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Hichem Karoui: Change is coming in Syria
June 16, 2013
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In a little more than two years, the conflict in Syria has killed nearly 100,000 people.  Americans and Europeans remained passive, while the Russians kept active with their arms pipeline to the Assad regime. Finally, recognising that 150 people had been killed in attacks with banned chemical weapons, Obama’s administration charged the regime and announced on Thursday that it would provide direct military support to the Syrian Military Council (SMC).

Do not ask why the death of 150 not that of nearly 100.000 people “moved” Washington and pushed the administration to change its attitude regarding the conflict.

Many people think there is no excuse for passivity before the massacre. But who are you going to blame? Those who said they did not wish to get involved in another Middle Eastern dirty war, or those in the Syrian opposition who said since the beginning we don’t wish the West to interfere?

Really! Syria has not been an easy “conquest” for Arab democrats dreaming of peaceful or at least low-cost regime change. Unlike the Arab revolutions that have taken down dictators in the space of a few weeks, the regime of Assad’s ability for unexpected resilience has surprised everybody, Arabs, American and Europeans included. Recently, while we thought that the rebel forces, despite their divisions, were making rapid progress, Hezbollah fighters coming to the rescue of the dwindling regime have been able to prevail in Qusair, causing a serious setback to the revolt.

The Syrian opposition was divided, since the beginning. Many, apprehending an uncontrolled situation in which a Western military intervention would transform Syria into another battlefield opposing Western troops to international jihadists, discouraged more an aggressive Western policy towards Assad. They thought Iraq and Afghanistan have paid a high price without being delivered. Ten years after the US intervention, people continue to die in blind explosions through terrorist and counter-terrorist operations. No peace. No security. No stability. Freedom in these conditions is a silly joke that makes nobody laugh.

But these speculations and apprehensions did not help the opposition get the upper hand on the ground. The death toll is so elevated in Syria because of the excessive use of force by the regime and the quasi-inability of the Free Syrian Army to protect the civilians. Its need for heavy military equipment is so bad. While Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been providing some support, it can be hardly compared to the support Iran and Russia provided to Assad.

Soon, the nightmarish picture the Syrian opposition was apprehending became true.

Sunni volunteers and Shiite mercenaries were pouring from the neighbourhood and fighting against each other. The peaceful revolution of Syria became a bloody sectarian conflict, thanks to Iran’s active involvement and Iraq’s no longer discreet logistic support.

After Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah officially stated his involvement in the conflict alongside the regime of Assad, the last bastion of the “resistance against Israel” (no joke), some Sunnite ‘Ulama responded calling the Muslim youth to engage in “Jihad” in Syria alongside the rebels. It is now clear that we have a Sunni/Shiite conflict, not a popular revolution. It is the Iranian logic.

Israel is over rejoicing. Egypt is busy with its internal problems and anyway tied up to Camp David.  Jordan has never been much disturbing and since 2004 is committed to the Wadi Araba peace accord. Finally, Syria, which kept passively hostile for 40 years, is now engaged in suicidal infighting. Lebanon is not a match and its army is eternally absent. Hezbollah would self-destroy its energy and credibility in the Syrian conflict. Henceforth, none of the close neighbours could stand up to Israel. Netanyahu’s hands are free. He can pursue his colonisation policy undisturbed and crush the Palestinians.

While commentators are talking about Geneva 2 conference, which is no more no less than a Russian-American arrangement to divide Syria between foreign powers through which each of them would place its paws on the chessboard, France disrupted the preparations of this “fiesta” by announcing evidence that Assad has used chemical weapons against his people. After a while, the USA picked up the line at the other end and stated that Assad surely did it. Thus, America would arm the opposition. Halleluiah! We are progressing.

 Soon, there would be serious talk about imposing a no-fly zone. According to some sources, this zone is intended to protect rebel training camps. It would stretch up to 40 kilometres into Syria, and would be enforced by warplanes inside Jordan airspace armed with long-distance air-to-air missiles.

Are we going to see in Syria the dawn of freedom soon, or another scenario for failed states?

Some questions remain unanswered about the new US position. For instance:

1-      On March 7, 2012, Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee about issues that were restraining the United States from supporting the armed opposition in Syria. “It is not clear what constitutes the Syrian armed opposition – there has been no single unifying military alternative that can be recognised, appointed, or contacted,” he said.

So, should we understand that today the US administration has a better knowledge of the Syrian armed opposition and may subsequently trust it for eventual cooperation?

2-      There was an assessment that the emergence of Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist cells working against the regime poses risks to the United States and a challenge to those calling for material support of the armed opposition.

Did the US administration find a way for holding these risk-involving Qaeda cells under control, or does it not matter anymore?

3-      We understand that American objectives in Syria are to hasten the fall of the Assad regime, contain the regional spillover generated by the ongoing conflict, and gain influence over the state and armed forces that would emerge in the wake of Assad’s downfall.

Therefore, did the United States make any progress in developing relations with critical elements of Syria’s armed opposition movement in order to achieve shared objectives and manage the consequences should the Assad regime fall or the conflict protract?

These questions are the heart of the matter in the perspective of an eventual US military involvement in Syria. I assume that the Obama administration, which had taken its time to weigh the pros and cons of any intervention, needs to make these points crystal-clear. However, now that the US decided to step in, we will see the change on the ground.
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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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