Monday, November 21, 2011

Syria Lurches Toward Civil War

by Rick Moran

A grenade attack on Baath Party​ headquarters in an upscale section of Damascus on Saturday apparently caused no injuries and did little damage. But the symbolic impact of the attack was clear: armed insurgents, including many military defectors based in Turkey, have taken the conflict to a new level by striking at the heart of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the capital city. The attack comes as Islamists in the Syrian National Council have begun to emerge as major players in the opposition group.

The attack also comes as the Arab League appears ready to ratchet up the pressure on Assad after a deadline to implement the peace deal agreed to between the League and the Syrian government passed without any visible change to the behavior of the Syrian military toward civilian demonstrators.

Opposition groups have formally asked Turkey to intervene militarily to protect civilians, an idea that Ankara seems to be seriously entertaining. A newspaper with close ties to the government of Prime Minister Erdogan reports that Turkey would not take such action without approval from both the UN and the Arab League. This is not likely to happen until the League exhausts its diplomatic options for implementing the peace deal.

The deal, inked earlier this month, called for Assad to release all political prisoners, withdraw the military from cities and towns, and allow 500 Arab League observers to enter Syria to ensure that the conditions of the pact were being carried out. The League gave Assad a Saturday deadline to live up to his end of the bargain, but instead, the Syrian military renewed attacks on several cities and the regime attempted to renegotiate the terms involving the number of Arab League observers who would be allowed in. On Sunday, the League refused to renegotiate the status of the observers. Arab foreign ministers planned to meet on Thursday to decide what steps to take next to pressure Assad to halt his slaughter of civilians.

Diplomatic activity was also picking up over the weekend as France called for more European Union sanctions on Syria, while other European powers planned to ask the UN Human Rights Council to pass a resolution condemning the Assad regime for the crackdown. While not requiring the Security Council to take action, the resolution would be taken to the General Assembly where overwhelming passage would be expected.

There will be no action taken by the Security Council because both Russia and China oppose any sanctions on Syria and are unalterably opposed to any Libyan style intervention. To underscore the latter, Haaretz is reporting that a Syrian news agency has announced that Russian ships will enter the country’s territorial waters in order to deter any intervention that might be forthcoming from the UN or the West.

The “Free Libyan Army” based in Turkey alternately took credit and denied responsibility for the grenade attack on Baath Party headquarters. The FSA, made up of former Syrian soldiers who have deserted and defected to the opposition, has a long way to go to being an effective military counter to Assad’s armored units, which occupy many large cities around the country. British ambassador to Syria, Simon Collis, told the Wall Street Journal, “The fact that people have popped off a couple of RPGs at nighttime against symbolic targets — that by itself only means that something is happening in Damascus that wasn’t happening before.” While true, the armed opposition certainly appears to be coalescing under the FSA banner which brings the day closer when a serious civil war could break out and the entire country will be forced to choose sides.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice believes that this is the path that President Assad is on, whether he desires it or not. Rice told Politico, “He is driving his country to the brink of civil war. That’s very clear. And it’s a very dangerous circumstance.” She also pointed out the boon to American interests if Assad were overthrown: “Syria is the handmaiden of the Iranians throughout the region. And so the fall of Bashar al-Assad would be a great thing, not just for the Syrian people – that’s first and foremost – but also for the policies of the United States and those who want a more peaceful Middle East,” Rice said.

On one level, that may be true. But what Rice doesn’t mention is the comeback being made in Syrian politics by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. Banned for decades under both Bashar Assad and his father, Hafez, the Brotherhood is re-emerging as a player in the fractious and disorganized Syrian National Council, the major umbrella opposition organization that is seeking regime change. Randa Slim, writing in Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel, describes the Muslim Brotherhood as “one of three major political factions inside the SNC.”

Other Islamist groups include “Syrian based Islamist scholars and activists and the Salafis,” according to Slim. She writes that the Salifis are based along the border with Lebanon and “were given safe haven by Syrian intelligence services that relied on their services and networks to field suicide bombers and fighters into Iraq.” Having turned against their former masters, the Salfis have evidently been busy fomenting sectarian violence by carrying out some revenge killings.

This has been the nightmare of the secularists in the opposition since the uprising began; that the boiling kettle of differing sects and religions in Syria might overflow and turn into a conflict — not to get rid of Assad, but to kill their religious enemies. This is evident in the city of Homs where the small Alawite community has been carrying out tit-for-tat murders of Sunnis who have been returning the favor.

The violence is close to being out of control as many residents of both Islamic sects fear for their lives if they venture outdoors. One resident told the New York Times that “There are shabeeha on both sides now” — referring to the black clad militia that is the spearhead of Assad’s crackdown on civilians. The Times describes a harrowing situation, with “beheadings, rival gangs carrying out tit-for-tat kidnappings, minorities fleeing for their native villages, and taxi drivers too fearful of drive-by shootings to ply the streets.” Both sides blame the government for encouraging the sectarian violence, but the bitter rivals hardly need a push from anyone to kill each other.

This is what a real civil war in Syria could look like: minorities like the Christians, the Druze, the Shias, and the small but dominant Alawite sect, fearing a Sunni takeover (Sunnis make up 75% of the population), would largely look to Assad’s regime to protect them, while some of those minorities and the Sunnis would seek to overthrow the regime. The conflict would quickly degenerate into a bloodbath similar to what was witnessed in Iraq during the violence after Saddam’s overthrow.

This scenario is becoming more likely because of the inability of the Syrian National Council to agree on an agenda that would lead to Assad’s departure. The more the opposition dithers and is unable to unite the various factions, including the groups of young people who have been on the front lines of the revolt, the less likely it is that sectarian tensions can be kept under wraps.

There is also the question of maintaining a peaceful character to the revolution. Most of the younger activists don’t want anything to do with the Free Syrian Army while the SNC wants to maintain an arms length relationship with the defectors. The SNC argues that embracing the FSA will make it easier for other soldiers to defect. “[T]he others [soldiers] in the army are our sons too,” said one SNC member.

The Arab League, the international community, and Syria’s neighbors are scrambling to come up with a formula that will force Bashar Assad from office and avoid an even larger bloodbath than the carnage being visited upon the Syrian people by the military forces of the Syrian president. With tens of thousands of prisoners being held without charge, and at least 3,500 dead, time appears to be running out for a happy ending to the human rights tragedy currently unfolding in Syria.

Rick Moran


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