint at the entrance of al-Karama area in the Bab Amro neighborhood of Homs on May 2, 2012. (File photo by FreedomHouse)

The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has asked his envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, to set a date for the Syrian peace conference — called Geneva II — in mid-December. The expectation of a November meeting has now slipped by. A quarter century ago, Mr. Brahimi was the envoy tasked to bring peace to the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). The Algerian diplomat used to fly into Damascus airport in Syria and drive to his meetings in Beirut. Now, Mr. Brahimi flies into Beirut to drive to Damascus. His visit to the city on October 29 was greeted with fierce fighting (in Barza and Darayya), a poor omen for a peace process. Mr. Brahimi is not optimistic. Glimmers of a political settlement are quickly extinguished by the testosterone of war and the belief by different parties that they are on the ascendency. Why make peace, they suggest, if victory is on the horizon.

A year ago, it would have been unthinkable to imagine that Bashar Assad’s Syrian armed forces would be marching up Highway 5 from Damascus towards Homs and Hama, and that his forces would be at the gates of Aleppo. Certainly Mr. Assad’s armies have always had the military advantage, and they have used their full arsenal to pummel the opposition. But plucky fighting from the defectors who formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the detachments of popular militias had given the official army a great deal of trouble, notably in Syria’s mountainous and forested terrain. In sections of the country, such as the western flank of Syria, Mr. Assad’s forces are now in the ascendency. Part of the reason for this has been the exhaustion of the rebellion, with the FSA hampered by a dismembered political leadership (the Syrian National Coalition). This Coalition is stifled by exiles who are utterly cut off from the reality of Syrian politics, by aged Muslim Brotherhood leaders who have no base to lean on in most of Syria’s governorates, and by the Saudi proxies — including leader Ahmad Jarba — who were outwitted on the ground by radical Islamists. Without a clear political agenda and consistent logistical and military support from outside, the FSA has crumbled.

Advantage Assad

FSA fighters can be seen at the border posts with Lebanon — trying to get away from a battlefield that has turned against them, and afraid of the terrible revenge that the Assad forces might take. But neither Lebanon nor Jordan is keen to allow former fighters, who are often defectors, into their countries as refugees and the United Nations does not seem to have an explicit policy for them. The collapse of the FSA, combined with the entry of Hezbollah (to conduct “self-defense duty,” as one of its leaders Mohammed Raad put it), as well as a confident irregular militia (shabiha), have given the advantage in the south-west of Syria to the Assad government. Highway 5, along the western spine of Syria that abuts the Lebanese border, will likely be in the hands of the Syrian armed forces within the week (although sources say that the army moves slower than it need to so as to exploit every victory and build morale among its troops). On November 20, the government forces took Qara, a major town since it closes off one of the last remaining supply routes from Lebanon for the opposition.

The Syrian army’s advance north toward Aleppo was facilitated by infighting among the radical Islamists and the remnants of the FSA. The most radical outfit — the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams or ISIS — emerged out of the Iraqi franchise of al-Qaeda and moved from the Iraqi town of Ramadi to the Syrian town of Raqqa, where they are now ensconced. Near Aleppo and at Azaz near the Turkish border, ISIS has been in pitched battles against competing Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham and an FSA detachment al-Hijra li-Allah. Last week, ISIS fighters beheaded Mohammed Fares, a fighter with Ahrar al-Sham.

Doctrinal differences

Fine-toothed doctrinal differences between Islamists are opened up by territorial disputes and divergent governmental styles. Some of these fights are over control over the oil fields in the Al- Jazeera area, with the regime holding the Al-Omar oil field in Deir al-Zour, the Kurds holding the largest field in Al-Rmailan in Hassekeh and Islamists and the FSA fighting over the remainder (most notably in Raqqa). As ISIS becomes more radical, it turns others against it but, at the same time, it is more ruthless against its enemies among whom it includes not only the government, but also the other Islamists and the FSA. Fitna or civil strife is its modus operandi.

If the Islamists have been weakened near Aleppo, they have been largely expelled from the Kurdish areas between the towns of Al-Qamishli and Al-Hasakah in Syria’s northeast. The Democratic Union of Kurdistan and the popular resistance committees (YPG) were given a carte blanche by the Assad government in the early part of the conflict to ensure that his northern flank would not be troublesome while he cracked down on the rebellion in the south. That concession has now turned into a full-blown secession movement. The YPG and the Democratic Union have announced the formation of Western Kurdistan — a snub at Turkey (which continues to deny Kurdish aspirations and its vehicle, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — the PKK) and the Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region (whose ally in Syria, the Kurdish National Council, criticized the move). Western Kurdistan is forbidden territory for the Assad regime and the Islamists.

Desperation stalks the horizon of radical Islamism. The Syrian army’s momentum up Highway 5 has angered the confederates of ISIS and al-Nusra in Lebanon, as it has emboldened the regime’s allies. Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, saw fierce fighting along the aptly named Syria Street in early November, and bomb blasts have returned to this fragile society. On November 19, two blasts in Beirut claimed close to 30 lives, responsibility for which was claimed by an al-Qaeda franchise, the Abdullah Azzam brigade. ISIS continues its campaign of terror in Iraq, including night raids in Ramadi to execute Iraqi police and army personnel. There are too many motives for this violence, and too little imagination amongst its perpetrators.

Furious Saudis

As the opposition Syrian National Coalition refuses to entertain talks with the Assad government, ISIS threatens death to anyone who participates in Geneva II. Saudi Arabia’s envoys worry that movement on the nuclear deal with Iran and an entente on Syria with Iran at the table would strengthen the political position of Saudi’s historical enemy. Saudi princes (Bandar, Faisal and Turki) spread across the region to scuttle any attempt to create a political process for Syria. Nothing short of total victory could be allowed by them (a position that is being mirrored in Damascus as the Syrian army strengthens its territorial holdings). Fearful of the implications of ISIS, the Saudis have funded Zahran Alloush’s Army of Islam — but it is too late to the battlefield. For good reason are the Saudis furious with the United States for its reticence to bomb Syria and encage Iran — Saudi projections have begun to unravel.

Mr. Brahimi’s December date will not be met. The Syrian army’s advance suggests that Mr. Assad will not want a ceasefire before he has taken back most of the cities. Already the area where the rebellion broke out in 2011 (near Dar’aa) is silent, with the U.N. reporting that there are more Syrians moving back from Jordan into these towns than coming across the border as refugees. If Mr. Assad has no appetite for a ceasefire, ISIS and its circle are indisposed to negotiations. A weakened FSA and a chaotic Syrian National Coalition leave the pockets of rebels across the country vulnerable to horrible retribution from both the government and the Islamists. Theirs is a precarious state. The Kurdish YPG has created the basis for their autonomous region, with control over some oil-fields and emergent links with Iraqi Kurdistan setting up the objective conditions for their effective merger. Geneva II is senseless for them. Nothing here nudges anyone to Mr. Brahimi’s table. For now, the U.N. envoy sits alone.

Vijay Prashad is the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut. This article first appeared in The Hindu, a leading newspaper of India.

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