The situation in Syria seems to be rapidly spiralling out of control. Recent developments point to a sharp escalation in the crisis, even as prospects of a grim and drawn-out civil war appear imminent. Ferocious street battles are being waged in Aleppo by soldiers in armoured vehicles and tanks, supported by artillery and air fire, as President Assad’s forces seek to drastically expand the sphere of conflict and strike a decisive blow against the opposition. Proponents of peace have all but given up on achieving any diplomatic headway, and Kofi Annan, whose peace plan was the centrepiece of all diplomatic efforts in Syria, has expressed a desire to opt out of the peace process.
Kofi Annan’s scepticism is not misplaced. As the violence escalates, prospects of a truce between the military and rebel forces in Aleppo and Damascus appear bleak. The focus of the military’s efforts is to take back from the rebels the occupied southwestern part of Aleppo, Syria's commercial capital. The rebel forces have held-up admirably so far but, in the absence of external military support, are coming under increasing pressure from the security forces. What is more, there is now a serious threat of a looming human catastrophe. Reportedly, over 200,000 people have fled Aleppo, creating a potential refugee crisis. Turkey is reported to have beefed up its military presence on its border with Syria, and is providing the Syrian rebels all material and moral support, upping the ante in Ankara’s own stand-off with Damascus.
However one looks at it, the situation is increasingly looking like the end game for the Assad regime. The protests in rebel strongholds had been simmering for some time, but it all seems to have come to a head a fortnight ago when a powerful bomb ripped through the National Security Headquarters in Damascus killing three top-ranking ministers of the regime. So shaken was President Assad after the attack that his government issued a warning that it would consider using its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons to suppress the rebellion, if there was strong reason to suspect the involvement of an “external hand” in engineering the attacks by rebel forces. In response, the United Nations Security Council cautioned Assad against taking such a drastic measure and ordered him to secure his stockpile of Weapons of mass Destruction (WMD).
Meanwhile, the Syrian National Council and its Western and Middle Eastern allies issued calls for external intervention that would bypass the UN Security Council altogether in bringing about a regime change in Damascus. For President Assad, the shock of losing his top aides to a bomb blast in the heart of the most secure zone in the national capital has brought home, perhaps for the first time, the magnitude of the crisis he faces. Only a few weeks ago, he seemed well in control of the situation, but now finds himself reduced to a spectator in a rapidly moving game where the opposition clearly has the upper hand. The regime’s stronghold of Aleppo is floundering, with the army struggling to wrest control from the rebels, and the enemy is at the gates of Damascus.
Assad knows that, from a tactical perspective, he must now appear strong. Now is the time to expose his trump cards, if he has to retain any chances of staying in power. The threat of WMD is one such ‘ace’ that considerably boosts his leverage. In late-June, when Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance aircraft, Damascus had sought to send a clear message to the West that a Libya-style air campaign was not going to work in Syria, as the country’s air defences were too strong for any misadventure to achieve even a minimal degree of success. The WMD threat is again meant to signal that Syria will be a harder nut to crack than Libya. And while in the days that have followed, Syrian officials have tried to retract the comments made about using such weapons, the issue is now out in the open.
There may be reason to suspect that the issue of Syria’s WMD programme is being exaggerated. But if the Syrian regime does, indeed, have the capacity to produce and deliver chemical and biological weapons, then it has severe implications not only for Syria, but the larger West Asian region and including for Israel and Turkey.
‘Red-herring’ or not, the WMD issue could be a potential ‘game-changer’, although its effectiveness would depend on the sort of response it evokes from the international community. Conceivably, there will be some who will choose to get more closely involved in the crisis. For states like Israel, the imperative of pre-emptive strikes on Syria will override all other considerations. But others like Turkey will be more circumspect. Given their physical proximity to Syria and the threat of an all out war following a muscular intervention, there will be a certain reluctance to the use of force. There is a third category of players that will draw the opposite conclusion out of Syria’s stated intention of putting chemical weapons to use. For them, intervening in Syria will imply becoming a legitimate target of the regime and bring about assured retaliation. This would, in a sense, vindicate the stand taken by regimes such as those in North Korea, who have for long argued that WMD do act as an effective constraint on the willingness of states to exercise power.
There are three fundamental questions that need to be answered if one is to get to the bottom of the murky developments in Syria: a) What led to the escalation of violence in Syria? b) Who constructs the narratives of conflict in the war zone? And, c) Who benefits from the violence? In the wake of a recent expose in The Guardian (Charlie Skelton, The Syrian Opposition: Who's doing the talking), it is now quite clear that events in Syria are not as indigenous as made out by the mainstream Western media. The rebel movement is a phenomenon that was nurtured and provided momentum by organized external forces, including many Western governments that, for many years, led a focused campaign to topple the Syrian regime. And this is, apparently, all being done to undermine Iran, Syria’s steadfast regional ally and an avowed adversary of the West. The conflict underway is not, quite, for the benefit of the people of Syria, even though it is all meant to seem that way.
In stark contrast to the narrative being propagated by the Western media, there has been some willingness on the part of the regime to settle for a peaceful solution. But a non-violent resolution based on consensus, and one which does not result in Assad’s departure, is not the result that the West is seeking. To achieve what’s being sought, it is important to make the world believe that the regime is resorting to brutality and butchery, and that without external intervention, there would be a massacre in rebel strongholds.
The truth, of course, is that “armed groups” are as engaged in the violent killings in Syria as the ruling dispensation (as acknowledged by Kofi Annan himself). But now that the regime appears fragile, the opposition is keen to press home the advantage and go for the kill. So, regardless of the fact that the onus of ‘restraint’ lies with the military—if only by virtue of it being the more organised force with far greater lethal weaponry—the situation on the ground will not change unless the rebel forces show an equal willingness to scale back violence.
Ironically, both President Assad and the rebels acknowledge that radical Islamic elements are benefiting from the rapidly deteriorating security situation. Yet, all sides–including Syria’s allies Russia and China–are now so heavily invested in the conflict that a ‘negotiated settlement’ is just not an option.
On August 4, at the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, India abstained from voting after failing to rid the original draft of an explicit reference to the July 22 League of Arab States resolution that called upon Al-Assad to step down. There has been a concerted push by the Arab League to by-pass the Security Council completely, ‘grid-locked’ as it is, over the fate of the incumbent regime in Syria. It is, however, becoming increasingly clear that the final moves in this vicious geopolitical battle will not be played in the UN at all. The WMD insinuation by the West, the debate over the impending genocide in Aleppo, and the swelling ranks of refugees, all point to an orchestrated shift in the narrative of the conflict that makes external intervention an ‘inevitability’.
The problem is that while the opposition forces in Syria are gaining in strength, their ranks are divided among numerous groups, with no clear political leadership. Even if President Assad were to step down, the Alawite military machine and its sectarian allies would most likely fight on, holding large parts of territory, leading to a low-level, protracted civil war.
The end-game has begun, but the end is nowhere in sight.