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Political turmoil in Syria: the crisis deepens

Political upheaval within the Syrian National Council (SNC) is worsening the chaos that has defined Syria for the past two years. In recent times, we’ve also seen allegations of chemical weapon use and…

The resignation of Syrian opposition leader Moaz Al-Khatib (centre) has plunged the war-torn nation into fresh political tumult. EPA/STR

Political upheaval within the Syrian National Council (SNC) is worsening the chaos that has defined Syria for the past two years. In recent times, we’ve also seen allegations of chemical weapon use and the increasing dominance of jihadist groups to add further tumult to a nation still gripped by civil war.

The resignation of opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib from the SNC last month further exposed the organisation’s political instability. The SNC remains far removed from the reality on the ground, where some analysts estimate over a thousand separate groups are waging war on the Ba’ath regime.

At the apparent helm of the SNC now sits Ghassan Hitto. Although, given Khatib’s leading role at the Arab League conference in Doha last month, even this is in doubt. An outsider technocrat who has spent the majority of his life living in the United States, Hitto has already stated his opposition to engage in dialogue with the Assad regime.

Whereas Khatib could at least claim a veneer of legitimacy through recognition from the secular elements of the rebel forces, Hitto has already been seen to be politically divisive and lacking in authority.

Unlike in Libya, where opposition groups were able to assemble a coherent political alternative to the Gaddafi regime, Syrian rebels have been thus far incapable of presenting a consolidated and unified front. The clear divisions within the SNC itself - as well as between secular and Islamist groups - only serve to make potential backers hesitant to lend major assistance.

At the same time international players have failed to enforce the same redlines that were set in Libya. Threats by Gaddafi to lay waste to Benghazi were cited by the US and its allies as clear justification for intervention. Yet Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has flagrantly reduced much of Syria to an image reminiscent of a mid-1990s Grozny with little repercussion.

While the use of warplanes quickly brought about a NATO-enforced no-fly zone that saw Libyan skies free of fighter aircraft, heavy aerial bombing has become a daily occurrence in many of the major Syrian population centres with only muted protests from Western governments.

Even more concerning was a March 19 explosion in Aleppo, which left 25 people dead. This may represent the first use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. Allegations of responsibility have been made at both sides, but given the relatively small number of casualties, the suggestion that many of those killed were loyalists, and the clear lack of strategic interest in using chemical weapons, regime responsibility remains contentious.

Although Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has authorised a UN investigation into the matter, that the UN is currently evacuating half its Syrian staff from the Damascus Sheraton (including special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi) doesn’t bode well for a serious forensic investigation in the northern warzone.

Adding fuel to the speculation is the fact that a chlorine plant within 25km of Aleppo has been in rebel hands for months. There is also the suggestion by some senior UN military officials that the device was a rudimentary “dirty bomb” with an attached chemical payload, rather than a high-lethality military munition.

These claims of chemical use, combined with the increasingly prominent role being played by radical jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham inside Syria, may be playing a part in rousing a limited amount of discernible action from the West.

The possible use of chemical weapons by unknown parties has further complicated the situation on the ground. EPA/STR

Despite the establishment of US and French training camps for the secular Free Syrian Army personnel in neighbouring Jordan, the Islamists continue to display an efficacy unsurpassed by their nationalistic contemporaries. Responsible for over 75% of suicide attacks in the war to date, al-Nusra has been of particular concern to many Syria watchers due to its links with al-Qaeda and its professed end-game objective of establishing a theocratic state that disregards the current borders of the region.

While the Free Syria Army has withered after two sustained years of fighting with limited support, jihadists have been able to prosper via links with Gulf states - like Saudi Arabia and Qatar - who have a vested interest in proxying such groups against their enemies and a historical strategic tendencies towards just that.

As the tug-of-war between regime and rebel forces continues to devastate the Levant region, the likelihood of a near-term resolution to the war has been extinguished. Whispers throughout the corridors of the UN general secretariat in New York are now predicting a protracted and “Balkanised” struggle lasting years.

Although the conflict may once have been about personalities, its increasingly sectarian nature from jihadist influence indicates that even if Assad were to be ousted or killed, the drivers for mass violence would remain. Should the Assad regime somehow cease to be a factor in the equation, the aftermath would likely see a repeat of post-war Chechnya or Afghanistan, with secular, moderate and radical groups turning on each other to fight over the scraps in the rubble.

Interventionists will continue to appeal for some form of multilateral resolution to the crisis. However, the reality seems to suggest it would be the international relations' equivalent of sticking one’s hand into a flaming blender full of bees just to stymie the blades.

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20 Comments sorted by

  1. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    Good piece on an awful situation.

    About the only way the situation can get worse is for yet more foreign interests to stick an oar in - although it does give everyone an "invader" to shoot at instead of shoppers, Shias or Christians.

    This seems to be heading towards yet another insoluble impossible intractable and unending civil war.

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  2. Michel Syna Rahme

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    Libya "coherent political alternative"?????

    Can the media, Libya one day, during the invasion, but suddenly just disappeared the next, please return to Libya and show us real proof of this "coherent political alternative" that has solidified? Send back Peter Stefanovic for some pleasant walks through the back streets without any protection to prove this please.

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    1. Ben Rich

      PhD Candidate, School of Social Sciences at Monash University

      In reply to Michel Syna Rahme

      Hey there Michel,

      Thanks for your comment. The reference to the Libyan coalition was specifically in regards to the perception of unity they broadcast during the civil war, not their post-conflict efficacy at governance.

      The SNC has so far been unable to create a similar veneer of political consolidation, a factor that I argue has led to hesitance by international actors to back them sufficiently.

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    2. Michel Syna Rahme

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Ben Rich

      Ben, as a layman, I actually think your article above is quite relevant and insightful. My comment probably does lead a reader to conclude I propose that doing nothing in Libya, Iraq, Syria etc was the better alternative. This is not the case, irrespective of the astounding atrocities and complexities surrounding these conflicts. I do not support half scale intervention, I support a full scale intervention, but full scale intervention based on ethics and enlightenment principles, otherwise I support…

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  3. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    " Threats by Gaddafi to lay waste to Benghazi were cited by the US"
    What threats to lay waste to Benghazi?
    http://news.sky.com/story/843109/gaddafi-warns-of-no-mercy-in-rebel-city
    "Col Gaddafi told residents in the city that unarmed people had nothing to fear from the army, but every home would be searched.

    The Libyan leader promised to pardon rebels there who surrender, saying his forces would not pursue those who drop their weapons and flee when government troops reach the city.

    But he…

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    1. Ben Rich

      PhD Candidate, School of Social Sciences at Monash University

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Hi Sean,

      Thanks for the input. The evidence I have been exposed to on the possible use of NBC remains highly limited and at this stage I am not confident to make an assertion as to the properties of the agents used (or whether it was used at all).

      Given that there has yet to be any credible investigation of the allegations by any credible parties I think the discussion remains largely speculative. There are obvious benefits on both sides to infer guilt by their opposing parties.

      As to the…

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    2. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Ben Rich

      "Much of his vernacular concerning Benghazi was reminiscent of pre-genocide Rwanda, where the a vocabulary of dehumanization was utilized to rationalize extreme acts of violence"

      Lord love a duck - that is really shameless
      Anyway, I am sure you have a very bright career ahead of you. Good luck with it - just remember all such careers are built on the broken lives of the countries we "liberate"

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    3. Ben Rich

      PhD Candidate, School of Social Sciences at Monash University

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Hi Sean,

      actually, if I may point your attention to the final paragraph you will notice my analysis concludes that intervention is not a desirable option.

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    4. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Ben Rich

      No, I am sure it isn't.

      Now how about reining in the client monarchies that are bankrolling and sustaining the civil war?

      Isn't odd that simultaneously we pat ourselves on the back about passing a treaty banning arm sales to regimes that commit human rights abuses while winking at the funneling of arms and fighters causing one of the greatest humanitarian meltdowns in recent memory? What on earth do our "experts" think is going to happen?

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    5. Ben Rich

      PhD Candidate, School of Social Sciences at Monash University

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Hi Sean,

      From discussions with a number of colleagues who are working on the crisis as we speak the general attitude is that there will be a prolonged period of balkanisation and mutual stalemate within Syria that will destabilize neighboring states that already have sectarian tensions like Lebanon and Iraq.

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    6. In reply to Ben Rich

      Comment removed by moderator.

    7. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Ben Rich

      I am sorry Mr Rich, I think you may have missed the irony implicit in "what did the experts expect." I did not mean to imply I was interested in the opinion of an industry that provided us assurances that Iraq was chock-a-block with WMDs or that Gaddafi threatened to lay waste to Benghazi. I take it for granted that any intelligent reader would understand that this field is intellectually and morally bankrupt and their opinions are without value.
      I meant what outcome could possibly be expected…

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  4. robert roeder
    robert roeder is a Friend of The Conversation.

    retired

    It is quite clear that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have US approval and support for this invasion, throw in the UK Israel and France and we see the usual suspects following the provisions of the Bernard Lewis plan to create political chaos leading to the division of middle eastern countries, smaller states are more easily controlled and exploited. If we look the past history of the US in south America and now in the the middle east we see a constant array of installed puppet who sell out to US interests…

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  5. Baz M

    Law graduate & politics/markets analyst

    Well written article summarising the sad state of a once cultural centre point of the Arab world and Middle East.

    Unfortunately however, I no longer feel the war in Syria is at all about Syria per se.
    It has completely been transformed into a proxy war of regional players and the west. On one hand is the Gulf Arabs plus western coalition which consists off Western rhetoric and security council votes combined with media propaganda, and financing by Gulf Arab states plus somewhat assistance…

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    1. Ben Rich

      PhD Candidate, School of Social Sciences at Monash University

      In reply to Baz M

      Hey there Baz,

      I think the analogy with Lebanon is very apt. Unfortunately, I think it also provides a model for what we are to expect over the coming years in terms of sectarian conflict in the Levant. This will, in turn, be fueled by the great powers and their conflicting interests in the region.

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    2. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Ben Rich

      Lets be clear - we know what US and Britain's interest in fostering the Syrian civil war is - they believe they can cut support off from Hezbollah for the strategic benefit of Israel.
      The client monarchies may see some minor benefit in restricting Iran's influence, but Iran is not really being particularly assertive in destabilizing anyone in the Gulf. So the gain to the Gulf states is so minor they would never engage in it unless they were given powerful prompting by their patrons in London, Paris…

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    3. Baz M

      Law graduate & politics/markets analyst

      In reply to Ben Rich

      Indeed Ben, I couldn't agree more.

      If Lebanon is the example in point (and right now it very much looks that way), we have only seen that start of a prolonged, horrible conflict in which no side truly trumps the other (not that it matters very much really) seeing that very few conflicts are good and bad aka black and white.

      Look forward to reading more of your analysis Ben.

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