Conflicts Forum Weekly Comment

Conflicts Forum

20-26 April 2013

Syria has witnessed significant miltary advances by the Syrian Army over the last weeks. Earlier, government forces succeeded in disrupting opposition preparations for a prospective attack on Damascus through a series of lightening military strikes, which plainly benefitted from good intelligence.  More recently, the Army has been engaged in a major operation to sever the transit and supply routes to the Syrian opposition operating from out of Lebanon to insurgent members active around Homs and Hama, and similarly to eliminate the southern transit routes emanating from Jordan to the environs of Damascus.  Added to this, the ‘Friends of Syria’ meeting in Istanbul turned out to be a drab affair, ending with the downbeat note of the final – and emotional - resignation speech by the disillusioned Moaz Al-Khatib, who is thought likely to attempt to return to Syria in an effort to rally support for a negotiated solution to the conflict from within the country.  Press reports have picked up on the optimism that these events have generated and which are evident in government circles in Damascus (see here).  Syrian government officials arguethat the main armed, strategic threat to Syria indeed can be overcome, albeit without claiming that this will see the end to secutiy incidents within Syria and its principal cities.  It is well understood in Damascus that so long as the financing is forthcoming, and external sponsors are determined to pursue it, hit-and-run attacks will continue. In addition, though important military successes are being achieved, it is plain that a political solution remains elusive, Syrian officials note that the Syrian security forces still face the arduous prospect of clearing Idlib as the next chapter awaiting them – after the present battle of Qusayr is concluded.

International attention however has been deflected from this changing status in Syria and the travails of the external opposition by newly resurfaced claims of chemical weapons being used by Syrian government forces.  In this instance, there was an initial claim of the use of sarin gas by a senior Israeli military intelligence officer, followed up by a subsequent denial that there was any solid evidence of their use by Secretary Kerry, and of this position then being overtaken by a flurry of ambiguously worded ‘assessments’ emphasising the words ‘maybe’, ‘possibly’ and of ‘reports’ that chemical agents ‘may’ have been used in Syria – but that the evidence was still not forthcoming. The Israeli line is that this was not a concerted attempt to ambush Secretary Hagel who had been visiting Israel, but a ‘slip’ by the Israeli intelligence official who offered publicly an ‘assessment’ that had not been confirmed, and therefore had not been formally passed to the US Defense Secretary, who therefore would have been unaware of it.  Other reports suggest that this incident – as so often is the case nowadays – seems to have more about Iran, than about any new prospect of military intervention in Syria (an issue which provokes very mixed reactions in Israel).  It seems quite probable that the incident may have ben designed to probe President Obama’s ‘red line’ philosophy, and to shape US reactions to Obama’s claim to hold to a ‘red line’ on Iran (the aquistion of nuclear weapons by Iran).  If Obama’s red line on Syria (no use of chemical weapons) were to be shown to be somehow ‘moveable’, then Israeli officials could suggest that Obama’s ‘red line’ on Iran may prove to be equally ‘unreliable’ – thus exposing him to domestic pressures to state a more ‘concrete’ red line for Iran, just as Israel advocates.  (N.B: Sarin is not in fact a chemical ‘weapon’. It is a disabling nerve agent.  And it is not high technology: any undergraduate chemistry student can make the gas (with assistance from the internet) and by substituting alternative ingredients for unobtainable components, without sufffering serious limitations on its effectiveness). Notably, scientific observers of the “evidence”, cited in the mainstream western media, emphasize that they remain unconvinced.

There has been a spate of articles (see here and here) pointing to growing political tensions in the Gulf: from senior Saudi princes in the kingdom to political activists in Kuwait.  All the articles make, in one way or another, the same point – that in the face of a lack of any substantive intellectual answers to growing popular restiveness, Gulf states have no answers and therefore have no resort but to arrest and imprision all critics, irrespective of whether the complainants are loyal opposition or intent on the overthrow of the state.

The radical Sunni insurgency fighting against the influence of Iran and the Shi’i continues with a series of attacks in Iraq by al-Nusra’ s partner, the Islamic State in Iraq – particularly centred in the areas adjacent to Syria and in Baghdad – and now (tentatively) in Lebanon – with the announcement by al-Nusra that it intends to commence armed action against Hizballah.  In practice, there is already some direct conflict in the border areas of Lebanon, adjacent to Qusayr.


  1. Weekly events in Syria

  2. Many thanks. You continue to provide an invaluable analysis from an unbiased perspective; despite following both Western mainstream commentary – mostly indicating what not to believe – and alternative independent commentary, I have not found the information here -for instance on Moaz al Khatib, or on the feelings within the Syrian government. Any extension of your analysis would be very welcome, for instance on the relevance of the ‘Chechen connection’ in the Boston bombing to the Russian-Syrian-Iranian viewpoint.

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