The ‘friends of Syria’ at a press conference. They are yet to offer a solution for the crisis in Syria that is based on reality.
Despite the trumpeting over the destruction of chemical weapons temporarily distracting the world from the war in Syria, it inevitably rumbles on. The killing of both soldiers and civilians continues unabated with many terrible war crimes still half hidden behind an all encompassing veil of death. The Syrian government’s willingness to compromise over their chemical weapons stash had led to hopes of further progress at the negotiating table that would lead to an end to the suffering and a solution to the conflict that still threatens to throw the region into another sea of fire. Following the clumsy, arrogant meeting of the so-called ‘friends of Syria‘ however, this hope has been ground like so many lives in this embattled country, into dust.
The ‘friends of Syria’, a US backed group including Britain, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Jordan, Italy, Qatar, Turkey and the UAE met up in London recently with ‘Syrian opposition officials’ to try to encourage moderate opposition forces to join in the ‘Geneva II‘ talks, to be held next month with the Syrian government, aimed at bringing this horrific war to an end by forming a transitional governing body to oversee an organised transition to a democratically elected government. Already however, this ill advised, poorly organised group seem to have thrown any chance of success at Geneva II out the window like dirty dishwater. The meeting highlighted the deep divides, not just between the rebels and the government forces, but also between the ‘friends of Syria’ and the people they are apparently friends with, the so called Syrian National Coalition (SNC), a group supported by the ‘friends of Syria’ who have been primed to assume power, alongside more moderate Assad elements, once the current government is defeated or resigns. The ‘friends of Syria’, having called this meeting, have a Utopian vision of Bashar al-Assad simply stepping down from his position, which they believe is no longer sustainable and despite his direct denials of this ever happening, allowing the formation of a national unity government which will take the country into a stable future. It is an ideal that stands so far from reality that it is almost embarrassing that these seemingly intelligent people would even suggest it as an option at this stage.
The Western backed Syrian National Congress appears to have little support from those on the ground.
Already the arrogance of those involved in the ‘friends of Syria’ group has put to bed any hope of progress at the Geneva II meeting. Instead of approaching the discussions as an opportunity to find some middle ground, perhaps some sliver of compromise with which to build a ceasefire to focus on the real problem, Jihadist groups, the foot in mouth British foreign minister William Hague, seemingly believing he was wearing a Churchillian cloak which could hide his incompetence, announced that Bashar al-Assad was the cause of the problem and could therefore not be part of any future negotiated government, a position eagerly backed up by American Sabre rattler John Kerry. Despite throwing a planet sized spanner into the mix Kerry then had the temerity to state that he expected the Syrian government, headed by the same future-less al-Assad to ‘negotiate in good faith.‘ It seems remarkable that two men who must have something going for them to have reached their positions in the first place would be so simple-minded to call for negotiations to find common ground in a conflict, set the precondition that the leader of the side who are arguably on top in the conflict can not be a part of the solution, and simply expect him to agree and walk away. It is as if they are living in a fairy tale and believe some magic fairy will appear, throw around a little dust and set everything right. The statements issued by the leaders of the ‘friends of Syria’ are very similar to an old trick regularly utilized by the Israelis when peace talks were scheduled. With a week or two to go before the talks and with the media going through the motions of discussing what everyone wants to achieve, the Israelis will suddenly and apparently innocently announce new construction to begin in disputed settlements, completely undermining the forthcoming discussions. The proclamations made by Mr Hague and Mr Kerry appear painted with the same brush, on the one hand expecting Syrian government officials to negotiate in good faith, on the other issuing statements that make it very difficult for this to happen.
Unfortunately the arrogance of the ‘friends of Syria’ does not end here. There seems to be a monumental disparity between the influence that they would have you believe they SNC hold and the actual influence they have on the ground among the men and women who are fighting for the rebels. More and more it seems the SNC has become marginalized by moderate rebel forces in Syria who see it as a group of western backed individuals without the ties to the right people. They also have absolutely no influence over the jihadist forces who claim to fight on the side of the rebels but more and more seem to in fact be a third, completely separate force intent on molding Syria into a whole other vision completely, namely a key part in a new Islamic Caliphate. This may explain the SNC’s reluctance to take part in Geneva II for fear of appearing to be exactly what they are, a mouth piece for the West who in reality lack support from those fighting the battles. Unless some of the major ‘moderate’ groups actually fighting on the ground become involved in the Geneva II discussions under the umbrella of the SNC, they will be revealed for what they really are, an Emperor with no clothes.
The Islamic state of Iraq and Levant, the umbrella name for the largest Al Qaeda group in Syria is effectively a experienced, battle hardened and well trained guerrilla army.
But there remains still another issue that will not be addressed by the Geneva II meeting, and which the ‘friends of Syria’ conveniently overlooked as they drew up their new Syrian Utopia. The hoards of jihadists wrecking havoc across the country in a way startlingly reminiscent of Iraq in the mid 2000’s. None of these groups have obviously been invited to take part in the process as they are not seen as being part of the new Syria but they are becoming much more of a problem than Assad himself. To make matters worse and even more complicated a number of the countries involved in the ‘friends of Syria’ are directly assisting the jihadists in their battle against Bashar al-Assad both in the supply of arms but also by turning a blind eye to thousands of their citizens flooding across their borders to join the holy war, a human contribution that conservative Saudi Arabia appears at the forefront of, laying the foundations for the global jihad. Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and the UAE, as well as Turkey have all also in one way or another, either directly or indirectly, been assisting the Jihadist forces overthrow the Alawite Assad government. All have an interest in turning Syria into another Sunni stronghold to join their own ranks. It is a sick irony that the United States and Britain find themselves indirectly helping many of the same forces who they not only fought against for so many years in both Afghanistan and Iraq but who at the same time are directly supported by many of the same countries who are considered their staunch Arab allies. The same men who only recently had been sending suicide bombers to free Iraq from the invading Americans are now turning them toward the Syrian government, in support of US backed rebels. The problem of the Jihadists and what to do with them is the elephant in the room for the ‘friends of Syria’. In the Utopian vision one assumes that this unlikely coalition of the rebel and government forces will turn their attention to the thousands of foreign Jihadists roaming the country sending them back to their homes with their tails between their legs. A scenario that has as much weight in reality as Mickey Mouse’s fun house. The truth however, is that there is now a well trained, highly experienced and incredibly ruthless Jihadist guerrilla army who are able to blend in almost unnoticed with the everyday population when it suits them before reappearing again to wreck more havoc. The ranks of this army are being swollen everyday by idealists from around the world, including many Western countries. Because of this, the future threat to Western countries posed by men trained in the dark art of terrorism whilst fighting for the liberation of Syria is one that must not be underestimated.
Despite his roll as the head of a state, culpable for Human Rights abominations, Basher al-Assad may need to remain in place if a ceasefire is to occur. In any case there can be no preconditions laid out if Geneva II is to offer any hope of success.
With Geneva II only just around the corner it is irresponsible for the West to be riding roughshod over diplomacy by talking tough and setting ultimatums. The war in Syria is shocking in its brutality and the Assad regime is knee deep in the worst kind of human rights abuses imaginable but unless the West are going to intervene directly, utilizing every means available, including sending in troops, then they are not in a position to be dictating terms to anyone, terms that can only serve to undermine any potential gains that can be made. They cannot simply bomb the Syrian government out of the war because the idea of allowing the Jihadist groups the opportunity to charge on Damascus is a human rights catastrophe waiting to happen. Despite what the war started out as, the threat that the ever increasing Jihadist forces pose is becoming greater, both regionally and globally, than what Assad himself does. It is becoming clearer and clearer that the SNC simply do not have the wide ranging support on the ground that the National Transitional Council (NTC) had in Libya, leaving open the possibility of it appearing at Geneva II without the support of any of the important players who are actually doing the fighting on the ground. It is time for the West to accept those realities on the ground rather than cling onto the Utopian vision they appear to have come up with. These out of touch fantasies saw them believe that Afghanistan would suddenly turn into a hive of wealth and democracy upon their arrival, that Iraq would treat them as liberators and worship the ground they walked on and that the Arab Spring would be to the Arab world as the Renaissance was to the West, instead of the single biggest boon to radical Islam in recent memory.