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.
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