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The Geopolitical War: Syria’s Descent into Turmoil

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Mired in a two year bloody civil war, the sectarian divisions in Syria have intensified, and the death toll is rising by the day. The rebel groups have suffered serious setbacks in the recent times, but it is too early to declare the Assad regime victorious. While countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar want to dislodge the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis, Russia and Iran are putting their might behind Assad. This could prolong the civil war further and threaten the stability of the region.

Stanly Johny (stanly.mambilly@gmail.com) is a journalist based in New Delhi.

Ever since protests erupted against the Ba’athist regime in Syria in March 2011, foreign leaders, as well as international political analysts, have made several predictions about the eventual fall of President Bashar al-Assad. Four dictators in the Arab world have been toppled since‒Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Sale. Will Assad be the next? It is difficult to find answers because no consistent pattern is visible in the uprisings in West Asia, popularly known as the “Arab Spring”. The movements in Tunisia and Egypt were spontaneous and non-violent. In both countries, the national armies defied their rulers and decided to side with the protesters. The dictators had to give up power without much resistance when popular pressure mounted. In Libya, anti-government demonstrations were initially concentrated in the eastern parts of the country, and turned violent when the Gaddafi government sent troops to crush the protests. Soldiers defected in large numbers, set up bases in places where the opposition was strong and along with a wide variety of anti-Gaddafi forces waged a civil war. Finally they won. Though the credit goes to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which crushed the government’s military capabilities through aerial bombing. In Yemen there were violence, counter-violence, foreign intervention (in favour of the government), mediation and finally a change of guard. The dictator had to resign, but the regime continued to exist. Is the position in Syria close to any of the scenarios outlined above?

The current situation in the country is marked by‒ genuine anti-regime protests and subsequent government repression; defection of soldiers from the army; a rebel army waging a bloody civil war; sectarian tensions; foreign intervention both in favour of and against the government, diplomatic efforts to diffuse the crisis, etc. Among the multiple elements which constitute the Syrian crisis, foreign intervention appears to be the dominant one given the progression of the anti-regime protests into a bloody civil war. Big powers have lined up on both sides. The European Union (EU), the United States (US), Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have publicly offered support, both military and non-military to the rebels, while Russia, China, Iran and Iraq have thrown their weight behind the Assad regime. The geopolitical importance of Syria, especially in a region where rivalries run deep, has transformed the Syrian crisis into a regional crisis.

All the General’s Men

When some western and Arab foreign ministers met in the Turkish city of Istanbul on 20 April to discuss the situation in Syria and find ways to persuade the US to take a lead role, the focus was on General Salim Idriss, commander of the Free Syrian Army. A former dean of the Aleppo military engineering academy, Idriss defected in July 2012 and soon rose to become the leader of the rebels with the backing of Gulf countries and the West. He told the foreign ministers’ gathering that he could build an effective and a disciplined rebel army which could beat Assad’s forces if measures such as lifting of the EU arms embargo, establishment of a no-fly zone over Syria and larger and more regular supplies of weapons‒particularly anti-tank and shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles‒were undertaken.1

The rebellion against President Assad is mainly funded and armed by outside powers, and what the anti-government forces want now is more external support. Ever since Idriss switched sides last year, he has been the point man of the Gulf-Atlantic project in Syria. Most of the weapons supplied to the rebels go through this German-trained general. Whether all the rebel groups are loyal to Idriss, is a debatable question. But those who want to oust Assad from power certainly hope that Idriss could play a constructive role in any post-Assad scenario. They expect him to do what Khalifa Hifter did during the war against Gaddafi.2 No wonder, the Europeans responded positively to a crucial demand the general made at the Istanbul gathering. On 27 May, the EU lifted its embargo on supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels. Even when the restrictions were in place, the rebels were largely getting weapons made in Eastern Europe. According to a Fox News report, the Gulf monarchs opposed to President Assad stepped up the supplies of Croatian-made weapons to rebels early this year in coordination with the US.3

Qatar and Saudi Arabia are the chief supporters of the rebel groups. According to an investigation by the Financial Times, Qatar has reportedly contributed around $3 billion to the anti-Assad groups.4 The same report says when Assad’s forces unleashed repression against anti-government demonstrators, Qatar‒which played a crucial role in toppling Libya’s Gaddafi‒started acquiring light weaponry. The Kingdom bought arms in post-Gaddafi Libya and in eastern European states, and flew them to Turkey where the intelligence services helped deliver them across the border. Hugh Griffiths, a researcher on arms transfers at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told the Reuters news agency on 14 May that “90 Qatari military air cargo flights were made to Turkey between January 2012 and the end of April 2013”.5 Qataris worked with the members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to identify the rebel groups in Syria to whom arms could be delivered. Some reports say Qataris had sent their own special forces to Syria to connect with the insurgent groups. On 24 May, The New York Times came up with a graphic on the arms pipeline to the insurgents. According to the newspaper, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey are the main players in the pipeline. Weapons sourced from Croatia are transported either to Jordan or to Qatar, which are then sent to rebels based in both Jordan and Turkey. Besides, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are also sending weapons directly to the insurgent camps set up along the borders which Syria shares with Turkey and Jordan.6 All these moves were made in consultation with the US.

The US Stand

Idriss has been lobbying for larger US assistance as well. One of his demand is for a no-fly zone over Syrian skies which could prevent Assad from using air power against rebels. His claims that there was “clear proof” that the regime had used chemical weapons were clearly aimed at persuading Washington to take a more pro-active role.7 Like in Libya, removal of the regime lies at the core of the US’ strategic interests in the region. The Obama administration was reluctant to take the lead in the Libyan war as it was bogged down by two protracted wars and was facing massive economic challenges at home. So it decided to “lead it from behind” with France assuming the front position, and together they turned the UN-mandated no-fly zone into a full-blown invasion of Libya.8 The euphemism was “humanitarian intervention”. But the US is more reluctant to intervene in Syria mainly because the risks of an intervention are pretty high. So it has chosen to coordinate with the Gulf monarchs in strengthening the rebels.

During a Congressional hearing on 17 April, three days ahead of the Istanbul meeting in which General Idriss made the demands for lifting the arms embargo and setting up a no-fly zone, the US Secretary of State John Kerry said: “The US (Syria) policy right now is that we are not providing lethal aid, but we are coordinating very, very closely with those who are.” He also told the legislators that he would fly to Istanbul to meet the Syrian opposition and other supporters of the rebellion.9 The Obama administration has so far given $650 million in non-military aid to the Syrian opposition. The New Yorker reported in May that Washington was also providing military support secretly to the rebels, thereby contradicting its own rhetoric that it was not giving lethal weapons to the insurgents. Moreover, the Central Intelligence Agency “is training a small number of Syrians to train other rebels and is also passing intelligence to the rebels against Assad”.10 Off late, when the rebels have suffered some setbacks, the clamour for US’ military intervention has gone up to new levels. Back home the administration is coming under pressure from “liberal internationalists” to step up its involvement in Syria. Late last month, Idriss, a long-time supporter of American intervention, widened his wish list. When Arizona Senator John McCain visited the military leaders of the Syrian rebels based in Turkey on 27 May, Idriss urged Americans to carry out airstrikes against the forces of Hezbollah who have been fighting in Syria on behalf of President Assad.11

Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis

Why do so many influential countries want President Assad gone? The answer lies in geopolitics. Assad’s Syria is the only trusted ally of Iran, which has been on the hit list of the US for a long time. Also, Syria is the main conduit through which Iranian weapons and money are passed on to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. If Assad falls, it will be a big blow to both Iran and Hezbollah. Any plans to contain Iran should include Hezbollah, which has thousands of mid to long-range rockets trained at northern Israel. Any plans to destroy Hezbollah’s military capability should also be backed up by a plan to disrupt the militant group’s weapon supply routes. If not, a new attack on Hezbollah would hardly be any different from Israel’s attempt in 2006, when even a month-long campaign failed to destroy the Shiite movement’s military capabilities. Not just that, soon after the ceasefire, Hezbollah started receiving Iranian missiles and huge loads of cash via Syria.12 Iran had reportedly sent $3 billion to Hezbollah after the 2006 war, a huge chunk of which went into reconstructing the war-hit Southern Lebanon.13 Hezbollah remains a strategic asset for Iran and that can turn any future Israeli or American attempt to bomb the Islamic Republic into a regional war. For Assad, Hezbollah is both a bet against Israel and a tool to manage the domestic politics of Lebanon where Syria has had a strong presence for a long time. For Hezbollah, whose primary interest is safeguarding its power, the links with Iran and Syria are vital because it knows that once this alliance is broken its very existence would be in danger. This tri-party strategic relationship has positioned itself against the dominant interests of other wealthy actors in West Asia, especially the Sunni Saudi Arabia and their powerful western backers.

These powers have long been looking for opportunities to break the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis. The 2006 Lebanon war, a year after Syrian troops withdrew from southern Lebanon following Rafiq Hariri’s death, was a move in this direction. But it was thwarted by Hezbollah’s resistance. When anti-regime protests broke out in Syria two years ago, these countries saw glimpses of an opportunity again. If Assad is taken out of power, the tri-party alliance would collapse, exposing Hezbollah to future attacks. This would weaken Iran, which is already feeling the heat of the economic sanctions imposed on it because of its nuclear programme. Former Republican Presidential candidate John McCain speaking at the American Enterprise Institute on 18 June, 2012 said that the US should get “more involved in Syria” not simply for humanitarian reasons, but because “it is in our national security interest”. "In the words of General James Mattis, the Commander of U.S. Central Command, the fall of Assad would be the biggest blow to Iran in 25 years.” 14

Assad’s fall is in the national interests of Saudi Arabia as well, which has been involved in a long-standing conflict with Shiite Iran for regional domination. For the tiny Gulf state of Qatar, an emerging player in the West Asian geopolitics, the Syrian crisis offers another opportunity to test its smart power based on petro-dollars. For Turkey, ruled by Islamist Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP), the Arab Spring opened up new spheres of maneuvering in West Asia. A contestant for regional domination, Turkey hopes the rise of Sunni Islamists in Syria, after the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt, would embolden its own narrative in the region. Hence the removal of Assad would further the interests of these countries.

Is Assad going to fall?

“I guess you killed 7,000 people there”, a Lebanese businessman once said to Rifaat al-Assad, the younger brother of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, referring to the Hama massacre of 1982. Rifaat was the commanding general of the Hama operation in which the Syrian troops, under order from President Hafez, massacred scores of people to quell a Sunni rebellion against the Ba’athist regime. Normally a politician will play down such a ghastly incident, but Rifaat’s response was rather surprising. “What are you talking about, 7000”, he said to the businessman. “No, no. We killed 38,000”.15 President Hafez’s son Bashar al-Assad has chosen a similar path to quell the anti-regime protests three decades later. Many think a reconciliatory approach at the beginning of protests would have stopped Syria’s descent into turmoil. Instead, the regime’s brutal response has only helped radicalise the protests opening up new avenues for bigger powers to interfere.

The regime appears weaker now, but is far from being overthrown. At least four major factors make it difficult to bring about a peaceful transition in today’s Syria. Firstly, the rebels have failed to gather enough political capital to lead a non-violent mass upsurge against the regime as in Egypt. Their appeal, from the very beginning, largely remained confined to a few cities. Secondly, the regime, notwithstanding its brutalities, still has the support of a substantial chunk of the population. Thirdly, the army’s role is crucial. In Tunisia and Egypt, the army asked their respective leaders to quit power in the wake of popular protests. In Libya, soldiers and commanders in the eastern provinces defected en masse to the opposition and started an armed rebellion. Barring some isolated defection cases, the Syrian army largely remains loyal to President Assad.16 Lastly, Syria’s opposition is still a fragmented lot. The leadership of the political opposition apparently does not have proper coordination with the rebels on the ground, and there are rifts within the coalition itself.

In November 2012, Qatar hosted a meeting of the opposition leaders at Doha where the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was formed.17 The Coalition’s formation followed the statement of the then US state secretary, Hillary Clinton, that the Syrian National Council (SNC)‒the opposition alliance formed in 2011 at the beginning of anti-government protests‒could "no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition" and called for an opposition that could "speak to every segment and every geographic part of Syria".18 SNC, comprising mainly of Sunnis and dominated by Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, was blamed for failing to unify Syria’s opposition forces. SNC also had difficulties in working with the Free Syrian Army, the group of rebel fighters on the ground.

The supporters of the rebellion had hoped for a better coordination between the National Coalition and the free Syrian Army commanded by General Idriss. But rifts within the Coalition itself came out in the open in April 2013, when Moaz al-Khatib, a former imam of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus and the Coalition's first leader, resigned after alleging foreign intervention in the Coalition’s activities. “The people inside Syria have lost the ability to decide their own fate. I have become only a means to sign some papers while hands from different parties want to decide on behalf of the Syrians”, he told Al-Jazeera after resigning.19 On the fighting front, the supreme command led by General Idriss does not have complete authority over the diverse rebel groups within its fold. The Al Nusra Front, which has declared allegiance to the al-Qaeda and is one of the fiercest rebel groups, is neither a part of the Free Syrian Army nor the National Coalition of the Opposition. In some rebel-controlled areas, there were reported clashes between anti-regime groups themselves.

Veteran journalist Patrick Cockburn, who recently visited Syria, says that the campaign that “Assad’s government is on its last legs has always been something of a myth”.20 Even after two years of fighting, the insurgents have succeeded in capturing just one of the 14 provincial capitals. Off late, the government forces have made substantial gains and even recaptured Homs, Syria’s third largest city, located close to the Mediterranean coast. “I was able to travel the 90 miles between Damascus and Homs…, without any guards and with ordinary heavy traffic on the road,” writes Cockburn, describing the advances of the government troops. The direct involvement of the Hezbollah, which is experienced in both guerilla tactics and conventional warfare, could turn the tide in favour of the regime. It was against this backdrop, Charles Dunne, director of the Middle East and North Africa programmes at Freedom House‒an influential US-based non-governmental organisation‒ wrote on the CNN website last month that Assad winning a military victory “appears to be an all too plausible scenario”.21 Cockburn puts it slightly differently, and more realistically: “Assad isn’t going to win a total victory, but the opposition isn’t anywhere close to overthrowing him either.”22

With the European Union lifting its arms embargo, General Idriss and company can now buy weapons legally. This along with the support of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States, will help them protract the conflict. On the other side, Russia has already given an advanced missile system to the Assad regime. Shiite fighters from Iraq and Iran as well as Hezbollah members are fighting inside Syria along with the government forces. All these point to a prolonged civil war in Syria on ethnic lines, which could spill over to other countries, engulfing the whole region. Signs of such a conflagration are already visible in Lebanon and Iraq. The examples of Afghanistan and Iraq are still staring at the world. But is anyone interested in anything other than fighting in Syria?

References

1. Khalaf, Roula and Abigail Fielding-Smith (2013), West pins hopes on Syrian general, Financial Times, Viewed on 1 June 2013 (URL: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/ed35206a-ab2c-11e2-8c63-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2UwqvHC3C )

2. Hifter was part of the Libyan troops that attacked Chad in 1980s. He later defected and joined the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, an anti-Gaddafi political group founded in 1981. Hifter continued to operate from Chad in the 1980s where he and his soldiers were reportedly trained by American intelligence officials. When the US-backed President Hissene Habre was deposed in 1990, Hifter left Chad for the United States. He lived there, less than 11 km away from Langley, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency, till Benghazi stood up against Gaddafi in February 2011. It was after Hifter flew in to Benghazi in March that year and took command of the defected troops, the talk of a no-fly zone emerged. After the war, Hifter emerged as the “army’s most influential officer”. Prashad, Vijay (2011), “Neoliberal Interventionism: America’s Libyans.” Counterpunch, 31 March, Viewed on 2 September 2012 (http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/03/31/america-s-libyans/); For more details on Hifter’s role in the Libyan war, see Vijay Prashad (2012), Arab Spring Libyan Winter, Leftword Books: New Delhi.

3. “Officials: Weapons supplies to Syrian rebels increase dramatically before a push on Damascus”, Associated Press, Viewed on 1 June 2013 (URL: http://www.foxnews.com/world/2013/03/27/officials-weapons-supplies-to-syrian-rebels-increase-dramatically-before-push/)

4. Khalaf, Roula and Abigail Fielding-Smith (2013), “How Qatar seized control of the Syrian revolution”, FT Magazine, Viewed on 26 May, 2013, (URL: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/f2d9bbc8-bdbc-11e2-890a-00144feab7de.html).

5. Bakr, Amena and Mariam Karouny (2013), “Qatar, allies tighten coordination of arms flows to Syria”, Reuters, Viewed on 2 June 2013 (URL: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/14/us-syria-qatar-support-idUSBRE94D0GT20130514)

6. “An Arms Pipeline to the Syrian Rebels”, The New York Times, Viewed on 2 June 2013, (URL: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/03/25/world/middleeast/an-arms-pipeline-to-the-syrian-rebels.html)

7. Burke, Samuel, “Free Syrian Army general: ‘Clear proof chemical weapons used”, CNN, Viewed on 1 June 2013 (http://amanpour.blogs.cnn.com/2013/04/24/free-syrian-army-general-clear-proof-chemical-weapons-used/)

8. For Obama’s West Asia policy, see Lizza, Ryan (2011), “The Consequentalist: How the Arab Spring Remade Obama’s Foreign Policy.” The New Yorker, 2 May, Viewed on 15 August 2012 (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/05/02/110502fa_fact_lizza?currentPage=all)

9. Gordon, Michael R (2013), “Top Obama Officials Differ on Syrian Rebels in Testimony to Congress”, The New York Times, Viewed on 16 May 2013 (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/18/world/middleeast/key-obama-officials-differ-on-syria-in-testimony.html?_r=0)

10. Filkings, Dexter (2013), “The Thin Red Line: Inside the White House debate over Syria”, The New Yorker, Viewed on 14 May 2013, (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/05/13/130513fa_fact_filkins)

11. Willis, David (2013), “Syria conflict: US Senator John McCain visits rebels”, Viewed on 2 June 3, 2013 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-22683261).

12. Filkins, Dexter (2013), “After Syria: Will Hezbollah Survive the Syrian War?”, The New Yorker, 25 February 2013: 48-57

13. Ibid.

14.“Remarks by Senator John Mccain on Syria at The American Enterprise Institute”, US Senator John MacCain Arizona, Viewed on 15 May 2013 (http://www.mccain.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=PressOffice.Speeches&ContentRecord_id=0090a3b8-a9d9-5ca5-382b-bd77b044b049&Region_id=&Issue_id=)

15. Friedman, L Thomas (1989), “From Beirut to Jerusalem”, Harper Collins: 76-105

16. Johny Stanly (2012), “The Syrian Conundrum”, IDSA Comment, Viewed on 2 June 2013, (http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/TheSyrianConundrum_sjohny_140212)

17. “Guide to the Syrian opposition”, BBC, Viewed on 2 June 2013 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-15798218)

18. MacFarquhar, Neil and Michael R. Gordon (2012), "As Fighting Rages, Clinton Seeks New Syrian Opposition", The New York Times, Viewed on 2 June, 2013 (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/01/world/middleeast/syrian-air-raids-increase-as-battle-for-strategic-areas-intensifies-rebels-say.html?_r=0)

19. “Moaz al-Khatib: The priority is to save Syria”, Al Jazeera, Viewed on 28 May 2013, (http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/talktojazeera/2013/05/2013510141112681380.html)

20. Cockburn, Patrick (2013), “Is it the end of Sykes-Picot?”, London Review of Books, 35(11): 3-5

21. Dunne, Charles (2013), “What if al-Assad prevails?”, CNN, Viewed on 1 June 2013 (http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/30/what-if-al-assad-prevails/)

22. Cockburn (2003).

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