Writing on Sunday, the day after the Lakdar Brahimi negotiated Eid al Adha ceasefire went into effect, it has to be admitted that the cynics were right. All report emerging from Syria suggest that the ceasefire has been breached more than it has been observed. One report even suggests that the casualties on the day of the Eid festival amounted to about 150, which is the generally accepted average of daily casualties that Syria has seen over the last few months of intensified fighting between the Assad forces and various elements of the opposition…
Perhaps it was wrong to expect anything else even though both Iran, a regional supporter of the Assad regime and Turkey, the conduit for most supplies to insurgent forces, had endorsed the ceasefire and it could be presumed that they were using such influence as they had with the warring parties to honour the agreement. It was clear however that the ceasefire had not been accepted by all elements of the opposition and the Syrian military had made their acceptance conditional on retaining the freedom if their forces were attacked or if the opposition tried to make further territorial gains. In terms of who breached the ceasefire first it has been prominently reported that there were mortar attacks by Government forces in Damascus and artillery shelling in Allepo. Whether these attacks were in retaliation for insurgent assaults, as the government has claimed, is not clear but it is clear that even the FSA insurgents – a group that had endorsed the ceasefire agreement – treated it as dead from the moment it was proclaimed because in their view the government had no intention of abiding by it.
It was perhaps the hope of Brahimi as the representative of the UN and the Arab League that this ceasefire would hold and would provide the breathing space in which further efforts for peace could be made largely on the basis of the proposals that has been accepted by UN security Council Permanent Members in Geneva a couple of months earlier. The UN’s peacekeeping chief had let it be known that his department was drawing up contingency plans for a new UN peacekeeping force of about 3000 men that could be deployed if the warring parties agreed to a ceasefire. The contingency plan also envisaged a political transitional plan, which would have to be approved by the UN Security Council and the warring parties.
One can only hope that even while the present ceasefire remains ineffective the UN will continue to prepare for possible future deployment as the parties within Syria and their supporters abroad come to the grim conclusion that nothing can be achieved by continued fighting since there does not appear to be any prospect of a decisive victory for either side. It is significant in this context that the English language Saudi newspaper «Arab News» says after acknowledging that some insurgents are still hoping for outright victory that «it is absolutely right that the UN is busy planning for a cease-fire rather than an outright Assad defeat». If the Saudis who along with the Qataris are said to be the main financiers of the arms shipments and other material assistance to the insurgents are prepared to countenance a negotiated settlement with the Assad regime and if the Iranians, the Chinese and the Russians have indicated that they recognise the need for a political settlement that could mean Assad’s ouster there should be hope that adroit and active UN diplomacy may succeed in arranging a more durable ceasefire in the near future. And the need for such a settlement is dire if Syria is not to be reduced to ashes and if the region is not to be torn apart by ethnic and sectarian strife.
Lest this seem to be unnecessarily alarmist let us look first at the current situation in Syria. All estimates seem agreed that so far the violence has claimed 35,000 lives. It has resulted in more than 2 million people being internally displaced and each of Syria’s neighbours is having to contend with an influx of Syrian refugees far beyond their capacity to handle. The latest figures suggest that the influx into Turkey has exceeded 100,000 by the official count but some observers claim that the number is twice as high. In Jordan the number of refugees has exceeded 100, 000 again by official count while it is generally accepted that another 80 to 90,000 had entered the country. It is the UN estimate that the number of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries and Europe will exceed 700,000 by the end of the year.
The destruction in Allepo, Syria’s commercial centre, now being replicated in Damascus, has been systematic with neighbourhood after neighbourhood being reduced to rubble by the insurgent advances and the government’s artillery and air sorties. The famous World heritage site, Allepo’s Old City is being destroyed as insurgent and government forces engage in combat. The historic Umayyad Mosque in Allepo, beloved of Syrians but also a site of importance for all Muslims, is another building that is being devastated by the constant fighting. It appears clear that if the fighting is not soon halted every urban centre in Syria will be laid waste along with the many historical treasures that represent part of the Syrian heritage.
As the fighting has intensified the ethnic and sectarian lines have been more clearly drawn. Even while there are rumours of splits within the Allawites this 2.5 million strong minority from which the Assad family comes and which has acquired inordinate importance in the Syrian body politic now sees its survival in backing Assad because they believe that if Assad goes the Syrian Sunni majority will decimate them. To a lesser extent the Christians who too have been alarmed by the growing salience of the Salafists in the insurgency share this feeling. It is estimated that Assad still has a 70,000 strong military in addition to the dreaded Shabiha militias and that most of the officers and a large part of the men in these are drawn from the Allawites.
There is also a doubt that as the conflict drags on the extremist fighter for freedom is acquiring greater salience. The Americans have repeatedly made it clear that they fear much of the assistance from the Gulf countries particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar is going to the Salafists and that even the more secular parties are now finding it politic to suggest their adherence to an ultra orthodox interpretations of Islam. This bodes ill for the hopes that Syria would emerge from the present crucible with a moderate if not wholly secular polity that would protect the interests of the substantial sectarian and ethnic minorities that make up the mosaic of Syrian society. The ethnic divisions are most clear in the case of the Kurds. They represent a significant minority of 2 million people or about 9% of Syria’s total population. Contrary to their claims they are not the majority in province of Syria though most of them are to be found in the areas bordering on Turkey and claim that many of them were illegally declared aliens. The insurgents believe that the Syrian regime deliberately withdrew its military and administrative personnel from these areas allowing the Kurds to establish control. It does seem that by the middle of the current year the Kurdish parties had been able to take administrative control of large swathes of territory in North-eastern Syria under the leadership of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Kurdish National Council (KNC).
There is no doubt that for the most part the Kurds have ought to stay neutral in the insurgent battle against Assad. Some have joined the insurgents as was evident from the election in June 2012 of a Kurd, Abdulbaset Sieda as Chairman of the Syrian National Council. But the true state of relations between the Kurds and the insurgent is perhaps reflected in the clash on Saturday in the City of Allepo when the move of Syrian freedom fighters into a Kurdish controlled area led to 22 deaths and represented a breach of the ceasefire not triggered by clashes with government forces. Many Syrian Kurds are demanding no more than local autonomy but many of the Syrians fear that what the lead Kurdish party wants is breaking what they perceive as Kurdish majority areas of Syrian to break away and be independent or part of Iraqi Kurdistan. As the fighting continues more such apprehensions may result in the increase of tensions both in the Kurdish dominated areas and in other cities where there is a significant Kurdish presence. In Allepo for instance the Kurds are said to number about 100,000.
This is the internal situation but as is repeatedly pointed out in reporting in the West and elsewhere and is repeatedly pointed out by Syrian government spokespersons the Syrian internal conflict affects the region. Already as my next article will point out the Syrian situation has affected Turkey, Jordan and Iraq with the most serious affect being felt in Lebanon.
(to be continued)