Wednesday, July 04, 2012

External Players

 The international community has managed to agree on something. They produced a communiqué in Geneva that endorsed an interim government with elements of the existing government and elements of the opposition. The fact that neither the existing government nor many (though not all) elements of the opposition are interested is a bit of a stumbling block however. Still, to see the international community agreeing on anything in regard to Syria has to be viewed as positive.


The Geneva conference on Syria, attended by the UN Security Council members and selected Arab nations, changed practically nothing about the crisis. An agreed communiqué was released, which called for a transitional unity government to bring an end to the violence – a major step en face, but disagreements over interpretations leave the situation as it was.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran were excluded from Kofi Annan’s ‘action group’ on Syria. There was no explanation for their absence, just the reassurance that Annan really had wanted Iran to attend.
The exclusion of Saudi Arabia and Iran at the request of Moscow and Washington respectively was a diplomatic stumbling block, however the fact that Russia and China agreed to the communiqué was a potential game changer. All parties agreed on the formation of a ‘transitional governing body’ and to reinforcing Kofi Annan’s six-point plan, but the following sentence has become disputed and interpreted in various different ways:
“The establishment of a transitional governing body [...] could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.[emphasis added]
It has resulted in the UK, France and the US saying that such a transitional governing body has no place for Bashar al-Assad since opposition groups will never consent to his inclusion; Assad must step down before any negotiations on transition can take place. William Hague told the BBC:
“There should be a transitional unity government in Syria, and that should be made up of people from the present government and opposition groups on the basis of mutual consent, which would of courseexclude President Assad from that.” [emphasis added]
Hilary Clinton stated that the inclusion of Assad and his allies in the transition process seemed impossible; “Assad will have to go”, she said. However, her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov told reporters that the communiqué imposed no such demands on Assad to step down.
Both the Syrian National Council (SNC) faction of the opposition and the Syrian government have rejected the communiqué outright. Basma Kodmani, spokesperson of the SNC, said:
“The regime is not going to cooperate on anything. There is no successful formulation without the departure of Assad. This is a condition that is non-negotiable [...] no initiative can receive the Syrian people's backing unless it specifically demands the fall of Bashar al-Assad and his clique.”
Interestingly, this despite the fact that Turkey itself (the state that plays host to and helped create the SNC and a nation that had previously insisted that Assad could not play a part in this transitional government) did advise the Syrian opposition that they should accept the communiqué.
By contrast, Syrian parliamentarians told reporters that a transitional government without Assad would be impossible.
In Cairo Egypt hosted a two day UN-Arab League conference for some of the Syrian opposition groups on Monday 2nd and Tuesday 3rd July (yesterday). The SNC and some other smaller groups attended (The SNC later pulled out).But major opposition groups such as the Free Syrian Army boycotted the Cairo conference, which was touted (unrealistically) by Britain as a chance for all of the opposition to present a united front.  It was their disappointment with the Geneva summit which led Syrian rebel fighters and activists working inside Syria to boycott the meeting despite pleas from Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby for co-operation.
“We refuse all kinds of dialogue and negotiation with the killer gangs...and we will not allow anyone to impose on Syria and its people the Russian and Iranian agendas.”
The Free Syrian Army believed the Cairo summit to be a “conspiracy allowing the regime more time to kill”. They criticised world powers for rejecting the idea of international military intervention, buffer zones, humanitarian corridors, and air embargos. They also criticised the Geneva communiqué’s aims to “safeguard the regime, to create a dialogue with it and to form a unity government with the assassins of our children."
Back to square one?


The election of a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr Mohamed Mursi, as President in Egypt continues to send shockwaves through the region. For Syria this has certainly had a psychological effect. The success of an Islamic candidate in Egypt gives the fundamentalists amongst Syria’s rebels hope of doing the same, but Al-Arabiya news channel reported this week that most Syrian rebels were not expecting help from the Egyptian Islamist leader for their own 16-month-old revolt and they remain wary of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Syrian Brotherhood tends to be more hardline than its Egyptian counterpart.

The BBC has suggested that the election of Mr Mursi as Egyptian President may lead to Egypt changing its policy towards Syria, with Mr Mursi pushing for support for the rebels. Whilst Mr Mursi has maintained a non-interventionist approach in his first speech and confirmed that Egypt will “maintain all international treaties”, reports of his private discussions suggest that he is personally very strongly and bitterly anti-Assad. 



Both Saudi Arabia and Iran were excluded from Kofi Annan’s ‘action group’ on Syria because the USA will not sit at the same table as Iran (in public that is – private high level bilateral meetings have taken place, there was at least one in Dohuk a couple of years back that the NCF has direct knowledge of), and as a consequence and as a matter of pride, the Russians (having had their ally excluded) are similarly hostile towards US allied Saudi Arabia. The two states are key actors in the conflict, and their exclusion will not have helped the UN-sponsored six-point peace plan to gather momentum.
Regardless, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have continued to be very involved in the conflict itself. The Saudi government has publicly signalled its intention to fund the Free Syria Army, whilst Iran has vowed to fight, alongside Hezbollah, in support of the Syrian government in the event of any foreign military intervention. Saeed Jalili, head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, described how"Syria ... has been the main axis of resistance (against Israel). Therefore it is natural that Western governments and the American government try to take their revenge.” It seems as though Iran is increasingly prepared to use force if necessary.
The Saudi Arabian monarchy released a statement yesterday calling for “the international community to take decisive measures to stop... the mass slaughter". It is difficult, however, to see the diplomatic route progressing much further as long as both Iran and Saudi Arabia, key to Syria’s future, are excluded from the process. As long as this is the case, they will continue to fund an arm the Syrian government and the opposition respectively, merely contributing to the ongoing conflict by pursuing their own proxy war.   


According to figures from the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD) as of the 2ndJuly, 33,099 Syrian refugees had fled into Turkey. Reuters news agency even reported a Syrian general and 84 soldiers fleeing to Turkey on Monday but though it is not uncommon to find army deserters fleeing across the border, the report that this latest batch of soldiers was accompanied by a general is almost certainly erroneous. Conditions in the Turkish camps are reported as quite atrocious by refugees the NCF has spoken to, and this is confirmed by our own man on the Turkish border.

The cold relationship between Syria and Turkey, already strained by open condemnation of Assad by Turkish Premier Erdogan, almost deteriorated into a state of war when a Turkish plane was shot down by Syrian forces last week. According to the Turkish Press yesterday, President Bashar al-Assad said he regretted the incident and did not want the situation to escalate into open war. The circumstances of the incident are disputed: Turkey claiming the plane was back in international airspace when it was shot down, while Syria claims it was over Syrian waters (however most independent military experts have little doubt that the Turkish jet was indeed in Syrian airspace). In an interview published by the Syrian Arab News Agency, Bashar said that while the Turkish government attitude had been “more aggressive”, on a people to people level relations between the two nations remains unaffected.
Turkey does not want military conflict, although it dismisses Assad’s comments as a “public relations” bid. Turkey is not seeking to invoke Article 5 of the NATO treaty which would require countries to offer it practical military assistance. Presumably this lack of desire for military conflict is due to the ongoing Turkish conflict with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which is demanding semi-autonomous status from the Turkish government. The PKK is very strong indeed in Northern Syria and may see any Turkish conflict with Syria as an opportunity to redouble its violent struggle for independence. Russia’s support for Syria also remains a crucial factor in deterring any Turkish impetus for military involvement in Syria.


From the onset Russia was the key player in the Geneva conference, its involvement along with China’s being the selling point of the conference. Russia rejected the inclusion of Saudi Arabia in the conference, relations with Saudi having soured due to Russia feeling that Saudi Arabia has intensified the conflict in Syria by arming the opposition. Ties between Russia and the Assad government are as strong as ever.
However Russia’s rejection of Saudi Arabia was because Iran was not invited to the conference at the behest of the USA. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov criticized the move, stating that “Iran is undoubtedly a powerful player in the whole situation”. Russia further criticized western governments for “unscrupulous democratic practices”, a reference to Clinton’s statements on Thursday the 28th of June in Latvia that declared in advance that Russia was on board with Annan’s transition plan, erroneously implying that Russia no longer backed Assad.
There is a huge gulf between the Russian and American positions, the US accepting nothing less than Assad’s rule ending, whilst Russia will not make any move that is not “endorsed by the Syrian people”. The key to ending the 16 month period of violence in Syria is for Russia and America to come to an agreement.  The Russians have declared that the opposition need to negotiate with the Syrian government, whilst simultaneously declaring they will keep arming Assad’s government with attack helicopters and other arms, in an effort to keep its last ally in the Middle East.
In the coming week a meeting has been set in Moscow, for opposition leaders to meet with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss a future end to the violence in Syria. The tactics Lavrov wants to implement include negotiations with the government, which many of the larger opposition groups such as the SNC will not agree to. Lavrov has declared it unfortunate that “some representatives” of the opposition do not concur with the Geneva agreement, and that some members of the opposition have “distorted” the agreement.
However, Russia is holding back on participation of international conferences regarding Syria, such as the upcoming “Friends of Syria” meeting in Paris (6th July), which Moscow has announced it will not be sending a representative to. The reason given for this is that Russia regards “Friends of Syria” as detrimental to the peace process in Syria, as it is only focused on toppling Bashar Al Assad, rather than implementing the Annan peace plan.


A senior IDF officer told Haaretz that Israel is preparing for possible terrorist attacks from the Syrian border. The Defence Ministry believes that extremists are flooding into Syria from Iraq and Lebanon who could use the crisis to launch attacks on Israel from the border.
Israel has so far condemned the violence and atrocities committed by the Syrian government, but is reluctant to pressure any change in Syria for fear of an Islamist government coming to power. Defence Ministers also told reporters that Israel feels Assad is more secure than previously believed, with a strong hold over the army. However, the low conscription numbers and large casualties remain a worry.
Meanwhile, a Hamas member, Kamal Ghanaja, was assassinated in Damascus last week. Though Hamas have not blamed anyone, an official told AFP that he believed Mossad to be behind the killing. Israel Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, said the accusations are ‘not necessarily true’, adding that he ‘did not want to add anything or comment’ on the incident. Syrian opposition activists blamed the Syrian government, stating that Ghanaja’s tortured body bore the marks of government work.
Hamas’ reluctance to apportion blame may be due to wider developments in the region. A Palestinian source told the NCF that the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in Egypt was seen as a massive game-changer for Hamas; it would do all it could to maintain stability to allow the new Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi ample room to dictate regional foreign policy.


Some analysts such as Joshua Landis, feel that the diplomatic wrangling around the Geneva communiqué has given the US time and room for manoeuvre given the current weakness of the opposition and the illegitimacy of the Syrian army. For Landis, what the communiqué achieves is a gradual imposition of pressure on Russia while the opposition gains strength and legitimacy. As a result, the threat of Islamist groups exploiting the power vacuum through the transitional phase may diminish and give Russia more assurances over their own strategic and security position.
Concurrently, some opposition groups have called on the US to provide arms to rebel fighters despite the threat of Islamists. Fawaz Tello, a veteran Syrian opposition activist who split away from the Islamist SNC earlier this year, said that “Syrian fighters are conservative Muslims as opposed to Islamists as found in other countries, therefore the US need not worry about an extremist threat”. The US is currently providing logistical support for Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who are funding and arming the opposition.


Kosovo has generally voiced its support for the Arab Springs in the Middle East and has particularly expressed its support for the Syrian cause. Enver Hoxhaj, Kosovo’s Foreign Minister, said that his country was offering political support to the Syrian opposition but nothing else. There was actually a Syrian delegation with members from the Syrian National Council that went to Pristine last May.
 "We have the same approach to Syria and have some diplomatic contacts between my government and (the) Syrian opposition. We are supporting very much their cause." Hoxhaj said.
But according to Russia this is not the only connexion that exists between Kosovo and the Syrian opposition. Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, has accused Pristine of giving Syrian rebels access to the former Albanian guerrilla centres. According to Le Monde, the Syrian opposition is being trained in these camps by foreign powers as they did with the Kosovar army in the 1990s.
"Turning Kosovo into an international training centre for insurgents of various armed units could become a serious destabilizing factor, one going beyond the Balkan region," he said. "We call on international presences operating in (Kosovo) to curb such slippage." Churkin said.
Pristine has obliquely denied this allegation. They said that although they support the Syrian opposition they “do not know of” anyone training rebels in their country. Asked directly if Kosovo had established training centres for Syrian rebels, Hoxhaj said: "Not at all."

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