UN Envoy’s Vision of Hell in Syria
The Syrian civil war is unlikely to wind down soon as rebel leaders think time is on their side. They saw confirmation in the failed meeting today between United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss a peace plan.
A few rebel commanders poured scorn on the plan and Brahimi’s warning that Syria will turn into hell if the 21-month-old war continues unabated. Bolstered by aid from the Gulf Arabs and America, they are eager to do battle.
They are encouraged by recent successes in pushing back government troops and disrupting air traffic. They also seem to have acquired heat seeking anti-aircraft missiles and other heavier weapons in successful raids on Syrian police and army camps.
Their latest gain was a cancellation reported on Saturday of a Syrian national airline flight from Cairo to Aleppo because of insecurity at the airport. This plays to the rebels’ sense of power, making them believe that they might win against President Bashar al-Assad if they fight for long enough.
They think the tide will turn in their favor because the US and its allies will have to provide lethal arms and other aid as the war descends into more bloodshed and chaos. They expect NATO to set up a no-fly zone and safe havens with help from heavily-armed Turkey and the Gulf Arabs, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Brahimi is expected to continue meeting separately with Russian and US officials in coming weeks but chances of breakthrough are remote. Though under pressure, Assad’s army is by far the more powerful fighting force. In contrast, the rebels are fighting in towns and villages where electricity and phones work intermittently, making life harder as the tough Syrian winter sets in.
The UN envoy seems to have hit dead-end. Lavrov made clear that Russia will not force Assad to step down against his will or coerce him to strike a political deal with the rebels. Brahimi also got short shrift from both Assad and rebel leaders during a visit to Syria before going to Moscow to lean on Lavrov with US support.
The war continues to widen despite having caused some 44,000 deaths and displaced about three million people, including nearly a million who are languishing in refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Significant sections of the major historic cities of Homs and Aleppo have been destroyed because Assad’s army is using heavy weapons, tanks and aerial bombardment to dislodge rebels.
Brahimi is canvassing for a peace plan short on details and suggests a confusing transitional government “with all the powers of the state”. Rebels have rejected it insisting that Assad must step down as a precondition and face punishment, instead of asylum in a third country.
The US, Europeans and Gulf Arabs are also keen to get rid of the murderous Assad but Brahimi’s plan does not exclude a role for him after the fighting stops. Assad says he will stand for re-election while Lavrov claims Assad would rather die than flee.
To increase pressure on Assad, the US and most of its allies have recognized the recently established Syrian National Council as the legitimate representatives of Syria. But this creates a contradiction because Brahimi and Lavrov are dealing with Assad directly as the President. Brahimi spent five days in Damascus earlier this week and met Assad. The UN and the West also expect Assad to guarantee Brahimi’s safety, yet the SNC is the government endorsed by Washington and most Europeans.
Amidst this blood-letting, nobody knows how to handle dangerous Sunni zealots influenced by Al-Qaeda and battle-hardened in Iraq and Afghanistan. They roam freely in Syria outside the SNC’s control.
Brahimi and the US chant the rhetoric of political negotiations but none has the power on the ground to tame the zealots or convince Assad that he cannot defeat the SNC’s fighters.
The SNC is far from being stable or homogenous. It is riven by factions kept together only by war’s fervor. It contains no charismatic personality capable of asserting leadership and nobody capable of disarming the fanatics, who are often foreigners.
It also does not have the clout to prevent sectarian blood-letting against Assad’s Alawites or bigoted rule by a revenge-seeking Sunni majority regime. Syria is a patchwork of many minority tribes and sects, including the powerful Druze and Christians who also have militias. So, Brahimi’s vision of hell in Syria is not unrealistic.