Conflicts Forum Weekly Comment

Conflicts Forum

29 March – 5 April 

  • The deteriorating temper of the region can be encapsulated in three recent events:  A Sunni imam of a mosque in Aleppo this week was attacked, killed and his body dragged through the streets of the city, before then being beheaded, and his severed head stuck atop the mosque. The attackers are suspected to be from al-Nusra Front (a Sunni movement orientated towards al-Qae’da thinking). This followed a suicide attack mounted two weeks ago inside a Damascus mosque, which killed a highly respected Sunni Sheikh and 53 members of the congregation (including the Sheikh’s grandson). The eighty-year old Sheikh was known for his support of President Assad.  In a counterpoint incident, on 25 March, in a Saudi Arabian court, the state Prosecutor has called for the prominent Shi’i cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, arespected leader in Qatif, to be executed by crucifixion and dismemberment.  He is accused, according to the Saudi media of ‘inciting sectarian strife, aiding terrorists and insulting Gulf leaders and scholars’.
  • Saudi Arabia brokers a government for Lebanon: Lebanese political figures, notably Walid Jumblatt, were flown to Riyadh as part of a Saudi initiative to resume – after a certain absence – playing a direct role in shaping Lebanon’s politics – after the resignation of Prime Minister Mikati.  What is striking about this initiative is not so much Saudi’s return to direct intervention in Lebanon’s politics; but rather that the Saudi consultations seem to be aimed at soothing sectarian tensions.  Having initially mooted Mikati for a further term as PM, in order to ‘safeguard the moderate-centrist ground in the political spectrum’ (an option vetoed by Saad Hariri in Riyadh), the inoffensive and uncontroversial 68 year old son of the late PM Saeb Salam, Tammam Salam was proposed. Jumblatt, who controls seven swing seats in the Lebanese parliament, announced after his flying visit to Riyadh that he would support whoever March 14th nominated.  And by so doing, he undid Mikati’s majority in parliament and his prospects for re-election.  Saudi Arabia is described as assuming that Hizballah wishes to defuse Sunni-Shi’i tension.  March 14th’s insistence on a non-political parliament is seen in Lebanon as a clear harbinger that elections due this year are likely to be postponed.  But perhaps more interestingly, press reports attribute this lightening initiative to a Saudi wish to begin its gradual ‘withdrawal from the quagmire in Syria’.  There have been other signs that Saudi Arabia has begun discrete indirect contacts with Damascus.
  • The ‘whether or not to intervene in Syria’ debate in the US continues: The Washington Post, which has a long history of support for armed interventions, argues in an editorial, that Iraq “hasn’t turned out so far as we war supporters hoped”.  The editorial contrives a revisionist view of the history of the Iraq conflict to justify and to argue the case for US air support of the armed opposition forces in Syria (but with no US boots on the ground).  Professor Paul Pillar refutes the Post argumentation here.  More significantly, David Ignatius, also in the Washington Post, proposes a “sorting out” [again] of the Syrian armed opposition in order for America to regain some influence over at least some of the armed insurgents. Regarding the political opposition National Coalition, Yezid Sayigh pessimistic: like the SNC, it is”too late to transform the political fortunes of the National Coalition, which appears mired in much the same way as the SNC before it … The question now … is “what comes after the National Coalition?”. With Ignatius, we see a new tack emerging:  The US has been engaged in training Syrian insurgents in Jordan with the (unstated, but seemingly clear implication) that US thinking is turning towards a new emulation of the so-called ‘Dayton Brigades’. The ‘Dayton Brigades’ were units formed of Palestinians, vetted by the CIA, and loyal to Abu Mazen, who were trained by the US and the Jordanians specifically to contain the opposition Hamas forces.  The idea now seems to be to create the parallel Syrian ‘Dayton Battalions’ that similarly would act to contain and confront the al-Nusra Front – under the pretext of protecting Jordan’s northern border – but clearly intended – as per the West Bank initiative – to undermine opposition to the more western aligned, secular armed Syrian groups. However, in Palestine, things did not work according to plan.  The recruits were told by their trainers that they were being trained to kill fellow Palestinians in the greater interest of building the sovereign Palestinian state; but as General Dayton himself foresaw, were no Palestinian state to emerge, the battalions would begin to turn on their original sponsors (the US).  Ignatius also tries his hand at listing armed opposition movements and their strength.  These force estimates however are shown by the respected researcher, Aron Lund, to be inflated and mis-attributed.  Another military-versed analystargues that Ignatius force estimate is probably double the true figure, which he puts at around 50,000 men plus 6,000 al-Nusra jihadists.  He concludes, “these are roving gangs that sometimes work together for a while to create a temporary Schwerpunkt and to attack and take this or that small military base.  Another type of action is to take some town or city block and fight from there until they get kicked out again.  Rinse, repeat.  There isn’t that much manpower needed to do those type of action, and we have seen little else.  All the insurgent ‘brigades’ are the size of small companies, some 100 to 120 men.  Their ‘battalions’ are little more than platoons … Without US air support the [Dayton] units trained in Jordan will have problems to hold any larger area.  The ‘safe zones’ will be anything but safe.”
  • BRICS Summit: The final declaration, though framed in non-confrontational language, nonetheless challenged the western hegemony through its determination to anchor any emerging global order in ‘multilateralism’ – whether by demanding permanent seats within the UN Security Council, forging alternative economic constructs that will shift the balance of power their way; or proactively influencing outcomes in global conflict zones.  In the latter context, the BRICS collectively rejected any further militarization of the Syrian and Iranian issues; advocated political solutions negotiated through diplomatic initiatives; expressed concern over unilateral sanctions, and warned against infringement on the “territorial integrity and sovereignty” of these nations – It was in practice a very explicit rebuke to western policy.

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