Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 June 2012
Issue No. 1102
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Salvaging what's left

As the international community tries to salvage the Anan plan to halt the violence in Syria, confrontations between the regime and the armed opposition continue to expand, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Click to view caption
Boys clap during a protest against Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad after Friday prayers in the northern Syrian city of Hass. The sign reads, "Traders and revolutionaries, hand by hand for victory"

Artillery attacks are now taking place throughout Syria, leaving bodies in their wake in Homs, Deraa, Idlib, Latakia, Hamah, Damascus, Aleppo and most rural areas. These towns and regions are today being bombed on a daily basis by tanks, rockets and mortar shells, with regime forces escalating their sieges, bombings and attacks on the country's cities.

Amidst this violence, four massacres took place in Syria this week that killed no fewer than 250 civilians, a large number of them children. The Syrian opposition and local residents have accused militias loyal to the regime of carrying out the killings in cold blood. Some of the victims were killed inside their homes, while others died when their homes were bombed by artillery rockets.

Others still were cut down as they tried to escape from their villages, being targeted by artillery and sniper fire.

The Syrian authorities banned UN monitors from entering the village of Al-Qobeir where one of the massacres took place, going as far as to fire on international observers. Syrian activists said that the authorities had blocked them from entering the village in order to buy time to cover up the crime, though the monitors gained access to other sites where massacres had occurred.

As the Syrian military and security forces escalate the confrontations, opposition sources say that more and more officers and soldiers are defecting from the regular army to join the Free Syrian Army (FSA), now estimated to stand at 50,000 men.

Half of these are well-organised troops, while half operate independently of a central command. Syrian revolutionary committees say that more than 1,000 officers and soldiers from the regular army defected to the FSA in one day in Al-Maara in north-west Syria, joining up to fight the regime's forces.

An entire artillery brigade defected on the same day, taking its equipment with it, the committees said.

The Syrian opposition and revolutionary committees say that the FSA now controls 60 per cent of Syrian territory, most prominently Hamah, Deraa, Homs, Aleppo and many border regions with Turkey in the north and Jordan in the south.

Opposition control is expanding every day and is reported to have reached the Syrian capital Damascus, as one FSA leader promised last week. Syrian human rights monitors say that hundreds of regular security and army troops have been killed by the armed opposition in daily battles in villages and towns in rural areas.

Amidst this tense atmosphere, and in the wake of one massacre that killed 50 children, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) urged the FSA to escalate military operations against the Syrian forces, in order to protect civilians.

This was the first time that the SNC had called on the Syrian people to take direct military action against the regime. Some FSA factions argue that the Anan plan has been rendered obsolete by the massacres and have declared an end to the truce with the regime's forces, pledging to take revenge through operations that would include the regime's nerve-centres.

FSA operations also reached Damascus last week, and the capital witnessed violent clashes in several districts on Friday. Residents could hear heavy gunshots everywhere in the city starting in the early hours of the morning and continuing until late in the afternoon.

Activists reported that around 50 members of the security forces and militias loyal to the regime had been killed in Kafrusa in central Damascus. Meanwhile, a rocket had hit a parking area adjacent to the cabinet headquarters without any loss of human life.

Other voices among the opposition have warned that the FSA will not be able to defeat the regime unless it receives more advanced weaponry, adding that the regime could be allowing the armed opposition to take control of small towns in order later to carry out attacks on these and kill the defectors and activists.

Observers believe that it will be impossible for the FSA to sustain its hold on the areas it has taken, because of its still small numbers and weapons, in comparison to the size of the military forces still controlled by the regime and their arms capabilities.

Daily clashes have become common throughout Syria, as the FSA seeks to control small areas that are disjointed geographically. Regime security and military forces respond with rocket attacks using a variety of heavy artillery, including attack helicopters, and both sides suffer great human and material losses, with civilians also being killed.

While the opposition, residents and even international monitors assert that the regime is shelling the cities, killing civilians, and using excessive force, regime supporters still insist that the regime is innocent of what is being held against it.

"The UN assumes that it is the regime that is blocking the implementation of the Anan plan, but in fact a third party is blocking implementation," Fayez Abdel-Aziz, a former ruling Syrian Baath Party leader, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

"This is the party that is using the violence. The state does not kill its own people, but it will not tolerate anyone using arms against it."

Meanwhile, the international community, including the US, Russia, the EU, the Arab states, Turkey and others, has been warning that civil war could break out in Syria, though little is being done to stop this from happening.

The Syrian regime has not yet implemented its part of the bargain under the Anan plan, beginning with article 1, but the international community still insists that the plan is the best chance to reach real agreement on the crisis and reach a political solution that is acceptable to all parties inside and outside the country.

For its part, the opposition has warned that the plan is already in quicksand, and it is struggling ever harder to get out. Civil war has already started in Syria, opposition figures say, and there are fears that this will now turn into sectarian war.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights this week declared that the mass killings in Syria amounted to war crimes, calling for a war crimes tribunal to be established to investigate them. The US also urged that authority should be transferred away from the Al-Assad government and that there should be a transitional phase with a national-unity government leading the country to free and fair elections.

Meanwhile, Moscow has proposed that the Anan plan could be amended, and it has not rejected the idea of sending more UN monitors to Syria, hinting that it could accept a transfer of power in Syria similar to what happened in Yemen with the condition that all the Syrian people agree to it.

These developments caused Anan to make a new proposal to the Security Council to salvage his faltering plan for Syria by creating a "contact group" to plan for political transition. This would include Russia, China, the US, Britain and France and key regional countries that have sway with the Syrian government or opposition, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Iran.

The Syrian opposition and several Arab and western states have reservations about Iran's participation in the group.

"Russia's recent announcement about the Yemen model is a qualitative change in terms of its clarity of position," Menzar Khaddam, media coordinator at the opposition Coordination Committee of the Forces for Democratic Change, told the Weekly.

"This is part of Russia's preparations ê" with US and European approval ê" for an international conference on Syria attended by the regime and the opposition," Khaddam said. "The Syrian regime will reject this scenario, but in all honesty it is in no position to refuse what Russia wants."

"We agree with any solution that removes the regime from power at the least cost and maintains the structure of the state in place. Perhaps the Yemeni model could be appropriate for Syria."

For his part, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that there were increasing signs that all-out civil war could break out in Syria and that there had been no indication that the violence was subsiding between government forces and opposition fighters.

Anan also warned the Security Council that the Syrian crisis could soon spin out of control and urged the international community to "strongly pressure" the Syrian regime.

Many observers believe that the international community is deluding itself about the prospects of success of the Anan plan, since implementing it would mean that Al-Assad would have to step down.

The international community is simply trying to buy time, such observers say, in the hope that some agreement can be reached that meets the demands of the Syrian people, satisfies the international community and is acceptable to regional countries.

Until such time as this happens, more and more Syrian people are falling victim to the violence in the country and bearing the weight of economic sanctions. Living difficulties are compounded every day, while the regime appears to be unconcerned by the fate of the people or the more than 15,000 dead, according to human rights monitors.

It seems unconcerned, too, by the economic crisis facing Syria, and it does not view itself as being responsible for the violence and killings by the military and security forces.

Its top priority seems to be to stay in power at any price. Many observers believe that Syria is edging closer to chaos and civil war, and perhaps it has already moved down that path.

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