by Ameen Izzadeen
Two car bombs in Damascus last week, a rebellion in some parts of the country, a UN ceasefire observer team coming under fire from unknown quarters and a victory for the ruling Baath party in elections combine to send confusing signals as to what is going on in Syria.
In the conundrum, looking for clarity is as difficult a task as ousting President Bashar al-Assad. However, in this murky picture, a few features are clear. The main among them is that the Syrian Spring does not enjoy countrywide support, however dictatorial the Assad regime is. The country is split into three: those who support the regime, those who oppose it and those who blame both the regime and the opposition. Who among Syria’s 22 million population belong to which group is unclear, despite victory for the Baath Party and its allies in last week’s parliamentary elections, the fairness of which is highly questionable. Syrian election officials said the turnout at the poll, which was the first since Assad introduced constitutional reforms in February, was 51 percent. The reforms removed the special status given to the Baath Party as the “leader of the state and society”
They ended the one-party rule and allow new political parties to contest the election as long as they were not based on religious, tribal, regional, denominational or professional affiliation. However, the reforms shut out the rebels fighting the regime, because almost all the rebels are members of one Islamic group or another.
It is also clear that the rebels are a motley group without proper leadership, though an opposition body called the Syrian National Council, consisting of various groups in exile and CIA assets is being promoted by the West and its allies in the region as the legitimate representative voice of the regime’s opponents. Till August last year, the SNC did not have a proper leader. On Tuesday, Burhan Ghalioun, a liberal secular-minded academic was re-elected as president, but only for three months, with the short period of extension underscoring the discords within the splintered group. Besides, the SNC is hardly representative of the rebel fighting force on the grounds. The rebels are largely Islamists of different shades. Some are hardline Salafis; some are moderates like Egypt’s Brotherhood members. The gap between the rebel forces on the ground and the so-called opposition leaders in the NSC adds to the uncertainty.
But the fact that the Syrian uprising has been hijacked by the West, especially the United States, is as clear as nudity in a Michelangelo’s murky piece of art. A regime change in Syria will help the United States and Israel to consolidate their power in the region. A pro-US regime similar to the one in Libya will curtail Iran’s influence in the region and deal a blow to Hizbollah, a mightier-than-state political and military unit within Lebanon. Iran is steadfastly standing by the Syrian regime and will not let it fall without a fight. If the Assad regime falls, supplies to Iran’s ally Hizbollah which resists Israel’s territorial expansionist designs in the region, will be cut off.
Against this backdrop, last week’s twin car bomb attacks in Damascus portend a dangerous turn. One wonders whether Syria will soon be like Iraq with bombs going off in civilian centres.
The Islamic group, an-Nusra, claimed responsibility for the attack last Friday by posting a video on its website, but on Tuesday, the group denied any responsibility saying the video on its website was “fabricated” and “full of errors”.
Amidst this uncertainty, other opposition groups blamed the Assad regime for the blasts which killed more than 60 people while the Russian Foreign Ministry said it believed al-Qaeda was behind the attack. As the picture becomes murkier and murkier, more questions arise as to the role of other regional players. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar together with the newly set-up pro-US regime in Libya have taken a plunge into the crisis in Syria and are seeking to topple the Assad regime, knowing well such an outcome would serve the US and Israeli interests better.
But there is also the danger that the conflict in Syria spreading to the region. The first signs of it are evident in Lebanon where the Sunnis are clashing with the Alawaites who are sympathetic to the Assad regime. Five people have been killed in this clash which is still continuing in the Lebanese city of Tripoli. Alawaites are members of a sub-sect of Shiite Islam and they dominate the ruling clique in Syria, a Sunni majority country.
Sensing the danger of sectarian clashes spreading through the region, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan called on Shiites in the region to see the conflict in Syria only through “brotherly eyes”.
“Viewing the crisis in Syria as a sectarian conflict is absolutely wrong. Whoever views these events through a sectarian window, through an ethnic or ideological window, and whoever adopts an according attitude, is committing a big wrong.
“This kind of outlook is like walking towards a fire with a bellows and, God forbid, turning the spark in the region ... into a large fire,” Erdogan told a party meeting.
One thing is also clear that despite the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on rebels, the United States is not prepared to militarily intervene in support of the rebels although it is sending non-lethal equipment to them.
This is because President Barack Obama, for whom the unpopular Afghan war has become a big campaign liability, is unlikely to commit political suicide by militarily getting involved in Syria at a time when he faces the toughest challenge in his political career. He and his advisors know well that the conflict in Syria is not like the one in Libya where NATO air attacks together with mercenaries on grounds toppled the Muammar Gaddafi regime. Syrian forces, despite hundreds of defections, are still a fighting force capable of resisting at least for some time a NATO air attack or invasion. Besides, Syria gets military support from Iran and Russia which has a naval base – its only military base in the Middle East – in the Syrian port town of Tartus. In January this year, Russia reportedly signed a US$ 550 million deal with Syria to supply 36 advanced combat aircraft.
Moreover, getting the United Nations approval for such an attack is also an improbability because Russia and China have vowed they would use their veto power to scuttle such moves.
Thus the status quo – which is low-scale war amid bomb blasts here and there – is likely to continue in Syria until such time as when the United States presidential elections are over in November this year. But this does not mean the Syrian dictator could breathe freely and continue his suppression of the people who cry for freedom and more democracy.
A victory for Mitt Romney at the November elections will expedite the Syrian war because the Republican presidency will herald the return of the neocon officials to top posts in the administration. After all, way back in 2007, the neocons and Israeli leaders discussed a war on Syria while the US forces were in Iraq.