By Ameen Izzadeen
The people of Syria have suffered enough in the past three years for no fault of theirs. The civil war has killed more than 162,000 Syrians and left more than 9 million people displaced.
It is time to talk peace. An opportunity to talk peace has come in the form of a resounding victory for President Bashar al-Assad at Tuesday’s presidential election. Branded as the butcher of Syria by the West and its Middle Eastern allies, Assad showed he is in control by successfully holding the presidential election and winning it handsomely with the rebels in disarray unable to disrupt it.
True, elections in most West Asian countries are largely a sham. The incumbent wins the election with a huge majority, usually 90 per cent of the voters favouring him. But this sham is not entirely the making of West Asian dictators. The West is also part of the game. The West does not like democracy to take hold in West Asia. This is because the West thinks it is easier to control or buy over dictators than democratically elected leaders.
Just look at the events which unfolded in Egypt following the people’s power revolution in 2011. The uprising ended the 30-year tyranny of Hosni Mubarak and brought the Muslim Brotherhood into power. But the United States and its regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel conspired to overthrow the Brotherhood government of President Mohammed Morsi and worked to bring their point man in military chief Abdul Fatah al-Sisi as President. The Egyptian presidential election which Sisi won was not a free and fair election. The US-based Carter Centre, which observed the 2011 parliamentary and 2012 presidential elections in Egypt, refused to monitor the election because it felt that the elections were not held in “genuinely competitive campaign environment”.
The turnout, according to independent analysts, was around 25 per cent, though the Egyptian junta claimed it was around 40 per cent. And as expected around 96 per cent of those voted picked Sisi. The West has said little about the questionable manner in which the Egyptian elections were held and won by Sisi though it was quick to slam the Syrian election as an obstacle to achieving real democracy and a ‘great big zero’.
In Syria, Assad won the election with 88 per cent of the 11 million people voting for him. Officially, 15 million people were registered to vote and elections were held only in areas under government control. If the figures are assumed correct, they show that Assad is in firm control over much of Syria and its population. But the opposition charged that many of those who voted did so more out of fear than commitment to Assad, whose family has ruled Syria with an iron fist for four decades.
To give a veneer of credibility to the democratic process and make it a possible step towards ending the civil war on the Syrian government’s terms, Assad invited the opposition to contest the elections, which for the first time ever, had two other candidates. If only they had agreed to contest the election, it could have been held under UN supervision. But anti-Assad forces chickened out and did not want to follow the democratic option. They insisted that Assad should not be a candidate at any election. Their reluctance to participate in elections only confirmed Assad’s claim that he enjoyed the support of the majority of the people. Some thirty friendly countries, including Russia, sent observers to monitor the election and they have endorsed it as free and fair.
Victory at the presidential polls means that Assad will be Syria’s president for the next seven years during which Syria will see more violence and more war with the involvement of world powers and regional powers.
In recent weeks and months, the Syrian army has taken back several towns and villages that had been under the control of various rebel groups.
These battleground successes, instead of paving the way for peace talks, have infuriated the West and increased the resolve of its regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates to oust the Assad government. They know that Assad is winning the war because of the Syrian military’s superior air power, a vital component in conventional warfare. The Syrian rebels, who are not fighting a guerrilla war, say if they were to win the war, they should get air cover or weapons to neutralise the Syrian Air Force. It was with Nato air support that the Libyan rebels succeeded in overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi. But largely due to the use of veto by Russia and China at the United Nations Security Council, the West was unable to provide air cover to the rebel fighters.
Critics say the election victory will embolden Assad to take harsher measures against the rebels who are using civilians as a defence shield. Assad’s forces are accused of dropping crude barrel bombs that are capable of killing more people and destroying a larger area than a conventional missile of bomb is.
On the other hand, the West wants to arm the rebels with anti-aircraft weapons such as shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles. President Barack Obama in his address to the armed forces at West Point on May 28 pledged to send a new military aid package for Syria’s “freedom fighters”.
Earlier Secretary of State John Kerry said the US and its allies “would increase all aspects of support for the mainstream Syrian opposition fighting to overthrow President Assad”.
“Every possible avenue will be pursued by one country or another,… I’m not going to discuss specific weapons and what country may or may not be providing [weapons], but …. every facet of what can be done will be ramped up, and that includes a political effort, aid to the opposition… economic efforts and sanctions.”
But neither Obama nor Kerry addressed the major concern over the possibility of the arms meant for the so-called Syrian freedom fighters falling into the hands of al-Qaeda groups. The reality is that the moderate opposition groups such as the Syrian National Coalition or its military wing Free Syrian Army are fast losing ground to Jihadi groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and the Jabhatul Nusra.
The Obama administration cannot pretend it does not know that on the ground it was al-Qaeda groups that call the shots. In earlier speeches and remarks, Obama and Kerry have indicated that the US would arm the moderate factions to fight both the Syrian troops and the Jihadist groups. But this is largely an attempt to mislead the Americans public. The US knows that the advanced anti-aircraft weapons it plans to send will end up with the al-Qaeda fighters – groups that the US has labeled as ‘terrorists’. All this shows that the US does not mind arming the terrorists if the end – the ousting of Assad – justifies the means.
It is too early to say that the new military aid package including anti-aircraft weapons could tilt the balance of war in rebels’ favour.
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 tyrannical regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. But Syria was different. The uprising was only partly spontaneous. The other part was engineered by outside forces such as the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. They interfered in the Syrian crisis and instigated a rebellion to achieve their geopolitical and economic goals. If Assad was ousted, they thought, it would weaken the rising Shiite power symbolised by the so-called Shiite crescent comprising Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon. It is through Syria that Iran supplies arms and money to the Hezbollah which has proved its might by withstanding and frustrating a month-long Israeli attack on Southern Lebanon in 2006. So if Assad who belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, is ousted, Syria will be run by pro-Saudi, pro-US Sunni majority leaders. Once this goal is achieved, the pro-West Syrian government will cede the Golan Heights to Israel and let Qatar to build a pipeline to take its gas to Europe via Syria and Turkey. 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 via Syria. In addition to these geopolitical and economic aims, the West is not comfortable with a Russian naval base in Syria. Surely a pro-West government in Damascus will not entertain a Russian base.
But what is unfortunate is that the West and its allies are trying to achieve these geopolitical and economic goals at the cost of misery to millions of people. The UN has described the Syrian crisis as the worst since World War II. It is also unfortunate that there is little attempt to revive or resume the international talks aimed at finding a peaceful solution. In the wake of the Syrian elections, only Russia has called for the resumption of the talks which were suspended in February.
It is only through talks incorporating all the players, including Syria and Iran, that the Syrian crisis can be solved. But both sides should compromise for a win-win solution. But it appears the West and its allies are not interested in peace as they believe that the supply of new weapons will help the rebels to defeat the Syrian government troops. Little do they realise that they are only worsening the situation and prolonging the suffering of the millions of Syrians since Assad backed by Russia which is smarting over the West’s betrayal in Ukraine, will match weapon with weapon.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)