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The current Syrian drama is far from the usual, clear-cut “good guys vs bad guys” Hollywood shtick. The suspension of the Arab League observers mission; the double veto by Russia and China at the UN Security Council; the increasing violence especially in Homs and some Damascus suburbs: It is all leading to widespread fears in the developing world of a Western-backed armed insurrection trying to replicate the chaos in Libya – a “liberated” country now run by heavily weaponized militias. Syria slipping into civil war would open the door to an even more horrific regional conflagration.
Here’s an attempt to see through the fog.
1. Why has the Bashar al-Assad regime not fallen?
Because the majority of the Syrian population still supports it (55%, according to a mid-December poll funded by the Qatar Foundation. See “Arabs want Syria’s President Assad to go – opinion poll” , and note how the headline distorts the result.
Assad can count on the army (no defections from the top ranks); the business elite and the middle class in the top cities, Damascus and Aleppo; secular, well-educated Sunnis; and all the minorities – from Christians to Kurds and Druze. Even Syrians in favor of regime change – yet not hardcore Islamists – refuse Western sanctions and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-style humanitarian bombing.
2. Is Assad “isolated”?
As much as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may wish it, and the White House stresses “Assad must halt his campaign of killing and crimes against his own people now” and “must step aside” – no. The “international community” proponents of regime change in Syria are the NATOGCC (North Atlantic Treaty Organization-Gulf Cooperation Council) – or, to be really specific, Washington, London and Paris and the oil-drenched sheikh puppets of the Persian Gulf, most of all the House of Saud and Qatar.
Turkey is playing a very ambivalent game; it hosts a NATO command and control center in Hatay province, near the Syrian border, and at the same time offers exile to Assad. Even Israel is at a loss; they prefer the devil they know to an unpredictably hostile post-Assad regime led by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Assad is supported by Iran; by the government in Baghdad (Iraq has refused to impose sanctions); by Lebanon (the same); and most of all by Russia (which does not want to lose its naval base in Tartus) and trade partner China. This means Syria’s economy will not be strangled (moreover, the country is used to life under sanctions and does not have to worry about a national debt). The BRICS group is adamant; the Syria crisis has to be solved by Syrians only.
3. What is the opposition’s game?
The Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella group led by Paris exile Barhoun Galyan, claims to represent all opposition forces. Inside Syria, its credibility is dodgy. The SNC is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – composed of weaponized Sunni defectors, but mostly fragmented into armed gangs, some of them directly infiltrated by Gulf mercenaries. Even the Arab League report had to acknowledge the FSA is killing civilians and security forces, and bombing buildings, trains and pipelines.
The armed opposition does not have a central command; it is essentially local; and does not hold heavy weapons. The civilian opposition is divided – and has no political program whatsoever, apart from “the people want the downfall of the regime,” taking a leaf from Tahrir Square.
4. How are Syrians themselves divided?
Those who support the regime see a foreign Zionist/American conspiracy – with Turkey and parts of Europe as extras – bent on breaking up Syria. And they see the armed “terrorist” gangs – infiltrated by foreigners – as solely responsible for the worst violence.
Dissidents and the fragmented civilian opposition were always peaceful and unarmed. Then they started to receive protection from military defectors – who brought their light weapons with them. They all dismiss the government version of events as pure propaganda. For them, the real armed “terrorists” are the sabbiha – murderous paramilitary gangs paid by the government. Sabbiha (which means “ghosts”) are essentially depicted as Alawis, Christians and Druze, adults but also teenagers, sporting dark glasses, white sneakers, colored armbands, and armed with knives, batons and using fake names among them; the leaders are bodybuilder-types driving dark Mercedes.
Even mass rallies are in conflict. The protest rallies (muzaharat ) were confronted by the regime with processions (masirat). It’s unclear whether the people who joined them were constrained civil servants or moved by spontaneous decision. Syrian state media depicts the protesters as agent provocateurs or mercenaries and roundly dismisses the anger of those who live under a harsh police state with no political freedom.
An extra dividing factor is that the UN death toll of over 5,000 people (so far) does not identify pro-regime and opposition victims, and simply ignores the over 2,000 dead Syrian army soldiers (their funerals are on state TV virtually every day).
5. What do Christians think about all this?
The Christian West – who used to love shopping for bargains in the Damascus souq – should pay attention to how most Syrian Christians see the protests. They fear that Sunnis in power will crackdown on minorities (not only themselves but also Druze and Alawites). They view the majority of Sunnis as “ignorant” and “backward” Islamic fanatics, without the slightest idea about democracy, human rights or a slow, negotiated path towards democracy.
This illiterate bunch, according to them, lives in the periphery, have no respect (or understanding) for life in the big city, support the violence caused by armed gangs, and want an Islamic state (by the way, essentially what the House of Saud wants for Syria.) Secular Sunnis for their part criticize Christians, stressing that most Sunnis are businessmen and entrepreneurs and sport liberal ideas – and certainly don’t want an Islamic state. It must be stressed that the opposition is trans-confessional – it does include Christians and even Alawis.
6. What’s the Western strategy on the ground?
Borzou Daragahi from the Financial Times has just confirmed that militias in Misrata, in Libya, announced the deaths of three Libyan de facto mercenaries in Syria. These Libyan Transitional National Council assets landed in Syria – alongside weapons stolen from Gaddafi’s warehouses – courtesy of NATO cargo planes.
For months now, as Asia Times Online has reported, French and British special forces have been training fighters in Iskenderun, in southern Turkey. The Central Intelligence Agency is involved in intel and communications.
The FSA uses the ultra-porous Syrian-Turkish border at will. Turkey built several refugee camps; and Ankara hosts the leaders of both the SNC and FSA. There’s also the Jordanian front – the connection to the heavy Islamist (and backward) Daraa. But the Syrian-Jordanian border is infested with mines and heavily patrolled; that implies a long 200-kilometer detour in the middle of the desert.
Most of all FSA fighters go back and forth from Lebanon. The privileged smuggling route is from the northern Bekaa valley in Lebanon toward the opposition strongholds, the Sunni-majority cities of Homs and Hama. There’s another route from the central Bekaa valley going south toward the suburbs of Damascus (that explains how both strongholds are being supplied). But the whole thing is very dangerous, because Syrian ally Hezbollah is very strong in the Bekaa valley.
7. Who’s winning?
Assad has promised – once again this Tuesday to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – there will be a new constitution and national elections by summer. Half-hearted or not, this is an attempt at reform.
Yet the usual, unnamed “government officials” have already leaked to CNN that the White House has asked the Pentagon to simulate game scenarios for a direct US military intervention in favor of the rebels. So a NATOGCC intervention bypassing the UN remains a solid possibility; a false flag operation blamed on the Assad regime might be the perfect casus belli.
8. And what about the Syria-Iran connection?
Syria is crucial to Iran’s sphere of influence in Southwest Asia/the eastern flank of the Arab nation. BRICS members Russia and China want to keep the status quo – because it implies a regional balance of power that pins down American hegemony. For China, uninterrupted Iranian supplies of oil and gas are a matter of extreme national security. On top of it, if the US is tied up in the Middle East, so the much-touted Obama administration/Pentagon “pivot” towards Asia, and especially the South China Sea, will take much longer.
The bulk of Washington elites see regime change in Syria as a crucial way to hurt Iran. So this goes way beyond Syria. It’s about shattering the Iranian regime, which is not a Western satrapy; energy flows from the Middle East to the West; the West’s grip on the GCC and the intersection between the Arab and Persian worlds; and preserving the role of the petrodollar. Syria-Iran is a now a titanic match between NATOGCC and Russia/China – to try to expel them from the Middle East. The Pentagon’s Full Spectrum Dominance doctrine is never more alive than when the jackals and hyenas of war are screaming and kicking.
Notes: 1. See here