Monday, February 04, 2013

Syria: what's happening?

Where to start with Syria? Some thoughts on a few points in Jeff Weintraub's post, The UN now puts the death toll in Syria at 60,000 ...
 the so-called "Arab Spring" ... The current struggle for Syria began in January 2011...
My recollection is that as the "Arab Spring" (a strange description for something that began in December (2010); I tend to prefer John Kerry's "Arab awakening") spread from Tunisia to Egypt and then Libya, few reports were emerging from Syria until March 2011. Protests were met with brutal repression, including the deployment of tanks in Deraa in the south. At what point this could be descibed as "civil war", as people started to form themselves into armed resistance, I don't know. (*)
there do seem to be plausible grounds for believing that in November 2012 the Syrian regime really was on the verge of escalating to the use of poison gas, but was deterred by outside warnings that this would mean crossing a red line. Saddam Hussein didn't face that kind of inconvenience in the 1980s
Well, the recently deceased Norman Schwarzkopf did give Saddam Hussein some fairly clear warnings during the 1990-1 conflict. Throughout the whole episode regarding Iraq's WMDs, Syria's possession of chemical weapons was tolerated on the understanding that they were as a deterrence against Israel, who of course had nuclear weapons.  There is an interesting parallel, that I mentioned here ("Likewise, the Iraqis used chemical weapons initially as a last resort device to forestall Iranian breakthroughs, a fact which may have made it harder for NATO nations to issue an uncompromising condemnation given their own dependence on escalation to nuclear strikes in such a circumstance.")

Of course, there was no excuse for the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, or even against Iran in the final stages of the war, but then Iraq was "on our side" at the time (even on Israel's, on the "lesser of two evils" principle).
 a prolonged and increasingly bloody stalemate is a plausible alternative ...
Some commenators have suggested that 2013 could see Assad removed from power. I don't know how long it's going to take, but the rebels do seem to be making progress, albeit slow. For example, on 11 Jan 2013 opposition forces captured the Taftanaz airbase in Idlib province, the fight led by the Nasra Front and another islamist group, Ahrar al Sham (report on al Jazeera).  Following attacks from regime jets, they were forced to withdraw, but according to Abou Hamed, operations commander for the Nasra Front (Jabhat al Nusra), the weapons they captured would be a "game changer" (Sue Turton reporting for al Jazeera, 14 Jan).

On 28 Jan, rebels were reported to be battling for a prison in Idlib province, Ahrar al Sham joining forces with 2 other brigades. On 29 Jan, it was reported that government forces had abandoned the prison. It was seen as an important objective, not only to free the prisoners, many of them political, but also because it was the last government checkpoint before Idlib city itself (Sue Turton again).

It seems to be a pattern that is being repeated throughout Syria: the rebels make progress on the ground, but the areas that they capture then come under sustained bombardment. So, a very bloody and prolonged struggle, but that is not the same as a stalemate.

One possibility, that was mentioned some time ago, is that even if Aleppo and Damascus fell completely into the hands of the opposition, Assad would retreat to the Alawite stronghold on the coast: without air support to the rebels, as in Libya, there would be no rapid resolution of this.
And even if, or when, the Assad regime is decisively overthrown by the rebels—who are by no means unified themselves—that wouldn't necessarily guarantee an end to the killing and destruction.
James Kitfield of the National Journal (C-Span, 6 Jan.), among other questionable remarks, said that there could be chaos as in Libya. To my mind, an outcome like that in Syria would be on the optimistic end of the scale. But that and what the US and its allies could do to bring about a relatively better outcome I will write about later.

* According to 'Syria: Inside the Secret Revolution' (on the BBC's Panorama programme, 26 Sep 2011 ) the Syrian uprising began in Daraa (Deraa) when some schoolchildren were arrested after writing anti-regime graffiti. They were held for 2 weeks and tortured - videos of bloodied faces.  On  18 Mar 2011, there was a protest march in the city. 4 people were killed.

It was regime propaganda to claim that their forces were deployed against "armed terrorists". Soldiers saw this on state TV, but when they were actually about to go into action, they were told not to shoot the armed men since they were in fact Shabiha - pro-regime militia. There was an interview, clearly carried out shortly before the broadcast, with Riad al Assaad, who also released a video. He said that he and other Sunni officers were forming a rebel army, the Free Syrian Army ...

Just like in Stalin's army, men from the 4th division, which was commanded by a relative of Bashar al-Assad, were posted behind the soldiers engaged in action, to shoot any who might baulk at firing on civilians.

** March 6th has been mentioned as the anniversary of the 15 schoolchildren's graffiti  protest ('Empire' on  Al Jazeera, 28 Jan 2013 - right at the end the presenter expresses the wish  that this date might be "the catalyst ... for an international solidarity movement").


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