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     Aug 24, 2012

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The real Syrian problem
By Richard Javad Heydarian

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Undoubtedly, Syria is at the epicenter of one of the bloodiest and most unfortunate conflicts in recent times. It increasingly resembles a protracted humanitarian crisis that is endangering the very integrity of the Syrian nation-state.

There is no way to understate the tragic dimensions of the crisis: more than 20,000 civilians in casualties, 1 million internally displaced people, two million in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, and almost 140,000 fleeing to neighboring countries


such as Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and most especially Turkey. Unfortunately, as the armed uprising gains momentum, and the regime desperately clings on to power, the humanitarian costs are bound to increase - with no clear end in sight.

There is also an international dimension to the crisis. A coalition of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Arab monarchies are supporting the armed-opposition, while Eastern powers such as Iran, Russia, and China have stood by the "regime".

However, the most worrying aspect of the Syrian crisis - especially in the long-run - hovers around two intertwined issues: (1) the fate of Syria's considerable stockpile of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and a whole host of advanced weaponry that could be used by sinister elements in the most pernicious manner; and (2) the continuous infiltration of extremist elements into the Syrian theatre, which is not only undermining the democratic-secular nature of the uprising, and increasing the prospects of even bloodier sectarian mass atrocities, but also represents a serious challenge to regional and broader international security.

The highly fluid situation
Syria is practically a warzone. Much of the countryside is a "no man's land", filled with the heavy presence of Free Syrian Army (FSA) units that have routinely sabotaged the regime's heavily-armed forces through a combination of asymmetrical and (even in certain instances) conventional warfare.

Unable to exert decisive control on key cities such as Homs and Idlib, the regime has resorted to bombing and artillery shelling to neutralize opposition strongholds - placing heavy casualties on residents and the cities' infrastructure. It justifies such actions by accusing the opposition (or what it calls "extremist elements and terrorists") of using residents as human shields.

Enjoying significant support in the country's two most important cities, Aleppo and Damascus, the regime has sanctimoniously continued its "all out" assaults as a form of retaliation for the opposition's increasingly deadly attacks against public offices and crowded centers in the two cities.

Yet, in recent days, things have got even more precarious with the FSA infiltrating the country's commercial center, Aleppo. In fact, at some point, the opposition claimed to have established its presence in the key district of Salaheddin, controlling up to a third of the city. The armed opposition has also moved on to secure strategic transportation networks such as the Latakia- Aleppo highway to deny much-needed mobility to an increasingly besieged regime.

The regime has already withdrawn from the Kurdish-dominated northeastern regions, bordering Turkey and Iraq. Much of the northern areas bordering Turkey are beyond the state's control, while the south and center have been in throes of revolution for more than a year. So practically it's only in Damascus that the regime exerts decisive and full control.

Even that has been put into doubt by the fact that the FSA (and other elements) has been able to operate in Midan, Shaghur, and Tabbalah districts, while the town of al-Tal has been transformed into a "disaster area" after heavy clashes between opposing forces, according to the umbrella opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC).

Only few months ago, prior the collapse of Kofi Annan's Six-Point Plan, the regime seemed pretty much in control of the situation, with the opposition struggling to coalesce around a unified armed-and-political strategy. So what explains the sudden upsurge in the opposition's momentum?

Extremists to the rescue?
The regime has been suffering from critical tactical and symbolic reversals in recent months - thanks to the growing lethality of extremist forces that have come to the aid of the FSA.

Last month, the German foreign intelligence service, the BND, announced that the Al-Qaeda and like-minded elements have been responsible for "95" attacks, including the deadly flurry of bombings that have rocked Aleppo and Damascus since late-2011. The US State Department has also admitted to the presence of such elements.

In an interview with the Associated Pres (AP), the State Department's counter-terrorism coordinator, Daniel Benjamin, stated, "There is a larger group of foreign fighters ... who are either in or headed to Syria," and their numbers are set to "grow" as the violent clashes continue.

These elements may have been responsible for an event, which has arguably changed the balance of forces in favor of the armed opposition: the successful assassination of Syria"s top security officials, including defense minister Dawoud Rajha, his deputy, Assef Shawkat (Assad's brother-in-law), and the country's Assistant Vice-President and Presidential Security Adviser Hasan Turkmani.

Flushed with cash and weapons from sympathetic, hardliner donors from across the Persian Gulf monarchies, they have brought with themselves tremendous combat experience and logistical know-how to the Syrian theatre.

Veterans of the Afghan wars have teamed up with their counterparts from other conflict-ridden nations such as Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, and Libya, transforming Syria into a new front for global Islamic Jihad - ironically, against the only Arab country that has stood up to the West.

Not only have these elements developed increasingly sophisticated command-and-control structures to coordinate their joint operations, but they have also attracted the loyalty of many members of the (more moderate and SNC-affiliated) FSA, who have been impressed by the former's combat efficacy and ruthless efficiency.

As adroitly put by Murhaf Jouejati, a member of the SNC, the extremists "come with weapons and money." They have not only been responsible for most IED attacks, but also the source of anti-tank weapons, 12.5 mm and 14.5 mm anti-aircraft guns, rocket propelled grenades (RPG), mortars, and stockpiles of heavy armaments as souvenirs of the Libyan revolution and the 2003 the Iraq war. Just like the anti-Soviet Afghan war of the 1980s, these groups are beginning to outmaneuver their heavily armed opponent, which they see as "infidel" and "tyrannical".

A combination of deepening humanitarian tragedy and growing military reversals on the ground, amidst intensifying international support, has also struck into the hearts of some of the regime's important figures. The regime is experiencing a flurry of "high-profile" defections, ranging from top diplomats in Baghdad and London to Brigadar Manaf Tlas as well as the Aleppo parliamentarian Ikhlas Badawi. 

Continued 1 2  

The deadly Israeli and the mad Turk
(Aug 13, '12)

Al-Qaeda flags fly over rebel-held Syria (Aug 13, '12)

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10. Egypt thumbs nose at US

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Aug 22, 2012)


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