Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1158, (25 - 31 July 2013)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1158, (25 - 31 July 2013)

Ahram Weekly

The many governments of Syria

Syria’s Kurds are contemplating self-government, its jihadists crave an Islamic state, and an interim government is about to be declared by the opposition, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

The international community is becoming increasingly concerned about the situation in Syria, now that the conflict does not seem to be heading to a predictable end.

Over recent weeks, extremist jihadists have started pondering the prospect of an Islamic state in northern Syria, while the country’s Kurds are seriously considering autonomous rule. Meanwhile, the Syrian mainstream opposition, which is planning its own government-in-waiting, has been calling for unity, but this call has been falling on deaf ears.

Last week, fierce battles were fought in Hasaka and Al-Qamishli in northern Syria between Kurds opposing the regime and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups known as the Al-Nusra Front (NF) and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Meanwhile, fighters loyal to the West Kurdistan Council, a Kurdish group, are said to be in possession of the city of Ras Al-Ein and the nearby border crossing with Turkey, having expelled the Islamists from the area.

Saleh Musallam, chief of the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which goes under the name of the Democratic Union Party (DUP), said that the Kurds planned to set up the autonomous administration of the Kurdish areas in order to protect themselves from the wave of destruction and killing.

The Kurds are already in the process of writing a new constitution for their areas, he said, and they are planning to hold semi-parliamentary elections.

Not to be outdone, the ISIL, which is affiliated with Al-Qaeda, said it intended to declare an Islamic state in northern Syria at the end of Ramadan. In order to do so, the group needs to control the border-crossing points with Turkey, which would give it continued access to weapons and ammunition. It also aspires to seize the oil-rich areas that are not controlled by the regime.

Half of Syria’s oil fields are currently in the Kurdish-controlled areas, including the Rumaylan Fields, which account for one-third of the country’s oil production.

In recent months, the NF and the ISIL have emerged as the aspiring masters of the northern region. In order to lay claim to it, they have fought the other opposition groups and killed some opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders.

The Syrian armed opposition, wary of the possibility of a bloody confrontation with the Kurds and the Islamists, has not discussed the matter in public. But the mainstream opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and the FSA have warned people in the north against “falling into the trap of infighting”.

The SNC has also blamed the Syrian regime for fomenting sedition in the north.

Rajaa Al-Nasser, secretary of the opposition National Coordination Committee (NCC), commented on efforts to set up a West Kurdistan Administration in northern Syria.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Al-Nasser said that the NCC had discussed the matter with the DUP. “They explained the nature of the administration they intended to form, which would not be an official government or a state, but a democratically elected administration designed to manage relief and security operations temporarily in the region,” he said.

“But we are totally opposed to any assault on the unity of the Syrian land and people.”

Regarding the prospect of an Islamic state in the north, Louay Safi, spokesman for the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), also dismissed the idea.

“This is not going to happen. Syria will remain one country for all Syrians. The destruction of the FSA is a dream of the regime, and it will not come true. We will do everything possible to ensure that no infighting takes place, because our goal is to bring down the regime. And we will not allow the creation of spheres [of influence] that conflict with the goals of the revolution,” Safi said.

NCC spokesman Munzir Khaddam described the creation of an Islamic state as a “hallucination”, telling the Weekly that those fighting for an Islamic regime wished to “revive an imaginary past that cannot possibly materialise”.

According to Khaddam, jihadists in Syria are operating “within the American strategy that has benefited from the political idiocy of the regime”. The US wanted to “bring all the extremist forces into the fight in Syria, so they can fight each other to death, he said.

Meanwhile, the NCSROF is planning to declare a government in exile, with sources saying that the name of the president of the new government would be announced soon. The new government may take up its headquarters in one of the Syrian cities that are outside the regime’s control.

The news of the possible formation of three opposition governments in Syria surfaced at a time when the regime led by President Bashar Al-Assad has been gaining ground against the armed opposition groups, with the result that the infighting in the opposition’s ranks may be undermining the revolution’s central goal, which is to bring down Al-Assad.

The declaration by groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda that they intend to form an Islamic state in Syria is particularly divisive.

Since Western powers want the extremists to be excluded from the opposition as a condition for sending arms to the revolutionaries, the FSA is in an awkward position, having to fight internal battles instead of focussing on bringing down the regime.

Moreover, the international community seems to be more interested in curbing the presence of Al-Qaeda in Syria than it is in overthrowing the Al-Assad regime. It has also not been pleased to see the Kurdish declaration of an autonomous state in northern Syria.

Overall, the performance of the Syrian opposition over the last year has been disappointing. Divisions continue to weaken the armed resistance, and the NCSROF, which poses as the mainstream political arm of the opposition, has been failing to unify the resistance or persuade the outside world of its viability.

Nevertheless, Syrian opposition member Walid Al-Bonni still has hopes for the planned Geneva II Conference that is intended to bring together the opposition to Al-Assad.

In remarks to the Weekly, Al-Bonni noted that “there are some who believe that Geneva is a great opportunity that must not be missed, and others who believe that Geneva is just a lifeline for the regime.”

The bylaws of the NCSROF will not allow it to sit at the negotiating table before Al-Assad steps down, he said.

Commenting on the US position, Al-Bonni said that the US was playing for time because it wanted to exhaust Iran, Hizbullah, and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups by having them fight one another.

“But when the US administration really begins to be interested in addressing the Syrian issue, you will see a different course of events unfolding, especially when it comes to supporting the armed resistance,” Al-Bonni added.

Syrian moderate Islamist Riad Derar was dismayed at the performance of the mainstream opposition, saying that its tactics were as unreliable as those of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

Speaking to the Weekly, Derar said that the “Brotherhood is known for its utilitarian approach to politics, its constant changing of allies and direction and its lack of focus. Its alliance with the democratic and liberal groups is therefore temporary. Ultimately the entire opposition will fail, because of this tendency to sell out.”

Derar, a leading figure in the NCSROF, said that the domestic opposition was suffering from isolation “because certain powers do not wish to see a solution to the crisis in Syria.”

Unless something is done, Derar said, Syria may end up as a failed state, and in order to avoid this, the opposition should unite its ranks and insist on a pluralistic and democratic state.

Observers have been concerned that the Syrian regime may try to create an Alawite state in the country’s coastal region close to its power base. But recent developments suggest that Syria may break, not into two states, but into many.

If the jihadists, the Kurds, and the NCSROF push on with their plans, there may soon be no fewer than four governments in Syria: one representing the regime and three representing the country’s various opposition groups.

If this happens, all will start fighting all, and the goals of the revolution will gradually fade from memory.

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