Syria: Worst crisis since World War II

By Ameen Izzadeen
The United States President, Barack Obama, made a wise decision when he backed off in August from attacking Syria even after he claimed US intelligence agencies had clear proof that President Bashar al-Assad had crossed the so-called red line – a reference to the use of chemical weapons.
His transatlantic ally and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron was in a mighty big hurry to scramble fighter jets to bomb Syrian military positions and help the rebels who were fighting the Syrian regime. He believed Western military intervention in Syria would bring about a regime change as happened in Libya.
Obama has reasons to feel relieved that he had avoided a major catastrophe. If he had listened to Cameron’s advice, the Syrian crisis would not only have triggered a regional war but would also have paved the way for the creation of the world’s first al-Qaeda-run caliphate. Thankfully, for Obama, public opinion in both Britain and the United States was against military intervention in Syria.
The Obama administration has been playing a key role in the Syrian crisis. It has been providing non-lethal assistance and military training to Syrian rebels since the crisis began in 2011 against the backdrop of people power uprisings toppling dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
At the beginning, Washington ignored warnings that much of the rebel fighting force comprised al-Qaeda affiliated groups, and went along with the stance Israel and Saudi Arabia had taken on Syria. For, Washington, too, had believed that the fall of the Assad regime would deal a shattering blow to the rising Shiite crescent comprising Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah. The US initially thought that such a blow to the Iran-led alliance would help consolidate its military dominance in the region and strengthen the hands of Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Besides geostrategic factors, oil-economics also plays a key role in the Syrian crisis. US allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey were livid that the Assad regime had signed an agreement with Iran and Iraq to build a pipeline that would take Iran’s gas to the Mediterranean across Syria. They believe that a post-Assad government will instead allow Saudi and Qatari pipelines across Syria and Turkey to Europe.
For nearly two years, the US and its western and Gulf allies had believed that Assad’s days were numbered and they could set up a pro-West, pro-Saudi and anti-Iran regime in Damascus. But as the US and its western allies clung to this view, the ground situation gradually changed in favour of hardcore Islamists.
Suddenly wisdom dawned on the US that helping the rebels, many of whom were hardcore Islamic extremists, would only turn post-Assad Syria into an al-Qaeda state. Incidentally, the US caution coincided with moves that led to last month’s historic deal aimed at curbing the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities. The deal between Iran and the P5+1 nations came much to the chagrin of both Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are also angry that the US has shelved the military option against Syria.
Independently of the US, the Saudis have drafted their own plan and trajectory to topple the Assad regime. Intelligence chiefs of Saudi Arabia and Israel are now said to be meeting secretly more often than before with the intention of overthrowing Assad and scuttling the growing rapport between the West and Iran. The Saudis began to back hardcore Islamic rebels in spite of their al-Qaeda affiliations. Saudi Arabia’s myopic policy has created a dangerous situation. It is causing serious security concerns for the United States and the West.
The ground situation in Syria indicates that an embryonic caliphate has been created by Sunni Islamic jihadists, whom critics describe as human liver eaters and head choppers. In recent weeks, the jihadists have overrun positions held by the US-backed Free Syrian Army, which largely comprises Syrian soldiers who have defected, moderate Islamists and secular opposition groups. The FSA’s mission statement claims that its aim is to set up a democratic Syria and declares itself a non-sectarian force. It had scored some military victories and held on to several towns and strategic areas.
The FSA is in disarray. Its leader, General Salim Idris, is reported to have fled to Qatar. In the face of the sudden onslaught by the Jihadists led by the much feared Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, many of the FSA members deserted post or changed sides while the committed among them died in the battle.
The defeat of the FSA has given the jihadists a territory to govern and set up an Islamic Caliphate which they say will spread from Iraq to the Atlantic Ocean across North Africa. The unexpected development compelled the US to suspend non-lethal supplies to the FSA, because it feared the aid could end up with al-Qaeda affiliated groups.
The US move indicates a lack of foresight in the United States’ Syria policy. It apparently took lightly the warnings of the rise of extremism in post-Assad Syria.
The US has been pushed into a position where, on the one hand, it cannot support the Assad regime and on the other, it cannot trust the Saudi-backed and al-Qaeda affiliated extremists who now call the shots. The most dominant Jihadi group is al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which wants all those who fight the Syrian regime to come under its banner. Until May this year, ISIS was al-Qaeda’s franchisee in Iraq and Syria. Many small jihadi groups have joined ISIS. But major Jihadi groups like an-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s other franchisee, and the Islamic Front have declined to join it. A clash among the Islamists is a strong possibility.
In ISIS, Saudi Arabia has apparently created a Frankenstein’s monster, which now wants to be independent of the master. Al-Baghdadi’s ISIS, for instance, is fanatically independent though it receives arms and funds from the Saudis and, like the Saudis, its members follow the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. According to the latest Time magazine cover story, Al-Baghdadi even refused to follow the orders of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is holed up in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Al-Baghdadis’ spat with al-Zawahiri occurred in May when a confrontational situation between ISIS and the an-Nusra group erupted. The al-Qaeda chief ordered al-Baghdadi to return to Iraq. But al-Baghdadi refused. An angry al-Zawahiri ordered the disbanding of the ISIS. Al-Baghdadi in response told him that ISIS would remain intact. “I have to choose between the rule of God and the rule of al-Zawahiri, and I choose the rule of God,” he said in a dispatch to al-Zawahiri.
Al-Baghdadi is the new face of the Middle Eastern al-Qaeda which is independent of the group Osama bin Laden created. Al-Baghdadi was born in 1971 in Samarra, Iraq. He has a PhD in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad. Joining the al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, he fought the US troops in Iraq. After al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006, his successor Abu Ayub al-Masri died in 2010 and a subsequent leader died shortly thereafter, al-Baghdadi rose to become the leader of the AQI. Under his leadership, the AQI emerged stronger with a series of success stories, chief among them being the attack on the heavily guarded Abu Ghraib jail where the crème of the AQi terrorists had been detained. Al-Baghdadi freed them all and transported them in pickup trucks from the Abu Ghraib prisons to Syria. Their arrival in Syria changed the ground situation in favour of the ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), the new name of the AQI. Al-Baghdadi claims that he now controls a force of 100,000 fighters — but western intelligence groups believe it is around 10,000.
Jessica D. Lewis, director of research at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War and author of the recent report on the al-Qaeda’ resurgence in Iraq, says, “al-Baghdadi has military momentum; he has taken terrain in Syria and he has established a governance system. He is the one conducting the war that all the foreign fighters (jihadis) are seeking. He is calling the shots and will make him a major player in al-Qaeda going forward.”
Yesterday, the London-based Amnesty International accused al-Baghdadi’s ISIS of abducting, torturing and killing detainees at secret prisons in areas under its control. The rights group said detainees included children as young as eight and that minors had been sentenced to severe floggings and held with adults in “cruel and inhuman conditions”.
“After years in which they were prey to the brutality of (Assad’s) regime, the people of Raqa and Aleppo are now suffering under a new form of tyranny imposed on them by (ISIS), in which arbitrary detention, torture and executions have become the order of the day,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Amnesty’s statement came a day after the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that condemned Syria for human rights violations, but made no mention of rebel atrocities.
The Syrian crisis has now turned into a battle between bad guys. Just as Assad is brutish in the eyes of the West, the rebels who try to overthrow him are also brutish. The new development has further dashed the hopes of the tens of millions of suffering Syrians, who are caught between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea. United Nations refugee agency chief António Guterres this week warned that Syria had become the most dangerous crisis for global peace and security since World War II while the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on countries to respond to the emergency situation, saying it had deteriorated beyond all imagination.
In the circumstances, the Geneva talks scheduled for January 22 pose a big question. There will be the world powers, Iran (for the first time) and representatives of the Syrian regime. But who will represent the rebel fighters and the Syrian opposition, now that the moderate groups have become history?
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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