Futile ceasefire and continued bloodshed in Syria
Syrian armed forces are better equipped and commanded than that of Moammar Gaddafi. Also, Syria has close allies and real backers like Iran, Russia and China that the Gaddafi regime sorely lacked. The fact still remains that Assad’s forces are no match for NATO fire power. The US, Europe and NATO simply lack the will, inclination or the zest right now. Writes Omar Khasru
A United Nations backed peace plan in Syrian discord with a provision for ceasefire brokered by former UN Secretary General and the special UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, took effect on April 12. But widespread violence continued and the ceasefire seems to be tottering, in real danger of total collapse.
Syria has been mired in violence since March 2011 with around 11,000 reported deaths. It has been little over a month since the ceasefire was due to come into effect as the first step in the Kofi Annan peace plan, with a team of UN monitors on the ground to observe the progress.
Daily reports suggest bombings, shootings, explosions and artillery fires as ragtag bands of disparate opposition groups and army deserters battle the forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. There have been persistent credible reports of army atrocities and civilian casualties with gruesome murders and mayhem.
It is hard to get a clear picture of the exact nature and extent of the violence because the access of the independent media is severely restricted. The UN observer mission is not in full strength as yet and is unable to monitor all areas fully. Opposition and human rights groups report daily attacks by Assad’s forces with wholesale firepower and resultant deaths and devastations.
There evidently is no let-up in the violence and there certainly is no cessation of combat. More than 1,000 Syrians have been killed since the official onset of ceasefire, according to reports by opposition groups, eyewitnesses and human rights activists.
President Bashar al-Assad's government blames the violence and deaths on ‘armed terrorist gangs,’ euphemism for the anti-government rebel forces, army defectors and dissenters. Opposition groups and international community, on the other hand, point fingers at the bloody crackdown on dissent and indiscriminate attacks on what the paranoid regime perceives as ‘unfriendly’ communities for the large number of fatalities.
The UN Security Council has authorized 300 observers for a large and sprawling country with unconventional and unpredictable pattern of violence and travel from one area to another rather arduous. Experts with the knowledge and experience of the Bosnian campaign say a mission ten times the size would struggle to keep a tab and make an impact. As of last week, about 150 UN observers were deployed.
Even the presence of UN observers is no panacea and apparently does not prevent the carnage. Syrian activists claim that Assad’s regime is playing games with the UN monitors. They allege the government reduces violence wherever the monitors are around, and then boosts the onslaught when they leave the area.
Six members of a UN observer team, including a Bangladeshi, came under bomb attack recently. They were forced to stay overnight with anti-regime activists in the northwest town of Khan Sheikhun and were eventually evacuated (New Age, 17 May). The problem is the UN monitors cannot retaliate or return fire. They are there to observe and report and do little else with limited self-defense capability.
Diplomats and insiders concede that Kofi Annan's peace plan has reached a crucial stage and may face insurmountable snags. He is scheduled shortly to return to Syria to seek ceasefire compliance. He has warned that without progress there is a real danger that the budding insurgency and armed skirmishes will turn into a full-scale civil war unless it is contained swiftly.
The opposition groups have always expressed serious misgivings about the peace plan's feasibility. They assert that it would work only if backed by the threat of force against the vicious and despotic Assad regime. At a recent demonstration in the Idlib province, one slogan read ‘Annan enough’ and another ‘UN, go home.’
Many experts agree that the plan is faulty. Salman Shaikh, a former UN official, said the premise of the plan was fatally flawed with the misguided and imprudent belief that the Assad regime will stop using violence against the freedom seeking protesters and negotiate in good faith with them.
The United States has not been too upbeat about the Annan plan either. The US accepted it as a possible way out and a last ditch attempt at a peaceful resolution. The US wants to avert direct involvement and use of force but still give a sense of concerted and meaningful effort to stop the massacre.
US Senator John McCain, 2008 Republican Presidential candidate, has condemned Obama administration’s lack of action against Assad regime’s atrocities. The fact is there is not much that the US or European powers are likely to do in the short run. A decisive involvement to support the rebels is unlikely because of the economic downturn, war weariness and general aversion of the electorates against foreign intervention.
Admittedly, there are practical impediments also. In Libya, most targets were close to the Mediterranean coast within easy reach of NATO air bases. Even so, NATO warplanes flew some 21,000 sorties in nearly six months to help oust the repressive regime.
Syrian armed forces are better equipped and commanded than that of Moammar Gaddafi. Also, Syria has close allies and real backers like Iran, Russia and China that the Gaddafi regime sorely lacked. The fact still remains that Assad’s forces are no match for NATO fire power. The US, Europe and NATO simply lack the will, inclination or the zest right now.
So, will it all end up in a long and bloody civil war, a war of attrition if you like, as Kofi Annan has expressed his concerns about? That is a probable, even a likely, scenario. The experts believe that the signs are ominous with a distinct possibility that the conflict may spread beyond Syrian borders.
It is alleged that the rebel forces get assistance and weapons from several pro-west and conservative countries in the region. The Syrian regime has accused the gulf states, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, of arming the rebel forces. Saudi officials rejected the allegations outright.
Terje Roed-Larsen, UN special envoy to the Middle East, said last week that arms were flowing between Lebanon and Syria as well. ‘What we see across the region is a dance of death at the brink of the abyss of war,’ he said. Some experts think that this is reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s Lebanese civil war that also involved adjoining countries, including Syria, Iran, Israel and others.
The Syrian resistance has been divided into various factions from the outset. An unwieldy Syrian National Council is based in Turkey, with Islamists and liberals in it having as much in common with each other as they do with the Assad regime.
Western diplomats have long lamented the lack of resolve and unity in the patchwork of diverse opposition entities. The splintered rebel groups, without NATO air support or significant outside help are unlikely to overthrow the Assad regime by dint of sheer firepower anytime soon.
What has really changed of late, starting in the capital Damascus in January, is the emergence of a bombing campaign against key government installations. On May 10, deadly bomb attacks killed at least 55 people, wounded many others and caused widespread destructions in a Damascus neighborhood. The answer for the rebels may be in clandestine guerilla actions, gradually intimidating, unsettling and weakening security forces and ultimately ousting the regime.
The Assad government seems bent on continuing a ruthless crackdown rather than enter into a real dialogue for peace, as envisaged by the UN Security Council. The UN resolution 2043 called for a ‘comprehensive political dialogue between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition.’
The regime does not seem to have any incentive to stop the violence. ‘Doing so would hasten its demise, as Syrians took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands to protest freely and assume control of large parts of the country,’ according to a recent article in the Foreign Policy journal.
Russia and Iran, and China to some extent, have influence on Assad regime and none of these countries is inclined to back it into a corner. For now, the regime's existence does not seem threatened in a military sense.
With Russian and Iranian active and substantial support, including weapons and technical assistance and Chinese anathema for any stringent UN resolution or action, the regime retains an overwhelming advantage in military strength. It has hundreds of battle tanks. The rebels or the Free Syrian Army has AK-47s.
There is little likelihood that the regime will be toppled solely by the ragtag rebel attacks. There is no perceptible panic among the ruling elites. The tightly knit inner circle, like Assad, seems unwavering and hell-bent on clinging to absolute power at all costs.
As the world vacillates, the atrocities committed by the Assad regime have taken a sinister form, perpetrated against the freedom loving and democracy seeking own citizens. The suffering and misery of the common people unfortunately is not enough to prod the movers and shakers of world politics and power, including Russia and China, to come together and force a brutal and tyrannical regime to cease and desist from the heinous acts.
There are arms sales to conduct, personal petty and narrow interests to protect, own power and authority to display, own area of influence to safeguard, ignoring the anguish and grief of the victims and sufferers. The appalling outlook seems that the killing and maiming of the civilians be damned.
The Syrian conflict has reached a dead end in the international arena at least for now. The UN cannot and the big powers will not do anything significant to alleviate the pain and suffering of the common people.
A Syrian activist told CNN that he has all but given up the hope that people from outside will intervene. That unfortunately is the stark truth. "Even if it takes 10 years, --- we will not retreat, and we will not give up," the activist added. Therein rests the flicker of hope that the people will eventually be free.
Some facts and figures obtained from CNN and other media sources
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