By Jeremy Salt – Ankara
William Hague’s statement that extremism in Syria would flourish unless the EU ended its arms embargo was grotesque. On the basis of the massive quantities of arms already delivered by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Libya, with the US and Britain covertly pitching in, extremism in Syria is doing quite well, so logically it is going to do even better if the armed groups are given more and probably heavier weapons. But, no, according to the logic of Mr. Hague, giving the ‘rebels’ more weapons is actually going to prevent extremism.
To his great satisfaction Mr. Hague and his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, prevailed at the meeting of EU foreign ministers, who decided not to renew the arms embargo when it ended on May 31. Mr. Hague says this does not necessarily mean Britain will immediately start giving arms to the ‘rebels’ but that it may, depending on circumstances.
While Mr. Hague preened with satisfaction in Brussels, the Syrian army continued to make gains on the ground. Nearly all of Qusair is again under government control although the armed groups are holding on in the northern part of the city. The army’s next main targets would be Homs and Aleppo, which thousands of takfiris will no doubt be preparing to make their Stalingrad. Fighting continues in and around both cities.
Barack Obama welcomed the non-renewal of the arms embargo and co-sponsored, with Qatar and Turkey, a resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council condemning Syria’s use of foreign fighters (Hezbollah) in the battle for Qusair. Russia described it as ‘odious’, understandably so when this body has never condemned the sponsorship of foreign fighters in Syria by the US, the UK, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Obama is still insisting that Bashar ‘needs’ to go but the situation is now so dangerous that one more provocation by Israel or a false flag bombing which can be blamed on Syria is likely to bring down the whole house of cards across the region. Obama knows another war in the Middle East is the last thing the American people want. In addition, it could destroy his presidency in the same way Vietnam destroyed Lyndon Johnson’s presidency back in the 1960s. All the same, by binding himself to Israel and justifying its aggression against Syria he has forfeited his own destiny. Israel can drag him into a war whether he likes it or not.
The disarray in the anti-Syrian camp is general. It goes even into the Qatari royal family where Hind, the daughter of the amir, recently criticized her father for arming terrorists in the name of supporting the revolution. The Europeans are divided and Saudi Arabia and Qatar are at loggerheads over the composition of the Syrian National Coalition and Qatar’s perceived usurpation of Saudi Arabia’s dominant role in the Middle East. Russia and the US have laid the groundwork for negotiations to begin at Geneva but it seems increasingly unlikely that they will go ahead because of the complete disarray in the anti-Syrian camp. The SNC has said it will not attend unless Assad steps down. It does not represent Syrian opinion but even if it does attend, even if the negotiations even get off the ground, the SNC has no control over the armed groups. Obama is under continuing pressure to ‘do more’. Senator John McCain crossed the border illegally into Syria from Turkey and was photographed with a ‘rebel’ leader notorious for his kidnappings who went on to list what the insurgents wanted from their external sponsors: not negotiations but anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft missiles and a no-fly zone. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, has also been pushing for a no-fly zone and tried to persuade Obama when in Washington that the Syrian army had crossed his ‘red line’ by resorting to chemical warfare. Obama dodged this issue but in the wake of the successes of the Syrian army been studying a new plan for the imposition of a ‘no-fly’ zone.
The same Mr Hague who has refused to talk to the Syrian government is now warning that Syria will disintegrate unless it sits down to talk. In fact, Syria has made repeated offers over the past two years to sit down and talk with everyone but the armed groups. Each offer has been dismissed, ignored or rejected by the interventionists and their protégés, because they thought they could destroy the government by force of arms.
The Geneva negotiations are intended to give Syria’s enemies some leverage in a situation that is rapidly slipping beyond their control. The sponsors of the armed groups can say that Bashar ‘needs’ to go, that Bashar ‘should’ go, that Bashar ‘must’ go but they have no means of making him go unless they are prepared to declare open war on the Syrian government. It is Russia that has the strong hand and Russia, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah that are showing a steadfast and united front, compared to the complete confusion on the other side. A day after Hague’s ‘victory’ in Brussels, Russia announced the pending delivery of S300 missiles to Syria to defend itself against action by ‘some hotheads’. These missiles are a sophisticated new generation and Putin is said to have warned Netanyahu that Israel has no electronic means of dealing with them. Israel still indicated that it was prepared destroy them in what the mainstream media predictably called a ‘preemptive strike.’ If Israel does launch such an attack Syria will retaliate and we may see Israeli planes falling out of the sky. So far Russia has not moved an inch from the position it took more than two years ago in support of the Syrian government and the right of the Syrian people to make their own choices. If through an attack by Israel or the declaration of a ‘no fly zone’ a general war breaks out over Syria Russia has sent numerous signals that it is prepared to intervene.
The armed groups are now turning on the hand that has fed them. The bombings in the border town of Reyhanli were the worst terrorist outrage in Turkey’s history. The original target for the attack is said to have been the Kocatepe mosque and supermarket complex in the middle of Ankara. An attack there with the mixture of more than a ton of C4 and dynamite that was used in Reyhanli could have killed or wounded thousands of people. Although the government swiftly blamed Syria for the Reyhanli outrage, information picked up by the Turkish Red Hack collective from a Turkish jandarma document showing that the government was warned ahead of time that Jabhat al Nusra was planning three bombings across the Turkish border. The government responded by arresting the jandarma accused of leaking the documents. Now comes the news that a group of men linked to Jabhat al Nusra have been arrested in the southeastern cities of Mersin and Adana with weapons and two kilograms of sarin nerve gas destined for an outrage in Adana. The mystery of the fighter jet which crashed in the southeast on May 13 still has to be resolved. Normally this would a running story, with the Turkish media paying attention to every detail day after day, but this was out of the news in 24 hours. So far there has been no official explanation of what happened to it.
Erdogan’s problems have now being massively compounded by the huge demonstrations breaking out in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir against the brutal suppression of demonstrators in the past week in the middle of Istanbul. They mobilized to prevent the destruction of the last green space right at the center of city in the Taksim area and the construction on the site of a shopping mall built as a replica of the 19th century artillery barracks that used to stand on the site. Police moved in last week with tear gas and batons against demonstrators trying to prevent the trees from being cut down. One person was killed and many seriously wounded. The restraint order issued by a local court, prohibiting further development on the site until the legal and social arguments could be heard, did not prevent tens of thousands of people streaming into the city across the Bosporus bridge. They were blocked on the European side and attacked by police with tear gas. The replication of the military barracks would restore the Ottoman character of an open space which was redeveloped in the 1920s as the symbol of the new Turkey, republican and secular. The demonstrations are not just about the destruction of Gezi park. The attack by the police has brought rising resentment of this Islamist government and its arrogant leader to boiling point. In Istanbul or along the Syrian border these are days of crisis for Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
– Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.