Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Siege of Syria

The Siege of Syria - Vijay Prashad

Tragedy stalks the Syrian landscape. Of the more than twenty-two million Syrians, almost seven million are displaced and in need of serious assistance – either on the move within Syria or as refugees without.

Of these, 2.5 million are outside the reach of the UN’s many agencies and of the non-governmental organisations that are brave enough to work inside Syria. Residents who are trapped in the besieged community of Moadamiya al-Sham in rural Damascus cannot access services, just as Palestinians in the enclosed Yarmouk Camp see starvation approach on the horizon. The imam of the Palestine Mosque in Yarmouk, Sheikh Mohammed Abu al-Khair, issued a fatwa that allowed the hungry to eat the meat of cats, dogs, and donkeys – a previous such fatwa had been issued in Homs. There is no attempt to open a humanitarian corridor into these regions – where starvation and fear frame the lives of the residents.

An arc runs from the border with Iraq to the northern city of Raqqa downward to the Lebanese border towns that lead to its coastal city of Tripoli. Along that arc grows the power of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) – a group that draws its inspiration from the kind of ideology associated with al-Qaeda, and which is a magnet for the global jihadis from Saudi Arabia and Chechnya (fighting under the banner of Jaish al-Muhajirin wa al-Ansar – Army of the Emigrants and the Helpers), from the byways of North Africa to the dregs of the more radical wings of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (via the vehicle of the Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya movement. Angered by the Western influence on the exiled opposition, encouraged by Gulf Arab princes and by the slow retreat of the new Qatari emir from a forward policy in Syria, the ISIS emerged out of Iraq’s sectarian strife to “expunge the filth” of the Free Syrian Army and other Islamist groups that it did not see as sufficiently pure and uncompromising. Any negotiation with the government, under the auspices of the West, is forbidden. If a rebel leader, whether from the fighting groups or the Syrian political opposition, go to Geneva 2 in late November, they will be treated by ISIS as traitors. These are harsh words from a group that does most of its speaking through the barrel of a gun.

The capture of Raqqa by ISIS chased out one of the main liberal voices against the Assad regime from Syria, Yassin al Haj Saleh. When he fled Syria in mid-October, Saleh called the ISIS “the spectres of horror of our childhood, the ghouls.” It is likely that the ISIS, like al-Qaeda, is prone to exaggerate its strength and to use to great effect modern media technologies to broadcast its gains and magnify them. Al-Qaeda knew from Osama Bin Laden’s creative use of video cassettes after his “battle” of Paktia in 1987 the value of communication for the creation of power – from then, Bin Laden used the media effectively to build up his legend and later that of al-Qaeda. It could be argued that ISIS too is using twitter and other media to effectively exaggerate its strength in the north of Syria. However, reporters who have been able to travel to Raqqa confirm the growth of ISIS, as do the Kurdish protection committees (YPG) which have turned their guns on the ISIS along the road that links Raqqa to the Iraqi border. Billboards across Raqqa signal the arrival of ISIS, which someGulf Arab princes see (as they did the Taliban in 1997-8) as their ancestors in the 18th century. It is this emotional link that brings ISIS the kind of private Gulf Arab funds that has enabled it to thrive in its campaign along the north – and to the edge of Damascus.

However strong the ISIS, and however many tanks they are able to deploy, they cannot match the seemingly indestructible power of the Syrian government’s army. Early into the conflict, thousands of Syrian army troops defected into what became the Free Syrian Army – now a pale shadow of what it was in 2011-12. The Syrian government bulked up its own forces through irregular militias (shabiha) and by the deployment of a sectarian logic that the rebels are Sunni and that minority Alawite and Christian need to fight to preserve the regime. With the ISIS pushing a fundamentally Sunni religious and political agenda, backed to the hilt by Gulf Arab princes, the turn of the Assad regime toward sectarianism has begun to ring the death knell for Syria. At one time, Syria was one of the touchstones of Arab nationalism (whose anti-Communist instantiation was the Ba’ath Party). Latterly the Assad government has shifted to other logics – the kind of pan-Syrian nationalism of the Syria National Social Party as well as a kind of Iranianism that seeks to awaken those social forces that oppose Saudi hegemony in the region (such as Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah). The gains of the battlefield that emerge out of these narrowed allegiances strike a fatal blow at Syria’s unity. Whichever way this conflict winds down, the old certainties of Syrian nationalism and Arabism will have been seriously harmed.

No question that the regime now has the upper hand. It is the reason why the princes of Saudi Arabia are particularly miffed. Prince Turki went on a rampage against Hezbollah as Prince Bandar egged on the Palace to reject the UN Security Council seat that the Kingdom had won. They will make sure that money enters the coffers of their preferred interlocutors amongst the rebels – Zahran Alloush’s Army of Islam, founded to undercut the vastly more powerful ISIS whose al-Qaeda ideology gives the Saudi Palace its shivers (just as it excites the ambitions of some of its princes) – in late October the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz al-Sheikh asked young Saudis not to go fight in the jihad in Syria, a sign of the uncertainty in the palace. Alloush’s Army of Islam is the preferred interlocutor, since Alloush himself has deep links to the Saudi establishment (his father, Abdallah Alloush, is a cleric in the Kingdom). The Saudis hope that the Army of Islam, which shares a considerable amount with al-Qaeda except hatred for the Saudi dispensation itself, will grow to eclipse ISIS. Whether the Army of Islam or ISIS grows in strength, it will not be able to overcome the Syrian army. That is what frustrates Saudi Arabia despite the fact that its man, Ahmad Jarba, is the head of the Syrian National Congress – the toothless vehicle of the political opposition.

A military solution is not on the cards. A stalemate should encourage a political dialogue, for which the UN and the Arab League’s envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has travelled the region to build consensus to come to Geneva in November. But precisely the opposite dynamic seems dominant – the rebels cannot seem to get the legs to walk to the table, and the regime, smelling a pyrrhic in the offing seems unwilling to be serious about a political settlement (that Bashar al-Assad has put himself forward as a presidential candidate for 2014 signals the lack of seriousness). The chemical weapons deal sealed with Russia and US surety seems to have lifted the diplomatic pressure on the parties. Brahimi’s visit to Damascus on October 29 was greeted with intense fighting in the Damascus district of Barza, and in the Damascus suburb of Darayya. This is an ill-portend for Geneva.

The far powers – the US and Russia – are unwilling to move an agenda to peace. From the United States comes the cynical view that the blood-letting in Syria will “keep Iran pinned down for years,” as a senior White House official put it. “A fight in Syria between Hezbollah and Al Qaeda would work to America’s advantage.” The Russians have not been able to convince the Assad regime to make concessions to the population – not to the rebels – such as a symbolic gesture to allow new leadership to run in the 2014 elections. The best they could do is to frame the chemical weapons deal. Anything more than that seems beyond the interests or ability of Washington and Moscow.

Regional pressure is essential for a ceasefire and for a political dialogue. The parties that are by and large supporting the Assad regime are all in favour of dialogue – Iran’s new government in the lead, followed by Iraq whose own sectarian balance has been threatened by the conflict in Syria, as well as Hezbollah which is not eager for the fissures of Syria to open up in tender Lebanon. The parties that back the rebels, despite their anxiousness about ISIS, such as Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf States and Turkey have not been vocal about dialogue – instead, they hold fast to the notion that the regime must be smashed, at the cost of Syria. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), whose well-regarded chair -- Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu – ends his term in early 2014 and the Arab League should be compelled by those who have already come on record for Geneva (Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and so on) to indicate their displeasure at Saudi Arabia and its allies for not forcing their proxies to agree to peace talks.  Regional pressure of this kind will help forge a consensus for Geneva – which is still a long way away from peace in Syria. But it is a step in the right direction.

Vijay Prashad is the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon.

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