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After three years of struggle, the civil war in Syria increasinlgy resembles the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s, the bloodly struggle that provided a preview of the larger war the came in 1939. In Spain, Fascist forces were backed by Italy and Germany, pitted against leftist forces, some backed by the Soviet Union. The anti-fascist forces were divided into Stalinist, Trotskyite and Anarchist factions, which battled each other as well as the fascists. In Syria, Shia Iran is backing the Alawite [quasi co-religionist] Assad regime, while Sunni monarchies - Saudi Arabia and Qatar - backed some opposition militias. The situation is far more complex, but this framework is a good place to start.
Syrian rebel groups were fighting each other, with more than 1,000 people killed in the first two weeks of January 2014 in clashes among armed opposition groups. The infighting appeared to be benefiting the government in Damascus. It was the worst rebel-on-rebel violence since Syria’s civil war began nearly three years earlier. Opposition fighters targeted the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS], which had been terrorizing civilians. The battles among rebels appeared to be boosting the Syrian government. Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gained ground in the chaos of rebel-on-rebel fighting.
The Diplomatic Track
In June 2012, Washington and Moscow, along with other major powers, met in Geneva and agreed on a road map, known as the Geneva Communique, for Syria's political transition. The document envisioned the establishment of a transitional governing body - agreed upon by both sides - in Syria with full executive powers that would oversee elections and put the country on the path to democracy. Since then, several attempts to bring together the two sides have failed, mainly because of disputes over who should represent the Syrian opposition and government in the talks and over Assad's future role in the country.
Syria's government said it would call for a cease-fire at a proposed United Nations-backed peace conference aimed at ending the country's civil war. Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil told The Guardian September 20, 2013 the conflict had reached a stalemate, saying neither the government nor the rebels are strong enough to defeat each other. He told the British paper the Syrian government would also propose an "end to external intervention" and the start of a "peaceful political process" at the long-delayed conference in Geneva. The United States and Russia have been trying for months to bring together members of Syria's government and rebel forces to the so-called Geneva Two talks.
Syria's government and some elements of the opposition began peace talks in Switzerland 22 January 2014, with President Bashar al- Assad's role in Syria's future expected to be a key stumbling block. The Geneva 2 meeting aimed to create a transitional government with full executive powers. While few expected the talks will reach this goal, its supporters are hoping the discussions would at least result in increased humanitarian access and local cease-fires to make life easier for Syrian civilians. The Syrian National Coalition - the country's main political opposition grouping in exile - agreed to attend the talks, but the SNC had little influence on the ground in Syria and many rebel military units have rejected its authority. The Syrian government considered all rebel forces to be terrorists, and has tried to shift the focus of the talks from forming a new government to fighting terrorism.
A communique from the first Geneva meeting on Syria referred to a “transition” that the opposition and its Western backers have interpreted to mean Assad's departure. However, the Syrian president and his Russian and Iranian allies disagree, insisting Assad must be part of any transition. Many opposition leaders refused to attend talks without a prior commitment that Assad step down. In a statement, the foreign ministry said that those who supported Assad's removal from power should "wake up from their dreams".
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had no bigger ally than Iran, and his government expected Iran will be invited to planned peace talks in Geneva "just like any other state." The international mediator to the conflict, Lakhdar Brahimi, agreed. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran will come if it was given an unconditional invitation. But the US said Iran must first agree to the establishment of a transitional Syrian government by "mutual consent" which presumes that President Assad's opponents would never agree to his joining an interim government and would thus end his rule.
William McCants of the Brookings Institution observed that "Even if the Syrian opposition coalition is able to come to some sort of terms with the Assad government, the fact that the largest fighting group, the Islamic Front, has denounced the negotiations means it is not worth the paper it is printed on ..."
By mid February 2014 more than 140 thousand had died since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, documented the martyrdom, the killing and the deaths of 140,041 people, since the start of the Syrian Revolution in the date of the martyrdom of the first martyr in Daraa province in the 18th of March-2011, until the date of 14th February-2014. The past 24 days witnessed the largest daily rate of casualties, in conjunction with the start of Geneva II talks, between the Syrian opposition factions and the Syrian regime representatives, where the first condition for holding the sessions was supposed to be to a stop of all of the military operations.
The Syrian government’s refusal to accept a compromise proposed by U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi has put the future of deadlocked Syrian peace talks in question. Lakhdar Brahimi said the two parties ended a second round of talks 15 February 2014 without even discussing a date for resuming negotiations.
Red lines are not enough to prevent developments. The alleged chemical attack on August 21 that killed more than 1,400 people - including 426 children - in areas outside Damascus populated by opposition supporters crossed an international, global red line. In an interview with CBS television, Assad denied he had ordered the August 21 attack and said evidence was not conclusive it had even taken place. He said he is concerned that an air strike on Syria would degrade his military and tip the balance in the conflict. German intelligence in reporting that Syrian brigade and division commanders had been asking the Syrian presidency to allow them to use chemical weapons for more than four months, but permission had always been denied. German intelligence officers suggested that could mean Assad may not have personally approved the attack.
On 22 July 2013 General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined five options for using American force in Syria, while cautioning about the costs and potential consequences of direct involvement in the country's crisis. Detailed in a letter to Congress, they ranged from training opposition forces to destroying Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. He said such intervention would likely help the opposition and place more pressure on President Bashar al-Assad's government. However, he said the unintended results could include empowering extremists and "unleashing the very chemical weapons we seek to control."
By February 2014, Saudi Arabia, frustrated by the deadlock in the second round of Geneva 2 talks, has reportedly offered to supply the rebels with anti-aircraft missiles. According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, Russian-made antitank guided missiles and Chinese man-portable air-defense systems were already waiting in warehouses in Jordan and Turkey. An Arab diplomat and several opposition figures told WSJ that these supplies were likely to tip the battlefield scales as the rebels will become capable of taking on the government’s air power and destroying heavy armoured vehicles. The new weapons were expected to reach southern Syria from Jordan while the opposition in the north will get arms from Turkey. According to the WSJ report, rebel commanders struck a deal on the new armaments shipment during a meeting with US and Saudi intelligence agents in Jordan on 30 January 2014.
Senator John McCain demanded a stronger U.S. response. “Where is the President Obama who has said he refuses to accept that brutal tyrants can slaughter their people with impunity, while the most powerful nation in the history of the world looks on and stands by? Where is our outrage, where is our shame?” – asked McCain. The Republican senator had long advocated establishing a no-fly zone over Syria and arming rebel groups not linked to al-Qaida. “It is true that our options to help end the conflict in Syria were never good, and they are certainly worse and fewer now. But no one should believe we are without options even now,” said McCain.
The Course of Combat
By the end of 2013, more than 130,000 people had been killed, and millions of people had either been displaced or become refugees in neighboring countries. The Syrian conflict devolved from peaceful protests seeking political reform to a confrontation between ethnic and religious groups. The Syrian conflict has been marked by a continuous but unequal escalation of armed violence throughout the country. Levels of violence have varied geographically due to the interplay of a number of factors: the strategic importance of a particular area, the deployment and strength of Government forces, the sectarian composition of the local population and anti-Government armed groups’ organisation and access to logistical support.
The Government, with affiliated militia, adopted a “contraction” of forces strategy in facing the mounting insurgency. While focusing on holding major cities, Government forces also besieged restive towns with layers of security. Towns under armed group control suffered intensified artillery and aerial shelling. Other, mostly rural, areas were abandoned completely by Government forces, but continued to be shelled. Besides conventional ammunition, other types of ammunition were used, including cluster aerial bombs and artillery shells.
Violence increased dramatically in and around major cities, in particular Damascus and Aleppo, where anti-Government fighters advanced to neighborhoods close to the cities’ centers. Mounting tensions led to armed clashes between different armed groups along a sectarian divide. Such incidents took place in mixed communities or where armed groups had attempted to take hold of areas predominantly inhabited by pro-Government minority communities. Some minority communities, notably the Alawites and Christians, formed armed self-defence groups to protect their neighborhoods from anti-Government fighters by establishing checkpoints around these areas. Some of those local groups, known as Popular Committees, were said to have participated alongside Government forces in military operations.
The conflict in Syria evolved into a war of attrition that increasingly put civilians at risk. Anti-Government armed groups conduct their operations from within densely populated civilian areas, putting civilians in the line of fire and causing them to flee their homes. By using civilian objects, such as schools for military purposes, anti-Government armed groups subject civilians to the dangers of war. Government forces conduct their military operations in flagrant disregard of the distinction between civilians and persons directly participating in hostilities.
Public order was breaking down in rebel-held areas of Syria, with widespread looting, crime running rampant and rebel factions fighting among themselves, according to refugees escaping to Lebanon. The refugees painted a bleak picture of mounting violence and lawlessness as civilians scramble to overcome shortages of food, water and fuel. The looting and infighting among rebel units added to the misery of civilians who managed to survive during two years of civil war.
The conflict continued to be waged by both Government forces and anti-Government armed groups with insufficient respect for the protection of the civilian population, in clear violation of international humanitarian law. The Government continued its indiscriminate shelling and aerial bombardment of civilian areas, while in several instances anti-Government armed groups located military objectives within or near densely populated areas.
Syria may be heading toward a break-up that would see the formation of at least three new mini-states. One such mini-state would be an enclave for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government in the west and northwest that would be populated by members of the Alawi sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, Shiites and Christians. Another would be a Sunni-majority state in the center and south of the country and the third would be a separate entity in the northeast for Syria’s two million Kurds.
In 2012 Syria’s Orthodox Christian Church claimed that Islamist rebels were carrying out “ethnic cleansing of Christians” in Homs. The Vatican news agency, Fides, said most of the 50,000 Christians living in the city left when Islamists went door to door in the neighborhoods of Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan telling Christians they would be shot if they did not leave. Militants Islamists have sometimes used the slogan, “the Alawites to the grave and the Christians to Beirut.”
By mid-2013, as Syria continued its sectarian civil war, some argued that state-based nationalism was declining and something larger and older was taking over. The Syrian war seemed to mark the beginning of the end for the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divided the Ottoman Empire after World War I and created the modern Middle East. Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general and now the director of a political think tank in Beirut, believes the likely outcome of the civil war is the breakup of Syria. He foresees Alawites, members of an offshoot sect of Shia Islam, and Christians cleaving together along Syria’s coast, and Kurds and Sunni Muslims establishing separate states of their own.
Ben Caspit wrote February 11, 2014 that "... Israel Defense Forces top brass believe that the struggle in Syria could last as long as a decade. Wording this cautiously, a very high-ranking Israeli defense official told me: “We’re facing a decade of struggle in the Syrian environs.” Either way, Israel believes that the Syria we had come to know over the past few decades is gone. ... a senior IDF official commented... “the concentration of all the global jihad madmen in Damascus and the Golan Heights is also a disconcerting development. So as far as we’re concerned, the alternatives are bad either way. And there’s also the possibility that these alternatives would coexist, which means that the current situation could last for many more years. Assad will keep his grip in Damascus and the Alawite strongholds, while jihadist forces will grow stronger and take control of all the other areas.”"
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