[Marxism] Haaretz: World powers see Assad as bulwark against Islamic State

Michael Karadjis mkaradjis at gmail.com
Fri Aug 22 23:56:14 MDT 2014

World powers see Assad as bulwark against Islamic State

Diplomatic map starting to break Syrian president’s way.


By Zvi Bar'el     |   Aug. 22, 2014 | 2:28 AM

After three years of war and the deaths of more than 170,000 people, 
Syrian President Bashar Assad is starting to sense a change not just on 
the Syrian front but in the international arena as well. Last week U.S. 
President Barack Obama referred to the liquidation of chemical weapons 
stockpiles as an important achievement, adding that “we are pressuring 
Assad to desist from committing atrocities against Syria’s population.” 
This formulation is interesting, in that it doesn’t include a demand for 
regime change.

Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement was more pointed, indicating 
that Washington “would continue to provide political and financial 
support to aid the moderate opposition, helping those Syrians who opt 
for peace and oppose extremists.” The United States committed to 
supplying high-quality weapons to the Free Syrian Army, but these 
promises remained on paper, since there is no definition yet for what 
constitutes a “moderate” opposition.

The strategic change is reflected in the United States and Europe now 
being more worried about the expansion of the Islamic State than the 
continued rule of Assad. Assad is increasingly perceived as a vital 
component in the struggle against the Islamic State. This conceptual 
change was discussed in recent talks between Saudi Arabia, Russia, 
Egypt, the United States and Israel. The Saudi and Russian foreign 
ministers exchanged visits recently, and Saudi Arabia may now be ready 
to consider a reform in Syria which will allow Assad to remain in power.

This amounts to a sea change in Saudi strategy, and some analysts 
suggest that such an agreement will include the installation of its 
protégé Saad al-Hariri as Lebanon’s president. This would allow Saudi 
Arabia an elegant exit from the Syrian quagmire.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi also discussed Syria in his 
meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Sissi never demanded the 
removal of Assad who, in turn, has never criticized Egypt’s treatment of 
Hamas during the fighting in Gaza. Iran was among the first to support 
Egypt’s proposal for a cease-fire. Sissi may therefore join the Saudis 
in agreeing to Assad’s remaining in power.

This is bad news for the Syrian opposition, whose American support is 
also shaky. This new axis is also aimed at neutralizing Qatar in the 
Syrian arena, where it enjoys great influence over Islamist militias.

This may be what lies behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent 
description of a “new political horizon.” He apparently was not 
referring to the Palestinian issue but to the new informal alliance of 
Arab states which are concerned about the Islamic State, viewing Assad 
as a potential ally in a campaign against it. He could be figuring that 
harsh expressions against Hamas by Arab leaders, Israel’s diplomatic and 
military cooperation with Egypt, the new strategic outline presented by 
Saudi Arabia, threats to Jordan and Israeli concerns about militias 
overrunning Syria may form a basis for regional cooperation.

Checkpoint economy

“Hand over everything in your pockets!” ordered the armed guard manning 
the checkpoint outside the Syrian city of Idlib. The young student 
trying to get through gave the equivalent of eight dollars to the guard, 
who belonged to the jihadist group Nusra Front. The student didn’t 
complain, telling the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar that his uncle had 
paid eighty dollars a few days earlier.

Such payments have become routine for Syrians. Everyone collects money 
at checkpoints, including the Syrian army, the Free Syrian Army 
militias, Nusra Front and the Islamic State.

The most pleasant are the Syrian army, say some residents. “They usually 
only inspect your papers and inquire why you’re not mobilized, looking 
at documents exempting you from military service, if you have them,” 
said one citizen, adding that soldiers usually take the least money. The 
problem is that anyone traveling from Damascus to Idlib needs to pass 
through several checkpoints belonging to different groups, requiring 
sufficient cash in order to reach one’s destination safely.

Citizens of Syria now require several maps. One is for finding out who 
rules what areas, while a more detailed map shows which militia controls 
which quarter or village. A third map describes bypass roads and routes 
for crossing into Turkey or Lebanon. These maps change daily. Thus, for 
example, militias from the Free Syrian Army just reached a truce with 
Kurdish militias in the northern city of Al-Hasakah, following many days 
of exchanging fire. One can now safely travel to this city. In the 
Qalamoun Mountains on the Lebanese border, the Syrian army and Hezbollah 
control a daily shifting pattern of territory. The city of Tartus on the 
Mediterranean coast is still considered safe, with electricity supplies 
lasting several hours, in contrast to Damascus, where supplies are 
intermittent and last only a few hours a day. Many citizens go to hotels 
to use the Internet.

Several towns have reached a pact with the Syrian army to avoid being 
attacked, demanding that militias depart. Sometimes it works and other 
times it doesn’t – some militias kill their own members if they are part 
of these pacts. Some militias conduct “foreign relations” with other 
countries, not only to raise funds. Thus, Nusra Front and its rival the 
Islamic State are negotiating for the release of Lebanese soldiers 
captured in a fierce battle in the Lebanese town of Arsal last week. 
Nusra Front is demanding two of its own captives in exchange for each 
soldier it releases, while the Islamic State demands a 10-to-1 ratio. 
Qatar and Turkey are urging the Front to reach a deal; they have no 
contact with the Islamic State. These countries assisted the Front 
before it joined Al-Qaida, and they may aid thousands of refugees who 
cannot reach Lebanon. Lebanese newspapers have reported that Turkey will 
agree to take in 25,000 more refugees, its earlier refusal 
notwithstanding. Such local agreements have evolved into an alternative 
form of government, as the Syrian army slowly progresses from village to 
village, trying to create contiguously controlled areas 

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