online 23.12.13

talking politics

Syria: A fractured opposition and American responsibility

by Yacov Ben Efrat

One week ago, four key activists at the human rights center in Duma were abducted. Duma is located in the suburbs of Damascus, an area under the control of the militant group “Army of Islam”, headed by Zahran 'Alush. Among the kidnapped is Razaan Zeituna - a central figure in the civil opposition movement, a lawyer who defends prisoners sentenced in Assad courts.

Razaan Zeituna

Also kidnapped were Samira Khalil (pictured below), Wael Hamada, and Nazem Hamadi. The main suspect is Alush, who for the past three months has been threatening the center's activists, demanding that they cease their activity.

Samira Khalil

In close proximity to the abduction, militants from the 'Islamic Front' attacked one of the central storage houses of the Free Syrian Army in the area of Bab al-Hawa, near the Turkish border. 'The Islamic Front' is comprised of Salafi Islamist factions that broke off from the Free Syrian Army, which is led by Gen. Salim Idris. The attack was a response to Idris’ joining the “National Syrian Coalition”, which represents the Syrian revolution and has been officially acknowledged by the Arab League. The coalition leads negotiations with the international community, whereas “The Islamic Front” refuses to participate in the second Geneva convention organized by Russia and the US in order to end the Syrian conflict.

The opposition's inner hostilities

As the armed struggle against Assad continues with fervor, the factions comprising the opposition are at war among themselves. “The Islamic Front” has become a central player within the opposition; it is competing for control with two extremist Al-Qaeda organizations: “The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” and “Al-Nusra Front.” The picture is further complicated by the Kurdish parties that control the Kurdish regions in the northeast of Syria; these are fighting against Al-Qaeda, which has entrenched itself there. Meanwhile, the central organization of the Syrian revolution, “The Free Syrian Army,” has lost its prominence.

This crumbling coalition is facing a regime that does not scruple from destroying the cities of Syria and their residents. Assad has lost the north of the country. He is concentrating his efforts around Damascus, as well as the roads leading to Aleppo and Lebanon. Assad is naturally not alone, and his exhausted army is aided by Hezbollah, Shiite militias from Iraq, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Syria has thus become a battleground pitting Iranian, Lebanese and Iraqi forces against rebels who are competing with each other for influence. Many of these rebels hold ideologies that are far removed from the demands expressed by the Syrian people in the demonstrations of April 2011, above all the demand for civil democracy.

Assad's regime and the Islamic front have in common their parochial character and their complete disregard for democracy and human rights. In the middle lie the Syrian people, who continue to be the victims of a regime that is devastating cities and villages in its struggle for survival. The Islamic organizations are also terrorizing the civilians under their control, not hesitating to murder journalists and activists who do not obey them. Syria is on the brink of an abyss, and the end of this war is far from sight.

US responsibility

For an entire year the US has pressured the opposition to change its leadership and replace the command of the Free Syrian Army. While the operation was successful, the patient died, and the leadership of the Syrian opposition has lost its credibility and its power base. The Free Syrian Army is giving way to the increasingly powerful “Islamic Front,” and at this point it is unclear who will attend the Geneva talks and what will be discussed there. This tragic situation is the result of US policy, and the world is now amazed at the sight of Syrian refugees wallowing in the snow as the regime mercilessly bombs cities.

The US-Russia agreement to dismantle chemical weapons in Syria is what caused the quick deterioration. Obama's decision last August not to attack Assad, who had used chemical weapons against civilians, and the signing of the agreement with Russia, marked a turning point in the Syrian civil war. The regime received immunity, with implicit permission to continue the slaughter of civilians. These steps amounted to a death sentence against the secular Syrian opposition and proof that the US had backed away from their demand to overthrow Assad. The Free Syrian Army was left with no political support, strengthening the status of the Islamists.

In the light of these developments, the US started courting the “Islamic Front”, thinking it could convince its leaders to participate in the second Geneva convention. This is a peculiar position, and in taking it the US is ostensibly abandoning the only player in the region that is capable of establishing an alternative democratic regime. It seems that the US has lost faith in its ability to help establish democracy in the Middle East, a position that is apparent in its attitude toward the military coup in Egypt and in its vague stand on Assad, a war criminal according to any international convention.

And so the US has deepened the crisis in Syria, a tragedy now expanding to Lebanon and Iraq, where Al-Qaeda organizations are fighting, respectively, against the Hezbollah and Nuri Al-Malki's Shiite government. Syria is falling apart and dragging along its neighbors, who have become deeply involved in its civil war. The chaos in the Middle East spreads as Assad continues his massacres and the West hesitates to support the democratic opposition.

There is only one solution for the situation in Syria. The Syrian people rose against a regime, which has proven its cruelty and its complete disregard for the lives of its citizens. Assad cannot be a part of any future settlement, and the longer his fall is delayed, the greater the chaos spread by the extremist Islamist organizations.

Syria as a litmus test for Iran

Russia, the US, and Iran are currently in the midst of negotiations about Iran's nuclear program, in an attempt to end Iran's conflict with the West without resorting to war. The outcome of these negotiations is tied with Syria's future.

Syria serves as a litmus test for Iran's intentions in the Middle East: toward democracy and tolerance or toward parochial religious conservatism. The question is whether the Iranian conservatives will continue sacrificing Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese, and Iraqis in order to preserve their Ayatollah regime in Teheran, or whether Iran will allow these peoples to live in democracy, respecting the rights of all citizens, regardless of religion or ideological affiliation. As long as Iran continues to send its mercenaries against the Syrian people, the smiles of President Rohani and his foreign minister Zarif remain meaningless. There will not be peace in the Middle East as long as the Syrian people continues to bleed.

The US and its allies, who are interested in creating business opportunities and new markets in Iran, are negotiating with Iran in Geneva, while the Iranians and the Russians continue to provide Assad with weapons, as if these processes are unrelated. They continue to ignore the situation of the Iranian people, which has been suffering for years under a dark, oppressive fundamentalist regime. It is a delusion to think that regional stability can be achieved while Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine are bleeding. Stability cannot be reached as long as Assad is in power.