by Wayne White
Most international attention remains focused on locating, inspecting and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons (CW) arsenal, but the bloody conventional civil war rages on. The process of getting rid of Syria’s CW probably will take at least until mid-2014, giving the international community an implicit stake in the Assad regime’s survival for quite some time despite the latter’s brutal effort to crush his opposition. The issue of getting military aid to the rebels seems partly adrift, and extremist rebels have been sparring with Syria’s Kurds in addition to ongoing efforts against regime forces and moderate opposition combatants. Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation worsens, and the prospects for peace talks in Geneva next month look iffy at best.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced on Oct. 27 that Syria had met the deadline for submission of an initial declaration covering its entire CW program and a proposed plan for destruction. There was concern that the regime might drag its heels (still a possibility as events play out) to prolong the process of keeping major outside players vested in the regime as long as possible. Syrian ally Russia, which also wants all CW out of Syria to prevent any from falling into jihadist hands, probably warned Damascus to cooperate expeditiously. Still, a process that some hoped could be finished within about six months already has been extended by the OPCW through the end of June 2014.
The CW elimination process has had, of course, little effect on the continuing bloodletting between the Syrian regime and the armed opposition. Just last week, government forces succeeded in cutting off a key rebel-held suburb of Damascus from resupply, placing it under siege. After heavy fighting between extremist rebels and government forces over a Christian town in the north adjacent to the vital north-south highway, the regime prevailed yesterday. Amidst other fighting, the regime claims to have killed dozens of rebels and a major militant combatant leader. Rebel militants also have been fighting along the Turkish border with elements of a Syrian Kurdish militia charged with keeping the civil war out of Kurdish areas.
Regime air strikes and heavy artillery fire remain the leading causes of destruction and civilian casualties, especially in the Damascus suburbs (one of which has held out despite a government siege of nearly a year). And for every report of a human rights violation by one side or the other, there doubtless are many more that go unreported. In fact, despite occasional focus on incidents involving executions, the government’s indiscriminate shelling and bombing of cities and towns results in a continuous stream of such violations (most all of which go unreported in any specificity).
Making the plight of civilians trying to survive amidst this ugly maelstrom worse, neither the government nor many of the rebels have welcomed humanitarian aid. Valerie Amos, UN Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs, told the Security Council on the 25th that the UN appeal to all warring parties to permit the free flow of such aid three weeks ago largely has been rebuffed. The Assad regime wants besieged rebel-held areas to suffer in order to wear down resistance, and many rebel groups (mostly the extremists) mistrust humanitarian workers particularly because they fear such personnel might collect intelligence inside rebel-held areas.
An estimated 2.5 million civilians currently remain in besieged or otherwise largely cut off areas, many already in great distress. The onset of winter will render their situation critical in many cases, resulting in a rise in deaths from exposure, malnutrition, and lack of medical attention. A jarring development reported by the World Health Organization is an outbreak of polio in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor — the first such outbreak in Syria since 1999. This highly contagious disease will be far more difficult to address because of heavy fighting in that area, reduced access to basic hygiene, and crowding.
In terms of munitions, it is unclear how well relatively moderate or extreme rebel factions have been supplied of late. Government troops reportedly uncovered a large cache of rebel arms near Damascus last week, but the reliability of the claim — as well as the question of which rebel groups have such stocks and which do not — is difficult to sort out. One thing does seem clear: on the whole, extremist combatants are far better armed than their moderate counterparts (even attracting secular recruits simply because extremists have the weaponry needed to counter the regime). So, despite reverses at the hands of the regime, their dominance of the rebel combatant movement has been expanding.
Despite promises made to “vetted” moderate fighting groups, US policy remains conflicted by the fear of arms falling into jihadist hands. Still more potential disruption to already sputtering military assistance to such rebels could result from Saudi Arabia’s recent tantrum over American actions across the Middle East (including those concerning Syria), which included a purported Saudi threat to end or reduce Riyadh’s cooperation with Washington on aiding “vetted” rebel groups.
Circumstances prevailing now hold little promise for the US-Russian sponsored peace talks involving the regime and opposition leaders originally set for late November (which may have to be postponed). The opposition’s Syrian National Coalition (SNC) leadership in exile has not yet agreed to attend. Aware of militant opposition, Secretary of State John Kerry has encouraged the SNC’s moderate component “to make up its own mind.” Yet, if the SNC as a whole (or in part) opted to attend, that would damage already strained ties between the coalition and many rebel combatant groups doing the actual fighting inside Syria.
Meanwhile, UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi (who just arrived in Damascus) has called for Iranian participation, which he deemed “natural and necessary.” The US, however, stipulated in early October that in order to attend Tehran would have to accept the 2012 Geneva conference’s call for a transitional government to rule Syria (at least partially supplanting the Assad regime). Should this condition stand, not only the Iranians, but perhaps also the Syrian government could decide to stay away.
Finally, even if all parties could be badgered into attending, the achievement of the principal objective (a peace deal) remains highly elusive. The regime now holds the military upper hand, and surely would not cede power or agree to push aside key leaders like Bashar al-Assad. And the opposition (although difficult to capture in one word given its deep divisions) is loath to make concessions that would allow the cabal it so despises to maintain any power.
Photo: Civilians near the Syrian village of Ma’arrat al-Numan. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS