The Assad regime has collapsed says the former Syrian Prime Minister in an appearance before the international press in Amman. According to him the regime now controls less than 30% of Syrian territory. No western source is prepared to endorse this estimate though there are many, notably the Americans and the Turks, who last week were talking of preparations for the situation that would arise after the Assad regime collapsed. Clinton and her Turkish partners agreed on joint teams being set up to draw up plans not only to assist the insurgents fighting Assad but also to prepare plans for a post Assad Syria. So far however it seems that American assistance, amounting at last count to $ 82 million, has remained non-lethal – humanitarian and communication equipment – along with the services of experts who presumably advise the Syrian rebels and Saudi, Qatari and other donors on the sources of lethal equipment. So far it seems that the rebels have not obtained hand held anti-aircraft missiles. It is also clear that there is going to be no enforcement of a No-Fly Zone giving the Syrian regime full control of the skies and allowing them to use both helicopter gunships and fixed wing aircraft to reverse any gains that the rebels make on the ground.
As this article is being written there is news from New York that the UN Security Council has decided not to renew the mandate of the UN observer mission which at its peak consisted of almost 300 unarmed observers and to leave in place only a smaller UN office in Damascus the size and functions of which are yet to be determined. All 15 members apparently agreed, according to the French President of the Security Councils that the conditions for the mission viz. «reduced violence and an end to the Syrian government’s use of heavy weapons – had not been met.
Russia has in the meanwhile proposed a meeting in New York of the countries that had participated in the Geneva meeting on Syria, which had strongly advocated a negotiated political settlement. This meeting was postponed after the Western and Arab nations refused to participate. This raises the question of whether there is any possibility of a meeting of minds among the major powers.
After some hesitation Lakhdar Brahimi has agreed to serve as the UN Secy. General’s representative in Syria after Kofi Annan’s mandate expires at the end of this month. He is said to have insisted that he be given a strengthened mandate from the UN Security Council but it is not clear as to what he has been able to get. He has a high reputation in UN circles and is said to be able to resist pressure from the major powers, but his record in Afghanistan suggests that he succumbed to pressure and excluded substantive Pushtun representation in the first Bonn Conference and thus set the stage for the re-emergence of the Taliban as the symbols of Pushtun nationalism. In a statement he issued as part of the Elder, a group of former world leaders working for global peace, Mr Brahimi talked of ««Syrians must come together as a nation in the quest for a new formula,» and that «the U.N. Security Council and regional states must unite to ensure that a political transition can take place as soon as possible». Given the refusal of the west and the Arabs to attend the Russian meeting it seems that the «unity» of the UN Security Council and of the regional states will remain elusive. Lakhdar Brahimi’s mission is as much a «mission impossible» as that of his predecessor Mr. Kofi Annan even though he has received a new title «Joint Special Representative of the UN Secretary General and the Arab League and has been given an assurance of support by the UN Security Council.
Within Syria the UN’s chief representative for humanitarian affairs estimated after her visit to Damascus in mid-August that more than 2.5 million Syrians-most of them internally displaced-needed aid to survive. The regime’s use of aircraft and artillery have stemmed the rebel advance and recovered some lost ground but the destruction as apparent from the social networks has been extensive. In Damascus itself the security network has not prevented the rebels from carrying out attacks on the most sensitive of sites. It is now rumoured that President Assad’s brother, Maher, much feared as the head of the elite Republican Guard and 4th Division of the Syrian Army that enforce control ruthlessly lost a leg in the July attack on the highest level security meeting in which the defence minister and other senior people lost their lives. So far it does not appear that this or the numerous defections have affected Bashar’s ability to continue to resist rebel advances. In fact his Foreign minister speaking at the OIC summit claimed that the rebels were no match for the Syrian armed forces. Whether the Syrian can continue to acquire the ammunition and spares it needs for its armed forces even while its resources are rapidly dwindling remains an open question. Many suspect that with its oil revenues having shrunk and with the Syrian oil company having been placed under sanctions because of its connections with the Iranian oil company Syria is going to be hard put to keep its armed forces well supplied unless it is able to arrange loans or grants from Iran and Russia. In the meanwhile the rebel forces are now mounting new attacks on the airbase and other military facilities in the vicinity of Allepo apparently after receiving fresh supplies of ammunitions and arms from their donors. In securing access to war fighting materiel it appears that the balance is tilting in favour of the rebels even though the regime may have more sophisticated weapons. A long struggle seems to lie ahead and there is little clarity on how the continued devastation will play out.
Syria has added another and perhaps most important element to the turbulence that is afflicting the region. There is now talk of Kurdish enclaves at one end of the country and an Allawite enclave at the other. There are fears that within the ranks of the rebels are Islamic extremists some of them linked to the Al-Qaeda. Is this what lies in the future?
Turkey is building new camps to house Syrian refugees and in the meanwhile suspended the entry of refugees from Syria after the number that has already taken shelter exceeded 50,000. Turkey remains concerned that the Syrian Kurdish Party which has taken over administrative control of virtually the entire area that has a majority Kurdish population abutting on Turkeys own Kurdish region is a part of the PKK, the Kurdish party in Turkey and Iraq, against which Turkey has been fighting over the last many years. Turkey’s leaders have made it clear that they will not allow the creation of an independent or autonomous Kurdish region in Syria and will if necessary take military action to prevent this from happening
Jordan has now opened a camp in the desert for the refugees but only after the Jordanian foreign minister estimated that some 140,000 Syrians had already crossed into Jordan placing enormous strains on the limited capacity of the troubled Jordanian economy.
Lebanon, a country in which Syria had traditionally enjoyed an almost overbearing influence and in which the Shiite Hezbollah was seen as a staunch Syrian ally there are strong fears that such past affiliations and proximity will draw Lebanon into the conflict. The latest incident of some 40 persons allegedly belonging to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have been held hostage by a Lebanese clan to secure the release of a clansmen who is allegedly being held by the FSA. Tensions have mounted and the Arab states have now advised their nationals not to travel to the Lebanon and are making arrangements to evacuate their nationals from that country. Given the Lebanese economy’s dependence on tourism this departure of the Arabs from the oil rich countries will cause economic distress at the same time that fears emerge of a resumption of the internal strife to which Lebanon had been subject in the not so distant past.
In Iraq which whose people found shelter in Syria during the Iraq war there are concerns about returning the favour because of the fear that this will exacerbate the existing Sunni-Shia divide within Iraq. There a re also concerns about what the Syrian Kurds are receiving by way of aid from the Kurdish Regional Government.
On another front there is the impact not only on the countries of the region but in the wider Muslim world. The 57 member Organisation of Islamic Countries in its meeting in Mecca, convened by Saudi Arabia decided by majority vote to suspend Syrian membership while expressing "deep concern at the massacres and inhuman acts suffered by the Syrian people." This suspension, which follows upon the suspension of Syrian from the Arab League in November, has little substantive value but it served in western eyes and in the Arab world to underline Syria’s isolation. For others it served to emphasise that the Sunnis who comprise the overwhelming majority of the Muslim world are being led by Saudi Arabia into a more direct confrontation with Shiite Iran and the few Allies it has in the Muslim world and by so doing is exacerbating the Shia-Sunni divide that has plagued the Muslim world since the Iranian revolution of 1979. This is a theme to which I will return later in my second article.