Signs of Stress in the Anti-Assad Coalition

3 July 2015

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter and General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently told the House Armed Services Committee that:
• Assad appears to be weakening and on the defensive,
• There are not enough “moderate” recruits for the train-and-equip program.
One may conclude therefore that the “Army of Conquest” which is a coalition of groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and a few others deserves at least part of the credit for pushing Assad on the defensive. The “moderate opposition” seems to be lost, confirming what President Obama had said in the past (*).
It is widely reported that the Army of Conquest is supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey following an agreement between Riyadh and Ankara to shelve their differences, at least temporarily, over the Muslim Brotherhood. They are sometimes referred to as the “Sunni bloc”.
On 12 May 2015, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and US Secretary of State Kerry held a joint press conference in Sochi. While expressing his views on Syria Mr. Lavrov said that he and Mr. Kerry “agreed that ISIL’s activities, as well as the activities of Jabhat al-Nusrah are very dangerous…”
In a statement he made on Syria, on June 30, 2015, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said that different parts of the country were increasingly controlled by a patchwork of Syrian and non-state actors, including Daesh and the Al Nusra Front, putting the two in the same category.
To put it briefly, capitals hold contrasting opinions on the Army of Conquest. This shows yet again that the Syrian conflict is about sectarian proxy wars, shadowy dealings, dubious alliances and endless human suffering.
Reports that the Assad regime is on retreat should be welcome news to the anti-Assad coalition. However, they also seem to be under some stress.
Saudi Arabia is disturbed by the prospect of a deal on the Iranian nuclear program which would reinforce Iran’s growing power. Like Yemen, Riyadh sees the Syrian conflict through the Iran prism but is not obsessed with Assad. Actually, father Assad enjoyed rather good relations with Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s new rulers, in a display of force to show Iran and the world that they are a power to be reckoned with, started an air campaign against Yemen’s Houthis. The three month campaign has accomplished nothing other than galvanizing the Houthis and creating a humanitarian disaster in one of world’s poorest countries. The New York Times recently reported that according to analysts and Yemenis interviewed in different parts of the country Saudi intervention has made matters worse, expanding the violence while making resolution even harder to achieve.
The air campaign which was designed to project Saudi power has thus brought to light its very limits. If the current leadership still believes that it can bomb the Houthis into submission it would be making a mistake. What they need to do is to pretend that the air campaign has achieved its objective and focus on a political solution. The Obama administration can’t afford to give the air campaign open-ended support because it is likely to become an embarrassment; the US has to weigh in to stop the carnage.
The other pillar of the triple alliance Turkey has looked at the Syrian conflict from the perspective of the Muslim Brotherhood and turned Assad’s ouster into an obsession. Lately, however, it has started showing signs of unease regarding Syria’s future.
According to The Jerusalem Post, Amos Gilad, Director of the Political-Military Affairs Bureau at the Defense Ministry stated the following at an intelligence conference organized by the Israel Defence Journal last Monday:
“Syria is gone. Syria is dying. The funeral will be declared in due time. This Bashar Assad, he will be remembered in history textbooks as the one who lost Syria…
Until now he has lost 75 percent of Syria … He is, practically, governor of 20 percent of Syria. And his future, if I may predict it, is shrinking all of the time. And maybe we will have him as the president of ‘Alawistan’…”
This can’t possibly be what Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (JDP) government has sought to accomplish in Syria.
These days, Turkey is faced with other challenges as well. The JDP which has governed Turkey since 2002 lost its parliamentary majority in the 7 June election. So, a coalition government would have to be formed, the alternative being new elections. Economic uncertainty related to Greece’s difficulties, regional turmoil and the prospect of Syria’s fragmentation require country’s political leadership to focus on the formation of a government sooner than later. What political leaders say gives scant inspiration. Moreover, the possibility of a military intervention in Syria is once again on the agenda leading to much controversy.
Turkey’s obsession with the ouster of Assad has already resulted in our being neighbors with the Islamic State, lessened internal and external security, a huge refugee problem with more than two million Syrians, great economic and trade loss and now the prospect of a chaotic, fragmented neighbor. An intervention with no clearly stated aim, no international support but with tremendous potential for criticism would only lead to further difficulties and must be resisted. It appears that the US and Russia may launch another effort to revitalize the Geneva process. The new Turkish government should give this endeavor its wholehearted support.
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(*) “Breaking the Syrian Deadlock”, 26 January 2015

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