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Opinion: Will the Battle for Qalamoun torpedo Geneva II? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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An image grab taken from a video shows opposition fighter holding a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) as his fellow comrades take cover from an attack by regime forces on August 26, 2013 during clashes over the strategic area of Khanasser, situated on the only road linking Aleppo to central Syria. (AFP PHOTO / SALAH AL-ASHKAR)

Whose stance should we believe in? Is it possible to gamble on pledges?

Within a period of a few hours, the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad reiterated remarks indicating that he has nothing new to offer with regards to ending the suffering of the Syrian people, eloquently stating that he “doesn’t see any obstacles to him being nominated to stand at the next presidential elections.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry, from his end, said that Geneva II will seek to implement the outcomes of Geneva 1—namely, the formation of an effective transitional power that does not include any place for a president who has done what he has done against his own people and country.

In any country in the world, the president—more precisely the head of the executive authority—would resign when his or her government falls short of dealing with a natural disaster, or when a member of the cabinet is involved in a scandal. Many presidents did indeed resign throughout the modern history of Europe’s democracies. In Britain, for example, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was on the verge of resigning over the so-called Profumo Affair—a sex scandal involving his Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, who was having an affair with a call girl who was at the same time close to a Soviet security official.

What I mean is that the president is responsible—at least morally—for what befalls his country, or the mistakes committed by his ministers and advisers. This is doubly the case if the president himself is the one issuing orders to shell cities and sending pro-regime Shabiha militias out to murder, displace, and starve the citizens. However, here we come face-to-face with a sensitive issue which must not be underestimated.

Is Bashar Al-Assad truly in a position of responsibility? Is he the one who plans, coordinates, and executes? Is he the one who directs battles, and before that, does he know why they are being fought?

John Kerry publicly stated on Tuesday that Assad’s army would not have survived were it not for the support it has received from Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shi’ite militias. Moreover, everyone knows the role being played by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in the Syrian conflict. The Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah once famously boasted of his pride in being a soldier in the army of the vali al-faqih (Guardian of Jurists.) This means that he is just following orders, and therefore does not have the final say regarding the deployment of thousands of Lebanon’s Shi’ite youth in the depths of the Syrian conflict.

The latest developments over the past few days point to a looming new battle with important strategic dimensions along Lebanon’s eastern borders with Syria in the Al-Qalamoun region. This strategically important battle has been entrusted to Hezbollah and the Iraqi militias.

There the side which is running the Assad regime’s battle—in addition to its media campaigns—is planning to increase the pressure on the Syrian rebels—the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Islamist forces. They are seeking to push back the rebels by intensifying the on-going attacks on the southern suburbs of Damascus, cutting off the rebel from the Hauran region, launching an all-out offensive against Al-Zabadani and Al-Qalamoun, and ultimately breaking the rebels’ lines of communication with Lebanon. According to recent reports, Hezbollah is preparing to deploy around 15,000 fighters for this pivotal battle whose repercussions—if the Shi’ite militias are victorious—will be extremely serious for the Sunni enclaves in north-eastern Lebanon.

The recent diplomatic activities, including Tuesday’s London Meeting and Lakhdar Brahimi’s efforts, are taking place in-step with the military preparations of the Damascus regime—and its masters—who are trying to impose a new situation on the ground. Assad on Tuesday was openly skeptical about the possibility of holding Geneva II or it producing any tangible results.

This uncertain situation is not encouraging to any side keen on truly putting an end to the Syrian people’s plight.

Tehran, Moscow, Beijing, and Damascus interpret Washington’s insistence on the impossibility of a military solution to the Syrian crisis as a call for striking a deal similar to the chemical weapons’ deal between Russia and the US. Consequently, the entire crisis would become a process of “haggling” to reach an agreeable price, at the expense of the Syrian people’s fate and their country’s sovereignty, which in any case does not exist anymore in practice.

On the other hand, the “true and genuine” Syrian opposition—whose components agree on one thing only, the fall of the regime—is required to come to Geneva without setting conditions.

Ever since the public uprising erupted—initially with peaceful protests—the Syrian opposition forces have repeatedly said that the only thing they wanted was the departure of Assad and anyone involved in the oppression of the Syrian people. They never sought to destroy the country’s infrastructure or institutions. However, the international community—represented by the “friends” of Assad and the alleged “friends” of Syria—have allowed the Syrian president and his supporters to turn the conflict into a massacre of civilians, and thus set the stage for Syria to serve as an incubator for Jihadist and Takfirist forces.

These groups have become a pretext for the international community refraining from resolving the crisis, while it was not long before their relationship with the local environment in northern and eastern Syria quickly deteriorated. In reality, were it not for the regime’s oppression and open sectarianism, these groups would have lost significant support and popularity across the country, including Damascus.

The international community’s ambivalence, if it continues, will give Tehran the green light to start the Battle for Qalamoun. This will also serve to accelerate the enactment of the sectarian segregation scenario in Lebanon, Syria’s ailing neighbor. In fact, Lebanon will serve as a ready-made sectarian link for “Western Syria” if the plans for partition go in accordance with some of the regional and international players’ wishes.

If Syria is truly divided, then all possible prohibitions would be lifted. Lebanon—with its fragile balance—would be unable to distance itself from the new geopolitical situation, while Jordan or Iraq would also be unable to overcome the religious and tribal consequences of this sectarian segregation. In fact, neither Israel nor Turkey would be able to withstand the repercussions of the redrawing of the regional map—something that will also play into sectarian radicalism.

At this juncture, there is little trust among the Syrians and Arabs in the approach being adopted by the international community, particularly the approach adopted by Washington. If Arab diplomacy is courteous enough to avoid calling facts by their names, it would be wise for the international community to avoid continuing trying to escape forward.

Israel, at the moment, is comfortable with this polarizing Sunni-Shi’ite rivalry while Russia seems to be happy to see Syria transformed into a quagmire for its Caucasus’ extremists, as well as an embarrassment for Ankara. Tehran, in turn, benefits by being able to flex its muscles and present its credentials as being a part of the solution and a reliable regional partner to Washington.

As for the international community, it appears to be preoccupied with who will win the Nobel Peace Prize next year!