The violence in Syria escalates to a new high as the United States and its Western allies airlift lethal weaponry to the rebels. By JOHN CHERIAN

THE MONTH OF MARCH WITNESSED A DEADLY SPIKE IN violence in the Syrian conflict. It was fuelled to a large extent by a surge in the weaponry supplied by the West to rebel factions operating inside Syria and along its borders with Jordan and Turkey. President Barack Obama still insists that the United States is only supplying non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels despite ample evidence being available since the beginning of the conflict that the West has been arming and training many of the rebels with the help of its allies in the region. The New York Times reported in late March that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar had sharply increased their military aid to the Syrian rebels, with significant help from the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). According to the newspaper, more than 160 military cargo planes, overflowing with lethal weaponry, had landed in Turkey and Jordan. Officially, the U.S. has only committed to non-lethal military assistance worth $60 million to the Syrian opposition.

The CIA, according to multiple sources, helped in the sourcing and procuring of the weaponry from countries like Croatia. The arms from Croatia being used by the rebel groups inside Syria include portable M79 Osa rocket launchers and RBG-6 grenade launchers capable of piercing tank armour. The governments backing the rebels are desperately hoping that the huge influx of new weaponry will act as a “game changer” and pave the way for a regime change in Damascus. The New York Times report said that the CIA was directing the flow of weapons to rebel groups it favoured in the ongoing conflict, which has entered its third year. The Obama administration favours the “National Council of the Syrian Revolution”. This group has nominated Ghassan Hitto as its candidate for Prime Minister. Hitto is an American citizen and is adamantly opposed to holding talks with the government. Moaz al-Khatib, the “National Council” President, resigned in March. He had expressed a willingness to hold talks with the government.

“A conservative estimate of the payload of these flights would be 3,500 tonnes of military equipment,” estimates Hugh Griffiths of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which monitors the illicit transfer of arms. “The intensity and frequency of these flights are suggestive of a well-planned and coordinated clandestine military logistics operation,” Griffiths told The New York Times. The former CIA chief, David Petraeus, according to informed sources quoted in the newspaper, had played a key role in the organisation of the clandestine network supplying weapons to the rebel groups, which have been responsible for horrendous acts of terrorist violence inside Syria. Last year, Western governments blamed the Syrian government for the massacre in Houla that claimed the lives of over 90 people and were quick to expel the Syrian envoys from their capitals. It was later conclusively proved that the rebels were responsible for the killings.

An unnamed Arab official told the media that the arms airlift had been doubled in March so as to put in motion a “master plan” to seize Damascus. The rebels have been increasingly targeting civilian areas in the Syrian capital with mortar fire. It is the continuing supply of weapons and funds that has motivated the disparate rebel groups to keep on fighting. Otherwise, they would have been defeated a long time ago and spared the Syrian populace unnecessary chaos and suffering. Even key elements within the rebel groups want to have a negotiated settlement with the government to end the bloody conflict that has already claimed thousands of lives and made many Syrians flee their homeland.

Community under threat

The Christian community, numbering around two million, is among the most affected. They have been selectively victimised by the Salafist factions among the rebels, who are doing most of the fighting. There is growing fear that they will meet the same fate as their religionists in neighbouring Iraq. Most Iraqi Christians, who constituted around 5 per cent of the population before the American invasion, have fled the country. “The so-called Free Syrian Army, or rebels, or whatever you choose to call them in the West, emptied the city of Christians, and very soon there will be no Christians left in the country,” a refugee from the town of Rasel-Eyn, which was briefly overrun by the rebels, told a Swedish journalist, Nuti Kino. Kino’s visit was sponsored by a Swedish charity. He filed a report, “Between the Barbed Wires”, based on hundreds of interviews with refugees.

Most recently, there was a chemical attack on a government-controlled suburb in Aleppo, and the Damascus University too was targeted when students were in attendance. Sixteen Syrian soldiers were killed in the chemical attack, along with 11 civilians. Syria wasted no time in calling for a United Nations inquiry into the use of chemical weapons by the rebel groups supported by the West. The Syrian military has said that the weapons that the rebels fired contained chlorine. The Army has blamed the jehadist Al Nusra Front for the chemical attack, the first serious one of its kind in the ongoing conflict.

The rebels have now come out with the incredulous claim that the Syrian Army accidentally bombed itself with chemical weapons. The Obama administration has been repeatedly warning Syria that there will be severe consequences if it crosses the “red line” of using chemical weapons. After the Aleppo incident, senior Obama administration officials accused the Syrian government of not “securing” its chemical weapons. In other words, Washington was blaming Damascus for allowing the rebels to use chemical weapons on its territory. President Obama again warned Syria on the use of chemical weapons, saying that he was “deeply sceptical” about claims that it was the rebels who had used them. The mortar attack on the Damascus University cafeteria killed 15 students. Again, the rebels claimed with a straight face that it was the government that was responsible for bombing the prestigious centre of learning located in the heart of the capital. The U.S. has, of course, refused to condemn the serial terror attacks. In February, Washington blocked a Russian-sponsored U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the multiple terror attacks that had taken place in Damascus that month. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, had strongly condemned the U.S. vote in the Security Council. “We believe these are double standards and see in it a very dangerous tendency by our American colleagues to depart from the fundamental principle of unconditional condemnation of any terrorist act —a principle which assures the unity of the international community in the fight against terrorism,” Lavrov told the media.

While Turkey is openly assisting the rebel groups, Syria’s other neighbour, Jordan, is professing to play a neutral role while actually lending a helping hand to those opposed to the government in Damascus. Syrian officials have warned the Jordanian authorities that they “are playing with fire” by allowing the U.S. and its allies to train and arm opposition fighters on its territory. Syria’s official daily newspaper Al Thawra, in an editorial, accused the Jordanian government of adopting a “policy of ambiguity” by publicly calling for a political settlement of the crisis while at the same time training the rebel forces. There are more than a thousand militias fighting inside Syria. The biggest groups are the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra and the Syrian Islamist Front led by Salafists.

Israel, which has been illegally occupying Syrian territory and which has always viewed Syria as its major foe in the region, has also got into the act. As some Syrian opposition leaders started expressing a desire for a dialogue with the Syrian government, the Israeli government saw fit to order a bombing raid on a Damascus suburb in late January. The Israeli army has since been intermittently lobbing artillery shells across the border as Syrian security forces battle rebel groups. There are reports in the Western media that Israel wants to create a 20-km buffer zone along its border with Syria, using the ongoing crisis as a pretext. A former Mossad chief, Efraim Helavy, admitted in an article that the crisis in Syria had created a third option “to rid the world of the Iranian menace”. Helavy argued that a regime change in Syria would radically alter “the entire balance of forces” in the region in favour of Israel and the West. The former Israeli Military Intelligence Chief, Major General Amos Yadlin, described the Syrian Army as “the most significant” one along the country’s border. He observed that its ability to confront Israel is declining by the day as it “is wearing itself down” in the struggle to preserve Syria’s national integrity. “This is a positive development from both the military and political aspects. The radical anti-Israel axis that goes through Tehran, Damascus, Beirut and Gaza is falling apart,” said Yadlin.

Apparently, it is not only Israel that is interested in undermining the “axis of resistance”, comprising Syria, Iran and the Hizbollah. The Arab League, which is supposed to be representative of all Arab nations, took the unilateral and unprecedented step of giving Syria’s seat in the organisation to the opposition. The move was initiated by Qatar, one of the main sponsors of the opposition, despite the objections of many leading Arab League members such as Algeria. Syria was suspended from the Arab League in 2011 under pressure from the Gulf monarchies, which today effectively bankroll and run the organisation.

“The Arab League lacks legitimacy. It is a League that represents the Arab states, not the Arab people, so it can’t grant or retract legitimacy,” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told a Turkish newspaper. The Russian Foreign Minister said that the Arab League had in effect voted against a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Syria. “A huge question emerges as regards the mandate of Lakhdar Brahmi, who until the summit was the U.N. and Arab League representative for promoting and developing contacts between the government and the opposition,” Lavrov said. He said that it would now be difficult to consider Brahmi the representative of the Arab League anymore.

Bouthaina Shaaban, the political and media adviser to Assad, who was in New Delhi in March, also questioned the bona fides of the Arab League. She reminded the media about the dubious role the organisation had played in covering up the report presented by General Mohammad al-Dabi, head of its observer mission to Syria in 2011. The report, prepared under the auspices of the Arab League, had blamed the rebels for much of the violence. Bouthaina Shaaban also pointed out that Kofi Annan, who briefly headed the U.N. peacekeeping mission to Syria, had blamed those countries supplying arms to the rebels for fuelling the cycle of violence. President Assad, in a recent interview to a Turkish paper, said that his country was surrounded by enemies. He specifically blamed the Turkish government for supervising and vetting the “terrorists” who were allowed to cross into Syria. The Syrian President excluded Iraq from the list of hostile neighbours, saying that the government in Baghdad was unable to control the flow of fighters and arms across its long, porous borders. The Iraqi government has promised to introduce tougher monitoring measures to secure its border with Syria.

Bouthaina Shaaban, who was in India to canvas support for Syria’s position before the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit in Durban, said that the rebels were unwilling to accept the Geneva Agreement between the U.S. and Russia signed in the middle of last year, which called for a negotiated settlement of the conflict. “Every passing day is a tragedy for Syria. Two million Syrians have been displaced; 1,800 factories, many of them producing essential items like medicines, have been destroyed or transported to Turkey. Museums have been looted,” she said. “It is a war against the Syrian people and an attempt to infuse sectarian behaviour into our system,” stressed Bouthaina Shaaban. According to her, the war in Syria can be stopped “in one day” if the U.S. cooperates with Russia in implementing the five-point Geneva Agreement. She said that the Syrian Army remained united and strong. “It will not be defeated, but at what cost!” she said. She stressed that the priority was to end the fighting that had already taken a huge toll on the civilian populace.