Syria: Defy the Cassandra

In the event of the Geneva Conference collapsing, Dante’s hellfire might not seem like a distant metaphor
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader, Syed Hasan Nasrallah, has provided more evidence that Syria is not alone in its war against the ‘rebels’, whom the Basher al Assad government describes as “terrorists”. Syria’s neighbours are being drawn into an unending vortex of sectarian and ethnic violence at a time when the international community is going through the motions, trying to find a solution to this two-year-old West-backed ‘uprising’ that has seen an ancient civilization being taken apart at great human cost. UN estimates point out that about 90,000 people have died in this continuous spiral of violence after demonstrations first began in the town of Deraa.

The prospects of peace returning have brightened after an agreement was struck between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry to hold a conference on Syria in Geneva in June. Before that happens, the Syrian army, with the physical support of the the Hezbollah, is reclaiming lost ground and consolidating itself to ensure that it plays a better hand during the Geneva talks, which will be attended by Syrian government representatives as well as rebels, besides the two
big powers.

Nasrallah, who has become a cult figure after successfully resisting the Israelis during the 2006 Lebanon war, may have owned up to the presence of Hezbollah fighters in Syria, who are fighting in consort with the Syrian army to wrest the strategic town of Al-Qusar from the rebels, but other countries are not so forthcoming. A few weeks earlier, Israel had bombed out a defence facility outside Damascus that allegedly stored weapons for the Hezbollah. Israel had later clarified that the bombing was not meant to be against the Assad regime. Observers claim that the Israeli attack was meant more for Iran, which has been in the arc of attack for defying Western pressure to discontinue uranium enrichment.

While Israel may display ambivalence about how it countenances Syria, its neighbour, with whom it has enjoyed peace for the last 35 years, other countries show no such qualms. Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are at the vanguard of the opposition to Assad.  Supported by Western powers, they are supplying arms, funds and logistical support. Qatar is noisy in the way it uses its popular TV channel, Al Jazeera, to help further its foreign policy objectives. Qatar is also not averse to supporting radical Islamists, which makes Saudi Arabia uncomfortable. The Saudis support moderate Islamic options since the rise of Al-Qaeda worries them.

Turkey finds itself in a tricky situation. Considered to be close to Assad, Turkish Prime Minister Racep Erdogan began to criticize the Syrian president when Arab opinion, orchestrated by the media, began to go against him. Turkey opened its heart to the refugees and began to actively support the rebels. The Syrians alleged that the Turks were upset as they had spurned suggestions to accommodate the Muslim Brotherhood. Assad had said that his secular Ba’ath party could not partner a religious organization. Since then, the Turks have been providing multiple forms of support to the rebels.

Obama would want the Syrian crisis to end on his terms. The Russians and Israelis may have other ideas

More recently, the turmoil came closer home to Turkey when a car bomb exploded in a border town, Reyhanli. Official estimates claim 70 dead, but the figure is much higher. Although the Turkish government blamed Leftist groups considered close to Assad, which the Syrian government promptly denied, reports suggest that the culprits belonged to the West-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) which has been controlling the Syrian refugee camps. The Turkish leadership was criticized by the opposition for unnecessarily dragging the country into an avoidable war.

Erdogan, whose estranged relations with Israel were restored through a phone call by US President Barack Obama during his recent trip to the Middle East and Turkey, was hoping to get his intervention to sort out the Syrian crisis. Before he left for the US, Erdogan had hoped to get US approval for a no-fly zone and arming of the rebels; but he returned, having endorsing a few things that he may not be really comfortable with. Turkey welcomed the Geneva peace conference and began to distance itself from the Al-Qaeda-inspired Nusra Brigade that had allegedly been entering Syria through the Turkish border.

The Syrian army, which has defied the Cassandras, has begun to reclaim the areas occupied by the rebels. Deeply nationalistic, army officials claim that they are not defending Assad — they are defending the country. What is oft-repeated is that they are preventing a repetition of the Sykes-Picot agreement between the UK and France of 1916 that saw the Arab component of the old Ottoman Empire (largely Syria) being divided between these two countries. The Syrian army does not want this to happen.

With the support of the Hezbollah and its newly constituted people’s militia, it is on the threshold of ousting the rebels from Al-Qusar. If the army clears this town, then it can sanitize the city of Homs and control the highways to the preponderantly Alawite area of Latakia and Tartus. Eyewitness accounts claim that, after the successful offensive by the Syrian army in the suburbs and outside, peace has returned to Damascus. However, images of untold brutalities on YouTube continue to show how difficult it would be to have enduring peace in a country that once prided itself for religious amity.

The Syrian army might be putting up a heroic struggle, but its survival would have been difficult if it had not received unflinching support from Russia and Iran. Russian President Vladimir Putin has staked his reputation on preserving Syria, where it has significant military and naval presence. In Latakia and Tartus, there are thousands of Russians who work there. Putin does not want the Libyan and Iraq scenario to be repeated in Syria as mediating here not only gives it superpower heft, but also helps in achieving key energy objectives.

According to a financial daily, Putin is keen to maintain Russia’s dominance on the European gas market through the Russian gas company, Gazprom. It endeavors to control gas exploration in the Mediterranean and Levant basins. This means it wants influence over Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus. Russia’s attempted gas hegemony is being challenged by Qatar that wants to create separate gas pipeline networks to make Russian gas irrelevant. Of late, Gazprom is doing badly and it desperately needs support to ensure that oil and gas prices do not fall below a certain level. In the case of crude oil, a fall in oil price below $100 per barrel can make its economy bleed badly.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia are aware of Russia’s vulnerability and are trying to stretch its resources to the maximum. An early solution has proved elusive because the US is trying to exhaust all concerned so that it can force a solution in Geneva on the lines it wants.

Does this mean that the end-game in Syria is near?

It is difficult to conceive a solution where Assad will quietly go away or the rebels will agree to a transitional government with him still in power. Also, the rebel leadership is in the hands of expatriates who have been away for long and enjoy little respect from their hard-pressed countrymen.

The US — a superpower on the retreat — is trying to test the limits of ‘leading from behind’. It has provided covert support to the rebels, goaded its allies to invest in change and drawn ‘red lines’ if Assad uses chemical weapons. An Israeli intelligence leak had suggested that the Syrian government may have crossed this red line, but it was promptly denied by a UN inspector, who, instead, blamed the rebels. Obama, as of now, has been clever and circumspect, and has stonewalled the attempts of the Republicans to drag the US into a messy war. He would, however, want the Syrian crisis to end on his terms. The Russians and Israelis may have other ideas.

In the event of the Geneva Conference collapsing, Dante’s hell might not seem like a distant metaphor. In that case, Syria, and its neighbours, might all get consumed in the eventual hellfire of sectarian devastation.  

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2013