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The Big Deal in Syria Game

Monday, January 7, 2013

Signs of Agreement among Big Powers for Conditional Stay of Assad

Ali Qaderi
Expert on International Affairs

A review of the latest developments in Syria will show that conflicts between the Syrian army and the armed opposition have entered a new phase. The most suitable word which can be possibly used to describe this phase of Syrian conflicts is “the show of force in the battlefield between the army and the armed opposition.”

Although various armed opposition groups in Syria achieved relative unity following their meeting in Antalya, Turkey, and their command structure has become more centralized, those efforts have not been yet translated into tangible field results on the ground and the Free Syrian Army has not been able to change the balance of power in its favor.

The Antalya meeting was the opportunity that the United States gave Syrian armed groups and their regional and European supporters, especially France, in order to make their final decision about continuation of military operations in Syria. The reality, however, is that the actual results in the field following the meeting show that the armed opposition groups have not only been unable to score any important achievement in recent weeks, but the state of affairs has been also in favor of the Syrian army.

Of course, when the al-Tawhid Brigade, which is a unit of the Free Syrian Army, managed to conquer the Syrian Ground Forces Academy on the outskirts of the city of Aleppo, the commanders of the Free Syrian Army came to believe that the zero hour for the Syrian government in the north of country has arrived. However, after the Syrian army cut the strategic road connecting Al-Raqqa to Aleppo, thus completing the siege of the eastern side of Aleppo, it was clear that the Free Syrian Army’s dream had a long way to go before being realized.

Continued and steady advance of the Syrian army on the east, west, and southwest of the capital, Damascus, and subsequent withdrawal of the Free Syrian Army from Aleppo was followed by coordinated assaults of the armed opposition groups on military airports in the suburbs of Idlib, Aleppo, and Deir ez-Zor.

The latest new on the war of airports shows that the Syrian army has successfully repelled armed attacks on the military airport of Taftanaz on the suburbs of Idlib, the civilian airport of Deir ez-Zor as well as Kawirs, Ming, and Al-Neirab military airports on the suburbs of Aleppo. However, after the intelligence units of the Syrian army captured four Turkish air force officers, the conflicts spread to the vicinity of the international airport of Aleppo.

Review of the military strategy of the Free Syrian Army clearly proves that the movements of this army are by no means conducive to a situation which may lead to the fall of the Syrian government.

The fact that the Syrian armed opposition has concentrated on military and civilian strategic centers instead of cities proves the reality that the Free Syrian Army is planning to increase its weight in the battlefield vis-à-vis the Syrian army. This is why the armed groups affiliated to the Free Syrian Army have made no effort to attack big and even small cities after their plan No. 2 for attacking Damascus proved to be a failure.

In fact, the main goal of the armed conflicts has changed from “toppling the government” to increasing the weight of the Syrian opposition in order to increase “their share of power.”

One of the main objectives of Antalya meeting was to unite various armed groups under a single command, in order to marginalize Jabhat al-Nusrah li-Ahl al-Sham (The Support Front for the People of Syria) which is also known as Al-Nusra Front and has known Al-Qaeda affiliations. The current trend of battlefield developments, however, shows that the influence of Al-Nusra Front among other armed groups is increasing. It is notable that the United States has put this group on its black list of terrorist groups.

The Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda is characterized by powerful organization and high combat power and has been a regular presence in almost all the conflicts between the armed opposition and the Syrian army: from Aleppo to Idlib in the north; from Hama to Homs in the center; and from the suburbs of Damascus to south and east of Syria. As a result, there has been no differentiation between the Free Syrian Army and Al-Nusra Front in most armed conflicts in Syria. According to the Lebanese daily As-Safir, the Al-Nusra Front has absorbed part of the Western and Arab funds which have been channeled to the Syrian opposition following their meeting in Morocco. Some have noted that sending the funds, which have reportedly amounted to 25 million dollars, to Al-Qaeda prompted Washington to reprimand its former ambassador to Syria and also led to deposition of a number of the US State Department officials.

Russia’s military and naval buildup in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, which has been reported by the country’s Defense Ministry as having no precedence in the past decades, and holding of massive naval drills around the Syrian port of Tartus, are all meant to send a clear message to certain regional and European capital. This time, Moscow has chosen to send that message through a “series of naval drills from the Sea of Oman to the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. A list of weapons used as well as the area covered by the naval maneuvers reveal that an integrated format has been used in all of them which pivots around a single theme: Syria.

The direct impact of these developments on a recent Syria peace plan forwarded by the UN – Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, is quite evident. The plan, also known as Geneva 2, was formulated after the recent convergence of views between Russia and the United States over Syria. The plan which was taken to Damascus by the seasoned Algerian diplomat last week includes certain points which indicate that a major development is possible in Syria crisis.

The plan focuses on the following points:

1. Nationwide crease-fire;

2. Presence of international observers to supervise implementation of the cease-fire;

3. Establishment of a constitutional committee to review the country’s constitution;

4. Establishment of a national unity government; and

5. Holding free parliamentary elections under the eyes of international observers.

Brahimi’s plan has made no mention of the incumbent President Bashar Assad’s resignation before the next presidential polls, which are scheduled to be held in 2014. It has also not called for drastic changes in the existing structure of the Syrian army and intelligence agencies.

What the plan actually calls for is to delegate all executive powers of the president to a “national unity government” which has been accepted by Bashar Assad provided that no obstacles are put on his way to take part in the forthcoming presidential election and compete with other candidates.

Some say that Assad has not only showed no sensitivity toward a change in the system of government from presidency to a parliamentary democracy, but has also supported it as a way to allay tribal and religious concerns in Syria.

Therefore, it seems that after official acceptance of this plan by the Syrian president, it will form the axis of future negotiations between Russian deputy foreign minister and the US undersecretary of state over the shares of Assad, the opposition, and independent figures in the national unity cabinet and details of other issues.

The notable point is that the circle of Syrian opposition is now much wider than the Syrian National Coalition, also known as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, and includes those opposition groups whose positions are similar to Moscow and Tehran.

It should be noted that military developments in Syria were not the sole driving factor behind this solution. Such a development in Syria crisis can be indicative of possibility of a “big regional and international deal among involved parties.” On the other hands, the fact that the United States has accepted Iran as part of “Syria crisis resolution structure” within framework of “Geneva 2” initiative can be a result of the behind-the-scenes progresses made in talks over Iran's nuclear energy program.

All these developments are also indicative of the precedence of a political and diplomatic solution over a military one. This approach can help to reduce the human cost of Syria crisis, especially taking into account that the brunt of such costs is borne by the Syrian people. The question, now, is “will this solution be able to quench the flames of conflict in Syria?”

Without any doubt, if and when this plan is endorsed by the White House, regional and European capitals would have no other choice, but to accept it.
Meanwhile, rejection of the plan by the armed groups affiliated to the Free Syrian Army will have negative effects on their fate.

The White House’s concern about repetition of Libya developments, gradual invigoration of Al-Qaeda in Syria and lack of trust in the ability of the Salafist ranks of the Free Syrian Army to deal with Al-Qaeda have given the United States ample reason not to cross the red line which has been drawn by Russians, namely, the Syrian army. Of course, it should be admitted that the ongoing conflict between the Syrian army and Al-Qaeda is a totally win-win game for Americans. Therefore, the final problem in Syria is the presence of Al-Qaeda and Jihadist Salafist groups in the country with the difference being that this time, the cost of their presence will not be solely shouldered by Syria. Those who dreamt of holding congregational prayers at the Umayyad Mosque [of Damascus] and paying tribute to Ṣalaḥ al-Din Ayyubi will also have to pay a price.

Key Words: Syria Game, Big Powers, Armed Opposition, Turkey, Antalya Meeting, Lakhdar Brahimi, Qaderi

Source: Asriran News Website
http://www.asriran.com/
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

More By Ali Qaderi:

*Negative Pulses from Vienna to Israel: Has the Green Light Been Given on Iran Attack?: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Negative_Pulses_from_Vienna_to_Quds_Has_the_Green_Light_Been_Given_on_Iran_Attack_.htm

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