As ripples from the Syrian conflict threaten to destabilise pro-Western regimes in the region, the West seems to finally see sense in a negotiated solution. By JOHN CHERIAN
THE Syrian government and concerned sections of the international community are preparing for peace talks scheduled to be held in Geneva in June to try and bring an end to the bloody conflict in Syria. The government has already announced that it will send a high-level delegation to the talks brokered by the United States and Russia. Moscow and Washington, despite their sharply divergent views on Syria, had agreed that the way forward was to make all the parties involved in the conflict, now into its third year, enter into a dialogue.
There was a half-baked attempt in June last year to find a negotiated settlement to the conflict when Kofi Annan was in charge of the peace process. The opposition, with Western backing, successfully scuttled the efforts of the former United Nations Secretary-General to find a peaceful solution. This time, after John Kerry became the U.S. Secretary of State, the Obama administration, now in its second term, has slightly mellowed its position on Syria.
The West seems to have finally come to the conclusion that regime change in Syria through the use of proxies is no longer a feasible proposition. Besides, the strong ripples from the Syrian conflicts are threatening to destabilise the pro-Western regimes that border Syria. The recent riots that rocked Turkey were to an extent influenced by the government’s policies on Syria. The mollycoddling of fundamentalist groups such as Al Nusra by the AK Party led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not gone down well with the Turkish people. The demonstrations in major cities all over Turkey in early June were the biggest show of popular anger in the 10 years that Erdogan has been in power.
According to opinion polls, only one-fourth of the Turkish population supports Erdogan’s policies of supporting the Sunni extremists waging war against Syria. The recent car bomb explosions in Reyhanli town close to the Syrian border, which killed over 50 people, were, according to leaked Turkish intelligence documents, the handiwork of Al Nusra extremists. The Turkish government was, however, quick to blame the Syrian government.
The Turkish security forces had used extremely heavy-handed measures against the demonstrators in the landmark Taksim Square in Istanbul. This further angered the sections already disenchanted with the policies of the Erdogan government, and the protests have now assumed a national character. The demand now is for the Prime Minister’s resignation.
The West had used the demonstrations against the Syrian government as an excuse to launch its “humanitarian” war against the country. Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi did not waste much time in calling for the Turkish Prime Minister’s resignation. “The demands of the Turkish people don’t deserve all this violence. If Erdogan is unwilling to pursue non-violent means, he should resign,” the Minister said.
Turkish police raided Al Nusra safe houses in the last week of May. The Turkish media reported that around 2 kilograms of sarin, the deadly nerve gas, were seized in the raids. The widely read Turkish Zaman Daily said Al Nusra was planning an attack on the Alawite-dominated city of Adana. According to the newspaper, along with the sarin haul, the police also seized a big cache of weapons and documents. The Turkish government later denied that sarin was seized but admitted that chemicals were found and said these were being analysed.
The sizeable population of Alawites is extremely unhappy with the Turkish government’s anti-secular stance and its support for Sunni extremists inside Syria. After the latest incidents, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov once again called on the U.N. to expeditiously investigate the allegations that the rebels were responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Aleppo in March this year. Lavrov, without naming the West, said that U.N. was refusing to act because of the “political games” that were being played.
As palpable evidence of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian armed opposition mounted, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius justified the European Union’s decision to lift the arms embargo on the rebels “on the strong evidence of the localised use of chemical weapons”. The U.S. President had said that the use of “chemical weapons” was a “red line” and a “game changer” that would trigger an immediate military response from the West. British Foreign Secretary William Hague went to the ludicrous extent of saying that arming the rebels would help bring about a “political solution” to the Syrian conflict.
A former British Ambassador to Syria, Sir Andrew Green, writing in Daily Telegraph, was of the view that arming Syrian rebel fighters was like “pouring fuel into the fire”. The collapse of Syria, he observed, “would be a disaster, not only for the country but also for Lebanon and perhaps Iraq and, indeed more widely”. The E.U.’s double standards were on display in late April when it lifted the sanctions on Syrian oil being exported from oil fields under rebel control.
The U.S. and Russia have tentatively agreed on the goal of setting up a “transitional governing body” in Geneva. Other militant groups that have an influential role on the ground are yet to accept the idea of a negotiated settlement with the government. Russia wants Iran, Syria’s closest ally, to be invited to the proposed Geneva talks. Qatar, one of the main backers of the militant rebel groups fighting inside Syria, will be automatically invited as it holds the chairmanship of the Arab League. A report in Financial Times quoted an unnamed Qatari official as saying that the kingdom had already funnelled in more than $3 billion to the Syrian rebels.
The U.S. and its allies, along with the motley rebel groups, are still demanding the resignation of the Syrian President before meaningful talks can begin. The Syrian government, on the other hand, insists that President Bashar al-Assad will not resign. Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said Assad would remain President until at least 2014, when presidential elections are scheduled. He also said any agreement arrived at in Geneva would have to be subjected to a referendum. He added that the Americans had no business dictating terms to the Syrian people. He said that doing so “would set a precedent in international relations that we must not allow”.
Russia, meanwhile, has warned that the recent decision of some E.U. members to formally lift the arms embargo on the beleaguered rebel forces would adversely affect the prospects of a peace conference on Syria. Immediately after the E.U.’s decision to lift the arms embargo, Moscow announced that it would be dispatching S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. Moscow’s action was also apparently influenced by the Obama administration’s threat to impose a “no-fly zone on Syria” that seeks to replicate the Libyan scenario. The imposition of a “no-fly zone” over Libya two years ago was followed by blatant U.S./NATO military intervention leading to the overthrow of the legitimate government.
Even as Moscow and Washington announced plans for peace talks, there was a highly provocative visit by the U.S. Senator John McCain, a warmonger of long standing, to rebel-held territory inside Syria. He is among the most vocal advocates of a “no-fly zone” and armed intervention in Syria. Also around the same time, the Obama administration supported a draft resolution in the U.N. Human Rights Council condemning Syria for human rights violations. The other backers of the resolution, not surprisingly, were Turkey and Qatar.
Israel, too, tried to up the ante in the region when it declared that the deployment of S-300s in Syria would be a “game changer”. The Israeli government, which intervened militarily on behalf of the rebel forces, threatened to take pre-emptive action.
President Assad said the Syrian army would respond strongly if Israel launched a military attack again. Israel has already launched three attacks inside Syria. In a recent television interview, Assad threatened to open a “new front” against Israel on the Golan Heights if Syria came under attack again. The area was seized by Israel from Syria during the 1971 war. The Syrian Foreign Minister warned that Syria would “retaliate immediately” if attacked again by Israel.
Now with the Lebanese Hizbollah movement helping the Syrian government forces to retake control of cities like Qusayr from the Sunni militias along the border between the two countries, the danger of a regional conflagration cannot be discounted. The Hizbollah leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has said that his forces have entered the fight to be on the victorious side. There are many Lebanese living in Qusayr who have been victims of militant groups such as Al Nusra. The artificial border, the Sykes-Picot line drawn by the French and British colonial overlords, did not take into account the clans and families that lived in the area. “You can take any side you want but Hizbollah cannot be on the side of America and Israel, or with those who dig up graves, open chests and behead other people,” the Hizbollah leader said while announcing the participation of his forces in the battle for Qusayr.
The fight for Qusayr, which was used by the armed groups as the principal staging post for attacks and as an infiltration point into Syria for fighters from all over the region, could be a crucial turning point. The rebels have called for immediate Western military intervention. One prominent rebel leader went to the extent of saying that Qusayr’s fall would signal the end of the Syrian uprising. Britain has circulated a draft resolution in the U.N. Security Council voicing “grave concern at the situation in Qusayr”. Russia has, however, vowed to block the resolution, noting that the West did not react when the city first fell under the control of the rebels more than a year ago.