People's Democracy

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


No. 01

January 01, 2012


Syria: Looming Civil Strife


Yohannan Chemarapally


WITH the western powers seemingly intent on implementing their plans for regime change in Syria, the scope for a negotiated settlement to the crisis which erupted earlier in the year is receding by the day. The US vice president, Joseph Biden, on a visit to Turkey in the first week of December, once again demanded that the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, step down. Turkey, a NATO member, has been providing a base and training for the so-called Free Syrian Army consisting of a motley group of army deserters and Islamist insurgents. According to the Syrian deputy foreign minister, Faisal al Mikdad, terrorist groups within Syria “are being financed in an unofficial way by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Jordan.” At the same time, Ankara is allowing the “Free Syria Army” to launch attacks in Syria from Turkish territory. The Turkish government has already imposed unilateral sanctions on Syria, one of its biggest trading partners. The sanctions announced in early December include a freeze on the Syrian government’s assets and the suspension of all financial dealings with Damascus. Syria has retaliated by suspending the free trade agreement with Turkey and imposing a tax of 30 per cent on all goods imported from the country.




The West and its allies in the region are also upping the diplomatic ante in various international forums. The gameplan is to not allow the Syrian government a chance to implement the wide ranging set of reforms it announced in the middle of the year in response to the wave of protests. Multiparty parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held early next year but the West seems to prefer to enforce regime change through violence. The Turkish government is coordinating closely with the western capitals and the pro-western Arab states to implement this scenario. Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, along with the French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, recently called for more international pressure to be exerted on Damascus. Till early this year, Turkey and Syria had an extremely close political and economic relationship. Davutoglu’s seems to have abandoned his much praised “zero problems with neighbours” foreign policy.


The leader of Syria’s banned Muslim Brotherhood Party, Mohammed Riad Shaqfa, told the media in Istanbul that Turkey should intervene more actively in Syria in case the international community does not come to the aid of the opposition. According to the Turkish newspaper Sabah, which is close to the ruling AK Party, the opposition wants Turkey to set up a “limited no fly zone” over Syria. There are also reports in Turkish media that the government is preparing to set up a “military buffer zone” along the borders between the two countries. The US has been financially supporting Syrian opposition groups since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.


Turkey and Syria were on the verge of a war in 1998. At that time, Turkey was angry with Syria for providing asylum to the Kurdish separatist leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Today it is Turkey which is hosting rebel Syrian leaders and at the same time threatening to go to war against Syria. “The dream of the Ottoman empire remains vivid in some minds. Although they know that it is only a pipe dream, they exploit political parties raising religious slogans to boost their influence in the Arab world,” President Assad said in a recent speech criticising Turkey’s meddling in the affairs of Arab states that were previously part of the Ottoman empire.




The Arab League in a reprise of the dubious role it played on Libya is paving the way for western military intervention. The Syrian government had earlier agreed to the proposals mooted by the Arab League in November to end the bloody cycle of violence that has gripped the country in the last eight months. The League’s peace plan involved the despatch of hundreds of observers to the areas hit by the strife. According to reports, the Arab League also wants the Syrian government to announce an immediate ceasefire and move forward the date for presidential elections. Damascus had no objections to the presence of outside observers but insisted that the observers should work in coordination with the government. The League wanted unfettered access for its observers in Syria. The Turkish foreign minister was a special invitee to the Arab League meeting that decided on giving Syria, a founder member of the grouping an ultimatum to accept “the protocols” or face the consequences. Davutoglu said after the meeting in Cairo that the Syrian government had “come to the end of the road.”


The League had not thought it fit to impose any conditions on the violent opposition movement or their foreign backers. Syrian forces would have had to vacate the violence prone areas allowing the opposition to fill in the vacuum. The Syrian foreign minister, Walid Muallem, had said in the third week of November that the wording of the text of the Arab League resolution “totally ignores the Syrian state, even coordination with the state.” Muallem has openly accused some Arab League members “of pushing to internationalise the conflict.” The finance minister of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Jabr al Thani, has warned that Syria’s refusal to cooperate with the Arab League’s “peace plan” is bound to lead to an “international solution” of the crisis.


The Arab League had at the end of November announced sweeping sanctions against Syria but most of the member states have not implemented them The sanctions announced include a “travel ban” on 19 Syrian officials to Arab states and the cutting of civilian flights to Syria by 50 per cent. Syria was also suspended from the Arab League for failing to accept its proposals. This is the first time that the Arab League has imposed sanctions of such magnitude on a member state. Punitive sanctions of this kind were not imposed on Iraq even after the invasion of Kuwait in 1991.




But cracks have already started appearing on the façade of Arab League unity. Iraq and Lebanon have said that they would not implement sanctions against Syria. Reports from Jordan suggest that the government there is also reluctant to impose sanctions on its neighbour. The volume of trade between the two countries was more $400 million last year. Sanctions by the Arab League could only have a limited impact but may pave the way for further interventions into the internal affairs of Syria. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, criticised the League’s decision to suspend Syria saying that was a wrong and a pre-planned move. “Those who took the decision have lost a very important opportunity to redirect the situation in a more transparent way,” said the Russian foreign minister.  


In the last week of December, the Syrian government finally allowed an Arab League observer group to visit Syria. A day before their arrival there were two massive suicide bomb attacks near buildings housing security personnel in the Syrian capital Damascus. This has been the first incident of the kind in Syria. Among those killed were innocent civilians. The Syrian government has blamed the Al Qaeda for the attacks. The opposition has been claiming that the Syrian government stage-managed the attacks to convince the visiting Arab League observers group that the militant groups have taken over their leadership. The western media gave wide credence to the unfounded allegation of the Syrian opposition.


On a parallel track, the UNHCR passed a resolution in the first week of December condemning Syria for the “gross and systematic violation” of human rights. Those responsible for the report on which the resolution was based have admitted that they have no clinching evidence about the so-called “crimes against humanity” and “killing of children” by the Syrian army. They have only said that the report was based on conversations with “reliable sources” inside Syria. The Syrian government had not allowed independent monitors to enter the country. The UN human rights body chose to ignore the targeting of the security forces by the armed gangs.


A significant proportion of the estimated 4,000 people who have lost their lives since the troubles erupted earlier in the year have been army and police personnel. The Syrian deputy foreign minister said in the second week of November that 1,150 soldiers and security personnel have lost their lives as a result of the armed uprising. In recent weeks, the attacks on the armed forces have increased. Among the civilians killed by the armed protestors include professors, doctors and recently the son of the Grand Mufti of the Republic. There are reports in the media revealing  that the “Free Syria Army” is dominated by fighters owing allegiance the Muslim Brotherhood, armed by the US, Israel and Turkey. Syria has condemned the UNHCR resolution as “unjust” and “prepared in advance by parties hostile to Syria.”  




The armed opposition has been trying from the outset to internationalise a domestic political issue. One of the main groups backed by the West, the Syrian National Council, recently urged Arab governments to take the demands of the opposition to the United Nations. The US and its European allies in the United Nations Security Council have failed so far in their efforts to impose sanctions on Damascus, because of the opposition from Russia and China. This has, however, not stopped the West from implementing unilateral sanctions on Syria. The British oil company BP has announced that it is stopping production in Syria because of the European Union’s (EU) sanctions on the country’s financial and energy sectors. Syria derives a significant amount of hard currency through the export of oil.


The Syrian National Council is calling for an international mandate that would allow the stationing of peacekeepers along with humanitarian monitors inside Syria. The West and its supporters in the Arab League are desperately seeking such an outcome. If such a move materialises, it could be a prelude to a full-scale war. In an interview with The Telegraph of London in the last week of November, the Syrian president warned against foreign interference. “Syria is the hub now of the region. It is the fault line and if you play with the ground, you will cause an earthquake,” Assad said. “Any problem in Syria will burn the whole region,” he warned. Syria is the cradle of the Arab civilisation. Syria is strategically positioned between Israel, Lebanon and Turkey. It has a close alliance with Iran and the Hezbollah party in Lebanon. The Hezbollah militia is stronger than the Lebanese army. If things go out of control, the sectarian violence that has hit Syria could spread to neighbouring countries like Jordan.    


The targeting of Syria, as many analysts have noted, is part of the larger plan to isolate Iran. A pro-western Sunni dominated regime in Damascus would not be keen to continue the special relationship with Teheran. The Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has strong links with the Syrian government and Iran, would be under tremendous pressure if the present scenario changes dramatically. The US, which is leaving Iraq without having much to show after occupying the country for the last eight years, would like nothing better than to see a friendly regime in neighbouring Syria. Iran’s influence in Iraq is already stronger than that of the US in Iraq. The Iraqi government in fact is now among the staunchest supporters of the Syrian government. Russia, which has strong military and political links with the Syrian government, will also be a loser if the situation changes dramatically. Russia and China, chastened by their experience on Libya, have wisely not allowed the West to hijack the Syria issue and pave the way for military intervention.