Syria: The Kingdom Strikes Back
In a sudden turn of events, the fight in Syria has entered into a new, possibly even more dangerous, phase.
Last week, on December 11, fighters from the Islamic Front, a newly formed alliance of various fundamentalist militias, have turned against the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and overran several key installations in north-west Syria, including its military headquarters in northern Syria, several depots and a border crossing town near the Turkish frontier. The FSA military command, the Supreme Military Council is reportedly in complete disarray, with General Selim Idriss having fled to Qatar.
As a consequence, United States and Britain have suspended all non-lethal aid for the Syrian insurgency destined for northern Syria, and have kept supplying the moderated rebels only in southern Syria.
This new Islamic Front is not, at least yet, allied with Al-Qaeda, but shares some commonalities with the terrorist organization, like the imposition of Sharia Law in Syria after removing the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from power, or inciting of sectarian violence. It is not so extreme like other al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations in Syria like Jabhat al-Nusra or the dreaded Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIL), which makes it acceptable for the Saudi Arabia to support it.
The new organization has formed only recently, in the last weeks of November, when a number of rebel militias have banded together to form a larger force with better access to financial and military supplies. It is probably meant to counter the growing power of the al-Qaeda affiliated organizations by offering an alternative to the FSA, which has resorted more to war-profiteering, rather than fighting.
While this move is a common recurrence in the sea of Syrian insurgency, where about one thousand rebel militias are opposing the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and are often banding together, separating and sometimes fighting each other for better access to funds and support, this particular alignment of militias must be considered in the light of recent Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) declarations of anger against a perceived US vacillation on Syria in the Autumn of 2013 and moves by the KSA of increasing its support for the Syrian insurgency.
Another point that stands to be noted is the recent Saudi military shopping spree in the United States military-industrial complex. The KSA has just recently bought a staggering amount of 15,000 from the latest, state-of-the-art, anti-tank missiles, amounting to around $1.1 billion. This has also raised brows about the real destination or future use of these missiles. While these missiles will not be shipped directly to the Syrian rebels, it is a distinct possibility that the existing Saudi stores of such weapons will. The KSA will probably empty their military depots of existing, non-US, anti-tank missiles and ship them to the Syrian rebels, among other military toys. There have been a number of videos showing the Syrian rebels making use of armored vehicles or tanks, which tends to indicate the intensity of the fighting in Syria and the amount of support given to the rebels.
As of yet, none of the rebel militias which formed the Islamic Front are designated by the United States as terrorist organizations, but the new organizations has already cooperated closely with the Jabhat al-Nusra, which is a good reason to raise eyebrows. Nonetheless, this has not proved to be an obstacle for the former US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, to engage in negotiations with the Islamic Front in late November.
Given the region-wide events in the last month, like the success of the Geneva 3 negotiations with Iran and the announcement of a solid date for the Geneva II talks for Syria, our perception has been that America is attempting a withdrawal of some sort from the Middle East, in order to balance its “Pivot to Asia”. In this respect, various moves by the US have been interpreted as trying to persuade the Syrian rebels to attempt to speak in one voice, for a better representation during the talks in January 22. Given the US and British interruption in supplies for northern Syria, this may be a distinct possibility.
But the problem may arise from the other side. The position of the Syrian government has been always that it will not negotiate with foreign-backed terrorists. As such, the FSA has always been considered the potential partner for discussion between the Assad regime and the opposition. But now the FSA has been effectively excluded from the field in Syria, and exists, on paper at least, in Turkey. It has no longer control over the events in Syria and it will take a long time to recover from this debacle.
Giving these developments, it is not impossible that the Syrian government will reconsider its participation in the Geneva II Conference in January 2014, giving that its remaining significant military opponents: ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, are not Syrian citizens revolting against their government, but exactly foreign-backed fighters, some of them of the worst kind (see Russian president Putin’s remark about “those liver-eaters” in this respect).
But it is likely that the future developments regarding participation to the Geneva talks will have to be considered on a region-wide scale. If the interim agreement with Iran fails to materialize (it is significant that almost a month after its announcement it is not formally implemented) for example, it is not impossible that the Geneva II talks of a “Syrian transition” will be further postponed.
In any situation, it is highly unlikely that there will be any sort of political transition in Syria until both sides stop the military operations. This should be the main objective of the diplomats, together with immediate action for humanitarian aid for the Syrian refugees.
There may be some possibilities regarding the immediate future for Syria.
First, the recent developments are just a last-minute effort to achieve a better bargaining position at the Geneva table, and the rebels are scrambling to portrait themselves as a capable fighting force, one to be reckon with, and as such are try to instill fear into the Assad regime. If this is the case, than the intense fighting will continue in the following days, but it should wind down in the week before the January 22.
Second, the KSA is effectively trying to sabotage the Geneva II talks between the Assad regime and the Syrian insurgency and has just managed to remove one of the two parties which were supposed to be involved in the talks. If that is the case, then it is not impossible that it has succeeded in its machinations.
Third, the Geneva talks will take place, but without a ceasefire on the field in Syria. If combined with the not-so-moderate stance of the Syrian rebels, the negotiations will end in failure, and there will be no political transition of any sort in Syria, but only a further radicalization of all sides, which will lead to an increased violence, an increased number of refugees, an increase in terrorism and an increase in the instability, both in Syria and in entire region.