Can Washington and Her Allies Stop Syria's Reconciliation Efforts?
The Oft-Predicted Fickle Syrian "Tipping Point' Has Tipped
by FRANKLIN LAMB
Damascus -- This observer lost count more than a year ago of the sheer
number of predictions by analysts and lobbyists that the "tipping point"
signaling the Assad government's collapse was a sure thing and would
happen any time now. "It's just a matter of days, not weeks" President
Obama declared back in 2011.
Based on personal observations and interviews with a fair number of
informed people who actually live in Syria, as opposed to the Zionist think
tank armchair "expert" variety, this observer concedes that prognosticators
are finally right. In point of fact, I have concluded over the past few months
that the long elusive "tipping point" in Syria has indeed been reached
and the momentum has shifted decisively in this embattled.
But not the tipping point that the rebel promoters were hoping for, including
the NATO countries.
Rather, the momentum here has tipped in favor of the current regime due
to its capacity to maintain a slowly rising level of popular support, and
good relations with key foreign supporters during the current run up to next
year's Presidential election. Then, it will be up to the Syrian voters to
decide who stays, goes, and/or joins in their next government.
I base my tentative conclusions, on among others, the following factors.
The Syrian population here is so tired, so exhausted and beaten down,
the killing has gone on for so long, and the Syrian people, like Iranians and
others I have observed, appear to exhibit a distinctly noticeable, profound
and almost moral and religious bond with their countrymen and they
personally feel acutely their country's suffering. Such that people on the
streets are very shocked and incredulous at what is going on and many in
fact feel less strongly about either side in the conflict and just want the
slaughter to end and for life to return to 'normal' even without deep
revolutionary-across the board-changes for now.
Two days ago mortars hit the campus of Damascus University. By the
grace of God there were no casualties-this time. But students report that on
average about six mortars or explosive devices hit Damascus every week.
While unreported in the media, the attack on Damascus University where
the student body has pretty much stayed on the sidelines during the current
crisis, is an example of the nerve shattering recognition here that rebels can
more or less fire mortars or rockets at will into Damascus, from miles away.
And these terrorist attacks are very difficult to stop and constitute an ever
present danger for Damascenes. The relatively frequently used small US
M252 81mm mortar that can be carried in a deep pocket or under a shirt
when strapped, has a bit more than a one mile range (1609 meters). Larger
ones can travel several miles when set at between 45 and 85 degrees to the
ground according to military sources.
Also, according to students, about five days ago the Tishereen War Panorama
Museum was hit with four or five rebel projectiles. The military museum
was built to celebrate the October 1973 Yom Kippur War ("Tishreen" means
"October" in Arabic), and this main tourist attraction is only two miles
northeast of the Old City in Damascus.
One also experiences here an attitude that the Assad government is showing
signs of learning some serious lessons about the direction that Syria must
move in. While number estimates are difficult, increasing number of Syrians
appears to believe that the current regime is the best solution -- at least for
now. For now, meaning, until next year's election.
One also notices in Syria these days that people appear (maybe influenced
a bit by the recent spring weather) somewhat more optimistic that things are
getting "better" -- warmer weather means less need for mazot (heating oil),
people are car-pooling more to decrease dependence on limited benzene,
some flour, still often difficult to find due to rebel burning fields, theft from
supply warehouses and Turkish-condoned destruction of a majority of
manufacturing enterprises in Aleppo, is appearing to a degree, brought in
from bordering countries. Many of the shortages -- partly caused by the
US-led sanctions -- are for now somehow less severe due to the ingenuity of
the Syrian people and the government too has been employing some shrewd
This observer along with others has been critical of the Lebanese government
for not doing more for the Syrian and Palestinian refugees forced into their
country by the current crisis. While still a serious problem, there has finally
developed a life-line of sorts operating from Lebanon into Syria. More
consumer goods now move officially from the Masnaa Syrian-Lebanese
border crossing where vehicles are checked, and much more food stuffs and
essential goods arrive into Syria via many other routes -- smuggling routes
established between the two countries when the French created Lebanon
back in 1943.
From Chtoura to Majdal and Anjar, one comes across lines of massive fuel
tankers as well as trucks loaded with Bekaa valley vegetables like onions,
potatoes, carrots, squash, radishes, wheat, barley, lentil, beets, zucchini,
cabbage, cauliflower and beans of different varieties. According to my
favorite driver, Ahmad, government's regulations require that these large
vehicles line up until 4 p.m. so as not to jam the narrow, potholed and
frankly dangerous cliff-hanging roads.
Even Ahmad has become involved in the import business. No longer does
he transport up to five passengers. Only me who rides "shotgun." This
is because he fills the trunk of his taxi and the back seat with about a dozen
tanks of pressurized cooking gas. Ahmad pays $16 per filled tank in Lebanon
and sells them in Syria for $50 each. I am not sure why he needs me to ride
with him and why he gives me such a great price, but having an American on
board seems to help in some way with some of the checkpoints. Maybe the
novelty distracts the soldiers somehow from his cargo and they decide to
cut him some slack.
For about a decade, starting at about age seven, this observer would almost
never miss a Saturday matinee at the Victory theater in Milwaukie, Oregon.
I have known since that time that riding shotgun, whether on a stage coach
or covered wagon, was not the best seat because you might catch an arrow
from "wild Injuns on the warpath" or a bullet from road bandits.
Things have not changed so much. Riding shotgun from Beirut to Damascus
with a dozen tanks of pressurized gas invites instant immolation from a
snipers bullet fired from some hill overlooking the main highway. Trying to
make a joke, my driver reminds me from time to time that the US M24
specially adapted Remington Model 700 sniper rifle, some of which are in the
hands of rebels around here, has a supposed range of more than two miles
and one bullet into one tank and it's all over for the both of us.
More seriously, regular views are expressed in Syria about the support
levels for the current regime vs. support for the rebels. Admittedly based on
nothing very scientific, this observer tends to agree with what he has been
hearing from a cross section of the local population that the regime has the
fairly strong backing of around 30% of the population. Less than half of that
for the rebels. Syrian minorities, including Christians, Shi'a and Alawites,
among others, cast with the regime because they are afraid of the Wahabist/
Salafist jihadi types and the breaking up of their country.
One teenager who I asked why she supports the current regime explained
that the Assad regime is doing their best and despite the rising prices that her
parents chronically complain about she is grateful that, "despite all the rising
prices the government has not allowed the cost of telephone service to
increase so I can chat with my friends just like before!" The kid has a point
because during this crisis and all the rumors ricocheting around people are
staying in contact with loved ones more than ever it seems.
A bit more than 50% do not seem to express firm support for either side and
just want the killing to stop and for some sort of normalcy to return, while
at the same time expressing an opinion something like, "how did our country
get into this mess. Let the foreigners go home and we can deal with our
problems ourselves." Tragically, this plea does not appear to be acted on
anytime soon in Washington DC, Paris, London or Brussels, given the new
pledges this week of more "non-lethal" aid to the rebel factions.
If ever there were meaning- and logic-destroying non-sequiturs as in the
past few days it is hard to remember when. Faced with the tipping point
moving away from the foreign forces and toward the Syrian government and
majority population, the "Friends of Syria" has stretched beyond recognition
the meaning of ordinary phrases like "defensive APC's," "non-lethal devices
to help pinpoint the locations of the Syrian Arab Army troops," "weapons
to protect the civilian population," as well as "humanitarian sanctions" that
supposedly but don't exempt food and medicines. In fact all of the new
Friends of Syria "breakthrough assistance" targets Syria's civilian population
and all are lethal given the uses to which they are put.
History instructs us that as a result of American wars, from Vietnam to the
Middle East -- that it is the civilian population who will pay the price of the
Obama administration's just announced "humanitarian assistance" to
selected groups in Syria. This history is well known here by Syrians who
understand well the strange paradox of US Secretary of State John Kerry's
announcement this week of Washington's desire to speed up the political
process aimed at ending the crisis in Syria by backing the armed Wahabist/
Salafist jihadi groups in the country.
This week's US and European decisions to back Syria's rebels with direct aid
will only lead to more bloodshed and encourage "terrorism" in the war-torn
country, according to two Sheiks from Syria's largest tribe who held court
recently during tea in the lobby of the Dama Rose Hotel here.
What Washington fears, according to the same interlocutor from the Russian
embassy who spoke with this observer for nearly two hours, is the
confirmation that the Syrian opposition is ready to immediately enter into
negotiations with the Syrian government without preconditions and that
President Assad's departure or even his future status will not be part of the
process. The Russians' belief that the rebels are finally coming around to
a more realistic approach is gaining support from the population here as well
as military and political players. This is more than anathema to Washington
and its allies.
For them it is not less than catastrophic and will not be allowed despite
NATO's rhetoric to the contrary. Thus the new fake proposals. The new
"Non-lethal aid" has been designed to somehow reverse the "tipping point"
that seems to be taking place. These aggressive actions rather than, for
example, genuine humanitarian aid given to the 11 neutral international
NGO's operating across Syria, or serious pressure on all sides to show up at
the dialogue table, is certain to prolong the conflict and condemn countless
more Syrians to death.