As Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the US Secretary of State John Kerry are preparing for an international conference in Geneva this month, a new foreign-fed arms race looms over Syria. The EU’s 27 members failed to renew the arms embargo, potentially paving the way for Britain and France to allow weapons supplies to Syrian rebels. Russia responded by revealing it is selling advanced anti-aircraft missiles to the Assad regime.
While world powers are pushing both the Syrian government and the opposition to attend the conference, the date, agenda and list of participants are still unclear.
So far, there appears be more indicators that actions taken by regional players could further intensify the Syrian war, which has claimed over 80,000 lives and has entered its third year now.
Pepe Escobar, roving correspondent for Hong Kong/Thailand-based Asia Times, has extensively covered the Middle East from the late 1990s. Escobar gave his thoughts on the recent events in Syria.
The US and Russia are trying to bring representatives from the two sides of the Syrian conflict to the negotiating table. What progress has been made so far?
PE: They are trying hard to bring this conference together because, if it doesn’t work, it’s going to be a loss of face for both the US State Department and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The opposition itself is a huge conglomerate of factions, defectors, jihadists –many linked to Al-Qaeda- gangsters and opportunists. It’s extremely hard to get these people together. They have only one thing they can agree on, that is Assad’s departure, but they don’t have a policy for Syria.
Besides, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are blocking the peace conference beforehand, and they don’t want Iran to attend. But Iran is an essential player in what’s going on. Everyone needs to sit on the table, including Turkey, Israel and Hezbollah.
The Russia-US brokered peace plan was announced amidst increasing calls on President Obama to intervene in Syria with lethal military aid to the rebels. What are the options on the table for Washington?
PE: One option is establishing a no-fly zone over Syria, which the US now realizes is practically impossible. Within the UN, Russia and China would use their veto (as they vetoed prior Western-backed Security Council resolutions). Alternatively, the US would have to bypass NATO, then Russia and China would counterattack again. Inside the EU and NATO, except for the UK, France and Denmark, most member states are against.
Another possibility is to fully arm the opposition forces, however the State Department re-considered that, being unable to know where the bulk of weapons would end up within the Syrian territory.
The third option is to sub-contract the war to the Allies, which is what’s been happening. Most of the fighting is being financed and weaponized by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with logistical support from Turkey, very strong assistance from the CIA. Reluctant to involve the US directly in another war, Obama is leading from behind so to secure a close exit in case things get completely out of hand.
Kerry’s visit to Moscow came only days after Israel launched two airstrikes on suspected munitions sites inside Syria. Was Israel’s military action just intended to weaken Hezbollah?
PE: Israel doesn’t do anything without the approval from Washington. The Pentagon gave the go-ahead for Israel to bomb military facilities in Syria. Next, Israel declared the air raid was aimed to hit military targets to stop alleged weapons transfers from Iran to Hezbollah via Syria. The Israelis are terrified that Hezbollah could receive more sophisticated weapons from either Iran or Syria.
Israel also knew that Syria would not respond to the air attack, as that would give a perfect pretext for the US, Turkey and Israel to start a bombing campaign in the ‘Libya way’. Syria is not a threat to Israel by any means.
Russia and the United States have been at odds since the start of the conflict in Syria. What are the areas in which they could find ‘common ground’?
PE: The fact that they agreed on Geneva II is, I think, a first breakthrough in 2 years. That said, Syria is absolutely essential for NATO’s long-term prospects. The port city of Tartus, on the Mediterranean coast of Syria, hosts the only Russian military base in the East Mediterranean. NATO doesn’t want the Russians to have that base, seen as an impediment to NATO’s expansion across the Mediterranean. But that’s a red line for Moscow.
Not only Syria is a trusted ally for Russia, and a good client, but Tartus is a key conduit for Russia’s warships. So Putin definitely won’t give up Tartus base, and the United States will have to accommodate that as they have nothing to offer in exchange.
Moreover, Moscow fears more destabilization for Russia, in the event a hardcore Sunny government –even on the jihadist side- takes over Assad. Syria is not very far from Chechnya, after all.
The Russians would ideally work towards a diplomatic transition in Syria, whether with Assad’s or another government in place. They don’t want a regime change imposed by Western powers and their Arab allies in the Gulf.
What post-Assad Syria could look like?
PE: Nobody knows what will come afterwards. It could be a Muslim brotherhood government or a very radical Sunni ruler. Israel prefers to deal with the ‘devil’ they know (the Assad family). Some more cautious generals in the US State Department now think it’s perhaps better if Assad stays in power. Even Turkey is starting to have second thoughts.
What could happen if the rebels gain more ground in Syria?
PE: A taste of what might happen was seen already in some suburbs of Aleppo. From areas controlled by some outfits of the opposition, reports surfaced of rebels rounding up women, institutionalizing Shari’ah law, beheading people. In the main neighbourhoods of Aleppo, residents turned against the opposition when they saw what these people were doing to their city.
Shop keepers in the old city of Damascus –many of them are Christians- are scared to death, expecting that if the opposition takes over Damascus, jihadists will come and start killing Christians and Alawites, establishing mini emirates inside Syria.
The question of what will happen to President Assad remains unresolved while the Syrian opposition rejects a plan that doesn’t exclude Assad from negotiations. How could that challenge the US-Russia sponsored peace plan?
PE: It depends on what they will discuss at the Geneva meeting. If the conference is set to take place, and all the major players will sit together, they would still have to negotiate a solution with Assad in power in the interim. Even if it was agreed that Assad would not run in the elections next year, he would still stay in power until then.
If there’s a meaningful negotiation with the Syrian opposition, the actors on the table can agree on a road map until 2014. It’s impossible to have serious talks when there’s already a pre-condition to start a political transition. The same official line used by the Obama administration, ‘Assad must go’. For the moment, Lavrov is the most experienced diplomat among the people involved in setting up the conference.
Why should we expect this latest peace effort to be any more successful than those made in the past?
PE: A real solution to the Syrian crisis points to 2014 elections, according to the Syrian constitution, which was approved last year by a majority of Syrian voters -something that you never hear mentioned in the Western press.
The only way out would be if Geneva II was a success, if they agreed on a ceasefire, a roadmap towards elections in 2014, and later on the formation of a transitional government.
It’s not a good sign that many countries are already trying to sabotage the peace talks. The major powers should show that they are attempting to work a way out in the run up to the conference, but they are not, they are postponing.
Is there any realistic chance to see an initiative that guarantees the interests of the Syrian people and respects their sovereignty?
PE: There are at least six major powers involved over there, everyone has a different agenda. Nobody gives a damn about the Syrian people any more. Syrians are completely excluded from the destiny of their own country. The majority would rather not have Assad in power, they certainly don’t want to be ruled by the opposition. They aspire to free and fair elections, and hope in a political transition process. But it won’t happen.
If the Geneva meeting does fail, are we likely to see an open-ended militarization of the conflict?
PE: Geneva II is being bombarded even before it takes place, so there’s a high chance that the conference will collapse. In which case, we should expect a much more hardcore war after that. The next step will be the US would start arming opposition militants directly. It would be then impossible to prevent arms from falling into the wrong hands.
And if Western allies supply rebel fighters with really advanced weapons, with petrol monarchies pumping more funds, Russia will counter-attack by delivering sophisticated missiles to the Syrian army. If these weapons are used inside Syria, the collateral damage will double or triple. We will have a replay of Afghanistan in the 1980s. It will be a long-term war until Assad is assassinated, gives up or goes into exile. Many are betting on a Lebanese style long civil war like in the 70s.
Alessandra Bajec lived in Palestine between June 2010 and May 2011 starting to work as a freelance journalist. Her articles have appeared in various Palestinian newswires, the European Journalism Centre’s magazine, The Majalla, among others.