Syria’s hot sum­mer

By: Joyce Karam

 

Most indi­ca­tors com­ing from Syria point to an inten­si­fy­ing ground war between the Assad régime and his oppo­nents. Cou­pled with the involve­ment of out­side actors such as Hezbol­lah and for­eign fight­ers, and a new con­sid­er­a­tion by the U.S. to arm vet­ted rebels, the next few months promise a hot sum­mer for an already vile conflict.

The Syr­ian cri­sis has taken a more vio­lent turn in the last few months. March was the dead­liest sur­pass­ing 6000 deaths, and just yes­ter­day accord­ing to activists, arbi­trary exe­cu­tions by the régime took place in the town of Bayda, while car bomb­ings rocked the cap­i­tal Dam­as­cus, and fight­ing raged in the South and the East of the coun­try. Mean­while the new num­ber of refugees has gone over 1.4 mil­lion accord­ing to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, and over 2 mil­lion are inter­nally dis­placed (USAID).

War of attrition

A senior U.S. offi­cial describes to Al-​Arabiya the cri­sis as a “war of attri­tion” where both the régime and its oppo­nents are try­ing to wear each other down until the point of col­lapse. It’s a lethal cycle that is drain­ing both sides and forc­ing them to recon­fig­ure mil­i­tary goals and seek out­side help. Hezbollah’s pow­er­ful mil­i­tary wing is now openly involved in the con­flict on the side of the régime. Its Sec­re­tary Gen­eral Has­san Nas­ral­lah vowed this week “not to allow Syria to fall”, and even hinted at pos­si­ble direct mil­i­tary involve­ment from Iran in the future “if the dete­ri­o­ra­tion con­tin­ues.” The rebels, for their part, have been attract­ing more extrem­ist fight­ers, and out­side sup­port. A study by King’s col­lege in the UK esti­mated between 2000 and 5,500 for­eign fight­ers in Syria. Even the Salafist Lebanese leader Ahmed Assir released a video of him­self in the Syr­ian town of Quseyr, show­ing off his AK47 and pledg­ing a fight along side the rebels until Hezbollah’s forces withdraw.

The fight­ing dynamic has changed as well and has taken a more sec­tar­ian trend as rebels come closer to the Allaw­ite areas (Assad’s sect) in the coastal province of Tar­rtous, home for Russia’s only naval base on the Mediter­ranean. A key goal of the fight­ing is to cut the lines for arm trans­fers for the rebels, in places such as Quseyr and Homs and Assad forces have been mak­ing advances in these areas. The opposition’s task, despite recent gains in Hama sub­urbs and Daraa, is more daunt­ing given the air power and mil­i­tary sup­port com­ing report­edly to Assad from Iran through Iraqi airspace.

U.S. lean­ing to arm

The lack of a polit­i­cal solu­tion or even a real prospect for nego­ti­a­tions will trans­late in mil­i­tary esca­la­tion in the next few months. Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-​Assad is grow­ing more defi­ant and mil­i­tant in his approach, and his clos­est ally Iran has expressed his intent of run­ning again in 2014. On the oppo­si­tion side, the atten­tion has shifted to the mil­i­tary wing and the com­man­der of the Mil­i­tary Supreme Coun­cil Salim Idriss. Divi­sions and repeated res­ig­na­tions have marred the polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion, last one was the head of the Syr­ian National Coali­tion Mouaz Al-​Khatib. Even the United Nations-​Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is look­ing to resign accord­ing to UN diplomats.

A coor­di­nated effort region­ally and with the U.S. is being worked to pro­vide lethal sup­port for the rebels through Idriss. For the first time since the con­flict started, Wash­ing­ton is openly con­sid­er­ing arm­ing “vet­ted groups” in the rebel forces, some­thing that might come accord­ing the Wash­ing­ton Post as soon as late June after Obama’s meet­ing with Putin in the Irish coun­try­side. The Wall Street Jour­nal reported yes­ter­day that the Obama admin­is­tra­tion now views the issue of arm­ing, as “the least of the slip­pery slope but also a rea­son­able next step on this tra­jec­tory of strength­en­ing the oppo­si­tion.” It also goes with U.S. Sec­re­tary John Kerry strat­egy of “chang­ing Assad cal­cu­la­tions” while still aim­ing at a nego­ti­ated solu­tion. Kerry has met Idriss last month and the admin­is­tra­tion has shipped its first non-​lethal aid pack­age to his coun­cil this week.

Chem­i­cal weapons and Russia

Adding to the com­plex­i­ties of the Syr­ian scene is the lat­est acknowl­edge­ment by the Obama admin­is­tra­tion of “vary­ing evi­dence” that chem­i­cal weapons were used in Syria. This will most likely dom­i­nate the dis­cus­sions between the U.S. and Rus­sia regard­ing Syria. U.S. Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry will be head­ing to Moscow early next week, and meet­ing with Putin as well as the For­eign Min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov.

Accord­ing to the Finan­cial Times, U.S. offi­cials believe “that if the evi­dence of chem­i­cal weapons use can be strength­ened, they will have an oppor­tu­nity to change Mr Putin’s cal­cu­lus on the Syr­ian con­flict.” Wash­ing­ton is wait­ing for “solid and con­clu­sive” evi­dence on what it sees as the use of such material.

Rus­sia will find it hard to turn a blind eye inter­na­tion­ally on issues related to chem­i­cal weapons. If U.S. diplo­macy makes a break­through, it might trans­late in a pos­si­ble action at the UNSC, but not nec­es­sar­ily on the day to day fight­ing inside Syria. Russia’s role and influ­ence on the bat­tle­field is exag­ger­ated and an exam­ple of that was deputy For­eign Min­is­ter Mikhail Bog­danov attempts to recently stop Hezbollah’s involve­ment in the con­flict. Bog­danov met Hezbollah’s leader in Beirut, and his requests were com­pletely ignored two days later in Nasrallah’s speech in Iran.

For now, the involve­ment of out­side actors, increased sup­port for the armed oppo­si­tion, and the absence of a polit­i­cal process promise Syria a scorch­ing sum­mer, and pos­si­ble destruc­tion of World’s old­est inhab­ited city, Damascus.

Source: Alara­biya

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