The crisis in Syria has entered a stalemate with neither side able to deliver a decisive knockout blow. This may serve the regime better than its opponents although it is not for lack of trying by the opposition, especially aided by their foreign sponsors and backers. The major hurdle facing the regime’s opponents –” and there are divergent groups –” is that they are disunited. The only point on which they somewhat agree is their opposition to Bashar al-Asad and their demand that he must resign. This is eagerly amplified by their foreign sponsors –” the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, among others –” that refuse to countenance a negotiated settlement.
Opposition to al-Asad, however, is also not clear cut since groups inside Syria are willing to sit and talk with the regime; those living abroad are adamantly opposed to any dialogue. Languishing in the comfort of a Paris or Istanbul hotel, they can afford the luxury of sacrificing every Syrian in the country. It is interesting to note that a recent survey conducted by YouGov, a group affiliated with the BBC’s Doha Debates, found that 55% of Syrians support al-Asad remaining in power. They fear that were he forced to resign, a civil war would break out with catastrophic consequences for the country. They are beginning to see the negative effects of foreign intervention in Libya where tribal warfare has erupted. There are fears this would lead to direct invasion and occupation of Libya by troops from Britain, France and the US. The YouGov survey also found that 81% of people in other Arabian countries wanted al-Asad gone. This has been given far greater prominence by some media outlets in the Arabian world without mentioning the more important point that 55% of Syrians support al-Asad!
A similar dichotomy was evident in the Arab League meeting in Cairo on January 22. As usual, it was poorly attended but three countries –” Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon –” refused to support any foreign intervention in Syria. The Arab League monitoring mission led by a Sudanese general has reported that not all violence is perpetrated by the security forces; opposition groups have also indulged in gruesome acts. This of course is something the opposition and their foreign sponsors do not wish to see publicized. Saudi Foreign Minister, Saud al-Faisal, announced that the Kingdom was withdrawing from the Arab League observer mission because it had “failed” to stop the violence. Faisal was referring to regime-perpetrated violence not that of the opposition forces that the Kingdom fully supports. Qatar called for an Arabain military force to be dispatched to Syria to protect civilians. Again, the Saudis opposed the idea fearing it may set a precedent. If the killings in the Kingdom escalate, the Saudis would have a hard time opposing a call to dispatch foreign troops to its own evirons.
The Arab League foreign ministers’ meeting demanded al-Asad’s resignation and handing over power to his deputy within two months. The Syrian government dismissed the call outright and said the Arab League had no mandate to make such a demand. Reflecting their weakness –” and irrelevance –” the Arab League also threatened to take the matter to the UN Security Council. The “no-fly zone” over Libya was their idea; it led to the Security Council’s approval of a resolution that was then used as justification for a full scale war on Libya and its infrastructure. Later, the Arab League members complained that this is not what they had meant! Slaves, however, have no authority over their masters.
The other Arab League “concern” –” and indeed constantly harped upon by Western media outlets as well –” is the huge number of casualties. Figures pertaining to casualties are based on speculation; there has been no verification for such claims. For instance, the most frequently quoted figures are that of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). It alleges that more than 5,000 people have been killed over the last 10 months. In addition to Western media, the tribal-owned and Western-wannabe al-Jazeera, the notoriously anti-Syrian television channel, eagerly quotes these figures without explaining that these figures include more than 1,200 security personnel as well. This is an incredibly high number and clearly points to the heavy weapons available to and used by the rebels for such mayhem. Where did they get such weapons? This lends credence to the regime’s charge that it is facing a foreign conspiracy with weapons smuggled in from outside. There is evidence that weapons have been smuggled in from Lebanon as well as Jordan, paid for by Saudi Arabia. There have also been reports of the presence of American and Israeli troops on Syria’s borders. Are they involved covertly in attacks inside Syria, slipping behind the lines to aid their provacateurs inside? This cannot be ruled out.
The opposition is badly fractured. This is even acknowledged by their foreign backers. A number of groups with divergent outlooks and ambitions comprise the opposition. The best known is the Syrian National Council (SNC) led by Burhan Ghalioun, a university professor from Paris who currently resides in Turkey. The SNC has modeled itself on Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC), whose example and path it wants to emulate with hopes of achieving similar results. The Syrian branch of al-Ikhwan al-Muslimoon (Muslim Brotherhood) operates under the SNC umbrella but has its own agenda. Most of its leaders, like Sadruddin al-Bayanooni and Muhammad Riad Shaqfa live abroad. Al-Bayanooni lives in Britain while Shaqfa is in Australia. As a consequence, they have limited support inside Syria; they have no popular mandate and no means to launch an effective campaign. The SNC’s calls for a “no-fly zone” and foreign military intervention have also been not well received by other groups.
Are the Syrian Ikhwan repeating the same mistake they made in 1981–”1982 when they instigated the Hama uprising with disastrous consequences? Figures about the number of casualties during that uprising range from 15,000 to 25,000 dead. At that time, Dr. ‘Isam al-‘Attar had opposed the uprising and warned against paving the way for a bloodbath. The others, notably al-Bayanooni and Shaikh Saeed Hawwa (a respected scholar who now lives in exile in the UAE) rejected his advice. Dr. al-‘Attar went into exile in Germany instead of participating in a decision that turned out to be a total disaster. What is ironic is that the Hama bloodbath of 1981–”1982 was perpetrated by troops commanded by Riffat al-Asad, brother of then Syrian President Hafez al-Asad. Today, Riffat al-Asad is part of the same opposition group with which the Ikhwan are aligned. Now they are opposing Bashar al-Asad, son of Hafez al-Asad and nephew of Riffat, and instigating uprisings in places like Hama, Homs and Idlib.
There is also the Free Syrian Army (FSA) led by Riyadh al-Asaad, a renegade military officer who issues outlandish claims from the safety of Turkey. While the FSA claims to represent the interests of the protesters and to protect them from the brutality of the state, their actions belie these claims. For instance, they have indulged in unprovoked attacks in various locales against security personnel with the result that the regime’s forces have hit back hard causing civilian casualties. Is this what the FSA wants, at the behest of its foreign sponsors so that the high casualty figures would arouse concern among people in western countries thereby facilitating direct military intervention in Syria as well, an option for which they have had little stomach so far? In any case, the FSA, comprising renegade military personnel, knows only one thing: violence. This is what militaries are trained for. Thus, it is not surprising that it believes the regime can only be overthrown by armed insurrection.
Additionally there are the “armed groups” operating inside Syria. They have no identifiable command. They operate in a free-for-all environment, something they were used to while operating in Iraq against American forces. Some of them are Syrians; others are from the north of Lebanon and belong to groups opposed to the Syrian regime. They can be categorized as remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq, infested with strong sectarian poison, who have now moved to Syria. Ironically, while they fought American forces in Iraq, they have trained their guns on the Syrian regime to advance the American-Zionist agenda. This is not dissimilar to what happened in Libya where the Americans eagerly recruited al-Qaeda operatives that had been incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay.
Inside Syria, the Local Coordination Committee (LCC) tries to chart a course keeping different factions together, not always with great success. In addition to great distances separating various regions –” Syria is a large country –” their ideological differences and different agendas also make the task of unification very hard. The “armed groups” are loose cannons and while currently they use the label of the FSA, this is because there is no formal structure or hierarchy. If one were attempted, this would certainly lead to more conflict between the groups. Last month there were also several car bombings in Damascus. Who was behind these attacks in unclear but the regime vowed to respond with an iron fist. It would appear the foreign manipulators want to instigate a full scale civil war in Syria.
Unlike Libya, the international environment is more favorable to al-Asad’s government. Both Russia and China have said they would not allow the West a free hand in Syria as they inadvertently did in Libya. The two have already vetoed an earlier Security Council resolution and will not countenance any external interference in Syria. The Russians in particular have made clear that they will not abandon their Syrian allies. They have invested heavily in Syria and Russia also uses the Syrian port of Tartous on the Mediterranean as a naval base that they are not prepared to cede to the Americans or their European allies. Neither Russia nor China wants to see further extension and consolidation of US-NATO power in the Mediterranean or the broader Muslim East.
The wild card in all of this is Turkey. While Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has come out strongly against al-Asad’s regime and publicly called for his resignation, the continuing stalemate and divisions within the ranks of the opposition (some of the groups are based in Turkey), has given Turkish leaders second thoughts. Further, opinion in Turkey is not uniformly in favor of intervention. There have been concerns expressed in various quarters about the course adopted by the AKP government vis-Ã -vis Syria. Erdogan’s reluctance to send in the army stems in part from this division within Turkish society. This of course has annoyed the Western powers that wanted Turkey to take the lead and become a Trojan horse for Western military invasion. This would be a highly risky undertaking with far reaching consequences for Turkey itself, not the least of which is the Kurdish hornets’ nest that would erupt. Ankara has been trying to pacify its Kurdish minority and does not want this problem to be resurrected again. If Turkey were to get involved in Syria militarily, there is little doubt that Damascus would use the Kurdish card against Ankara.
As far as the Arabian regimes — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, etc — are concerned, their primary weapon is the sectarian card. They have historically thrived on creating divisions and hatred in the Ummah. This is their raison d’etre and the very purpose for their creation. They believe this is the only way they can remain in power. If al-Asad’s regime were to fall, they hope a Sunni sectarian regime would emerge in Syria that would not only be closely aligned with them but would also back away from confrontation with Israel and be staunchly opposed to Iran. For the tribal monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula, Islamic Iran is viewed as a far greater threat than Zionist Israel. At one level, this is true: Islamic Iran exposes their total subservience to the Americans and the Zionists. The more they become exposed, the greater they feel a threat to their survival.
For these Arabian regimes, it is not the rights of the Syrian people that are of paramount importance; their primary concern is that if al-Asad’s regime survives, their own hold on power will be threatened. They have invested so much in getting rid of al-Asad and of undermining the resistance to Zionist Israel that if this fails, they will be the biggest losers. How evil they can be is narrated by this Qur’anic ayah: “Hatred is revealed by (the utterance of) their mouths, but that which their breasts hide is yet greater…”