Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1154, (27 June - 3 July 2013)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1154, (27 June - 3 July 2013)

Ahram Weekly

A conflicted agenda

This week’s decision by the Friends of Syria Group to arm the Syrian rebels may make little difference to the situation on the ground, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Now that Iran and Hizbullah have make no secret of their active backing of the Syrian regime, and that the US along with several European countries believe that the regime has used chemical weapons against the opposition, nine of the group known as the Friends of Syria, which is made up of 11 countries, have decided to take action.

Meeting in Doha last Saturday, these countries decided to arm the Syrian opposition without further delay, and they also agreed on several undisclosed measures aimed at changing the situation on the ground.

The US, France, Britain, Germany, and Saudi Arabia were among those countries pledging to send military aid to the Syrian opposition, leaving it up to the “independent initiative” of each country to accomplish this task.

The weapons will be distributed through the military council of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is led by Salim Idriss and has the support of the West. Washington and its allies are trying to make sure that the supplies of weapons will not fall into the hands of extremists, such as those in the Al-Nusra Front, which is linked to Al-Qaeda.

Remarks made by US and Qatari diplomats at the close of the meeting showed that the allies do not see eye-to-eye, however. The Qatari foreign minister said that the Syrian regime had “torpedoed” all Arab and international political initiatives, hinting that military ways were the only option left.

However, the US secretary of state said that Washington wanted a peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria, adding that the arming of the opposition was meant to end the current “imbalance” and push the regime towards a negotiated settlement.

Western nations have for long opposed the dispatch of heavy weapons to the opposition in Syria, for fear that these may fall into the wrong hands. But Arab countries have already sent hundreds of tons of hardware and ordnance to the revolutionaries.

Speaking only days before the Doha meeting, Louay Meqdad, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “substantial amounts of sophisticated anti-tank rockets and small amounts of anti-aircraft missiles have arrived. We have been promised more by Arab and foreign countries.”

According to Meqdad, the weapons “will be placed in the care of professional officers and will be used solely to fight the Al-Assad regime. After the fall of the regime, the weapons will be collected in accordance with our pledge to friendly countries.”

It seems that the Friends of Syria Group felt that it had had to act and could not wait for a consensus to develop in the UN Security Council. The UN has also recently launched an appeal for $5 billion to help Syria, the largest such sum in the history of humanitarian aid.

For the moment, no one seems willing to state that the goal of sending arms to the revolutionaries is to defeat the regime, with all parties saying that the weapons are meant only to establish a military equilibrium between the regime and the Free Syrian Army and pave the way towards the planned Geneva II Conference.

It is hoped that agreement can be reached at the Conference that will allow Al-Assad to stay in office on the condition that he cede his powers to a transitional government led by the opposition. This is not a solution that the Syrian regime is willing to accept.

Speaking at a news conference, the Syrian foreign minister recently said that Syria would be attending the Geneva II Conference in order “to end the violence and the terror and to create national partnership and an expanded government of national unity, not to hand over power”.

Motie Al-Batin, chairman of the Supreme Council for the Leadership of the Syrian Revolution, told the Weekly that there was no sign that the military aid to the opposition would be adequate to bring down the regime.

“It is too small to establish a balance between the revolutionaries and the regime’s forces,” Al-Batin said, warning that meagre amounts of aid would only “prolong the conflict and wreck the country.” Al-Batin also said that the differences between the US and Russia were “less than they appear to be in public”.

It seems that bringing down the regime in Syria is not a western priority, and all the US and Europe want to do is to offer limited amounts of weapons in order to create a balance leading to a gradual political change and one that does not pose a threat to international peace.

In Syria, some oppose the arming of the opposition on the basis that this can only lead to more bloodshed. Others, meanwhile, want to see substantial arms going to the opposition in order to topple a regime that has caused the deaths of over 100,000 civilians.

In the West, some countries want to arm the Syrian opposition, whereas others believe that humanitarian aid and non-lethal assistance will suffice. Many fear that Syria could turn into a hotbed for extremism, or that heavy weapons could end up in the hands of radical groups.

Because of the deep divisions within the opposition, the West is now trying to focus on its military wing, and it is willing to give the FSA more assistance but only on certain conditions.

These were spelled out by French President François Hollande a few days ago, when he said that the opposition must take control of the areas currently held by the extremists and must expel the radical groups.

Observers believe that the supply of weapons to the Syrian opposition will remain modest unless the opposition manages to convince the Friends of Syria of its unity and strength.

US President Barack Obama made comments along these lines when he called for the creation of a strong Syrian opposition a few days ago, and France has also said that it needs to hold more talks with the Syrian opposition before supplying it with heavy weapons.

Russia has long refrained from attending an international peace conference on Syria, but now that the Al-Assad regime has regained the initiative on the ground Moscow wants to come to the negotiating table.

The US is growing less enthusiastic about the talks, however, and it seems to be hoping to reverse the balance of power in the country through the help of its Arab and Western allies.

The Friends of Syria are currently trying to unite various armed groups under the command of the FSA, and they are also attempting to expel, or isolate, the extremists. Through such actions, they are hoping to push the regime and its allies into accepting a political plan that would spell the end of the regime.

Other courses of action have not been ruled out.

Following recent manoeuvres in Jordan, Washington decided to leave some 700 US combat troops as well as Patriot missile systems and fighter aircraft in the country. This force may be useful if a decision is taken to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria, a prospect US diplomats have discussed repeatedly over recent weeks.

Two years and three months have passed since the Syrian crisis started, and a multi-faceted proxy war is already in evidence between Sunnis and Shiites, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the US and Russia. Syria is also exporting its problems to neighbouring Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey.

It is hardly in doubt that the US wants to get rid of the Syrian regime. But the measures it has been taking have thus far been ineffectual, unless it has had something else in mind.

It may be that the Americans wish to bleed the regime and its Iranian and Hizbullah backers to death through endless confrontations. If this is the aim of US strategy, then the suffering of Syria’s beleaguered civilians is far from over.

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