Destruction, suffering, the radicalization of the warring factions and their external supporters’ enduring desire to protect their interests – all this does not leave much room for rational compromises.
Over the past months and weeks there have been a slew of messages indicating the stabilization of the positions of Bashar al-Assad’s government. According to the Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi, Syria is winning the war and the days of threatening and browbeating Syria are over. Government forces have gone on an offensive on many fronts and recaptured many villages and cities from the rebels. There seems to be disorder among the insurgents and the groups with connections to Al-Qaeda have forcefully extended the territory under their control in northern Syria. The work of the inspectors responsible for destroying the chemical weapons has been successful and Syria has lost the ability to manufacture chemical weapons and prepare them for combat readiness. At the same time, great powers, the UN, and the Arab League have been planning a peace conference, which according to the latest information should take place in Geneva in January next year [2014 – ed.]. In the greater scheme of things it seems that the 21 August chemical weapons attack in Damascus and the Western nations’ unwillingness to take military steps against Bashar al-Assad has weakened the rebels and enabled the Syrian government to increase its legitimacy in the eyes of the Western nations by forgoing its chemical weapons. It is likely that various circles are of the opinion that compared to a situation where the power in Syria is seized by some extremist Sunnite Islamist group, it might not be the worst of options that al-Assad’s regime remains in charge.
There is no doubt that there is a modicum of truth in all this; however, it does not reflect nor explain everything that is happening in Syria. In order to make sense of what is going on, it is not enough to observe the disposing of the chemical weapons and the development of military operations – one must also observe the intentions and actions of the countries that directly support the warring sides, and this is precisely the area where there have lately been remarkable developments.
We can begin with the actions of the Russian Federation who, in cooperation with the Syrian leadership, was able to take a series of quick political steps in August and September, which helped avoid a military attack against Syria. Sensing a real danger, the Syrian leaders had agreed with the investigation of the 21 August sarin attack already four days after it was perpetrated and only two days after the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s topical statement. Approximately a week after the publication of the intelligence assessments of the US, the UK, and France, which unequivocally pointed to the Syrian government forces as the perpetrators of the chemical attacks, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov came up with a proposal to transfer Syria’s chemical weapons under international control and to subsequently dispose of them. Damascus immediately agreed to that as well, and already on 12 September a letter expressing Syria’s desire to join the Chemical Weapons Convention was sent to the UN Secretary General, announcing that Syria will start meeting its obligations immediately and not 30 days after officially joining the convention (as the convention allows). Thus was shaped a situation where the UN official expert opinion about the use of chemical weapons in Damascus was made public only after Syria’s official steps to give up its chemical weapons. Syria was still denounced, but it had already indicated that there would be no more such attacks once the chemical weapons disposal program launches. However, should Syria be attacked, the results of the attack can be very unpredictable. US involvement in the disarmament process allowed the Syrian government to hope that even if the results of the investigation into other occurrences of chemical weapons being used indicated the involvement of the government forces, it would not bring about a military reaction from the Western nations. Let it be said that the UN suspects that chemical weapons were used on 14 occasions in Syria, whereas according to General Zaher al-Sakat who defected to Jordan, having been responsible for Syria’s chemical weapons, there have been 34 of such cases.1
The chemical weapons disposal process has been moving ahead efficiently. The Syrian leadership has provided detailed data about the relevant manufacturing capacities, stockpiles and their location. The inspectors have been able to visit 21 out of 23 objects related to chemical weapons. Syria itself dismantled the equipment necessary for manufacturing chemical weapons, destroyed 60 per cent of ammunition not yet loaded with chemical weapons, and committed to dispose of the rest by 31 January next year [2014 – ed.]. According to the plans of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical weapons, the most important chemicals will be transported out of Syria by the end of this year [2013 – ed.] and the rest next year. The destruction of 1,300 metric tons of chemical weapons should be carried out by 30 June 2014. So far, there have been serious problems with inspecting two sites, because it has not been possible to guarantee the inspectors’ personal security. In addition, searching for a country that would agree to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons and their components on its own territory has so far been unsuccessful. There were attempts to persuade Albania to agree, but such news provoked widespread protests among the population and in the middle of November Tirana issued a resolute refusal to fulfill Washington’s wishes. As of now, it is yet unclear whether some other nation will be approached with such a proposal, or the chemical weapons will be destroyed at sea.
The Western countries’ decision to refrain from attacking Syria has turned out to be a real blow to the insurgents who since April had fought hard battles with government forces who had received aid from Iran and Hezbollah and had therefore once again gained in strength. Bashar al-Assad’s impunity and still very limited assistance from the Western countries strongly demoralized the more moderate rebels of the Free Syrian Army, which culminated with the resignation of the Aleppo Revolutionary Military Council leader Colonel Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi at the beginning of November. Additionally, the Islamists found an opportunity to claim that they were the only firm and unwavering force in the fight against al-Assad, and that it was completely futile to hope for any aid from the Western nations. On the other hand, the cancellation of a military strike doubled as a green light to the government forces to increase the pressure in Damascus, begin an offensive towards Aleppo, and concentrate its forces on the Lebanese border, where they try to block the insurgents’ passage and supply routes through the Qalamun Mountains. Forgoing the use of chemical weapons has not made the Syrian army any less ruthless, as it uses hunger, napalm and other means as its weapons to break the rebels’ will of resistance.
The intensifying military activity of the Al-Qaeda groups against other insurgent groups in North Syria has played its part in the deepening of the chaos in Syria. The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS) that unites a large number of foreign jihadists has lately been trying to take control over the most important border crossings on the Turkey-Syria border in order to hijack the equipment destined to the Free Syrian Army. Furthermore, ISIS and the Jabhat al-Nusra group that consists of mostly Al-Qaeda’s Syrian members have tried to extend their control over the Hasakah province that is mostly inhabited by the Kurds. The Kurds reacted to this in November with a fierce counter-offensive and a declaration of autonomy. The latter was met with immediate negative feedback from the Syrian rebels, Turkey, the Iraqi Kurds and even some Syrian Kurds who are of the opinion that autonomy is at odds with the idea of a Kurdish state.
Rebel supporter Saudi Arabia made its own assessments over the results of the 21 August chemical weapons attack. From the viewpoint of Riyadh, this caused the situation in Syria to become critical – the Free Syrian Army that depends on the meager Western aid was weakening, Al-Qaeda was growing stronger, and Bashar al-Assad’s regime was strengthening their positions. Saudi Arabia sees both Al-Qaeda and al-Assad’s staying in power as direct challenges to its security. Moreover, when the United States decided on the course of action over Syria’s chemical weapons, from Saudi Arabia’s point of view it did not act as an ally but more like a nation protecting its own interests. Even the 24 November agreement between Iran on one side and the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the Russian Federation, China, and the European Union on the other regarding curbing Iran’s nuclear program cannot change such a position. The Saudi leaders fear that this agreement may improve the relations between the US and Iran to such an extent that Iran’s influence will remain the dominant one in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Therefore it should not come as a surprise that even before the nuclear deal with Iran was signed, the Saudis threatened to start implementing a foreign policy independent of the United States using all the necessary measures. In order to protect the Saudis’ interests in the region and in the Syrian civil war, Riyadh wants to form a moderately Islamist army in Syria to fight against al-Assad and Al-Qaeda, which would consist of 40,000 to 50,000 fighters. They are ready to spend billions of dollars on it and they have already requested help in training the rebels from Pakistan.2
Such efforts have so far been successful. On 29 September, 43 (and later an additional 17) rebel groups fighting in the Damascus area united into a single group called Jaysh al-Islam (The Army of Islam) under the leadership of Saudi Arabia. Al-Qaeda is not part of the group. Jaysh al-Islam immediately announced that it would not obey to the governing bodies of the Syrian opposition forces and that it seeks the creation of an Islamic state in Syria. Following that, on 23 November seven Islamist groups united into arguably the strongest rebel formation – the Islamic Front – with almost 45,000 fighters on all the fronts of the civil war.3 Unlike all the earlier coalitions, the Islamic Front is trying to build a common command and control system4, which may further improve its ability to fight. The Islamic Front unites both the more conservative (Ahrar al-Sham) and the more moderate (Liwa al-Tawhid, Jaysh al-Islam and others) Islamists, but not Al-Qaeda. The goal of the Islamic Front is also the creation of an Islamic state and likewise it does not obey the political and military governing bodies of the rebels.
In such a situation where increasingly many rebel units fight in the name of the creation of an Islamic state and drift away from the erstwhile command structures of the rebels, the parties of the conflict are edging towards the peace talks that are to start in Geneva on 22 January . The Syrian government and the national coalition of the Syrian opposition forces have announced readiness to partake in the talks. By the time these lines were written, the leader of the Free Syrian Army General Idriss had many times announced his refusal to stop fighting (regardless of the outcome of the talks in Geneva). Al-Qaeda’s position has always been unrelenting, and many groups from the recently founded Islamic Front have also announced their negative attitude towards the peace talks and that they regard its participants as traitors. The United States and other Western nations will doubtless try to influence Saudi Arabia, thus increasing the ever-stronger Islamists’ readiness to cooperate, however, in a civil war where 41 per cent of the entire population have fled from their homes, 0.5 per cent have perished, and 10 per cent have fled abroad, peacemaking from the outside is not very simple. Destruction, suffering, the radicalization of the warring factions and their external supporters’ enduring desire to protect their interests – all this does not leave much room for rational compromises.
English translation: Raivo Hool
1 Spencer, Richard, Syria: ‘Assad regime ordered me to gas people – but I could not do it’ The Daily Telegraph. 21 September 2013.
2 Sayigh, Yezid, Unifying Syria’s rebels: Saudi Arabia joins the fray. Carnegie Middle East Center, 28 October 2013. There is also a possibility that if Iran gets close to obtaining the nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia will immediately procure nuclear weapons for themselves. Urban, Mark, Saudi nuclear weapons ’on order’ from Pakistan – BBC News, 6 November 2013.
3 According to Khalid Saleh, the spokesman of the Syrian opposition forces, the Islamic Front unites 60 per cent of the rebels who continue to fight. Zalewski, Piotr, US influence fades as Islamist rebels unite in Syria – Time, 25 November 2013.
4 Szybala, Valerie, A power move by Syria’s Rebel Forces. Institute for the Study of War. Syria Updates, 23 November 2013.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.