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    Middle East
     Jan 9, 2013

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Syria goes from periphery to core
By Derek Henry Flood

With the Israeli air and sea blockade underway that summer, traveling overland through Syria was the only viable way to reach the turmoil in Lebanon. I feigned having absolutely no interest in Syria's frozen political scene in order to travel to Lebanon without delay, and I was swiftly issued a double entry visa.

I travelled this time to the coastal city of Latakia en route to Beirut via a series of shared taxis beginning in Antakya, Turkey. In the lobby of my hotel one humid evening, the spaced was lined with portly men in traditional crisp, white dishdasha robes and ghutrah headdresses, flipping rosaries end over end in their taught fists. A hotel staff member informed me that these men were tribal sheiks from Iraq's devastated al-Anbar Governorate who had fled to the Syrian coast at the height of that country's anti-occupation insurgency and nihilistic war against apostasy sparked by the Jordanian jihadi Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Though Zarqawi had been assassinated in an American missile strike the previous month, Iraqis were still fleeing a pre-"surge" Iraq to Syria in droves.

In July 2006, as an Israeli offensive was underway in Lebanonís South Governorate and in Beirutís southern suburbs, Bashar al-Assadís Alawite power base of Latakia was plastered with visual propaganda depicting an unshakable bond between the Syrian regime and Seyyid Hassan Nasrallahís Twelver Shia Hezbollah movement. After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Syrian regime considered itself the last flag-bearer of Arab nationalism, which may partly explain why Iranian imagery was absent from such displays. Credit: Derek Henry Flood

Here were these Sunni Iraqi notables who had been run out of their homes in Iraq toward shelter in a Syria that was egging on a Shi'ite resistance movement against Israel and endeared toward Iran. Latakia that night felt like the quiet eye of a horrific religio-political storm that was engulfing the entire Levant.

If and when Damascus ultimately falls, coastal Latakia with its coveted harbor may very well be where Assad will make his last stand. Latakia could also provide a potential escape route to nearby Cyprus in the event of a total regime collapse. As overwhelmingly Sunni rebels advance southward from the Turkish border, fleeing Alawites have reportedly been heading to Latakia - which contains a Sunni demographic majority - and the port city of Tartus, where they live in fear of coming sectarian retribution. Credit: Derek Henry Flood

Due north from Lebanon's Tripoli, coastal Syria appeared to gearing up for a Hezbollah rally judging by the number of flags, posters, and stickers blanketing the city. An essential part of the Assad's deflective strategy was to direct public discontent toward Israel rather than chance that the disenfranchised citizenry harness their resentment toward a minority government whose ruling Alawite clique and Sunni and Christian allies presided over a stagnant command economy. In 2002, the Palestinian flag was displayed in equal numbers with the Ba'athist Syrian tricolor. In 2006, the same could be said for Hezbollah's yellow banner. From Latakia, I headed by a series of taxis toward Tartus and the Lebanese border.

On July 29, 2006, Al-Jazeera airs a defiant speech by Hezbollah Secretary-General Seyyid Hassan Nasrallah on the groupís al-Manar TV channel as seen in Latakia, Syria. Nasrallah told viewers that evening: "When the people of this tyrannical state [Israel] loses its faith in its mythical army, it is the beginning of the end of this entity." Credit: Derek Henry Flood

Six years on, the Syria I knew had vanished. To see it this time, I began networking among members of the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). In January 2012, after the revolt in Syria had been underway for many months, I found myself among the civilian network operating in Turkey's Hatay Province, along the Syrian frontier. To cross the Yayladagi border post through the Alawite Mountains as in years past, I found myself on foot, slogging along mud-slicked smugglers' tracts and fording waist-deep streams swollen with snow melt amid a thick cover of pine trees, hoping to avoid an encounter with regime forces.

My aim was to reach an isolated group of rebel fighters, encamped in an abandoned Ba'athist officer's home within the sights of pro-Assad snipers. Arriving in a hamlet devoid of civilians, it became clear to me that Syria was not in the midst of an "uprising" or a "crackdown", as many outlets reported for months on end. Syria was undeniably in the throes of very violent civil war. The fighters I encountered were not nihilistic Salafi-jihadis armed to the teeth by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Defense. They were ordinary men, farmers, tradesmen and the like, who barely had a rifle per man with ammunition equally as scarce, facing off against rotations of pro-regime troops with powerful Dragunov sniper rifles trained tightly on their rebel position.

I interviewed a grizzled FSA commander called Abu Muhammed, sitting on threadbare burgundy carpets beside a row of Kalashnikovs procured on the black market. Unlike Libya, Syria was not a state awash in weapons before its revolution. He told me of his desperate desire for a UN-mandated no-fly zone stemming from the Turkish border 5 kilometers southward into Syrian territory so that his fighters could establish a cordon sanitaire to protect refugees and solidify rebel supply lines.

On the rural fringes of Idlib Governorate, the places I had known Syria for - the rocky, azure coves of Latakia and the smoky teahouses of Damascus's Old City - seemed an eternity away.

Syrians were dying by the tens of thousands, making volatile Iraq and periodically unstable Lebanon look tame by an order of magnitude. In the face of a deeply divided international community, both the rebels and regime believed they would eventually prevail. A once quiescent Syria is now the strife-torn locus of global attention.

A unit of the Free Syrian Army in northern Syria in 2012, in an area that tightly controlled by the mukhabarat police state was once the safest place in the region so long as one played by the rules set out by the regime. Credit: Derek Henry Flood

For decades, Syria had been a topic of intrigue about its intelligence services meddling in the internal affairs of neighboring countries and its overt support for regional militant movements from Hezbollah to the PKK. Now, that passe narrative has been turned on its head. The Syrian war has pulled in the interest of every nearby state - contiguous and not - and sub-state/non-state actors in the Middle East.

The fluid power dynamics in the Levant are evolving so quickly it's difficult to keep pace. Ankara, terrified at the idea of a recently reinvigorated PKK firming up its hold on territory in Syria evacuated by retreated pro-Assad forces has pragmatically made its nemesis Abdullah Ocalan suddenly relevant again. The Erdogan government now hopes to use talks with the long-imprisoned Ocalan as a lever in its containment policy toward the widening of open PKK activity.

No longer confined to its base in Iraq's Qandil range from where it can train and plan coordinated cross-border attacks on Turkish security forces, the PKK is now freely roving in parts of northern Syria and strengthening ties with the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yek๎tiya Demokrat-PYD), the PKK's Kurdish affiliate movement in Syria.

In contrast, Hezbollah leader Nasrallah, who, besides Assad himself, individually has perhaps the most to lose in the reordering of the regional power structure, realizes that the end of his state sponsor is near and has been humbled in a feat of Levantine realpolitik. Nasrallah has been an outspoken advocate of Beirut's so-called unrealistic and somewhat callous "dissociation policy" with regard to the catastrophe across the border in Syria.

Hezbollah's leader can no longer keep up the pretension that his movement is on the sidelines of the Syrian war. Stating the now obvious to a Shi'ite religious procession in Baalbek, Nasrallah, according to the New York Times, told his followers: "Lebanon must exert pressure for a political solution and a political dialogue in Syria. If military operations continue in Syria, it will be a long and bloody battle."

Despite the increase of international interest in Syria, and the change in terminology describing the conflict from a "crackdown" to a less than classically defined "civil war", there appears to have been no marked improvement for average Syrians trapped inside the conflict's expanding boundaries nor appetite for any form of armed intervention.

UN-sponsored initiatives have been a dead end. Civilians continue to be killed in the hundreds and thousands as each month passes. Foreign jihadi elements, once a boogeyman for anti-interventionist pundits, have become a reality on the ground. Highly localized, disparate, indigenous insurgent groups have multiplied in the absence of effective top-down leadership within what we call the Free Syrian Army.

And that no-fly zone Abu Muhammed pleaded for on that pockmarked, muddy hillside a year ago? It has never materialized. Syria, once on the opaque periphery of war reporting, is now at its very core.

Derek Henry Flood is a freelance journalist focusing on the Africa, the Middle East and South and Central Asia. He has covered many of the world's conflicts-both major and minor-since 9/11 as a frontline reporter. He blogs at the-war-diaries.com. Follow Derek on Twitter @DerekHenryFlood

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