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