US betrayal of Syrians makes democracy a dirty word

US betrayal of Syrians makes democracy a dirty word
On Wednesday, the Syrian regime achieved one of their biggest victories over the rebels, while Western powers push opposition politicians to agree to peace talks favourable to Assad.
6 min read
05 February, 2016
The Syrian regime's Aleppo victory was achieved with Russian airpower and Hizballah ground support [AFP]

While European bureaucrats huddled down in Geneva to envisage peace for Syria, regime and Russian officials in Damascus were ironing out plans for a final push in Aleppo province.

The regime had been given ample time to prepare for one of its biggest offensives since the start of Syria's five year war.

At the same time US Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly bullied opposition delegation in Switzerland to accept peace talks, which weighed heavily towards the regime.

On Wednesday, Russian war planes pounded rebel-held districts in Aleppo with hundreds of sorties, killing civilians and fighters alike as peace talks were put back to the end of February.

The Syrian opposition's insistence that UN resolution 2254 should be implemented before talks begin, were dismissed by the Americans as "preconditions" and refused to pressure the regime into a ceasefire.

Final push

Wednesday's offensive saw thousands of Iranian and Hizballah fighters relieve the rebel siege on two Shia-majority garrison towns - Nabul and Zahraa - which had been the focus of negotiations with the opposition.

Simultaneously, they also cut off the main rebel-held road in Aleppo which was a life-source for vital supplies from the surrounding countryside and Turkey.

This will have serious implications for the civilian population of Aleppo.

"The regime probably timed the offensive to coincide with the Geneva peace talks, but it was not a decision taken in a day because the regime does not always have the capacity to carry out swift operations especially in areas like Aleppo," said Hassan Hassan, resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

The size of the operation would indicate months of planning and the Geneva talks made a convenient moment to make this "statement of strength."

A large part of the Syrian regime's military strategy has been to choke off opposition areas from food, fuel and medical supplies and force rebels into capitulation.

Encirclement and counter-encirclement define much of the fighting in Aleppo.
- Hassan Hassan

This has worked for the regime in areas such as al-Waer in Homs city. Embattled fighters and residents eventually agreed to leave the suburb for Idlib province and is just one example of ethnic cleansing in Syria.

Sadly the same thing appears to be happening in Aleppo as the city witnessed another mass exodus on Thursday.

In places such as Madaya there have been tortuous outcomes, with dozens of civilians dying of starvation and related diseases.

Now 400,000 Syrians are trapped in Aleppo city, although Hassan said the situation might not be all grim given the complex nature of warfare in the north.

"Encirclement and counter-encirclement define much of the fighting in Aleppo for around three years, so it is unlikely the regime will take Aleppo," said Hassan.

"However, these gains are very important for the regime which had failed to make much progress despite the relentless air help from Russia."

Lost support

Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other opposition backers will now understand that recent losses in Aleppo, Latakia and Daraa, are in part down to their inaction.

Hassan said regional allies scaled back support for the rebels to help the peace talks happen.

Turkey's logistical support for the rebels has also been severely hampered by Russian bombing of any aid or weapons convoy that crosses the border into Syria. 

TOW anti-tank missiles - which were vital in curbing another regime offensive in Hama last October - have not entered the country since November.

The Aleppo offensive also indicates a new regime strategy of allowing Russian war planes to obliterate areas before sending in tanks or troops, along with a more heavy reliance on foreign militias.

"The regime has basically cut off all the rebel supply routes and has encircled Free Aleppo," said Sam Charles Hamed, a writer on Middle East affairs. 

The regime has basically cut off all the rebel supply routes and has encircled Free Aleppo
- Sam Charles Hamed

"Moreover, there have been well over 200 airstrikes from Russia and Assad in less than 24 hours, which is akin to 'shock and awe' in terms of paving the way for ground assaults."

Syrian writer Robin Yassin Kassab said that the timing of events in Aleppo and Damascus' new scorched earth policy will have a catastrophic effect for progressive movements inside Syria. 

"Yes, it is absolutely desperate and we are at the worst moment yet," he said.

He said 400,000 people have been made homeless from Russian cluster bombing in recent days, and these are among the poorest in Syrian society.

"They are the poorest of the poor. They decided under barrel bombs they did not have the means to get out and go somewhere else, even though the hospitals, schools and economy stopped."

With Aleppo encircled, Yassin Kassab fears that regime's starvation sieges will force trapped residents into the hands of extremist groups such as al-Qaeda's Nusra Front and strengthen jihadi elements within Syria.

"I blame all the states involved in the farce of Geneva. The nonsense of this pacification programme is really an imperial agreement that the Syrian revolution and the surviving democratic nationalists should be eliminated."

Democracy becomes a dirty word

President Barack Obama's twin strategy of disengagement from the Middle East and rapprochement with Iran has essentially given Tehran and Russia the green light to intervene in the Syria war he said, worsening already sensitive sectarian fault lines.

The yellow Hizballah flags that dominated the welcome parades for pro-regime fighters in Zahra and Nabul indicate heavy Iranian influence in the offensive. 

If they win they will manage to bring about the total defeat of democracy in Syria
- Robin Yassin Kassab

"The US appears to accept that Syria is Iran's sphere of influence and Iran's transnational terrorists are off the agenda and not considered foreign fighters because the government invited them in," he said.

"Basically, the military is going all-out for the defeat of the opposition and if they win they will manage to bring about the total defeat of democracy in Syria."

Given the years of bombing, Assad is unlikely to win back and retain control over the whole of Syria.

Yassin Kassab believes there are powerful elements within Western foreign offices who believe that the failure of the Arab Spring indicates "Arabs are not ready for democracy, yet." 

The West has forgotten its humanitarian principles, the Syrian writer said, and Washington is pushing for stability in the Middle East. This has given Arab regimes carte blanche to crush domestic, organic democratic movements.

This is the mindset of those pushing the opposition into peace talks and will slurry the word "democracy" in the region as much as George Bush's invasion of Iraq did.  

If the regime's recent offensives significantly weaken the progressive elements in the revolution this will only strengthen the Islamic State group's grip over territories under its control, said Yassin Kassab.

Indeed, only the blindest of cynics would expect that life would return to "normal" in Syria after five years of bombing, torture and starvation.

Ultimately, Yassin Kassab believes the most likely outcome will be the partition of Syria and other analysts agree.

"I think the rebels may sustain heavy losses but the country will never be reunified under Assad... and this is the worst possible situation for liberated Aleppo," said Oz Katerji, a Middle East analyst.

"The peace talks are a farce, the regime has no intention of conceding anything and what's more they are winning. I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel unless the world decides to intervene, which they won't."