Escalating war of survival in Syria

Escalating war of survival in Syria

The sponsorship of rebel groups by Saudi Arabia and Qatar creates competition over weapons.

The rebel offensive in Damascus and Aleppo and the bombing of a meeting of senior security officials have transformed the war of attrition waged in Syria over the past 16 months into a war for survival.

The regime seeks to crush the rebels while they strive to defeat and oust the regime. Both have vowed to achieve their goals by the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan (around August 28).

The rebels began their assault on key districts of the capital, which had been largely free of violence, on July 16, and on July 18, a device set by a bodyguard in a security facility slew four members of the crisis management cell, its chief General Hassan Turkmani, head of national security Hisham Ikhtiar, defence minister Daoud Rajha, and his deputy Assef Shawkat, president Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law.

While the rebel incursion into the city frightened Damascenes who had not seen fighting inside the capital, the bombing of Assad's security team shocked all Syrians, whether for or against the government. Since then, the army has used troops backed up by tanks and helicopter gunships to drive rebels from the capital and subdue restive suburbs and satellite towns. Hundreds have died and thousands of Damascenes have fled to neighbouring Lebanon.

The rebels responded by seizing control of the three crossings on the Syrian-Turkish border and launching an operation to ‘liberate’ Syria's commercial hub, Aleppo, 45 kilometres from the frontier.  The two efforts are strategically connected. Control of the crossings allow rebels to ferry in fighters, supplies and arms from Turkey, the armed opposition's territorial base, conduit for weapons, and communications centre where the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is providing logistics support. Without this back-up, the rebel offensive would fail.

Diverse rebel factions

Although the rebels had moved into towns and villages north of Aleppo over the past year, the cosmopolitan city remained largely untouched by the conflict and loyal to the regime. More than a quarter of Syria's 22 million people live in Aleppo and Damascus.
While the rebel factions appear to be collaborating at present, they are diverse and divided and have different agendas.  Muslim Brothers, puritan Sunni Salafis, and al-Qaeda affiliates are the majority of fighters although there are some secular liberals, heterodox Shia Alawites, Kurds and Christians among these groups.  

The Free Syrian Army (FSA), created by Turkey to unify rebel ranks, provides an umbrella for the loosely connected local militias which have established five independent regional commands. While some rebel factions have ties to the western-backed expatriate opposition Syrian National Council, others are connected to the Syria-based Local Coordination Committees and similar local organisations. The sponsorship of certain rebel groups by Saudi Arabia and Qatar creates competition over weapons and funds among the factions.  

Fearing that the Arab sponsors could arm al-Qaeda affiliates, the CIA's team is trying to ensure that these groups do not receive assistance providing satellite and drone intelligence on government troop movements.  Washington has consistently called for Assad to stand down and has, with the aid of France and Britain, bullied the European Union as a bloc to adopt this policy. The US has also tried and failed to ram a resolution through the Security Council that could, if Assad does not halt attacks, withdraw his troops, and negotiate a transition, lead to military action as well as punitive sanctions against his regime.

Russia and China vetoed this resolution on the ground that it did not call for the rebels to ceasefire, pull out of populated areas and talk with regime interlocutors.

The West is determined to topple Assad because he is the surviving secular nationalist Arab leader among the crop who emerged after the 1952 revolution in Egypt. These leaders stood against US ally Israel, called for Arab independence, and were non-aligned during the cold war. They also opposed the “Islamisation” of this region by the Saudis who believe victory is at hand because of the Arab Spring emergence of fundamentalists parties in Egypt and Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.

By removing Assad, the US, the West and their Sunni Arab allies aim to end the 32-year connection between Syria and Shia Iran, reducing the clout in the region of Tehran, which  has drawn Shia fundamentalist-ruled Iraq into its orbit.

However, the West and its Arab allies do not have a political alternative to the Assad regime and cannot guarantee what US President Barack Obama calls a ‘managed’ transition involving ‘acceptable’ figures from the regime.  If it collapses, Syria could follow Iraq into communal bloodletting and become another failed state at the heart of West Asia.


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