Damascus Stirring Regional Wars; Conclusion of Military Conflict Remains Far From Sight |
Al Hayat - 31 July, 2012
Author: George Semaan
General Robert Mood revealed nothing new. All the players in the Syrian arena know that the ouster of the regime is a matter of time. What concerns them is not whether this will happen or not. Instead, they fear the possibility of the whole of Syria falling, amid the lack of any ability to restore control or build a new regime there. What has happened and continues to happen is the systematic destruction of the majority of towns and cities in Syria. While the opposition has not been driven out of cities like Homs, Hama, Idleb and Deraa, the features of these places are no longer recognizable. The same is happening to the two capitals [i.e. Damascus and Aleppo] as well.
Operation “Damascus Volcano” a week ago has failed to produce a conclusion to the conflict. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other militant groups did not achieve what they were aspiring to bring about. They ran out of ammunition, while the regime’s forces have not hesitated to deploy their entire war machine.
The confrontation in Aleppo, dubbed “the mother of all battles”, is not expected to conclude with a different fate, bearing in mind that the populace there has engaged in a large-scale rebellion, as expressed by its various groups and organizations. Nor is Turkey expected to provide the required support to turn the Capital of the North into a new Benghazi, which would become a staging ground for dissidents and which would enable foreign forces to play a greater role in supporting the uprising.
While Moscow continues to “torment” Ankara, Washington is failing to see any resemblance between Aleppo and Benghazi! But this does not mean that the regime has triumphed or that it will triumph in this roving “volcano” across the country. For one thing, no one has yet won, and no one will in the foreseeable future – albeit the final outcome is known, and will be in favor of the people.
The statement made by the former head of the international observers’ team was clearly in mourning of the mission of Kofi Annan, joint envoy of the UN and the Arab League, who was essentially only required to buy more time for international and regional players. But now, it is very obvious that the purpose of the mission has been rendered obsolete.
For this reason, the regime has set things in motion to export its “civil wars” towards several fronts. The regime thus stirred the issue of its stockpile of chemical and biological weapons, a major source of concern for many actors, particularly Israel. The regime surrendered vast regions adjacent to the border with Turkey to Kurdish organizations, with Ankara expressing immediate concern, along with certain factions in the Syrian opposition, fearing that this issue may preoccupy them from the major showdown with the regime.
In addition to this, there is the issue of the influx of refugees to neighboring countries – refugees who might in the future create hotbeds of tension in fragile communities that already stand on the brink of the abyss, from Lebanon, to Jordan and Iraq. Furthermore, there is increasing talk of the possibility of Syria breaking up, similarly to the former Yugoslavia, and what this entails in terms of sectarian wars that would draw in Iran and Arab countries.
Playing the Kurdish card in Syria is indeed a serious and complicated issue. From the outset, the Kurds have remained somewhat neutral in the crisis. They did not participate in the uprising as the opposition had hoped. Yet they did not side with the regime as other minorities did. Instead, they bided their time until this fragmentation came about, and embarked on a process to establish a de facto reality in those regions they densely populate.
It is for this reason that all the meetings of the Syrian National Council (SNC), from Istanbul to Cairo, have failed to convince them to join the opposition. Similarly, all the enticements of the regime from the beginning did not succeed in persuading the Kurds to defend it.
Their problem, in fact, resembles that of their brethren in Iraq prior to the collapse of the regime of Saddam Hussein. They have never forgiven the Baath Party in Damascus for its attempts to efface their national identity. Indeed so when much of the Baath’s literature explicitly advocates the “Arabization of the Kurdish people”.
Moreover, some of the policies pursued by the Baath have given support to the Arab population that cohabits with Kurds in many cities, districts and villages to subjugate the latter, not to mention denying tens of thousands of Kurds national identity cards. And when the regime found itself needing them in the heat of its battle with the Baghdad branch of the Baath, it did not hesitate to appease them, until further notice. The Kurds did not forget the oppression, harassment, deprivation and restrictions they were subjected to following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when they rose up against the security services.
The experience of their brethren in Iraqi Kurdistan tempts them. They will not go as far as to demand independence, but for them, it is acceptable to reinforce a de facto reality that can one day lead to something similar to the federal regions in Iraq. This, however, might anger not only Syrian Arabs, but also open the door to Turkish intervention when the time for it comes.
This Kurdish “bid” has exacerbated fears regarding the fragmentation of Syria. Everyone knows that the regime of Bashar al-Assad will not agree to any political solution. It will not agree to a transitional phase either, even if the two capitals were to fall.
There was an old scenario that the regime’s opponents were constantly talking about: If the noose is tightened around the necks of the regime leaders and fighters, it would not be altogether difficult for them to move to the west coast to barricade themselves there, and then defend it as long as they can. If that does not lead to real partition, then at least it would provide them with a safe haven, protecting them from accountability and prosecution later on, until the conditions for some kind of a settlement mature.
This is something that the majority of Syrians see as an omen of the fragmentation of their country, similarly to what once happened in the Balkans, with the breakup of Yugoslavia. This is especially valid in light of the Kurds’ attempt to gain independence in their areas to establish autonomous regions that they can use to negotiate later over the limits of their “autonomy” in administering them.
The question here is, can Moscow possibly agree at the end of the day to such a scenario? Moscow is acting as though it is seeking to restore its status as a superpower and as an equal to the United States, so can it accept for itself to stoop to this kind of solutions? While logic requires that this should not be the case, Georgia gives us a vivid and extant example to the contrary. There, Moscow carved up two states, Ossetia and Abkhazia, in response to Western “intervention” in its backyard.
Beyond Moscow’s stance, we cannot overlook here the position of the majority of Syrians, which has and will alone determine the course the crisis will progress along, regardless of the positions of Russia, the U.S., Europe or other powers. The Sunnis in Syria might therefore repeat the experience of Iraqi Shiites, who for years believed that the “legitimacy” of power must fall into their hands, owing to the fact that they numbered more than the Sunni Arabs. In parallel, it seems that the Sunnis of Syria, after months and months of a bloody confrontation with the regime, are adamant on eventually restoring what they believe is their “legitimate” right to rule.
Based on this premise, the Sunnis may not hesitate to continue their wars to prevent the partitioning and fragmentation of Syria. This may well cause the sectarian war between the Sunnis and Alawites, and perhaps the ethnic war between Arabs and Kurds, to escalate further. These wars will not stop at the borders of Syria, and may instead spillover to Iraq – with its Shiite and Kurdish communities – and Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Iran, in a statement made by General Masoud Jazayeri, has explicitly threatened that “the Syrian people and the resistance front will not allow regime change [in Syria]”. Iran also threatened to direct “critical strikes against the enemy front, especially the hated Arabs!”
The Iranian move, as much as it serves the Russian position, is a source of concern for the U.S. administration – which has principally focused on Iran, rather than Syria. The same applies to Israel. True, Syria has represented a crossing bridge for Iran and its rockets to South Lebanon, and the destruction of this bridge will inflict a major defeat on the most important element of its Middle Eastern strategy. It is also true, however, that Washington and Tel Aviv do realize the magnitude of the risk that dragging Tehran into a full scale war in the region entails.
At the present stage, the U.S. feels an urgent need to buy more time. The U.S. therefore needs the Russian role in dealing with Iranian issues, something that has prompted the administration, to this day, to refrain from direct intervention in the Syrian crisis.
Naturally, Russia has benefited from the Pentagon’s reluctance to prepare for any kind of military action, at a time when the U.S. is still reeling from the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the economic burden they have brought upon America. While Russia now alone holds the Syrian card, with Assad’s fate completely in its hands, it will attempt to play the Iranian card until all its policy tools are exhausted, to impose itself as a main partner in drafting the future of the region and the shape of its security and political order. One reason for this is that such an order is intricately linked to the rise of Islamism and the repercussions for this on the Russian homeland and the surrounding Muslim countries. This is not to mention the fact that it is also connected to the future of energy sources and the major projects related to this vital sector for the whole world.
It is no coincidence at this time that Iran is making successive threats about intervening to prevent the fall of the Assad regime. It is no coincidence, either, that a majority in the Iranian parliament approved a draft law threatening to close down the Strait of Hormuz in response to European sanctions on Iranian oil. The same goes for the fact that Sana’a has since accused Tehran of meddling Yemen; Tehran has been interfering for a while there in support of the Huthis and other groups in al-Hirak, the separatist movement in the south of Yemen. It is no coincidence as well, that the U.S. and Israel have accused Tehran and Hezbollah of standing behind the attack in the airport in Bulgaria. The same can be said of the restlessness in the Gulf States and other Arab countries, regarding Iranian interference in their affairs.
That the Iranian factor has made a strong appearance in the Syrian crisis, in conjunction with the whole region being shaken as a result of sectarian and ethnic conflicts, is not much detrimental to Russia, to the extent that this enhances its position in the confrontation with the West and many Arabs. And that Syria may disintegrate and become unable to run its own affairs, after the demise of the regime, does no harm to America and Israel either.
Ultimately then, this is a new chapter that may go on for a long time, along with much pain for the Syrians and their neighbors.