People's Democracy

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


No. 08

February 24, 2013





Syrian Conflict Enters Third Year


Yohannan Chemarapally


THE civil strife in Syria which started in early 2011 shows little signs of ending in a peaceful manner any time soon. The United Nations estimates that at least 60,000 people have died and half a million have been turned into refugees as a result of the conflict. Around half of those who perished are said to be civilians. The Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, in a public speech he delivered to a packed audience at the Damascus Opera House in the first week of January, said that he was open to new reconciliation efforts. Speaking publicly for the first time in six months, the Syrian president proposed the drafting of a new constitution and the formation of a new government that would include representatives from the opposition.




Syria is living through an unprecedented attack and the solution to this conflict can only be through popular participation,” the Syrian president said in his speech. He once again offered to hold an internationally supervised election and the formation of a government that would represent all sectors of Syrian society. The Syrian president clearly underlined his government’s top priority that foreign assistance to the armed groups should first cease for a meaningful dialogue to begin. Assad made it clear that he will order the army to cease operations only after the “terrorists” stop fighting.


Iran had earlier proposed a six point plan to end the conflict. The plan had urged all the parties to immediately end all military action so that a UN monitored election could follow. The Iranian proposal also called for an immediate lifting of the economic blockade on Syria so as to facilitate the return of refugees. The other recommendations were: the resumption of comprehensive national dialogue between the opposition and the government to forge a national consensus and form a transitional government. This would be followed by the holding of free and transparent elections and framing of a new constitution. The Syrian opposition, however, has been quick to label Iran’s proposals as “a last ditch attempt” to save the Syrian government.


President Assad praised the efforts of friendly countries to find a political solution to end the bloody impasse in Syria. National security advisors (NSAs) of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping, which had a “stand alone” meeting for the first time in Delhi in the second week of January, were critical of the outside interference in the Syrian conflict. The BRICS NSAs stressed on the importance of the Syrian people themselves finding a lasting solution to the conflict.


President Assad in his fiery speech said that there was no point in talking to the “puppets made by the West” and demanded the immediate halt to the funding and training of armed militants entering Syria in droves “to decapitate and dismember citizens.” The US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the leading countries backing the insurgents who have been infiltrating through Syria’s porous borders. Assad made an impassioned plea for a “full national mobilisation” to fight against “the terrorists who follow the ideology of Al Qaeda.”


A new report by a leading western think-tank — the Quillam Foundation — has concluded that the jihadist group Jabhat al Nusra, closely affiliated to the Al Qaeda, has emerged as the “principal force against Assad.” The US State Department had classified Al Nusra as a “terrorist group” in December. Washington said that the group had evolved from the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and was attempting “to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes.” According to the US State Department, the Al Nusra had claimed responsibility for more than “40 suicide attacks” in major Syrian cities, including the capital, Damascus. In December, the group briefly occupied part of a military base in Aleppo and in the second week of January led the fighting to briefly capture the Taftanaz air base in Northern Syria.




President Assad’s renewed dialogue offer was promptly rejected by the opposition and its international backers. They once again demanded the immediate resignation of the president. But Assad’s latest peace initiative was welcomed by Moscow. A statement from the Russian foreign ministry said that the Syrian president’s speech “affirmed the readiness for the launch of an inter-Syrian dialogue and for reforming the country on the basis of Syrian sovereignty.” But the new western backed opposition — the National Coalition — refuses to negotiate, demanding instead the immediate removal of President Assad from office.


The UN envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has warned that the death toll could further escalate. Brahimi warned in early January that the threat of balkanisation is hovering over the country. The situation, Brahimi said, “presents a grave danger not only to the Syrian people but to the neighbouring countries and the world.” The veteran Algerian diplomat said that a military solution was far away. “The government will not win. The opposition may win in the long term but by the time they do, there will be no Syria, so what is the victory in that,” he asked. Brahimi emphasised that the crisis should be solved before the end of 2013. Otherwise, he predicted “there will be no Syria.”


The Syrian government has dismissed Brahimi’s dire predictions and has alleged that his recent statements constitute a pronounced tilt towards the western and the conservative Arab position on the ongoing conflict. The Syrian government is unhappy with the UN’s envoy’s insistence on giving the Muslim Brotherhood a key role in a proposed transitional government. The party has been insisting on the immediate resignation of President Assad, describing him as a “war criminal” who should face justice. This view has been echoed by the Muslim Brotherhood led government in Egypt. The permanent UN Security Council members had agreed in June last year on the need for putting into place a “transitional” government that would give representation to all the stakeholders in Syria. But the West and the Gulf states have insisted that President Assad should not be part of the transition process. Brahimi, in a statement made in early January, also seemed to rule out any role for Assad in a transitional government. “In Syria, what people are saying is that a family has been ruling for 40 years — and that is too long,” he told the BBC. The Syrian foreign ministry termed Brahimi’s opinion as “flagrantly biased.”




The government is in control of the major populated areas of the country but the rebels have entrenched themselves in areas along the border with Turkey and Lebanon. The military bases scattered around the country are firmly in the hands of the government forces. Joshua Landis, an expert on the region who teaches in the University of Oklahoma, recently noted that even after two years, the rebels “have not yet taken full control of a single major city or town. That’s a bad sign for the rebels.” He has said that the confidence of the rebels that victory was round the corner was misplaced. “The regime has the unity, it has the heavy weapons. Many of the rebels operate on the assumption that the US will intervene to tip the balance for them,” wrote Landis.


Brahimi, who met with senior American and Russian envoys in Geneva in second week of January, said that he was given assurances that there would be no foreign military intervention in Syria. He said that both Washington and Moscow are committed to finding a peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria. A United Nations Independent International Commission of Enquiry, in a report submitted in December, came to the conclusion that the conflict in Syria has turned from a fight for political change to one that is “overtly sectarian in nature.” The report said that “entire communities are at risk of being forced out of the country or being killed.” As an illustration, the report pointed out that 80,000 Christians have fled from Homs where the Al Nusra has a large presence. Paulo Pinheiro of Brazil, who headed the commission, told the media that that there was no military solution to the conflict. “It is a great illusion that providing arms to one side or the other will help end it,” he said.


But the threat of foreign military intervention cannot be entirely ruled out. The Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, has reported that the US is strengthening its troop presence in Jordan and that US military planes carrying weapons for the Syrian opposition have been making frequent trips to Jordanian airports. The Kingdom, a staunch ally of the West, shares a border with Syria. In the first week of January, US troops started arriving in Turkey to ostensibly man the Patriot missile batteries placed near the Syrian border. The deployment of the Patriot missiles could be the first step on the road to imposing a “no fly zone” over parts of Syria. The NATO will be in full control of the Patriot missiles that will be operational by the end of January. There have been unfounded allegations that Syria is using Scud type missiles against civilian targets. The NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, tried to use the alleged deployment of Scuds as justification for the deployment of Patriot missiles on the border with Syria.


Israel too has strengthened its military presence along the border with Syria. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said in early January that the Syrian army had moved away from the border allowing “global jihadi forces to move in.” Interestingly, there are also reports that the Saudi Arabian government is having second thoughts about continuing to support the Salafi groups fighting in Syria. With “regime change” in Syria a remote possibility as things stand now, Riyadh is worried that the groups affiliated to Al Qaeda would now turn their attention to the Gulf monarchies.