Syria: the opposition is in retreat
With financial assistance from Qatar and Saudi Arabia drying up and the flow of weapons from Turkey and Lebanon slowing, what had to happen now has: The rebels have begun retreating in panic under the Syrian Army’s onslaught. This is occurring against the backdrop of bad things happening for the rebels: Riyadh is clearly tired of throwing money at Islamists who are increasingly under the thrall of Doha rather than the Saudis; there could be a turnover in the Qatari government at any time due to the illness of the Emir, for whom it currently is more important to resolve the issue of making the Crown Prince head of state; and Turkey is in the early throes of its own “revolutionary spring.”
On June 4, the Syrian armed forces succeeded in clearing the rebels from the strategically important town of Al-Qusayr, which is located in central Syria near the Lebanese border. The rebels and government forces had fought for control of that town for almost six months. Hama was almost completely liberated on June 5. According to reports coming in, troops loyal to the legitimate government, including special guards units, are preparing within the next few days to begin an operation to clear out rebels entrenched in some neighborhoods. If that happens, Damascus will have control of all of Syria’s major cities. A few pockets of resistance may hold out for a time, of course, but the Islamists are at the end of their rope. Realizing their desperate situation, therefore, some of the extremists have decided to attack the center of the capital with mortars, but they have not produced the desired result. Moreover, Syrian troops have initiated combat operations in the Damascus suburbs where the Free Syrian Army is still holding out.
Sensing that, the countries that have consistently favored the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, especially France, have decided once again to play the “chemical card.” Thus, while French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was in New York to sign an international agreement governing the sale of the conventional arms, he gave a report at the UN based on recent “revelations” by the Le Monde newspaper about the Syrian Army’s alleged use of toxic chemicals against opposition fighters. Some obscure “analyses” done on the composition of these toxic agents done in French laboratories figure into that. One thing is not at all clear — who used the chemical weapons: the government forces or the rebels? After all, official proof is lacking.
There is only conjecture that something else is going on: Extremist mercenaries with ampoules of sarin detained recently in Turkey while attempting to enter Syria were released almost immediately under British pressure. Doesn’t it look strange for extremists caught with such a deadly cargo to be treated like that? Not if we consider that London obviously did not need for them to be arrested, but wanted them to enter Syria via Turkey with their toxic “cargo” and thereby create a “case” for accusing Damascus of using toxic agents!
Carla del Ponte had a good response for Fabius’s accusations that Damascus has used chemical weapons. She said proof is still lacking concerning who used the chemical weapons that killed a small number of people, when conventional arms have killed tens of thousands. As she said last Sunday in her capacity as a member of the UN commission investigating possible human rights violations in Syria, experts strongly suspect that it was the rebels opposing President Assad who used chemical weapons. In an interview with a Swiss television network, she said that according to the testimony of victims and physicians, it was probably the rebels who used the nerve agent sarin. She also stressed that the experts do not yet have concrete proof and reminded people that the investigation is far from complete.
London and Paris clearly are hyping the chemical weapons story solely to provoke a foreign military intervention in Syria and push the United States and Israel into using military force against Damascus.
Since it isn’t working, they are actively promoting a different topic — intervention by Hezbollah and Iran, who supposedly are fighting on the government forces’ side, including in al-Qusayr. The opposition is primarily using that as a pretext to avoid participating in the Geneva 2 conference — even though it has already been established that there were no Hezbollah fighters in al-Qusayr. On the contrary, this Shiite group fought off attempts by Syrian rebels to enter Lebanon from the al-Qusayr region. Lying through propaganda is the chief weapon used by Britain, France and Qatar, from where Al Jazeera is broadcasting stories that apparently even the opposition’s supporters do not believe.
But I have to ask — what does Damascus need with the Geneva 2 conference if the rebels might suffer a major defeat before it takes place? After all, the victor doesn’t need to negotiate with the loser. On top of everything else, France has been saying through its foreign minister that it would be better to hold the meeting in July than in June, because it should be a “conference of last resort.”
Then a report came from Geneva the evening of June 5, after another round of Russian-American consultations on Geneva 2, saying that the preparatory meeting could take place in late June, and the event itself in July. In other words, the date has shifted again. Evidently to prevent it from coming off at all. Indeed, before the government’s victories, people in the West were hoping that al-Qusayr, Hezbollah, Iran and the chemical weapons issue would be bargaining chips that would let the opposition and its sponsors set preconditions. It seems they miscalculated once again. After all, if the Syrian forces continue to rack up successes and Damascus regains control over regions where the rebels were previously strong, the conference will no longer be needed for other reasons: There may not be a true opposition to take part in the negotiations because it might have gone underground by July, leaving only small pockets of terrorists to carry on the fight with Damascus; and its leaders may control only their headquarters in Istanbul and two rooms in expensive Doha hotels were rebels are paid and given their instructions.
For now, however, Syria’s leaders are in a constructive mood. They are willing to sit down at the negotiating table to work out an agreement concerning the country’s future on the basis of a political settlement. The rebels would have to be complete fools not to take advantage of Damascus’s peaceful frame of mind. In fact, they can state their terms, considering the current state of affairs in which they are clearly at a disadvantage. In addition, the Obama administration is obviously becoming increasingly less desirous of seeing a radical Islamist regime in Syria. As is Israel. And without Washington, none of the opposition’s sponsors will decide to intervene militarily in Syria, especially since it is becoming increasingly impossible for Turkey to do so.
Petr Lvov holds a Doctorate in Political Science. Exclusively for New Eastern Outlook.