Posts Tagged ‘Syrian opposition’

Assad’s gambit but is it Putin’s end-game being played out in Syria?

November 10, 2013

The Hindu carries an interesting editorial on Assad’s Gambit:

In extending his cooperation to the OPCW – which has until June 2014 to oversee the elimination of Syria’s chemical stockpile – President Bashar al-Assad has signalled his indispensability to a diplomatic settlement. Mr. Assad has underlined that not only is he in control but he is also willing to make tactical concessions. The odds are now stacked heavily against the Syrian rebels. After the United States shelved its plan to intervene militarily, opposition groups have had to reconcile themselves to the option of sharing power with Damascus. That al-Qaeda and other terror outfits have infiltrated the rebels’ ranks has also substantially diminished the support they initially received from the West. Not surprisingly, many of the rebel factions have expressed their reluctance to participate in the “Geneva 2” diplomatic conference scheduled for later this year. Mr. Assad, on the other hand, has made the Syrian government’s participation contingent on his being allowed to complete a full term in office.

Paradoxically it is the destruction of his chemical weapons which has made Assad an indispensable part of the solution. If it was one of the rebel groups (Al Qaida or a group supported by Turkey or by Iran or by Saudi Arabia or by the Kurds or by the Muslim Brotherhood) which actually did use the chemical weapons (Sarin gas) in September, then their ploy has misfired spectacularly. If it was Assad’s forces which released the gas (whether with or without his knowledge), it has certainly brought matters to a head and – also spectacularly –  shifted the course of this civil war. Syrian Opposition became “armed rebels” and are now equated with “terrorists”. From being about Assad’s repression and justified opposition the conflict is being transformed to Assad versus the terrorists.

Keeping score in the Great Syria Chess Game is not easy and when the chemical inspectors were called in I wrote

Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov are winning. The diplomatic path is now their creation. Suddenly Russia is the peace-maker in the face of US war-mongering! Not only was the US strike on their ally delayed indefinitely, it is now Assad’s Syria – and not the various opposition groups – which is required to engage with the international community. Any opposition forces who seem to be coming in the way of inspecting or securing control of the chemical weapons can now be attacked by Assad with the full support of the international community. Russia can continue supplying Syria with conventional weapons. ….

Bashar al-Assad is winning. He does not really need chemical weapons which cannot effectively be used anyway. Any US strike on his forces is postponed indefinitely. With no prospect of any no-fly zone being declared his air-force could be decisive in the civil war. The supply of conventional weapons from Russia is assured. His claim that rebels and terrorists were responsible for the use of Sarin is backed up by Russia and the UN weapons inspectors have no option but to investigate this (and they are on their way back to Syria).

But I think the Hindu is wrong to think that it is merely the infiltration of rebel groups by Al Qaida which has damaged their support from the West. The point is that the rebel groups supported and supplied by so many surrounding countries are not a home-grown opposition but are essentially a collection of mercenary groups fighting proxy wars for many players. Saudi Arabia and Turkey in particular were and are heavily involved – and may even have been instrumental in starting the armed conflict. Now of course Iran and the Kurds and the Muslim Brotherhood are providing succour and support for their pet groups. Al Qaida has its fighters from all over the region (and from radicalised youth in the West) trying to attain eternal salvation through martyrdom. The EU and the US supply arms through third parties to a variety of the rebel groups – and it often seems they have no idea who the arms are going to. Russia supplies Assad. Israel no doubt stirs the pot whenever it can and using whichever faction is available to maintain the turmoil.

As Aron Lund writes in his report,Divided they Stand” An Overview of Syria’s Political Opposition Factions

The opposition landscape is so fragmented and disconnected, that there is little clarity even among activists themselves about what groups and coalitions are truly effective or enjoy popular support. ….

While it is unlikely that any of today’s political opposition groups will control the future Syria, they are likely to play a significant role in a future transition phase or reconciliation process. Regardless of who rules Syria in the future – the current regime, breakaway elite factions, a government installed with foreign backing, or armed rebels – they will need to connect with the political opposition to legitimize their own position.

Assad’s Gambit may be paying off but it is just a few moves within the Putin initiated defence. Whether the Putin defence also has an end-game in mind is as yet difficult to discern. It may just lead to a stalemate and a long drawn-out conflict. It may lead – in the best scenario – to a gradual political transition where Assad has an “honourable” discharge and exile waiting for him sometime late next year.

There are no longer any outright victories in sight in this multi-dimensional chess game where the rules keep changing. But if there is any overall direction to this end-game it is probably coming from Putin and Lavrov. Whether Obama and Kerry are playing the game, or are just bystanders providing infrastructure for the playing of the game remains to be seen. The EU is almost as divided as the Syrian opposition and are very good at mouthing platitudes. The dilemma that the US and the EU face is that support for secular forces in Syria is inevitably support for Assad. Support for any armed rebel group is also support for Islamist jihadists.


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