Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1283, (18 - 24 February 2016)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1283, (18 - 24 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

After Munich

Russia’s military actions in Syria after the Munich meeting threaten to lead to a regional war, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

After the UN and international Action Group on Syria failed to jumpstart negotiations in Geneva between the Syrian regime and opposition, the group held an emergency meeting in Munich on 12 February to discuss what could be done to persuade the parties to the conflict to agree to begin the talks.

But developments on the ground have undermined their efforts and are threatening not only to abort the Geneva III Conference, but also to open up a regional or international war in Syria.

The Action Group of 17 nations agreed in Munich to an immediate cessation of hostilities and the establishment of a working group to implement a ceasefire, identify territory under the control of the Islamic State (IS) group and Al-Nusra Front, and start moving humanitarian aid into areas besieged either by the regime or IS.

But events on the ground did not follow the Munich decisions, and Russia treated all of Syrian territory as if it were under the control of IS and Al-Nusra Front, escalating its aerial bombing to unprecedented levels in opposition-controlled areas, including the US-backed “moderate” opposition that took part in the Riyadh Conference in December and committed itself to a political resolution to the crisis.

Employing scorched-earth tactics, Russia laid the groundwork for regime forces, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG), Hizbullah militias and the Kurds to seize areas under opposition control in northern and southern Syria. It does not appear to have shelled even one IS position.

The Syrian political opposition gave a reserved welcome to the Munich outcome, announcing that it awaited preliminary steps to stop the violence and the shelling of the armed opposition and civilians.

But Russia’s military escalation has led the opposition to doubt the designs of the international group and the usefulness of the Munich meeting, especially since the US has watched the Russian military operations in silence.

The opposition’s response has been divided. One faction believes that Russia, in tacit agreement with the US, is continuing its violent military campaign to throttle the opposition and compel it to take part in the Geneva III Conference on Moscow’s terms.

Another camp thinks that Russia is stalling for time, hoping to gain more time to end the Syrian opposition and leave the country divided between the regime and IS. At this point, the international community will opt for maintaining the regime and wiping out the terrorist group, it hopes.

“It’s clear that the plan of Russia, Iran and the regime is for military continuity until the supply lines are cut in the north and south and Aleppo and Daraa are isolated,” said Hadi Al-Bahra, former president of the Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

“Then the UN Security Council will call for a ceasefire, except for counterterrorism actions, that may even involve a weapons ban. Then there will be a call for the Geneva Conference to be held, and if the opposition refuses to attend it will face a Security Council resolution for a ceasefire and will have no choice but to accept it.”

He continued, “If the opposition does not use its energies, political acumen and coordination with the military factions to engage in serious negotiations, it will give Russia, Iran and the regime a chance to impose a political and military solution on their own terms.”

Russian military operations in the wake of Munich have had four major consequences, the first of which has been to force more than 50,000 Syrians to flee towards the Turkish border from the cities being shelled by Russian aircraft, which in the week following Munich killed 500 civilians.

Second, the Russians have surrounded the moderate Syrian opposition and part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), forcing them to leave areas under their control. Third, officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the Lebanese Hizbullah militias and the Iraqi militias have occupied the positions of opposition fighters.

Fourth, militias with the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party, have exploited Russian air cover and regime support to launch offensives on opposition-controlled areas, occupying them and expanding the areas of what they call Western Kurdistan.

These militias have even been distributing maps showing this entity covering all of northern Syria, confirming opposition claims that the Kurdish forces are part of the regime and justifying its refusal to include them in the Geneva talks.

Faced with Russia’s refusal to honour the Munich decisions, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have taken unexpected actions, with the former announcing that it is prepared to send ground troops into Syria as soon as the international coalition makes a decision to do so, and speaking of a “Plan B” in the event of failed negotiations in Geneva.

It also sent aircraft squadrons to Turkey in the first military cooperation of its kind between the two states, apparently in preparation for some kind of military action.

The Russian prime minister then threatened to spark a third world war if any party intervenes with ground troops in Syria, but Saudi Arabia has ignored the threats and expressed its renewed intention to intervene with air and ground forces in the country.

Turkey also disregarded the Russian threat and began shelling areas occupied by Russian-supported Kurdish forces. It also mobilised ground troops along the border, seemingly preparing for military action.

The Syrian opposition says that its retreat from areas under Russian aerial bombardment is tactical, as it has been unable to face hundreds of Russian air raids on a daily basis.

It avers that regime forces and Iranian militias cannot hold the areas they have taken with Russian air cover, saying that the opposition will easily reclaim them when the air raids end. This has already happened in some villages and towns that the opposition has retaken from the regime with the end of the aerial attacks.

Russia claims it is attacking terrorist groups in Syria, but in fact it is carrying out an orchestrated campaign against non-extremist groups and civilians. It appears that the opposition will see no impact of the Munich outcomes on the ground before the resumption of the Geneva III Conference on 25 February.

Nor will it see Russian actions to implement the outcomes of the Munich meeting or those from the Geneva I and Vienna Conferences or the steps laid out in UN Security Council Resolution 2245.

The Geneva Conference is therefore unlikely to start on schedule, and the opposition will face a tough choice of either continuing to boycott Geneva, which would tacitly please Russia, the regime and Iran, or participating from a position of military weakness, which would guarantee conclusions unfavourable to it.

But the armed opposition says that it has other options and as yet unveiled plans. Iyad Barakat, a leader of the FSA, told Al-Ahram Weekly, “We are not waiting for a Saudi or Turkish ground intervention. These countries do not need to stage a ground intervention to break Russia. We’re already doing the job.”

He continued, “We lack neither men nor experience nor weapons. All we need are anti-aircraft missiles. If anybody offers these, and this is currently under discussion, we’ll be able to slow down the Russian aircraft and expect major losses from them. Without Russian air cover, we will be able to reclaim the territory more quickly than the Russians imagine.

“If we don’t receive anti-aircraft weapons, the armed opposition forces will turn the battle into a war of liberation against the Russians and Iranians. We’ll target every Russian and Iranian soldier for assassination and use harsh infiltration operations. We’ll inflict losses that compel them to admit that we’re a revolutionary force that can’t be killed.”

Without an end to the Russian shelling of opposition-controlled areas, there will be no Geneva III Conference, and UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura will likely be forced to freeze or postpone the event indefinitely.

Should this happen, the political process will be declared a failure. It will then not be out of the question for the nature of support for the armed opposition to shift, changing the balance of power in Syria to reflect new national, international and regional arrangements.

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