Ferocious fighting continues in many parts of Syria. Part of the Khan al-Assal police academy in Aleppo appears to have fallen into “rebel” hands after an eight-day battle in which over 200 combatants have died.
Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, has seen street-by-street fighting since last July in a contest that has demolished much of the city. (BBC and AP reports, March 1-2)
While it is difficult to gain a complete picture of the military situation in Syria, especially since the corporate news media have an anti-government bias, some conclusions can be drawn. Chief among them is that the government armed forces, with aid from many nationalist and anti-imperialist militias, are maintaining an effective fighting force in the face of widespread and deadly attacks.
This fighting spirit could only be sustained over such a long period if the officer corps and the rank-and-file soldiers have confidence and belief in their mission to oppose the foreign-backed rebellion. In countries where troops oppose their orders, large scale desertions and even side changing have occurred.
The rebels’ situation is less favorable than would appear from press reports trumpeting their alleged battlefield gains. In some areas, the imperialist-backed rebel forces can only temporarily gain the upper hand. Even in rebel-controlled areas, factional divisions limit their ability to consolidate their position.
On March 1, the New York Times ran a revealing report from the village of Titalyan, northwest of Aleppo, near the Turkish border. A newly formed town council was trying to provide basic necessities, such as electricity and food. But electricity had to come from a neighboring village in the grid.
Local “Free Syrian Army” forces there didn’t allow Titalyan to be supplied. Then, a competing rebel military unit in a third village intervened. The Times also reported: “Each brigade, most of them loosely organized under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, now has its own rival relief and political wings. … The Tawhid Brigade from the town of Marea confiscated about a ton of flour from Titalyan’s dwindling supply.”
The political front shows even greater weakness in the opposition coalition. The Syrian National Coalition postponed a scheduled March 2 meeting in Istanbul, where they had intended to select a “prime minister” in exile. As in several previous attempts, factional infighting prevented agreement.
A meeting of the Western-backed “Friends of Syria,” long in the planning, was held in Rome on Feb. 28. Days before, however, the Syrian opposition announced that it would not attend because it felt it wasn’t getting enough support. Phone calls from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joseph Biden quickly reminded the opposition who was in charge. They reversed themselves and agreed to attend.
At the Rome meeting, the U.S. and Britain announced significant increases in aid to the rebel contras. Kerry promised an additional $60 million in “nonlethal” aid that includes night vision equipment, communications gear and vehicles. The U.S. also intends to send “advisers” to work directly with the opposition in their Cairo headquarters. According to reports, a secret CIA base in Jordan trains Syrian rebels in combat.
Britain and France declared they would be sending “defensive military equipment,” which might include armor-plated vehicles and bulletproof vests, pressing the limits of a European embargo on military aid to the Syrian conflict.
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria pointed out that “intelligence, communication and financial assistance being provided is very lethal.” (London Times, March 3) Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Lukashevich denounced Western aid to the rebels as “directly encourag[ing] extremists to seize power by force, despite the inevitable suffering of ordinary Syrians that entails.” (AP, March 1)
The U.S. and Europeans can continue to piously claim they are not involved in supplying weapons — because it is their reactionary monarchist client regimes in Saudi Arabia and Qatar that have been pouring in military equipment to the rebels. A big increase in arms shipments that started in December was the lead story in the New York Times of Feb. 26.
Kerry had an additional problem on his first overseas trip since confirmation as secretary of state. Days before the “Friends of Syria” Rome meeting, a forum of the United Nations in Vienna hosted Turkish Prime Minister Recep Teyyip Erdogan. Kerry had to chastise his Turkish ally in the war on Syria for saying that “as with Zionism, anti-Semitism and fascism, it is inevitable that Islamophobia be considered a crime against humanity.” (bbc.com, March 3)
The U.S. and other Western press focused only on Erdogan’s criticism of Zionism, since Israel serves as another ally in the U.S. war against Syria.
In a further provocation against Syria, Israel issued a permit on Feb. 21 to the Genie Energy company to drill for oil in the occupied Golan Heights. Israel had seized this area from Syria in the 1967 war and later annexed it in violation of international law. Syria protested this further violation in a letter to the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 28. On Jan. 30, Israeli jets had invaded Syria and bombed a research center near Damascus.
Because they have backed what the New York Times on Feb. 26 called “a fragmented and operationally incoherent opposition” in Syria, the U.S.-led imperialist powers find they have to get more directly involved in the conflict.
The involvement of the U.S., Europe, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in this intensifying struggle for regime change threatens to explode into a broader and more destructive regional war, the results of which cannot be predicted.