CF’s Weekly Comment
22-29 March 2013
The Scale of the Airbridge of Weapons lifted to the Syrian Opposition: In an officially-inspired New York Times article, the sheer scale of weapons transfers to the Syrian opposition throughout the last year and more, is made plain: almost daily heavy-lift cargo ‘planes from Qatar and Jordan (at least one hundred and sixty flights), disgorging their cargos at airports in Turkey and Jordan: the weapons derive from procurement lines, opened by CIA and western intelligence, notably from Croatia and elsewhere in East Europe, and total, according to the NYT article – at a conservative estimate – some 3,500 tons. Let us be clear: 3,500 tons is an enormously large amount of weapons. The scale of this airlift simply dwarfs the massive weapons airlift mounted for the Afghan resistance in the 1980s. The US purpose in leaking this disclosure is made plain in the article: the US President has not been ‘standing idly-by’ (as alleged); Petraeus was the airbridge’s mastermind all along, and the weapons naturally only were going to ‘vetted opposition groups’ (that is to say, the article’s key purpose was to deny that the US has been guilty of inadvertently arming al-Qaeda). There is however, another significance that can be attributed to this revelation – and that is: the sheer military failure of the western-sponsored opposition, given the scale of the weapons-supply that it is now admitted has been reaching these armed groups – for the last year and a half. The only military success that the opposition has to show at this point, is the holding of the relatively small northern town of Raqa’a – and that was taken by the al-Qae’da aligned al-Nusra Front, which refuses to allow the western sponsored groups to enter the town, as they “might be more interested in looting than fighting”. Otherwise, as Alex Thomson fromChannel Four notes, the mainstream armed opposition is now mostly occupied with haphazard mortar firings onto Damascus, killing civilians: “It is hard to build any other case than that the rebel tactic here is pure terror and demoralisation. If the [rebels] think they are going after military targets, then the above list from the past three days can only prove they are lethally incompetent”. In short, as most commentators have long suspected, and has now been confirmed, Syria is already awash with weapons. Will the latest Arab League resolution authorising its member states to arm the opposition make any difference? Will the loud demands from the UK and France for the EU to lift the arms embargo change the course of the conflict? This seems unlikely now that it has been confirmed that the airlift has already been underway for nearly a year and a half. (And as per Afghanistan and Libya, these weapons too will be washing around the region for a long time hence.) It is clear that we are seeing another upsurge of weapons entering Syria and the prospect of yet another (the 6th) attempt to “take Damascus”.
Arab League Summit: David Ignatius, writing in the Washington Post, has noted wryly how America’s hopes to forge a Syrian opposition ‘moderate political and military command strucure’, a sine qua non for any prospective negotiations on the future of Syria in the US view, have been shattered by ‘bitter Arab rivalries’. Western experts (see here and here) have been proclaiming as a success, the ‘withdrawal of legitimacy’ signified by Doha insisting (over the head of other AL states’ objections and in contravention of the Arab League’s charter) that Khatib occupy Syria’s chair at the summit; but the reality seems closer to Ignatius’ analysis than that of those ‘experts’ hailing the legitimacy of the event. Qatar originally had railroaded through the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Hitto as the putative ‘Prime Minister’ of a yet-to-be-nominated transitional Syrian ‘government’, primarily in order to implode SN Coalition leader, Khatib’s (and the US and Russian) initiative to begin negotiations with the Syrian government (Hitto immediately refused all negotiation with Damascus). Khatib and twelve senior colleagues then collectively resigned in protest; and an angered Saudi Arabia, which has no wish to see the MB in power in Syria, struck back at Qatar’s plans, by demanding that the recently resigned Katib must take the Syrian chair for the summit – and not Hitto. Israeli reports say that Saudi and Qatari delegates were heard shouting abuse at each other down the corridor, and exchanging blows in private rooms. Saudi Arabia (and other Gulf States) have been at extreme loggerheads over the perceived plan of the Emir of Qatar to bring the MB to power in Syria – and remain angered by the mess and anarchy in Libya and Africa, for which these states believe Qatar bears principal responsibility. The Russian perspective has been that the whole manoeuvre over the Syrian seat at the summit – far from conferring any legitimacy – was in fact, another example of the illegality which has characterised the western approach to Syria (from the illegal attempt to arm an insurrection, to the withdrawal of legitimacy of a President through processes that bypass international law and the UN process, and which are in contravention of the Arab League’s own charter). Ignatius’ final rejoinder was his expression of surprise at ‘how little the US has been willing or able to influence the Syrian political manoeuvres over recent months’. In the end, the summit has deepened the already bitter divisions within the Syrian opposition groupings.
Turkey’s Acceptance of an Israeli apology, and the PKK Peace Process: These two events are not unconnected to the angry divisions within the anti-Assad camp, described above: there is presently a surfeit of hubris in the Arab world over who is the leader of the Sunni world: with Erdogan, the Emir of Qatar and the Saudi king all claiming the title. Erdogan and the Emir, though suspicious of each other, nonetheless are bound by a common interest in seeing the Muslim Brotherhood come to power in the region. They believe that it is they who should be directing and stage-managing President Assad’s downfall, in the wider interests of the MB coming to power. Ranged against them are Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, who reject this claim, to insist that it is they, rather, who should manage the overthrow of President Assad, but in the interests of the MB not coming to power. President Obama seems undecided who to anoint, but Washington, over recent months, has noticeably cooled towards Turkey’s stewardship of the northern front against Syria. (The US Ambassador in Ankara has publicly criticised Turkish facilitation of the al-Nusra Front, which the US regards as an al-Qae’da offshoot). This drift by the US away from Erdogan, has caused anxiety in Ankara, and the sense was that this strategic relationship needed to be repaired. Erdogan is due to visit Washington shortly, but the ‘lobby’ (AIPAC) has been threatening to disrupt the smooth running of Erdogan’s DC visit, to protest at his anti-Israeli rhetoric. Erdogan’s somewhat triumphant acceptance of Netanyahu’s apology (which has irritated the Israelis considerably), is hoped to allow Turkey to again become central in the US calculations on Syria, and central to the future of the Kurds. The opening of negotiations with Öcalan is connected with both the Syrian issue, and with the Prime Minister’s desire to become President – and not just ‘President’, but a Turkish President enjoying full executive powers. The peace talks with Öcalan both open the way to undercut the increasing regional influence over the Kurdish issue, which threatens Ankara, and potentially can help Erdogan achieve the constitutional changes necessary for him to become executive President. (The AKP has insufficient parliamentary strength to change the constitution as Erdogan wants, but if a package could be agreed to meet some of the Kurdish requirements in terms of constitutional reform, it is conceivable that the Kurds might reciprocate, giving the AKP the balance in Parliament to achieve the amendment on the Presidential role). This would give Erdogan the prospect of a further ten years in power. Please note however the extremely cautious and downbeat Kurdish reaction to this initiative. Turkish thinking (see here for more details of this trial balloon) which envisages the dissolving of both Syria and Iraq as nation-states as the result of the Syria conflict, and the emergence of a new “Greater Sunni state” comprising the Sunnis of both Iraq and Syria, with a few dispersed pockets of Shi’i and Alawites dotted around what used to be known as Greater Syria. In this scenario, Turkish informed thinking seems to imagine that the Kurds (and the conjoined Syrian and Iraqi Sunni population) would somehow be drawn under the Turkish leadership mantle. Comment: this seems rather fanciful. It would seem to assume that Iran, the Shi’i and other minorities (who seem hardly to figure in this conception) simply would roll over, and allow this occur – a prospect that seems unlikely (unless the present Gulf and Turkish promoted Sunni insurgencies in Iraq and Syria, succeed in completely dismembering both states).