Syria’s Violent Stalemate
The international crisis may be over, but the multisided war in Syria is continuing. On Friday government planes bombarded rebel positions in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor after heavy clashes claimed the life of one of President Bashar al-Assad’s top military intelligence officers. In the long-contested city of Aleppo, a renewed rebel assault on the city’s central prison has run out of steam. The Syrian Army is preparing an offensive in the Qalamoun region east of Damascus and secure the key road connecting the capital with Homs, near the border with Lebanon. Last Wednesday dozens of fighters were reported killed in clashes between the Kurdish YPG militia and al-Nusra Front jihadists in the oil-rich Hasake province in northeastern Syria.
The fighting will continue, but no strategically decisive event is on the horizon. A military stalemate is taking shape. The rebels are controlling large areas in the north and east of the country, while government forces have extended control over their strongholds in Damascus, the coastal strip, and the areas along the border with Lebanon. The capture of the town of Qusair in June and the failure of the U.S. military intervention to materialize in September have given the government a major boost, while accentuating political divisions among the rebels.
On October 16 dozens of rebel groups in southern Syria announced that they have severed links with the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition, the political arm of the Free Syrian Army. Only weeks earlier several powerful rebel factions in the north of the country broke with the Coalition and declared support for the introduction of Sharia in the country. The rebels’ foreign backers are increasingly exasperated at the fighting groups’ failure to conceal their Jihadist agenda and their inability to present a coherent front. A major snag for the Obama Administration is the opposition’s reluctance to attend a peace conference in Geneva, tentatively scheduled for November 23-24 and jointly sponsored by the U.S. and Russia. The discord in opposition ranks casts serious doubts over whether any credible representatives will turn up. The Western powers and the Arab Gulf states are promising fresh assistance if they do attend, but no opposition leader seems willing to allow the possibility of a transitional government in which President Bashar al-Assad would play a role.
The rebels’ insistence on Bashar’s exclusion is unrealistic, now that the American military intervention is no longer on the cards and the Syrian government’s cooperation is essential in the process of dismantling the country’s chemical weapons arsenal. Unfortunately for the rebels, the program is proceeding smoothly and Washington is not interested in jeopardizing its success by supporting the rebels’ unreasonable demands. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced last Wednesday that its inspectors have so far visited 11 of more than 20 sites linked to the chemical weapons program. The team destroyed “critical equipment” at six sites as well as unloaded chemical weapons munitions, said the OPCW. At the same time there have been fresh calls on the rebels to provide inspectors with unhindered access. On Friday The New York Times quoted a Western diplomat as saying that “however divided the opposition might be, it would look very bad if the government was seen to be cooperating fully, while inspections were held up because of problems with the opposition.”
The U.N. peace envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, insists that the Geneva conference is needed because everyone in Syria is at military and political dead-end. “Geneva is a way out for everyone: the Americans, Russia, the Syrian regime and the opposition,” he said in a veiled warning to Bashar’s foes to get their act together. “Whoever realizes this first will benefit. Whoever does not realize it will find himself overboard, outside the political process.” The International Crisis Group (ICG), which has advocated robust U.S. engagement in the past, now says that the Syrian opposition “should develop a realistic strategy towards what remains the best hope for ending the war,” including “reaching internal consensus on workable negotiation parameters.” The Guardian, long an advocate of Western intervention, now notes that “mainstream opposition figures are alarmed at the growing success of the Syrian government’s argument that the country now faces a stark choice between Assad and al-Qaida.”
The rebels’ behavior in those areas they control has given ample credence to that argument. Cold-blooded executions of captured government soldiers have been going on for months, but the mass murder of unarmed villagers is a novelty. Proportionate to their numbers, the Christians are the main victims, as we have repeatedly warned they would be. According to Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III, more than 450,000 Christians out of a total population of 1.75 million had been displaced or left the country. Similar warnings came from Archbishop Cyril Karim of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch in the United States, who last summer led protests against the possibility of an American military strike on Syria.
Feeling abandoned by the West, Syria’s Christians are turning to Russia for protection. Tens of thousands want to apply for Russian citizenship, not in order to flee Syria but to be “under the protection of Russia if we face the threat of being physically eliminated by terrorists.” Over 50,000 Syrian Christians signed the address, including doctors, engineers, lawyers and businessmen from the Kalamoun area near Damascus. Their appeal follows President Vladimir Putin’s strong attack last July on the infringement of the rights of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world.
The United States, in the meantime, continues to supply the rebels with arms and training, directly or by proxy. The Administration is also preparing a new massive arms shipment to our good friends in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—$13 billion worth of “various munitions and associated equipment, parts, training and logistical support.” This comes at a time of ongoing sabre-rattling from Gulf leaders who “threaten to stand steadfast to the cause—in spite of US ‘weakness’—determined to remake the Middle East in their authoritarian image.”