Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 March 2012
Issue No. 1088
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Arms come to the fore

Is a political resolution still possible in Syria, asks Bassel Oudat from Damascus

The disproportionate use of force by the Syrian regime has caused a mostly peaceful opposition to take up arms at times, and a substantial portion of Syrian protesters are now demanding support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which comprises defectors from the regular army supplemented by volunteers who are joining in ever greater numbers.

The opposition -- led by the Syrian National Council (SNC) -- is seeking ways to arm, organise and link the FSA with the opposition political leadership.

Following the Friends of Syria conference in Tunisia last month a number of Arab states posited arming the FSA as the solution. Qatar appealed to the international community to do so and urged Arab countries to participate in any military operation in Syria to end the bloodshed. Riyad also supports the suggestion. Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal described it as "a brilliant idea".

Given that the EU and Friends of Syria recognised the SNC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and some argued for arming the opposition, and key world leaders -- including US President Barack Obama -- have predicted that Al-Assad's days are numbered, while Russia's veto blocks any action against Damascus at the Security Council, the door may be closed on any political resolution. Yet despite these zealous positions the Europeans and Americans continue to shy away from military intervention or arming the opposition, at least without the approval of the UN, though they remain convinced that EU and Arab sanctions will do little to dislodge the regime.

Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda has reared its head, not least in claims by Syrian officials that Al-Qaeda members are fighting against government forces. Ayman El-Zawahri, the leader of the group, issued a statement in support of Syrian revolutionaries, while Moscow has also claimed Al-Qaeda is fighting in Syria. The government of Iraq has also reported that Al-Qaeda fighters crossed into Syria.

Syrian and Russian claims correspond with statements by US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey confirming that Al-Qaeda is operating in Syria. The US secretary of state recently added that arming the opposition would help Al-Qaeda and Hamas, and the White House posits Al-Qaeda as one of the reasons why it will not consider arming the opposition, arguing that removing the regime would give Al-Qaeda an opportunity to seize Syrian chemical weapons.

While some observers believe Al-Qaeda could have infiltrated Syria, the Syrian opposition denies that the group is active in the country. They claim adding Al-Qaeda to the equation is a ploy by Syrian intelligence to undermine the revolution, a tactic that former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh used.

US statements -- Washington denied the presence of Al-Qaeda in Libya, Yemen and Egypt but is now talking about Al-Qaeda in Syria -- have confused some in the opposition. They say the US has produced the "Al-Qaeda bogeyman" to justify not resorting to military force in Syria, and that the statements indicate that a political solution is not entirely off the table and remains Washington's preferred option.

Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said: "Overthrowing brutal regimes takes time and costs livesāê¦ We cannot amass tanks on the borders of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordanāê¦ That will not happen."

Some observers believe that preparations are underway to create buffer zones inside Syria on the borders with Turkey and Jordan, and it is likely that Syria will be dealt with like Kosovo. They argue a military solution is unavoidable but will occur from within by supporting and arming the FSA covertly and assisting it unite ranks, improve its methods and supplies, and create a central command. This will take time and result in enormous material and human losses, as well as the possible collapse of the state.

Brigadier General Hossam Awak, the FSA's commander of operations, left the door open by saying that the Syrian crisis "can only be resolved in two ways: political and military. Since we do not want to repeat the Libyan scenario we involved the politicians. We asked Bashar to hand over power, but if what is needed is a military solution, then we will take it."

Before his country's embassy was shut down in Damascus last week, a European diplomat argued that military intervention is not the easiest or most expedient solution in Syria; instead, the opposition should unite.

"Arming the opposition is easy enough, but it will be one of the most difficult solutions for the Syrians and its ramifications will be harsh and undermine the state, not just the regime," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

"Uniting the opposition is a harder yet possible path and will be more effective in a shorter time. Formulating a clear roadmap and cohesive interaction between the opposition and protesters will have a stronger effect on the ground. Popular movement needs political cover and leadership."

While the US and Europe vacillate between a political or military solution and are obstructed by the Russians, some Arabs (Egypt, Iraq, the Arab League, and others) are promoting a political solution based on national dialogue to avoid the perils of military action. Observers, however, do not believe these efforts will amount to much in light of past failures by the Arab League. Meanwhile, the mission of former UN secretary-general Kofi Anan, who was appointed UN and Arab League envoy to Syria, remains unclear, and he will, in all likelihood, be unwelcome in Syria given he will propose a dialogue with the opposition about a clearly defined transitional phase.

"The regime mistakenly believes that if it continues the crackdown it will solve the problem, but in reality the complete opposite is true," the spokesman for the Coordination Committee of the Forces for Democratic Change told the Weekly. "The more destruction there is, the more complicated it becomes. For 12 months it has relied on a security solution and this has not resolved anything. Pockets of revolutionaries were few and far between, but today have spread across Syria. The Syrian matter can only be resolved through a political solution; the Syrian people must come together and talk on the same side of the table to decide their future with a new social contract."

The regime rejects peaceful transition, alleges it is the victim of widespread plotting and claims victory is at hand. SNC member Fawwaz Tallu believes that arming the opposition without the UN "is possible". "This will probably happen through an Arab-international alliance that started to form after the Friends of Syria conference," Tallu told the Weekly. "Countries supporting arming the revolution are growing in number and they are influential in the region."

A political solution in Syria is still possible, although the opposition now demands that Al-Assad must step down as a precondition. This should be followed by a transitional phase led by a national unity government with a full mandate, including electing a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution. The regime rejects the suggestion entirely.

The Syrian crisis is at a crossroads. Either the regime accepts the conditions of the opposition and begins serious talks or the revolution will become militarised, signalling the beginning of a conflict that is certain to topple the regime. But it might be a long battle that also destroys parts of the regular army and many state institutions. (see pp.6-7)

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