People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 50

December 16, 2012



Syria: US Contingency Plans


Yohannan Chemarapally


 AS the casualty toll among the hapless civilian population escalates and new graphic evidence of gross human rights violations emerges, the US and its allies in the region still are not in a mood to compromise and find a negotiated end to the conflict. They are still insisting on wholesale regime change in Syria even as the country is burning. The ancient historic city of Aleppo has been severely impacted. Its centuries old souk and its famous citadel are among the world heritage sites that have been badly damaged in the fighting. Homs is another city where the fighting continues unabated. Sections of the city have been reduced to rubble. The sectarian fault lines in Syrian society have further widened as the fighting escalates.


The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, perhaps shocked by the new evidence of atrocities committed by rebel forces, said in the last week of October that Washington wants a new leadership to take command over the disparate forces fighting the Syrian government. Clinton speaking in the Croatian capital, Zagreb said that the US wants the opposition to resist attempts by the extremists to hijack the “revolution” in Syria and rally wider support among the Syrian people. Libya, after being “liberated” with American help has been witness to jihadi groups running amok. These groups were also supplied with weaponry from the West purchased with money from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The Americans, including the state department’s late point man in Libya, Christopher Stevens, were well aware that many of the Islamist militias they were funding and training had close affiliations with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).


The US has been cognizant of the fact that a significant amount of the lethal aid it has dispatched to Syria has gone to Salafist and jihadi elements. The New York Times reported in October that US Intelligence Agents had acknowledged that “most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard line Islamic jihadists and not to the more secular groups that the West wants to bolster”.


The American secretary of state is now demanding that the rebel leadership get its act together and overhaul their leadership by bringing in new faces. The US has signaled that it wants to sideline the extremist groups. Clinton snubbed the Syrian National Council (SNC), an exile group based in Paris, which is claiming the sole leadership role in the fight against the Syrian government. She said the group can no longer aspire to play a meaningful role. “There cannot be an opposition represented by people who have many good attributes but have in many instances not been inside Syria for 20,30 or 40 years”, she said. She went on to add that the US and its allies “have recommended names and organisations that we believe should be included in any leadership structure”.


The Obama administration seems to have finally realised that the rebels have alienated not only the minority communities, which constitute around 40 per cent of the Syrian population but also secular and liberal minded Syrians who are not deeply committed to the Baathist government that has been ruling the country since the sixties. Clinton has emphasised that there should be an opposition that “speaks to every segment and every geographic part of Syria”. It is expected that Alawite, Kurdish and Christian figureheads will now figure prominently in the US sponsored list of opposition leaders.


The opposition leaders acting under pressure from their patrons met in Qatar in the first week of November under the banner of the “Syrian National Initiative”. Washington wants a fifty-member leadership council with the majority from inside Syria. Some rebel groups have however chosen to remain absent from the American led initiative. Some prominent voices in the opposition, including those in the SNC have criticised the US move and have said that they cannot be dictated to. “Only the people of Syria can decide who represents them and who doesn’t. No one else has a say in that”, said Abdelbaset Seida, the outgoing president of the SNC, who is based in Turkey. Hillary Clinton had previously described the SNC as “the leading and legitimate representative of Syrians seeking a peaceful democratic transition”    




The UN envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has been trying his best to calm the situation and prevent the conflict from spreading to the neighboring countries. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, while stressing that his government was not changing its position on the crisis, warned that the violence in Syria could spread more terrorism in the region and lead to more bloodshed. There was a sliver of hope for a possible peace accord after Brahimi had succeeded in persuading the Syrian government to agree to a military truce during the Eid festivities in late October. But the relative calm lasted for less than a day as sections of the rebel forces had refused to accept a cease fire. A gruesome video showing 20 pro-government militiamen being executed in cold blood by Syrian rebels emerged even as the Eid festivities were getting over.


The UN has said that the video could be evidence of a war crime. The footage shows gunmen first beating and then shooting dead a group of prisoners near the town of Sarageb on the main road linking Aleppo and Damascus. A spokesman for the UNHCR said that “it appeared that the victims were no longer combatants and therefore, at this point, it looks like a war crime”. A few days before this incident, a Greek Orthodox priest, Fr Fadi Jamil Haddad was tortured and killed after being kidnapped for ransom, from his parish near Damascus. Minority groups, especially Christians, have been specifically targeted by the rebels. Rebel groups have also been accusing government troops and allied militias of carrying out summary executions. Some 20 journalists have been killed so far, many of them by sniper fire. In the ongoing Syrian conflict taking of prisoners in most cases is no longer considered an option. The numbers of those killed according to UN agencies has crossed 48,000.


Meanwhile, the ripple effects of the conflict in Syria are already being felt by its neighbors. In Lebanon, the sectarian schisms have been further exacerbated.  A massive explosion in the third week of October in the capital Beirut killed eight people, including the influential Internal Security Forces official, Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan. Hassan was identified with the anti-Syrian faction in Lebanon and was known to be close to Saad al-Hariri, the leader of the opposition. The government in Lebanon is dominated by Hezbollah which is a close ally of the Syrian government. Hassan before his unfortunate demise had implicated a minister in the Lebanese government, Michel Samaha, of being hand in glove with Syrian officials in organising terror attacks inside the country. The minister had strongly denied the allegations. Lebanese politicians opposed to Syria and belonging to Sunni parties were however quick to blame Syria for the killing of Hassan.


Syria’s information minister, Omran al Zouchi, was quick to condemn the killing describing it as a “cowardly and terrorist act”. Hezbollah also expressed its “great shock over the terrible crime”. Those countries opposed to Syria and Hezbollah were quick to blame Damascus for the terror attacks in Lebanon. Soon after the explosion that killed the Lebanese security chief, another explosion in a predominantly Christian neighborhood of Beirut claimed the lives of 13 more Lebanese civilians. The Lebanese city of Tripoli had witnessed violent clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian government. If there is open foreign military intervention in Syria, Hezbollah is not expected to remain a passive bystander. The Hezbollah leadership is fully aware that after Syria, it is next on the West’s firing line.




The Americans already have a big troop presence in Turkey. In October, the Obama administration announced that American troops are also being deployed in neighboring Jordan. US Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich told the media that this deployment, done without Congressional approval, has brought America “immeasurably closer” to being overtly involved in the internal war raging in Syria.


 In Turkey, a recent poll showed that the majority of the population there is against war with its neighbor. The Turkish prime minister in many of his speeches has been exhorting his people to be prepared for an open military confrontation with Syria. Turkey has also been calling for the introduction of UN mandated “buffer zones” along the border between the two countries. Such a move would constitute an infringement of Syrian sovereignty. The Turkish army has increased its shelling across the borders that had started after Syrian artillery had fired a few shells into a small Turkish town of Akcakale that was a conduit for arms smugglers and opposition fighters. The sizeable Alevi population in the border areas with Syria is anyway sympathetic to the Syrian government.


All these areas were part of Syria till the early 20th century and the Alevi in Turkey and the Alawites in Syria share a very close cultural and religious bond. The Alevi are unhappy with their government playing host to jihadi elements and more than 100,000 refugees on their lands. In the last few months, the Kurds in Turkey under the leadership of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) have increased their attacks on the Turkish military. Ankara is blaming Damascus for aiding the PKK. Soli Ozel, who teaches international relations at an Istanbul university, had in an interview pointed out Turkey “is engaging in a proxy war with Syria through its support for the Syrian rebels” and therefore “it cannot complain too much if its neighbour retaliates”.


The Brookings Institute in a Report has described how Turkey’s stationing of weapons and troops along Syria’s border in coordination with Israel’s efforts in the South of Syria could facilitate a regime change in Syria. On November 4, Israel alleged that Syrian army tanks had crossed into the demilitarised Golan Heights area. Israel had seized the area from Syria during the 1973 war. “In addition, Israel’s intelligence services have a strong knowledge of Syria, as well as assets within the Syrian regime that could be used to subvert the regime’s power base and press for Assad’s removal. Israel could posture forces on or near the Golan Heights and, in so doing, might divert the regime’s forces from suppressing the opposition”, the Brookings report said.


Turkey’s much vaunted “zero problems with neighbours” policy is now in absolute tatters. All its immediate neighbours like Iran, Armenia and Syria have been completely alienated. The Russians have been especially infuriated after Turkish Air Force F-16’s forced a commercial Syrian Air flight from Moscow to Damascus to land in Ankara in the second week of October. The Turkish authorities had made the wild allegation that the commercial flight was carrying banned cargo for the Syrian military. The Turkish authorities have not been able to provide any evidence to prove their allegations but have chosen not to deliver a formal apology for what has been described in the Russian media as “an act of mid-air piracy”. Turkey’s growing stature in the Arab world has considerably diminished as a consequence of its interventionist policies. At the same time, Europe too is moving away from Ankara, with prospects of full fledged EU membership diminishing by the day.


Iraq is the other neighbor that has been seriously affected by the snowballing Syrian crisis. It is no secret that many of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders and fighters are Sunni jihadist from Iraq who till the other day were fighting sectarian battles in their own country. The Americans are angry with the Shia dominated government in Baghdad for tacitly supporting the government in Damascus and having close ties with Iran.  There are reports that battle hardened Shia fighters have also been pouring in to Syria across the long porous border to help the beleaguered government there. The government in Baghdad realises that regime change in Damascus would create significant problems for them as it would bolster the Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq. As it is, since the trouble in Syria flared up, suicide attacks and bombings have registered a sharp increase in Baghdad and other cities of Iraq.