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Syria through a glass, darkly

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This article cross-posted from Asia Times

The current Syrian drama is far from the usual, clear-cut "good guys vs bad guys" Hollywood shtick. The suspension of the Arab League observers mission; the double veto by Russia and China at the UN Security Council; the increasing violence especially in Homs and some Damascus suburbs: It is all leading to widespread fears in the developing world of a Western-backed armed insurrection trying to replicate the chaos in Libya -- a "liberated" country now run by heavily weaponized militias. Syria slipping into civil war would open the door to an even more horrific regional conflagration.

Here's an attempt to see through the fog.

1. Why has the Bashar al-Assad regime not fallen?

Because the majority of the Syrian population still supports it (55%, according to a mid-December poll funded by the Qatar Foundation. See "Arabs want Syria's President Assad to go -- opinion poll" [1], and note how the headline distorts the result.

Assad can count on the army (no defections from the top ranks); the business elite and the middle class in the top cities, Damascus and Aleppo; secular, well-educated Sunnis; and all the minorities -- from Christians to Kurds and Druze. Even Syrians in favor of regime change -- yet not hardcore Islamists -- refuse Western sanctions and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-style humanitarian bombing.

2. Is Assad "isolated"?

As much as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may wish it, and the White House stresses "Assad must halt his campaign of killing and crimes against his own people now" and "must step aside" -- no. The "international community" proponents of regime change in Syria are the NATOGCC (North Atlantic Treaty Organization-Gulf Cooperation Council) -- or, to be really specific, Washington, London and Paris and the oil-drenched sheikh puppets of the Persian Gulf, most of all the House of Saud and Qatar.

Turkey is playing a very ambivalent game; it hosts a NATO command and control center in Hatay province, near the Syrian border, and at the same time offers exile to Assad. Even Israel is at a loss; they prefer the devil they know to an unpredictably hostile post-Assad regime led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Assad is supported by Iran; by the government in Baghdad (Iraq has refused to impose sanctions); by Lebanon (the same); and most of all by Russia (which does not want to lose its naval base in Tartus) and trade partner China. This means Syria's economy will not be strangled (moreover, the country is used to life under sanctions and does not have to worry about a national debt). The BRICS group is adamant; the Syria crisis has to be solved by Syrians only.

3. What is the opposition's game?

The Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella group led by Paris exile Barhoun Galyan, claims to represent all opposition forces. Inside Syria, its credibility is dodgy. The SNC is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) -- composed of weaponized Sunni defectors, but mostly fragmented into armed gangs, some of them directly infiltrated by Gulf mercenaries. Even the Arab League report had to acknowledge the FSA is killing civilians and security forces, and bombing buildings, trains and pipelines.

The armed opposition does not have a central command; it is essentially local; and does not hold heavy weapons. The civilian opposition is divided -- and has no political program whatsoever, apart from "the people want the downfall of the regime," taking a leaf from Tahrir Square.

4. How are Syrians themselves divided?

Those who support the regime see a foreign Zionist/American conspiracy -- with Turkey and parts of Europe as extras -- bent on breaking up Syria. And they see the armed "terrorist" gangs -- infiltrated by foreigners -- as solely responsible for the worst violence.

Dissidents and the fragmented civilian opposition were always peaceful and unarmed. Then they started to receive protection from military defectors -- who brought their light weapons with them. They all dismiss the government version of events as pure propaganda. For them, the real armed "terrorists" are the sabbiha -- murderous paramilitary gangs paid by the government. Sabbiha (which means "ghosts") are essentially depicted as Alawis, Christians and Druze, adults but also teenagers, sporting dark glasses, white sneakers, colored armbands, and armed with knives, batons and using fake names among them; the leaders are bodybuilder-types driving dark Mercedes.

Even mass rallies are in conflict. The protest rallies (muzaharat) were confronted by the regime with processions (masirat). It's unclear whether the people who joined them were constrained civil servants or moved by spontaneous decision. Syrian state media depicts the protesters as agent provocateurs or mercenaries and roundly dismisses the anger of those who live under a harsh police state with no political freedom.

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Pepe Escobar is an independent geopolitical analyst. He writes for RT, Sputnik and TomDispatch, and is a frequent contributor to websites and radio and TV shows ranging from the US to East Asia. He is the former roving correspondent for Asia (more...)

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