Syria: The penultimate phase?
The Syrian crisis could be entering a penultimate phase. Diplomatically the regime is now saying that it will enter into a dialogue with the opposition, including armed members. The announcement was made Monday by Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moualem during talks in Moscow with Russian opposite Sergei Lavrov, who earlier had called on the regime of President Bashar Assad to initiate talks with the opposition and pursue a political solution to the two-year-old conflict which claimed the lives of no less than 70,000 Syrians.
Al-Moualem’s offer was the most serious by the Damascus regime, but it is unlikely to make a breakthrough in the crisis. The head of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) Sheikh Moaz Al-Khatib had said that his own initiative to engage the regime was rebuffed. The SNC then suspended its participation in a Friends of Syria conference in Rome and canceled important visits to both Washington and Moscow. Lavrov’s meeting with the new US Secretary of State John Kerry in Berlin last week focused on the Syrian issue. But it is unlikely that Washington and Moscow will agree on the most crucial element of the Syrian crisis: The fate of President Assad.
This remains the main obstacle before a political solution. The opposition had said that it will not begin a dialogue before the removal of President Assad. Moscow insists that this particular issue is for the Syrian people to decide. A defiant Assad told a Jordanian delegation last week that he will never step down and that he will run in the 2016 presidential elections. One thing is for sure; the regime remains loyal to its president and it has tied its fate to his.
In the absence of a political way out, all eyes are focused on the military developments on the ground. In the past two weeks there has been a qualitative upsurge in tactics and weaponry used. The fighters have secured more airbases near Aleppo and have pushed closer to the southern and eastern outskirts of Damascus. Last week a car bomb explosion in the center of the capital killed more than 100 and brought the battle closer to the presidential palace. In return the Syrian Army fired a number of Scud missiles hitting various parts of Aleppo and killing tens of civilians. The use of Scuds, denied by the regime, means that more destructive weapons will be used as the fighters try to secure newly liberated territories.
The SNC has condemned the use of Scuds and used the occasion to lambaste the international community for failing to protect Syrian civilians. It is now trying to form a provisional government to administer the liberated areas in the north. That task will prove difficult for various reasons, the most important of which is that the new government will have to subdue the Islamist militias that control these regions. The most radical of them want to establish an Islamic state in Idlib and Aleppo.
The rise of Islamist groups, some thought to be linked to Al-Qaeda, has changed attitudes and policies in Washington and other capitals. For a while the flow of weapons to the fighters was stopped for fear that they will end up in the hands of militants. But now there are indications that some members of the anti-Assad coalition are allowing new weapons to reach members of the more moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA), especially in the south.
A report in the Washington Post this week claimed that anti-tank weapons and recoilless rifles have been sent across the Jordanian border into the province of Daraa in recent weeks to counter the growing influence of extremist groups in the north of Syria by boosting more moderate groups fighting in the south. Jordan has denied the report but the authorities said they are closing unofficial border crossings with Syria.
It is possible that some countries that support the fighters have decided that it is better to arm the FSA and other moderate groups as they fight their way into Damascus. This could be an important turning point in the military struggle and may prolong the civil war. Even Lavrov said that if the fighting does not stop it will bring the collapse of the Syrian state.
The regime is not ready to negotiate with the opposition despite of Al-Moualem’s recent offer. Instead it is preparing itself for forthcoming battles. By siding with the FSA against hard-line elements, the anti-Assad coalition is preparing the stage for an inevitable showdown between various opposition groups.
For now it looks like the future of Syria will be settled in the battlefield and not in conference halls, even if Assad falls. It is a bleak scenario that does not bode well for the people of Syria.