By Rajeev Agarwal
In contrast to the events of the past 18 months, ongoing developments in Syria seem to suggest an end to the conflict. There are signals from Assad’s staunch allies like Russia, China and may be even Iran that it is time for him to go. And internally, there have been dissensions and defections which could signal that the regime is finally cracking up.
This unfolding scenario began when the diverse forces within the Syrian opposition took part in a meeting in Qatar in November 2012 and agreed to unite as a single political entity called “The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces”. The 63-member council includes members of most Syrian opposition blocs, with the exception of the National Coordination Committee.1 This was followed by the United States recognizing this as the official opposition group in Syria, 2 ahead of the Fourth Friends of Syria conference on 12 December in Morocco. 3 The conference pledged financial as well as political support to the opposition. However, in view of the United States declaring the al-Nusra Front, part of the opposition Free Syrian Army, as a “terrorist organization” and an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the immediate possibility of supply of weapons to the opposition was ruled out.
Even more importantly, it is the stance taken by some of the Assad regime’s allies that spells trouble for Syria. Of late, Russia, which has hitherto been a staunch ally, seems to be wavering in its support for the Assad regime. On 13 December, Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov remarked that “an opposition victory can’t be excluded”. 4 Although Russia was quick to rebut the statement on 14 December, the seeds of doubt had been sown. This was further reinforced by an 18 December interfax agency report that Russia has sent warships to the Mediterranean, which, according to unnamed naval sources, was “to assist in a possible evacuation of Russian citizens.” 5 On 20 December, President Putin distanced himself further from his long-time Syrian ally when he said that he understands that Syria needs change and that he is not protecting its president. 6 But at the same time, Putin warned that efforts to unseat Assad could plunge Syria even deeper into violence. Despite his insistence that Russia has not changed its stance and support for Syria, it was obvious that Russia is slowly reconciling itself to Assad’s departure.
China has vetoed earlier attempts by the UN Security Council to pass resolutions on Syria that might lead to an international military action akin to that on Libya. However, on 18 December, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying had this to say about the latest developments in Syria: “China respects the Syrian people’s choice and takes a positive and open attitude about any political settlement plan widely accepted by Syrian parties.” 7 Coinciding as it did with what the Russian deputy foreign minister said on the same day, this Chinese statement clearly indicated China’s reluctant approval for a change in Syria.
Even Iran, which considers Syria as its strategic ally in the region, may slowly be reconciling itself to the inevitable. In the Six Point Plan8 that Iran presented on 16 December, it called for an immediate end to all violent and armed acts under UN supervision. The plan also called for sending humanitarian aid following the end of all conflicts, the lifting of all economic sanctions against the country, and facilitating the return of displaced Syrians to their homes. It urged talks between representatives of all Syrian groups regardless of their political and social tendencies and the Damascus government in order to form a national reconciliation committee. “These talks should pave the way for the establishment of a transitional government…which will hold free and competitive elections to form a new parliament and a new constitutional assembly which will draft a new constitution…and [pave the way for] holding presidential elections.”
There are several other recent developments that point to the increasingly impossible situation facing Assad. On 18 December, the first of the six Patriot batteries sanctioned by NATO arrived in Turkey,9 to be stationed along the Turkey-Syria border. Once fully deployed, it would have 400 foreign troops manning it. Earlier in October, the United States sent troops to the Jordan-Syria border to help bolster Jordan’s military capabilities in the event of the violence in Syria spreading. 10 US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking at a NATO conference of defence ministers in Brussels, said that the United States has been working with Jordan to monitor chemical and biological weapons sites in Syria and also to help Jordan deal with refugees moving across the border.
Meanwhile the Syrian rebels have made steady gains over the last one month. They have seized key towns in the central province of Hama, captured large parts of an important military base in Aleppo on 10 December, conducted a massive attack on an air force base in Handarat in Aleppo, an attack on Brigade 34 in Daraa and many more attacks in and around Damascus. In an attack on the Interior Ministry in Damascus on 12 December, the rebels reportedly injured the Interior Minister Mohammad Shaar who was rushed to a hospital in Beirut.
Even within the Syrian regime, there are cracks appearing. On 17 December, the head of public relations of the Syrian intelligence, Alaeddin al-Sabbagh, announced his defection to the opposition saying that Assa’d regime was ‘clinically dead’. 11 Even the Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa said that neither the Syrian security forces nor the rebels can secure a decisive victory, although the rebels can plunge the country into “anarchy and an unending spiral of violence.” Sharaa said the situation in Syria is deteriorating and a “historic settlement” is needed to end the conflict, involving regional powers and the UN Security Council and the formation of a national unity government “with broad powers.”
Finally, Assad is clearly displaying signs of desperation. In recent times, he has resorted to bombing of Palestinian districts on the edge of Damascus and is also reportedly using SCUD like missiles at towns and districts held by rebels near Aleppo.
The fact and realization that the Assad regime would finally crumble under pressure was always known to all stake holders. The build-up over the past month has made it clear that it is time for a change in Syria.
1. “The Syrian National Coalition: Motivations for its Formation and Building Blocks of Success”, available at http://english.dohainstitute.org/release/f6bc55df-9728-4c68-8e57-3718541…, last accessed on 21 December 2012.
2. “US backs new Syrian opposition ahead of conference”, available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/us-backs-new-syrian-…, last accessed on 21 December 2012.
3. “Friends of Syria Recognise opposition,” available at http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/12/201212124541767116.html , last accessed on 21 December 2012.
4. “Russia says stand on Syria is unchanged”, available at http://www.latimes.com/news/world/worldnow/la-fg-wn-russia-syria-unchang…, last accessed on 21 December 2012.
5. “Russia Sends Naval Ships to Mediterranean, Eyes Syria Evacuation”, available at http://www.voanews.com/content/russia_sends_warships_to_meditaerranean_a…, last accessed on 21 December 2012.
6. “Putin says Russia ‘not preoccupied with fate of Assad,’ recognizes need for change in Syria”, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/putin-says-russia-recognizes-…, last accessed on 21 December 2012
7. “China Calls on Syrian Parties to Seek Cease-Fire”, available at http://www.turkishweekly.net/news/145827/china-calls-on-syrian-parties-t…, last accessed on 21 December 2012.
8. “Iran unveils six-point peace plan for Syria”, available at http://presstv.com/detail/2012/12/16/278406/iran-unveils-peace-plan-for-…, last accessed on 21 December 2012.
9. “Patriot Missile Parts Arrive in Turkey, Elements of the batteries are being aimed at Syria”, available at http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2012/12/18/patriot-missile-parts-arr…, last accessed on 21 December 2012.
10. “US sends troops to Jordan to help deal with Syria crisis”, available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/oct/10/us-troops-jordan-syria-crisis, last accessed on 21 December 2012.
11. As cited in http://www.eurasiareview.com/16122012-syrian-intelligence-pr-defects-acc…, last accessed on 21 December 2012.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/TheSignsofChangeinSyria_RajeevAgarwal_241212