SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 176 March 2014

Syria’s bloody stalemate and stalled talks

As the Geneva talks on Syria restarted on 10 February, they rapidly became acrimonious, with accusations of atrocities flying between the opposing sides. The Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) accused the regime’s forces of firing on UN aid convoys and arresting civilians being evacuated from Homs. President Bashar al-Assad’s representatives threw back that al-Qaeda-linked fighters massacred 40 civilians in the village of Maan on 9 February. The UN, which brokered the aid and evacuation plan for civilians besieged for more than a year in the Old City of Homs, said that UN and Syrian Red Crescent workers had been "deliberately targeted" during the operation, and criticised both sides.

Across Syria the savage civil war rages on with many forms of barbarity, such as the barrel bombs that are being rolled out of helicopters by Assad’s forces, and torture and killings in custody on both sides. Over 130,000 people have so far lost their lives, at least 10,000 of them children. Adding to the phenomenal level of human suffering, over a third of the population has been uprooted due to the bloodshed and effective partitioning of large parts of the country, with two million having fled over the borders.

Statistics from the war zones are hard to verify, but Ertharin Cousin, the UN’s World Food Programme director, estimates that around a quarter of a million people in 40 districts besieged by government forces have been cut off from humanitarian aid for months. In the Yarmouk area alone it is reported that over 100 people have died from starvation or lack of medical aid.

Reports suggest that at present Assad’s forces are slowly advancing, taking advantage of fighting between rebel militias. But the situation is constantly changing and, overall, is still effectively a stalemate with no end in sight. Many of the areas that have been ‘retaken’, like the regaining of much of Aleppo by Assad’s forces, have been reduced to uninhabitable rubble.

While Assad uses the time period provided by the drawn-out Geneva talks process to press on with onslaughts, the opposition forces do likewise. In the first week of February some rebel units launched an attack around Damascus, codenamed Geneva Horan, for which funding and arms were rushed in by western capitalist sponsors and Gulf states. Journalist Tom Coghlan explained in the Times: "The west fears that the rebels lack leverage in talks while there is stalemate on the ground… Media reports in the Gulf quoted rebel sources as being told by US officials that they must exert particular pressure on the Assad regime before the talks begin again in Geneva".

This rebel initiative was reported as being part of a switch in emphasis to the ‘southern front’, because infighting between opposition militias has been particularly intense in the north – costing over 2,300 lives. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an offshoot organisation that has been disowned by al-Qaeda, wrested control of some northern areas from other rebel groups, and counter offensives have partially pushed it back.

Rebel activity and control along the northern border with Turkey has also become problematic because at the start of this year the Turkish government, under international pressure to counter the most anti-western jihadists such as ISIS, increased border surveillance and patrols. Turkey subsequently executed a ground assault in northern Syria on 29 January after ISIS had fired on a Turkish border post. ISIS was ‘secretly aiding the Assad regime’ by fighting other rebel forces, declared Turkey’s foreign minister to justify the altered stance.

The most effective and popular rebel force is now said to be al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, which in some areas has set up its own Islamic judiciary, delivers some public services and even controls captured oil fields. Devoting a page feature to al-Nusra on 13 February, the Financial Times cited a French researcher: "Al-Nusra will always be al-Qaeda but we can’t forget that most of the Nusra men in the rank and file aren’t Qaeda-spirited fighters… many are forgetting today the huge waves of Free Syrian Army men coming to Nusra for guns and money for their families".

The first Geneva talks in June 2012 called in vain for a transitional government by ‘mutual consent’ and recommended an end to attacks on civilians, among other non-implemented agreements. When the second round of talks resumed after a ten-day adjournment in February 2014, the two sides would not even sit at the same table. UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi had to resort to separate talks with each side. In a farcical sequence of events, Iran was invited by the UN on 19 January to attend the talks and then was excluded just a day later, after protests from several quarters.

The opposition, backed up by the US and other western powers, insists that Assad must step down to make way for a transitional governing body, while Assad, backed by Russia, has refused to contemplate this. He is even talking of standing for re-election as president this summer.

Another indication of the character of the talks is that the SOC, which only attended after threats to withdraw funds from it, is rife with division and represents little on the ground in Syria. The International Crisis Group described the SOC as "a hodgepodge of exiles, intellectuals and secular dissidents bereft of a genuine political constituency, as well as Muslim Brothers geographically detached from their natural base. Little wonder that, as the uprising began, this diverse array of groups and individuals lacked not only ties to those demonstrating on the streets, but also meaningful political experience and the means to assess their respective popular weight".

Some of the largest rebel fighting groups condemned the talks, including the Islamic Front, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Astoundingly, US intelligence estimates that there are 1,600 fighting groups now operating in Syria.

While the capitalist powers congregating for Geneva II were not expecting to end the war, their talk of possible local ceasefires and general de-escalation are coming to nothing as well. These capitalist elites – including a number in the Arab countries – at the same time as preaching ‘peace’, are involved in aiding the warring forces in Syria that they think will best serve their interests. Journalist Patrick Cockburn summed it up: "The complexity of the Syrian war has drawn in so many foreign players and become the focus of so many other conflicts – such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar vs Iran, Sunni vs Shia, the US and Israel vs Iran, and the US against Russia – that it will be difficult to end".

Leaders of Syria’s state forces and most of the opposition militias have every intention of making use of this foreign patronage to gain as much territory as they can. The BBC reported that, days before the 2014 talks were due, Syrian minister Ali Haidar said: "Don’t expect anything from Geneva II. Neither Geneva II, not Geneva III nor Geneva X will solve the Syrian crisis. The solution has begun and will continue through the military triumph of the state". Haidar has the title of ‘national reconciliation minister’!

Meanwhile, ordinary Syrian people continue to suffer acutely and, unlike the regime’s leaders and rebel warlords, have nothing to gain from this terrible war. For the working class to build an alternative – one of uniting and leading all the layers of the exploited and oppressed out of war and to create a society in their own interests – is clearly a very difficult task in this bloody phase of Syria’s history. However, beginning with democratically organised committees for defence and aid, independent working-class based actions are the only progressive way forward. In addition, as strong workers’ movements come to be built in neighbouring countries of the Middle East and beyond – as they inevitably will be – outside assistance of an entirely different nature will be on hand to help speed the Syrian masses along the road of determining their own future.

Judy Beishon

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