Syria's 'peace process' is Russia's new weapon

Syria's 'peace process' is Russia's new weapon
Comment: Russia supports the Syria 'peace process' not because it wants 'peace', but because it knows that total victory for Assad is a near impossibility, writes Sam Hamad.
7 min read
21 Mar, 2017
Assad regime fighter jets continue to strike Jobar district of Damascus [Andalou]

After the Assad regime, Iran and Russia together broke the back of Free Aleppo through brutal siege and bombardment, you'd be forgiven for thinking the Syrian revolution was all but over. 

How could the rebels - abandoned by their own half-hearted allies and facing the might of Russia and Iran - possibly survive? 

Well, those who were convinced of the demise of the Syrian revolution might be rather miffed by recent events in the Jobar neighbourhood of Damascus. 

At a time when delegates to the Russia-dominated peace conference was beginning in Geneva, the rebels managed to - in the spirit of the era before Russian intervention - pool their limited resources and launch an offensive against the Assad regime and its Iranian-led allies.

The offensive is occurring less than two miles away from the city centre - the rebels aim to break the brutal siege of Qaboun. How could the Assad regime, which took Free Aleppo, the jewel of the rebellion, be facing an offensive in the capital city and the seat of its tyrannical rule?

The Assad regime and its allies like to advertise themselves as agents of "stability" in Syria. But in truth, while the massive Russian intervention and the huge mobilisation by Iran might allow Assad to achieve military victories and prop up his rump state, none of this will address the endemic problems Assad faces - namely that the Syrian revolution is a popular revolution with no short supply of manpower. 

Assad and his cheerleaders like to keep up the myth that the regime has always enjoyed widespread popularity among Syrians, repeating his absurd claims that the revolution is "foreign".

But in actual fact, it's the regime whose main fighting force is foreign, and their tactics on the battlefield have always demonstrated so. 

Assad and his cheerleaders like to keep up the myth that the regime has always enjoyed widespread popularity among Syrians

Ethnic cleansing has been a key part of Assad's strategy. 

Assad knew that by the point the peaceful revolution became a civil war, that great swathes of the population were completely lost to him. 

The tactic then became about getting rid of those great swathes of the population. Depopulation of rebel-held or rebel-supporting areas became the monstrous tactic of the Assad cartel and its Iranian and Russian masters. Cutting out the cancer of liberty, as the regime would have it.

This is the reason the Assad regime has been so brutally consistent in its targeting of civilians, and its will to destroy the civil infrastructure of liberated areas. While the bulk of the refugees were first displaced in 2012, when Assad began to use his airforce to target the mostly Sunni rebel-held civilian areas, we've seen much more overt and controlled instances of ethnic cleansing too during the conflict.

Assad's loyalist death squads used the tactic of chasing Sunni Syrians - who are of course the main demographic of the country and of the revolution - out of their homes in towns and villages. They would then burn the homes or loot them so there was nothing left for them to return to - these people would thus join the growing masses of refugees. 

  Read more: If Assad stays in power, it'd be a disaster

As Russia and Iran's intervention began to pay off for them, and the rebels found themselves ever more isolated, we saw the controlled ethnic cleansing of places such as Homs, particularly the rebel-held district of al-Waer, as well as, even more openly, Darayya

Thousands of Sunni families were ethnically cleansed from this once-liberated Damascus suburb, only for Iran - fulfilling its role as a neo-colonialist regional force - to repopulate them with Shia families, not just from other parts of Syria, but also from Lebanon and Iraq. 

It's hardly controversial to note the similarity of this tactic of religious or sectarian colonialism with that of the Islamic State group. 

Then there was the cleansing of Aleppo itself. After the mostly foreign militias - loyal to Assad only on the orders of Iran - took the city after years of bombardment and siege, the regime immediately sought to rid the rebel-held areas of its population under the guise of "evacuations".

Tens of thousands of Syrians from the formerly Free Aleppo were removed and repopulated in rebel-held Idlib. 

Why would a truly victorious force need to ethnically cleanse civilians?

And this gets to the point about the revolution being far from over. 

Why would a truly victorious force need to ethnically cleanse civilians? Shouldn't the civilians be rallying around this force? Why would it need to rely on tens of thousands of foreign fighters, rallied by Iran, as well as Russian intervention, to survive? 

Shouldn't Assad, if he truly were a popular and victorious leader, have an abundance of manpower willing to come and sweep the last remaining strongholds of the rebellion away? Why haven't they moved on Free Idlib?

This is one reason why Russia has been so adamant about a so-called "political solution" - it knows that while it can use its resources to prop up Assad militarily, the long-term costs of this would be huge, and it would be permeated with difficulties and contradictions that might lead to it getting sucked deeper into the conflict itself. 

The memory of the undoing of the USSR in Afghanistan still looms large among Russians. The fundamental contradiction is that Assad himself is the primary cause of instability, as well as the principal cause of IS and of any other extremist force coming to the fore. 

Russia has thus been keen to press for a "political solution", which is why it has talked up this "peace conference" in Geneva, which started at the beginning of the week. 

The fundamental contradiction is that Assad himself is the primary cause of instability

Russia desperately wants one of two things: The first is for the Syrian "opposition" to acquiesce to its plans for peace - though these are hardly likely to involve the end of the regime in which it has invested so much.

The second is to persuade international opinion that the Syrian rebels, by rejecting peace with a genocidal force that has industrially murdered tens of thousands of people, are rejectionists and thus must be dealt with by a broader alliance.

And Russia might very well have this wish fulfilled. The US under Donald Trump has begun to strike rebel forces under the justification that they associate with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), formerly an al-Qaeda franchise known as the Nusra Front. 

Last week, Ahrar al-Sham, a key anti-Assad rebel force that has also fought IS and sided with secular rebels against JFS, claimed that the US air force struck a village held by the rebel coalition Tahir al-Sham, which, though containing JFS, is entirely concerned with fighting Assad. 

The attack hit a mosque and murdered at least 46 civilians. 

Of course, groups such as JFS only have currency within the rebels primarily because the world, including those who claimed to be their friends, particularly the US, abandoned them.

For the US to now start punishing rebels who are forced to ally with this powerful group for pragmatic reasons is not only morally despicable, but it'll no doubt lead to the strengthening of JFS. 

Even this eventuality will not lead to any kind of victory for Assad, Iran and Russia - it'll simply pave the way for more murder, destruction and extremism, most of it at their own hand.

It used to be customary to end an article like this with an appeal for international support for the rebels fighting in Jobar or those in Idlib.

But with the US under the fascistic, overtly anti-rebel Trump regime, and with the UK consumed by the great disaster of Brexit, or with even formerly reliable sources like Saudi Arabia focused on their own brutal war in Yemen and enjoying ideological congruence with Trump, one can only watch in hope and horror as the Syrian nightmare continues. 

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff