The political winds in the Middle East are changing but they still bring crisis and war. The two most important developments so far this year are the failure of the Geneva II peace talks and Saudi Arabia’s replacement of its intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, as director of Syrian policy, with a member of the royal family notably close to the US and hostile to al-Qa’ida.
The reasons for the failure at Geneva are obvious enough and so are the consequences of that failure. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, made it clear from the beginning that Washington wants peace negotiations to be primarily about “transition” and the end of the government of President Bashar al-Assad. But, since Assad’s army controls most population centres and main roads in Syria, this radical change in the balance of power will not happen until the rebels stop losing and start winning on the battlefield.
Given that the rebels are at present divided, lacking popular support and on the retreat, it may take years of warfare before they and their Western and regional backers can dictate surrender terms to the other side. It could happen more quickly only if the Assad government and the Syrian army were shorn of support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, something that, so far, is not happening. If anything, the struggle for the Ukraine between the West and Moscow is likely to make the Russians even more determined not to see their status as a great power eroded by defeat in Syria.
I spent two weeks in Damascus and Homs at the end of January and the beginning of February and came away with the impression that the government is in a stronger position, politically and militarily, than at any time since the tide in the fighting began to turn in its favour in about November 2012.
The opposition enclaves in Damascus, Homs and the country around them are being severely squeezed by blockades and sieges, to the point where some have signed local ceasefires or truces. Bigger enclaves such as Eastern Ghouta, the area east of the capital which the United Nations says has about 145,000 people in it, are more capable of defending themselves.
The Syrian army is on the front foot, but it also looks overstretched and is husbanding its combat troops for strategically important operations. I saw two of these: one was at al-Kadam, in south Damascus, where the rebels had attacked and briefly held the main road south from the capital, in the direction of the border with Jordan. It was not a big battle and the army had cleared the road at the cost of some casualties to itself, whom I met at Mezze military hospital, and rather greater losses to the rebels. The second operation was an army advance against the village of al-Zara, in the shadow of the great Crusader fortress of Krak des Chevaliers, west of Homs, a battle sparked by the rebels periodically cutting oil and gas pipelines as well as electric power lines that run by the village.
Short of combat troops, the government has expanded the National Defence Force militia, the hard core of which are Alawites and Christians, as well as using Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Its strategy is to seal off and isolate rebel-held districts, cut off electricity, water and food, and then pound them with artillery or barrel bombs dropped from helicopters, so that they become depopulated. So far, this strategy has worked at the cost of an international outcry, to which the government replies, privately, that nobody pays much attention abroad when its supporters are massacred.
What is not in doubt is that the rebels have failed to overthrow the government, though the government appears incapable of defeating them. This explains our second important development of the year which is the sidelining of Prince Bandar, who, as the head of Saudi intelligence, was in charge of directing, supplying and financing the rebels. This role has now been taken over by the Interior Minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who has been in charge of actions against al-Qa’ida inside the kingdom and is considered one of the most pro-US of the royal family’s inner circle. Also assuming a role in determining Saudi policy towards Syria is Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, King Abdullah’s third son and head of the Saudi National Guard.
These appointments do not mean any reduction in direct Saudi support for the rebels but they do denote a policy more closely aligned with the US. Prince Bandar had openly objected to President Obama’s decision to reject military action against Syria after it used chemical weapons against rebel districts of Damascus last August. With Prince Mohammed, whom an al-Qa’ida suicide bomber slightly wounded in 2009, determining Syrian policy, the Saudi-supported rebels will more than ever be fighting on two fronts: the government and, presumably, the al-Qa’ida-type movements within the rebellion, even though they are often at the cutting edge of actions against the Syrian army.
For the US and the Saudis, intervention in Syria could be more difficult than it appears. The rebels are even more divided than they look and they have lost much of the popular support they once enjoyed in 2011 and 2012. This does not mean that the government has mass backing, but, for many Syrians, Assad is preferable to a rebel takeover.
The “moderate” opposition – support for which was reportdly discussed at a two-day meeting in Washington of Western and Arab intelligence chiefs this month – is supposedly going to overwhelm the extreme jihadis and fight the government all at the same time. But repackaging some rebel warlords as moderates, simply because they are backed by the West and its regional allies, will be large-ly a PR ploy and unconvincing to Syrians.
It is naive in these circumstances to imagine that the dispatch of shoulder-held anti-aircraft or anti-tank weapons, as is now predicted, is going to make the rebels more successful. Journalists, intelligence officers and rebels tend to be over-impressed by the idea that arms such as these make much difference. This may stem from a belief that they somehow turned the tide in guerrilla war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which history clearly shows that they did not. A few years ago, I asked a senior Afghan general of that era how far the Stinger missiles had been a problem. He looked a bit mystified by the question and replied that they really had not made much difference: “All that happened was our helicopters had to fly lower and faster and we used our artillery more.”
The appointment of Prince Mohammed may mean less emphasis on military assault on Syria and more diplomatic pressure on Russia, Iran and Hezbollah to abandon Assad. One of the big mistakes of the opposition and its backers has been to allow the question of who rules in Damascus to become part of the hot and cold war between Iran and its enemies, and between Shia and Sunni, conflicts that have been going on since the Iranian revolution in 1979.
Saudi Arabia could try to de-escalate some these conflicts, but so far there is little sign of it doing so. Sadly, none of the ingredients for a long war in Syria has disappeared.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.