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    Middle East
     Oct 3, 2012

New offensive escalates Syrian civil war
Victor Kotsev

A fresh rebel offensive in the northern Syrian commercial hub of Aleppo has produced few tangible results except perhaps the burning of the medieval Aleppo souk (market), the largest of its type in the world and a UNESCO heritage site. However, the forces opposing the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - and their foreign backers - are clearly on a desperate offensive, signaled by the Emir of Qatar's "Arab intervention" speech at the United Nations last week. The latest developments include record numbers of refugees from the conflict and violence between the opposition and Kurdish forces which threatens to ignite the sectarian civil war even further.

Though the Egyptian "quartet" initiative - which included Iran as a key member - was duly scuttled by Turkey and Saudi Arabia (the two other members), none of these countries have reduced their


involvement in the Syrian civil war. On Sunday, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan renewed their pledges of support for the Syrian people and called on Russia, China and Iran to stop backing Assad's regime.

Turkey had vacillated recently, concerned about the rise of a Kurdish entity on its southern border. The Syrian rebels, however, more recently sought to win its favors back, by threatening and even attacking the Kurds. This episode appears to be considerably more significant and ominous than the confused offensive in Aleppo which started on Friday but was largely halted by the heavy fire of government forces and lack of unity in the rebel ranks. [1]

"Whoever carries arms in the face of the opposition battalions will find themselves under fire," a rebel leader in Aleppo cited by Reuters warned local Kurdish militants. Soon afterward, reports of violence against Kurds surfaced, including a bombing in the city of Qamishli on Sunday that killed eight.

These can be seen as desperate moves by the rebels. On the one hand, they are in a bind: Turkey is their key ally, but the Syrian army's pullout from these areas, in a sense, turned the Turkish idea of buffer zones near the border on its head. On the other hand, however, fighting between the Sunni Arab rebels and the Kurds is the last thing that the conflict-torn country needs, as it would only complicate the sectarian civil war further. It serves purely partisan goals of dubious and fleeting value: the support of a regional power which has turned its course with respect to Syria 180 degrees twice in the past decade.

Moreover, the violence may cement the gaps between opposition groups and weaken the rebels militarily at a time when the Assad regime is still strong. It remains to be seen if Turkey's rhetoric would be matched by any significant practical moves. It is worth noting that the Syrian opposition was bundled together with the Palestinians in Morsi's and Erdogan's joint remarks in Ankara, hardly a signal that urgent action is forthcoming.

A Saudi media offensive to prod the Turks further, on the other hand, appears to be in full swing, spearheaded by the mouthpiece of the Saudi regime, al-Arabiya. One report would have us believe that the Syrians captured alive the two Turkish pilots whose F-4 reconnaissance jet was shot down by Syria in June, only to kill them on Russian instructions and then return their bodies inside the crashed jet. [2]

A slightly more credible report, claims that the Assad regime carried out a large car bombing in Damascus in May. [3] The attack claimed at least 55 lives and was used for propaganda purposes by the regime, to illustrate its claim that it is fighting "terrorists."

New allegations based on the same cache of alleged leaked Syrian documents, such as a claim that Assad's people perpetrated an attack on Qatari soil, continue to be published by the media practically on a daily basis. [4] It looks as if the Saudis are doing their utmost to drum up support for the Arab intervention advocated by Qatar.

As argued previously on these pages, Egypt is perhaps the best-suited Arab country to lead any such force, both because of its large and relatively modern military and its role in the Arab world (not to mention its long-standing ties with Syria, with which it briefly entered a political union several decades ago). However, while the Egyptians are clearly signaling their desire to get involved further, they have yet to get more specific in public about their intentions and expectations. Given their faltering economy, we can expect that everything will come at a price.

Despite its isolation, much depends on the "odd man out" in the Egyptian quartet, Iran. According to the British newspaper The Times, the Islamic Republic has recently invested close to US$10 billion in the Syrian regime. Estimates such as figures quoted by the Jordanian king Abdullah II suggest that Assad is short of about $1 billion a month in keeping up his military campaign. It is dubious whether the Syrian president's opponents can afford to wait until his and Iran's cash reserves run dry.

As the fighting intensifies, the death toll is climbing rapidly. Estimates claim that around 30,000 people have been killed so far, many of them in the last couple of months; the daily casualties are in the double or even triple digits. Neighboring countries such as Turkey and Lebanon have experienced significant spillover of violence, and have been flooded with record numbers of refugees. Around 300,000 have crossed Syria's borders so far, most of these in August and September. With another 2,000-3,000 leaving each 24 hours, the United Nations refugee agency has estimated that as many as 700,000 may leave by the end of the year. This would amount to the most significant refugee crisis in the world in recent years.

Besides, other communities beyond the Kurds and the Alawites (Assad belongs to the Alawite religious minority) are coming under increasing pressure to pick sides in the escalating civil war. The Druze (another minority offshoot of Islam) are reportedly some of the latest to feel the heat in places such as Damascus and Idlib province, while the Christians are waiting nervously at the sidelines.

It is also important to keep track of allegations that the Syrian regime is moving or preparing to deploy chemical weapons, which would constitute a self-declared red line for the United States and other countries. Last week, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta sought to play down recent reports of such movements, claiming that the stockpiles were being kept secure by the Syrian regime, but this assessment may change on a relatively short notice, particularly if the US decides to join the Arab intervention initiative.

Intervention would be costly, perhaps several times as costly as the military operation in Libya last year. According to a recent estimate cited in Foreign Policy Magazine, "$12 billion would be needed for immediate support in the first six months after the fall of the regime." War expenses and reconstruction would be additional.

Dollar-flush Saudi Arabia has reportedly hinted that it may be interested in bankrolling the operation, but the challenges persist beyond the financial sphere. As Nathaniel Rosenblatt, the Foreign Policy Magazine author, put it, "Overall, Syria's future challenge will be equal parts Libyan demilitarization, Iraqi de-Baathification, and Lebanese desectarianism."

1. Syria rebels struggle to advance in Aleppo offensive, , Reuters, September 28, 2012
2. Turkish pilots killed by Assad, not in crash: leaked documents, September 29, 2012
3. Assad's regime carried out deadly Damascus bombings: leaked files, al-Arabiya, September 30, 2012
4. Assad behind deadly mall blaze in Qatar: leaked documents , al-Arabiya, October 1, 2012

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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