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August 4, 2021

Syria – the final gong?

It is obvious that current developments in Syria are closely connected with the ‘Arab spring’ as well as with the regional balance in the Middle East where local – and beyond – hegemonic ambitions clash with the pressure of the international community who seeks stabilisation in order to prevent an uncontrollable explosion. The connection with the ‘Arab spring’ has a strong argument in both that the Bashar Assad regime has been strongly challenged ever since the phenomenon had begun some eight months ago and in the peaceful protests held every week after the Friday prayer, with the security forces and the army proceeding to reprisals so far killing over 3,500 people. The powers of the region have repeatedly and officially called on Baghdad to start taking steps towards a reconciliation with the opposition, Turkey even threatened to step in, apart from supporting the coagulation of the opposition to the Assad regime, the US and the European Union have resorted to several rounds of sanctions trying to convince senior local authorities to start showing willingness to engage in dialogue, the UN has condemned the bloody reprisals, however without going all the way to issuing a resolution that would have legitimised an intervention, because of Russia and China’s opposition.

In the last week, the Arab League has turned into a forceful player in the Syrian dossier, suspending the country’s membership and giving an ultimatum to its officials to start a dialogue with the opposition and cease all bloody reprisals. The ultimatum actually expired last Saturday. The day before, the reprisal forces had killed another 17 (including two children) of the protesters who flooded the streets of Syrian cities again, this time demanding Arab states to expel Syrian ambassadors and cut all links with the Assad regime. The Syrian regime, on the other hand, has accepted the presence of Arab League observers in its territory, whose task is to monitor what it claims to be a mere self-defence effort in the context of a long-standing foreign subversion meant to destabilise Syria. The Assad regime also says it agrees to the peace plan proposed by the Arab League, including the withdrawal of armed forces from urban centres, the release of arrested protesters and a dialogue with the opposition.

On the other hand, there are at least two new developments with the Syrian file. On the one hand, there is the emergence of a military force called the Free Syrian Army, already announcing attacks on the reprisal troops, as well as the number of security forces killed in such attacks. On the other hand, there is the probability of a genuine civil war starting in Syria, which would complicate the regional situation enormously. This last assertion is based on the fact that the Syrian regime seems determined to carry on with its reprisals. On Saturday, Bashar Assad told British Sunday Times that ‘the conflict will continue and the pressure to subjugate Syria will continue’ and that ‘However, I assure you that Syria will not bow down and that it will continue to resist the pressure being imposed on it.’

Moreover, in the same interview on Saturday, the head of the Syrian Government warned that ‘If they (Arab League – our note) are logical, rational and realistic, they shouldn’t do it /military intervention/because the repercussions are very dire. Military intervention will destabilize the region as a whole, and all countries will be affected.’

All major powers have already defined their positions. As announced in London, this week the representatives of the Syrian opposition – the Syrian National Council and the National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change- will meet with the British Foreign Secretary and PM’s advisers. France and Turkey stated their position together, in a joint foreign ministers’ press conference in Ankara, on Friday. Ahmet Davutoglu said that, ‘if there’s no response to the latest attempt of the Arab League, which has Turkey’s support, then certain measures must be taken.’ Having invited to reserved action and prudence while talking the Syrian situation, Russia, as well as US Secretary of State H. Clinton mentioned the likelihood of a civil war in the country. ‘I think there could be a civil war with a very determined and well-armed and eventually well-financed opposition that is, if not directed by, certainly influenced by defectors from the army,’ Clinton said last Friday. At the same time, the American official said an international intervention in Syria similar to the one in Libya, commencing in March this year and being completed successfully, was not considered. ‘There is no appetite for that kind of action vis-a-vis Syria,’ Clinton said, adding that the main actors in the action aimed to convince the Damascus regime to stop reprisals were the Arab League and Turkey.

If developments in Syria anticipate either the start of a power-opposition dialogue (improbable) or a civil war (more likely to happen), the next step is to try to identify the domestic opponents of the Assad regime. Realising it represents 80 per cent of the people of Syria, the Syrian National Council claims to be drawing its legitimacy from the street uprisings. At the same time, in public statements it has been noted that the Council also includes representatives of other organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Kurds and Christians. In fact, the Syrian National Council has been organised in Turkey, a country that offered the logistic assistance for the meetings of the Syrian opposition. On the other hand, it introduces itself as the Free Syrian Army, and is made up of deserters from the Syrian army, being led by Colonel Assad Riad. In a release, it clarifies its aim:  ‘bring down the regime and protect citizens from the repression… and prevent chaos as soon as the regime falls’ and judge ‘members of the regime who are proven to have been involved in killing operations.’ Damascus diplomats have noted that this particular organisation has been organising symbolic attacks over the past few days in the vicinity of the Syrian capital city, which can only prove a good organisational capacity. The same diplomatic sources say the situation in some regions in Syria already resembles a civil war, although it is still not the case at a national level.  So what we are seeing these days is the beginning of the end for Assad or just the few pages of a civil war with a still unknown, yet huge impact on the while of the Middle East region?

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