Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Chemicals, negotiations and jihadists - the Syrian conflict smoulders

The two year old conflict in Syria has changed considerably since those early days. Starting out as the small Syrian chapter of the 2011 iconic Arab Spring it evolved quickly into a serious armed insurgency fought by multiple rebel groups against the republican monarchy of Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime.

As rumour begins to surface of Mr al Assad’s intention to use Syria’s large stockpile of chemical weapons against the rebels swarming over the countryside, and a United States blacklisting of the Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra as jihadi terrorists, the desperate situation has once again made headline news.

The presence of foreign fighters in Syria’s rebellion has long been suspected. Such a diverse conglomerate of armed groups battle with regime troops, their official names changing constantly, that it is difficult to keep track.

While Damascus is under siege and Mr al Assad remains at the theoretical helm these fighters advance together, but how neatly they can amalgamate once the fighting stops and Mr al Assad is gone is entirely uncertain.

The potential for the Lebanonisation of Syria, in which ethnic groups occupy distinct and separate geographical regions falling extremely loosely under the rubric of a ‘nation-state’ in a slow-motion implosion, is disturbingly high. So long as the fighters remain distinct from each other, outside powers strong enough to tip the balance will continue to refuse assistance.

Handing weapons over to an ideologically friendly rebel group and expecting those guns not to fall into unsavoury hands is the fear keeping Washington and other Western powers at a safe distance from intervening in the burning Levant.

Supporting Bashar al Assad’s regime is not straightforward either. His army is tired, their munitions spread all over Syria and the rebels collectively still pose a significant threat to a huge swathe of his homeland.

Mr al Assad’s troops do control the vast majority of Syria and many of its densest population centres. But that control depends on how long they can hold out in the face of an extended, and wearying, campaign of attrition against stretched supply lines and beleaguered Syrian rifle teams.  

Almost the entire northern borderlands with Turkey are currently under implicit rebel control. The high command of the rebels is so comfortable with the rebellion’s progress that they recently announced their return to Syria from operating in Turkey.

Defections from the Alawite regime are still a constant stress for Mr al Assad. In order to retain command, however flimsy that command now is, he must ensure his support base stays loyal. Already some high profile members of his staff have left the country, although not all can be strictly classified as defections.

The Sunni-majority rebels have the Alawite regime on the back foot. There are enough supporters remaining to hold Mr al Assad in power, but it is unclear how long he will be needed as the face of the Alawite ruling clan.

Instead of the leader of a country, Mr al Assad appears as simply another warlord of the most powerful faction. The Syrian military have been unable to crush the insurgency with all their power. Regime troops have not been able to coax the rebels into a decisive engagement. Everything they have thrown at the rebels has been absorbed. The rebels prefer to conduct hit-and-run tactics in the face of potentially overwhelming firepower.  

On the other side, the inherent demographic advantage keeps the rebel’s momentum pushing forward. Yet the rebels are unable to capitalise on most gains due to a lack of heavy weaponry or strategic discipline and cohesion.

Overrunning the international airport in Damascus recently and defending much of Aleppo during the third quarter were impressive feats, but each success inevitably sees the rebels retreating for fear of becoming too vulnerable and presenting a solid target for the regime forces.

As Christmas approaches, the Syrian situation is stagnating. Neither side can force decisive victory while each side continues to receive arms from international benefactors. The question is how long will the Alawite regime leaders keep Mr al Assad in his position?

If the regime troops can hold a corridor open between Damascus and the mostly Alawite coast, it will leave open the possibility for some sort of departure for the embattled President. Syrian troops have diverted important strategic resources to keep this corridor open. Perhaps taking away the face of Mr al Assad from Damascus will quell the fury of the rebels, but his regime colleagues will remain.

Removing Mr al Assad from the Presidency would open up the potential for dialogue between the replacement leaders and the rebel command structure. This is the context surrounding this week’s threatened use of chemical weapons.

The Syrian regime knows that instructing Syrian troops to drop such weapons would incur quick and decisive international response against their forces, likely toppling them immediately. With a U.S. Navy aircraft-carrier group parked just offshore of the Syrian coast, testing international resolve to protect human rights in Syria would not be a smart move.

Given the unpredictable efficacy and tight tactical parameters of actually employing chemical weapons on the battlefield, the Syrian regime cannot even be sure they work.

Such weapons serve best as either a deterrent or as a negotiating tactic. Putting the rumours together with the larger Syrian picture, it becomes clear the Syrian President could be looking for a way out.

Recently the former Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi reportedly flew to the United States at the behest of Damascus. It has been suggested that his visit to Washington is to negotiate asylum for Bashar al Assad and members of his regime.

Whatever the next step, the quagmire is quickly becoming unbearable. Western governments, Russia included, urge that any power transition in Syria is stable. Threatening Mr al Assad with prosecution if he were to leave could redouble his efforts to go down swinging if he feels cornered. Although, granting convivial asylum for such a figure would be politically dangerous, it may be the most prudent path to save the destruction of Damascus.

Negotiations for such a deal will have to be handled deftly; Syrian peace in 2013 depends on them.

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