People's Democracy

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


No. 04

January 27, 2013





Syria: Battlelines Drawn


Yohannan Chemarapally


THE West, led by the US, seems ever more determined to effect a regime change in Damascus, despite the evidence of the crucial role being played by the Al Qaeda affiliated groups in the ongoing fighting in Syria. In the second week of December, the US president, Barack Obama, recognised the main Syrian opposition coalition group --- “the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Groups” --- as “the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” Britain, France and the Gulf monarchies had already given this umbrella opposition group of Syria the “stamp of legitimacy.” The Syrian opposition, which is far from united, was arm-twisted by their sponsors --- the rich Gulf monarchies and the West --- at a meeting in Qatar in November, to come together on the same platform in November. In another meeting held in Marrakesh, Morocco, in the second week of December, representatives from over 100 countries, including the Gulf monarchies and US, Britain and France, assembled under the “Friends of Syria” banner and reaffirmed their support for the Syrian armed opposition.


President Obama, while bestowing the imperial stamp of recognition on the Syrian opposition, said that he expected them to act in a more cohesive manner and “that they commit themselves to a political transition that respects woman’s rights and minority rights.” Washington’s recognition of the opposition coincided with the US State Department’s blacklisting of the Jabhat al Nusra Front, a Qaeda affiliate, which is doing much of the fighting in Syria and has been involved in the suicide attacks that have resulted in the death of hundreds of innocent civilians. The Al Nusra has claimed credit for 40 suicide attacks since November 2011. The US State Department labelled the Al Nusra as a “terrorist group” having very close links with the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). A State Department official accused the Al Nusra for staging more than 600 attacks in major city centres all over Syria “in which numerous innocent Syrians have been injured or killed.”


US officials have been saying that radical Islamists are planning to take control of the opposition. The West has tried to rectify matters by restructuring the command of the so called Free Syrian Army (FSA). The new command structure includes senior figures with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood but are people with whom the West hopes it “can do business.” Many of the fighters have already rejected the new rebel military command imposed on them by the West. Muslim Brotherhood officials in Syria told the western media that the terrorist label given to Al Nusra was unjustified and that the “only terrorist in Syria was Assad.”


However, according to most observers, the fact of the matter is that the Islamists are already in control and are also doing the bulk of the fighting. Yet the West has found it opportune to give the motley opposition group the stamp of legitimacy along with even more funding and sophisticated arms. The Obama administration, it seems, has not learned any lessons from the recent Benghazi episode. In Libya, the Islamist groups armed and funded by the West had played a crucial role in the overthrow of the government led by Muammar Gaddafi. But it was one such group that was responsible for the assassination of the US envoy to Libya. The Al Nusra, although now figuring in Washington’s terror list, is a member of the rebel Syrian National Coalition that the US has recognised.


The recognition has also been interpreted as an “open declaration of war” against Syria by the West. Many NATO countries have pledged to supply more heavy weapons and trainers to the Syrian rebel groups. There are reports that the US is on the verge of supplying weapons like the SA-7 missiles for the first time. This missile can shoot down planes. Almost on cue, the opposition fighters declared in the second week of December that Damascus International Airport is now a legitimate military target and that civilian planes should no longer fly to the Syrian capital.




Patriot missiles supplied by the US and its allies are on the verge of being deployed on Turkey’s borders with Syria. The Syrian government has described the move as part of the “psychological warfare” the West is carrying out against it, and has stressed that it would not impact on its determination to wipe out the terror groups. All this seems to be a prelude for the establishment of a “no fly zone” over parts of Syria. The Patriot missiles are to be ostensibly deployed to stop the incoming missiles, but their real purpose seems to be to deny the Syrian air force the ability to fly in the northern part of the country. This will, in effect, create a no fly zone where the rebel groups can operate in relative freedom. Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko, criticised the deployment of the US made Patriot missiles on Syria’s borders. He said that it was proof that NATO “was getting involved in the conflict after all” on the pretext of “provocations or some incidents on the Turkey-Syria border.”


The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, expressed his “surprise” over Washington’s latest move of officially recognising the Syrian opposition. He said that Washington is apparently betting on a military victory for the rebels. Lavrov went on to add that the Obama administration has seemingly reneged on the road map agreed earlier in the year at Geneva, which had envisaged a peaceful and negotiated end to the conflict. As of now, the key western countries involved in the regime change mission --- like the US, France and the UK --- have said that they would not be putting “boots on the ground” in Syria; they would instead continue training the armed groups in neighbouring Turkey. French papers have reported that France has sent in military officers inside Syria to assess the situation on the ground. “The main task was to know who controls the battlegrounds around Damascus,” Le Figaro reported. In any case, blatant military intervention inside Syria, without UN authorisation, would be difficult to sell to the international community.


Before giving the formal recognition to the rebels, Washington had raised the bogey of the Syrian government’s imminent use of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) against its own people. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said that a desperate government in Damascus could resort to chemical weapons onslaught to save itself while President Obama sanctimoniously warned of a “red line” on chemical weapons, saying that its use will not be tolerated. The western media was full of stories of how the government in Damascus was preparing to wage a “chemical warfare” on its own people. The stories were sought to be bolstered by references to the 1982 massacre in the Syrian city of Hama where the army had put down an armed rebellion in which more than 10,000 people died. The stories appearing in the western media had alleged that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons at that time.


However, western reporters who were on the ground at that time, like the veteran correspondent Robert Fisk, have said that there was no truth in these allegations. Fisk has said the Syrian troops had resorted to heavy-handed measures in Hama after the Muslim Brothers had briefly taken over the city and massacred government sympathisers and their families.


Allegations that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of unleashing his WMDs on his own people was a prelude to the invasion of Iraq. A chemical weapons expert, Jean Pascal Zanders, who is a senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, has said that the alleged threat of use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government “is being ratcheted up to justify military intervention in the not too distant future.”


On its part, the Syrian government has pledged that it would never, under any circumstances, use chemical weapons on its own people. At the same time, Damascus has warned the international community that the Al Nusra led militants have seized a factory, the Saudi-Syrian Chemicals Co, near the city of Safira and they may now have the ability to engage in chemical warfare while putting the blame on the government.




The insurgency, fuelled mainly by West and its Gulf allies, has already claimed the lives of over 40,000 people. Half a million Syrians have become refugees. The prices of essentials have escalated dramatically, and hunger is stalking a land that was till recently self-sufficient in food. The state run factories producing bread have been pillaged by the rebels in cities like Aleppo. Half of Syria’s 88 public hospitals have been damaged by the fighting, leading to shortages of life saving drugs and essential medicines like insulin. Pharmaceutical factories that produced 90 per cent of the country’s drug needs are now producing only one third of what they produced till last year. Many of the factories were directly targeted by the opposition fighters. The other factor that has led to an acute shortage of medicines is the punitive economic sanctions imposed by the West on Syria that prevent the import of raw materials.


These developments have only made the average Syrians even more sceptical about the armed rebel groups that have descended on the country like locusts. According to reports, the support for the president, Bashar al Assad, among the common people remains steadfast. Even those opposed to the government are having second thoughts about the opposition. Mohammed Zein, a 64 years old vegetable vendor, told the Al Jazeera channel: “Our country is being destroyed. If this is a revolution, I don’t want it. I have to stress that I am not a supporter of the regime because they used to oppress us. But now we are being oppressed a hundred times more.” According to the British paper, Daily Telegraph, the majority of the people in the capital Damascus are still solidly behind Assad. “One of the reasons that Bashar al Assad has not been toppled like the Arab Spring dictators of Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen is that he has a strong base of support,” a recent article in the paper stated.


The military situation, according to a senior Syrian diplomat, is still very manageable. He said that the government has so far deployed less than 10 per cent of the armed forces to combat the insurgency. Another senior Arab diplomat, based in Delhi, said that the government in Damascus faced no serious threat for another two years. “However, public alienation would increase, if the fighting continues beyond that period,” he predicted. Many governments in the region are still firm in the belief that there is no alternative to the present government in Syria at the current juncture. Most observers of the region believe that if the government in Damascus falls, the entire region would implode into a cycle of sectarian violence.