Syria: the vultures circle

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There is growing alarm in Israel, the West and its Arab allies at the turn of events in Syria. Barack Obama's administration is divided between those who urgently want to create a Syrian proxy by arming the official Free Syrian Army (FSA), those who advocate direct military intervention, and a growing number who consider Syrian dictator Bashar Assad "the lesser evil".

There is growing alarm in Israel, the West and its Arab allies at the turn of events in Syria, exasperated by a paralysis on how to approach the revolution. Barack Obama's administration is divided between those who urgently want to create a Syrian proxy by arming the official Free Syrian Army (FSA), those who advocate direct military intervention, and a growing number who consider Syrian dictator Bashar Assad "the lesser evil". The recent attempt by Britain and France to lift the embargo in order to arm "friendly forces" was sharply slapped down by its European partners.

This alarm is not at the increasing savagery of the regime, but at the dramatic rise of Islamist forces in rebel areas, and an opposition that is doggedly attempting to preserve the independence of the revolution. Assad is now playing heavily on these fears and raising the spectre that "al-Qaeda" is close to seizing stockpiles of chemical weapons.

In language reminiscent of the neo-con war talk on Afghanistan, the Syrian dictator said that the West should support his regime as a bulwark against "Islamists". He told state TV: "The West has paid heavily for funding al-Qaeda in its early stages. Today, it is doing the same in Syria, Libya and other places, and will pay a heavy price in the heart of Europe and the United States."

His shrill warning has found an echo in Israel. In an interview with the BBC, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "The main arms of concern to us are the arms that are already in Syria - these are anti-aircraft weapons, these are chemical weapons and other very, very dangerous weapons that could be game changers. They will change the conditions, the balance of power in the Middle East. They could present a terrorist threat on a worldwide scale."

Israelis are at pains to the spell out that even though Assad's regime was "hostile", the Golan border with Syria (captured in the 1967 war) was its safest. Now that Syrian troops have been reallocated to defend the regime in Damascus, rebels have filled the vacuum. Islamist brigades not affiliated to the FSA recently seized a key junction between Syria, Israel and Jordan - which is struggling to contain its own Arab Spring movement, as well as keeping in check a huge and restive Palestinian population.

It was inevitable that eventually some of the rebel arsenal of captured rockets would be fired at Israeli settlements. The first incident in April this year was dismissed by the Israelis, the second, which coincided with a similar attack from Egypt at the Red Sea port of Eilat, was not. It is not clear who is doing the firing, but for Israelis it is only a matter of time before the Golan front turns hot. The pressing priority is for the West and its Arab allies is to secure a buffer zone in the south, and for good reason - it could become a theatre for a Palestinian guerrilla war not seen since the 1960s.

The Israeli army is now beefing up its Golan defences, while UN monitors are beginning to pull out. Israel's chief military spokesman warned that, "in the future we will have to deal with terrorism from the Golan Heights, after 40 years of impressive and exemplary quiet." It is little wonder that the Israeli liberal newspaper Haaretz ran an article describing Assad as "Israel's favourite dictator".

The revolution
The Syria revolution did not materialise out of thin air, it was the result of a failed process of political reforms, and deeply entrenched corruption and repression. In the decade leading up to the revolution Assad tilted the Syrian economy towards trade with European Union. He dismantled the subsidies that provided some social security and launched a program of free market liberalisation and privatisation.

Those with close ties to the regime profited in the neo-liberal bonanza. The upper layers grew richer, those at the bottom became poorer. As part of the reforms, the regime was prepared to tolerate limited opposition. But those who were tempted into the officially sanctioned "salon discussions" were quickly silenced by hardliners. The political reforms ground to a halt, while the economic reforms moved apace.

Many Syrians saw Bashar as a prisoner of hardliners, and were sympathetic to his reform efforts. The slogan of the first demonstrations in March 2011 reflected this. As the rest of the Arab world was chanting for the "fall of the regime", in Syria the clamour was for the "the reform of the regime". They were soon disappointed. Instead of pushing through the long-promised changes, Assad attempted to crush the movement, sparking a national uprising.

By the summer of 2012 the regime had lost control of large areas of the country, to be replaced by revolutionary committees, rebel brigades and popular democratic councils. This alliance of opposition forces coalesced into the National Coalition (officially known as The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces) headed by Moaz al-Khatib.

Al-Khatib won the National Coalition international recognition, and Syria's seat on the Arab League. He sought to reassure the West and its Arab allies that the Coalition was "moderate", but for little gain. US Secretary of State John Kerry let slip at a recent "Friends of Syria" meeting in Turkey that the interest of the West is to force the regime into a "political process" and an orderly transition, not its overthrow. Soon after the meeting a frustrated al-Khatib resigned, describing his role as like "a bird in a cage".

FSA, Islamists and the armed uprising
As the revolution enters its third year the question of weapons has become the defining issue for its survival. The vast majority of arms in rebel hands come from captured Syrian military stockpiles, or were brought over by defecting soldiers. Some rebels have set up crude weapons workshops. But it was never enough.

Rebel offensives stutter to a halt through lack of ammunition, in contrast the regime receives steady supplies of ammunition and cash from its allies. Weapons have become the primary method for outside powers to try and win influence inside the revolution, and many rebel brigades have few alternatives but to take what is on offer.

One commander in Aleppo summed up his dilemma: "I go to the [FSA] military councils, say 'Yes, yes I am with you.' I take what they offer me. I go to the Muslim Brothers, I say the same thing. I go to a financier, say 'On my head, I am your man' and take what he gives me, then I come back and pool it all together. What are they going to do? Let them try and ask me to vote for them or support them after [the fall of the regime]. They will get nothing from me."

This deep frustration has created conditions for the rise of Islamist organisations not affiliated to the FSA or the National Coalition. There are many of these formations, which are rooted in the revolution, but it is Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), formed in January 2012, that is causing the greatest concern. JAN launched a series of successful offensives on regime bases in the north over the winter. These victories cemented its reputation for military prowess, efficiency and coordination. Late last year the US designated it a "terrorist organisation". JAN recently confirmed its alliance to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

In certain areas of Aleppo, Islamist brigades (not affiliated to Al-Qaeda) have stepped in to rebuild basic services and provided security. There are similar efforts in the oil-rich east - although attempts by Islamists to impose their rule on the regional city of Raqqa ran into deep trouble with locals and other rebel brigades. The main FSA formations continue to hold sway in the west, around Damascus, and in the south.

One significant shift over the past month has been among the Kurdish Syrian regions. Like their compatriots in Iraq, Turkey and Iran, Syria's Kurds have had to endure decades of repression. At the beginning of the uprising, Assad consented to change their status, and withdrew troops from Kurdish areas in the hope of guaranteeing their neutrality.

But the peace negotiations between the Turkish government and its rebellious Kurdish regions, as well as its growing interest in the oil-rich Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, have broken the impasse. Kurdish militias have now turned against the regime, bringing with them key towns, as well as the northern neighbourhoods of Aleppo.

Sectarianism
There is no doubt that the regime is losing, but the price has been high. As the army disintegrates, Assad had increasingly stoked sectarianism. His new militias (known as the Popular Committees) are being reinforced by thousands of Hizbollah fighters. These militias have committed a series of bloody sectarian massacres around city of Homs.

As it retreats, the regime is attempting to carve out a stronghold in the west of the country. By sending its troops to defend the regime, Hizbollah - once a highly respected resistance organisation - has committed political suicide. These massacres serve two purposes: to spread terror among the Sunni Muslim majority in the hope they will abandon the revolution, and to give the Alawi minority (to which Assad belongs) no option but to support his regime.

There is no question that the wolves are circling Syria, with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, along with US, Britain and others, attempting to buy influence for the "endgame". In this view the big powers push their Syrian pawns about a chessboard according to their interests. But this discounts the independence of the revolution itself. The Syrians are not "passive victims", their uprising has its own dynamic, history, internal divisions and competing factions. The revolution is fragile, yet it has proved to be remarkably resilient. Its survival depends on how long it can maintain its independence.