Only a day after the Syrian regime vowed to meet a 10 April deadline to abide by an UN ceasefire resolution and had already purportedly begun to withdraw troops from populated areas, clashes have intensified between regime forces and army defectors and their opposition supporters, leaving at least a dozen people dead on 4 April.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), meaning Saudi Arabia and Qatar, advocate arming the Syrian opposition to fight the regime and for all intents and purposes escalate the conflict into a civil war. Russia warns against this, and China, too. The West, officially, is also against arming the opposition until they know more.
Russia believes that even with arms, the opposition does not stand a chance of defeating the Syrian army, to the only consequence would be more bloodshed and no political gain. “The carnage will go on for many years,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a statement.
Washington, for its part, largely shares Chinese and Russian sentiments for now, and has conceded that Assad appears to be winning this war and that arming the opposition isn’t going to result in any dramatic change.
China joined Russia in vetoing a UN move for humanitarian intervention in Syria in early 2011, at the start of the crisis. Russia changed tactics in March 2012, as did China, voting in favor on the new UNSC resolution on Syria. Russia’s logic war clear: It was biding its time to see how the dust would settle. China would just like the problem to disappear. The Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is not a key ally for China, neither in terms of security nor energy. Beijing’s only concern in Syria is related to geopolitical diplomacy. In terms of global power projection, a rising China must be concerned on some level with a key area where all the other powers are converging.
While Western nations have thrown millions of dollars at the Syrian opposition, to enable them to organize themselves from the safety of Istanbul, many are wondering if the investment was sound. The Syrian opposition is increasingly turning out to be ad hoc no one seems to want to commit to supporting it wholeheartedly.
The result of the Turkey-hosted “Friends of Syria” meeting on (appropriately) 1 April, which was attended by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was indicative of the long road ahead of the Syrian opposition. The meeting produced a joint communique that effectively only paid lip service to the Syrian National Council (SNC) as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, but this does not translate into official international recognition.
And the friends of the Friends of Syria are wavering. During an Arab League summit in Baghdad a week ago, the League rescinded its demand that Assad step down.
While the US is not open at this juncture to overly arming the FSA, its Sunni Gulf partners moved to start purchasing Syrian military personnel to switch sides or otherwise dump cash and weapons into the FSA, some analysts believe that Washington would be happy to look the other way. However, Washington may not be so reckless if further intelligence and analysis begin to demonstrate the possibility that those weapons could end up in the hands of Sunni terrorist groups. The fact is, no one is exactly sure who the Syrian opposition are, what they represent and what they might do with Syria in the off chance that they managed to topple Assad.
Of critical importance to the US right now is its relationship with the GCC, where it is striving to put build momentum for an integrated missile defense system. In this respect, it would rather not be seen to be at loggerheads with the Saudis and Qataris over Syria. It will be much easier to position Russia to make the uncomfortable decisions and the Gulf backlash. At this point, it is in Washington’s interest (of course not the citizens of Syria) to allow the crisis to become protracted, without a definitive end, while it buys time, as Russia did initially, to see where the chips may fall. To that end, Washington may be hoping that Moscow manages to hold back the UNSC from motioning any definitive action (military intervention) for the time being. It Moscow fails in this, then Washington will have to act – and it is not ready to do so, lacking the necessary intelligence and probability scenarios for a post-Assad Syria.
Has Assad won the war? Certainly not in any definitive respect, but his forces show no sign of losing the upper hand barring any dramatic intervention from the outside – which is more likely to come from Turkey than anywhere else.
Last weekend, regime forces managed to capture the deputy head of the Free Syrian Army, and while the leader of the FSA is enjoying the war from the safety of Turkey.
Turkey has its own more immediate security agenda and has been on the edge of military intervention in Syria since the start of the conflict. According the Turkish daily Zaman, citing a senior government official, Turkey has engaged northern Iraq to help counter the threat from Syria, “where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government is courting terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants to strike Turkish interests.”
Last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in a televised program that Turkey must intervene in Syria. "If we don't intervene in the incidents on time and if these incidents will affect our future too, then we have to assume a stance. This is a compulsion, not a matter of preference for us.”
By Charles Kennedy