Thursday, 15 March 2012

Syria: Regime Reclaiming the Initiative

U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan (C), Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem (R) and Bouthaina Shaaban, adviser of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, attend a working lunch at a restaurant in the old Damascus 10 March 2012. (Photo: REUTERS - Khaled al-Hariri)

Published Thursday, March 15, 2012

Insiders say the Syrian regime is confident it is getting a grip on the crisis, but expects no early end to unrest.

It took us more than one hour to pass through the Masnaa border crossing from Lebanon into Syria because of heavy traffic. “Spring” is returning to Syria, as a senior official puts it, while noting that he uses the term literally. “People are tired. There is a great yearning for normal life,” he adds.

Last Saturday, residents of Damascus were out and about in green spaces and on sidewalks.
Sources close to the regime insist that the situation “is better than before.” They add: “This is Damascus and this is Syria. We are not saying that things couldn’t be better. But it is not on the verge of collapse as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya claim. The situation is improving by the day. Even Saudi media admitted defeat: ‘Assad Wins the First Round!’” – a reference to the the title of a recent column in the Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat by its former editor Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed.

Diplomatically, Syria remains on the defensive, trying to fend off incessant attacks. The regime had tried to prevent the crisis from being internationalized and to keep it within an Arab framework, but to no avail. Its intention was clear from the way it dealt with various Arab initiatives, last of which was the Observer Mission led by Lieutenant General Mustafa al-Dabi. The Syrian authorities afforded him maximum cooperation, but his report ended up being ignored by the Arab states.

When they brought the Syrian crisis file to the UN Security Council, the Syrian regime decided to confront them in the same arena. Damascus seems comfortable with the framework of the international game and the limits drawn by Russia and China through their decisive vetoes: “no” to any military intervention in Syria, including under the guise of “humanitarian corridors.”

This would appear to explain the caut
ious optimism with which Syria greeted former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s mission. Publicly, officials say that Annan is a respected international figure, who would not want to damage his legacy by acting unfairly. Besides, he could not have been assigned this mission without the approval of Russia and the US, which means that any understanding between the two powers may be conveyed to Syria via Annan.

The conversation is a little different behind closed doors. Sources say that the proposal which Annan presented when he met President Bashar Assad was essentially the same as the Arab proposal which Syria rejected – minus the clause requiring Assad to step down. It speaks of a cease-fire, the release of detainees, dialogue under UN auspices in Geneva, and allowing international organizations to transfer relief supplies to Syria and investigate claims of war crimes.

According to the same account, Assad replied to the latter point: “Some disobeyed orders and some made mistakes. We arrested those about whom we received complaints, we carried out investigations and there will be trials. But I ask you Mr. Annan, are you willing to do the same with the other side?”
Assad also said he welcomed all mediation attempts and was willing to engage the opposition in dialogue and reach agreement with it. But he questioned how any agreement could be implemented in the presence of armed groups, asking Annan: “Could you guarantee that these groups would commit to what we agree on?”

Assad also urged Annan to investigate who was funding and arming these groups, remarking that someone must be behind the money and weapons flooding into the country.

Annan did not answer Assad’s queries. He simply said: “Your suggestions are worthy of consideration.”

According to the same account, Syria is taking its time in responding to Annan’s proposals as it wants to coordinate the details with Russia and is mistrustful of the UN and Annan.

Its suspicions were reinforced by reports that after leaving Damascus, Annan flew to Qatar to meet its Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad Bin Jasem Al Khalifa. Perhaps he considers Qatar part of the war on Syria and went there to engage it in dialogue.

Rewarding Aleppo

Discussions with Syrian officials indicate that after the parliamentary elections scheduled for next May 7, a new “crisis-management” government is expected to be formed. It is likely to be headed by a figure from Aleppo in acknowledgement of the loyalty shown by the city to the regime. Damascenes are also likely to feature prominently in the government, reflecting the regime’s gratitude for their role in protecting it, especially the business and merchant class.
Sources expect Damascus and Aleppo (which along with their rural hinterlands have a joint population of 12 million people) to account for about 55 percent of seats in parliament. Estimates vary regarding the number of seats the ruling Baath Party can expect to win in its current disoriented condition. If opposition Islamists participate in the polls, they might gain 20 percent of the vote.

Sources close to Assad revealed that he turned down a suggestion made by his advisers to form a new political party. He told them: “I am a Baathist and I will remain one.”

On the Offensive

While the defensive diplomatic battle continues, the military and security battle on the ground has seen the regime increasingly take the offensive.

Sources close to the regime confirm that the Syrian army has re-established control over the city of Idlib in the north, and is poised to attack Jabal al-Zawiya. Estimates indicate that the operation there might last many months. However the regime has set itself a target of trying to “win militarily in the main cities and towns before the end of this month,” as well as securing the country’s main highways between population centers, in light of assessments that reasserting full security control “is going to take a long time.”

One hears debates in Damascus about how the issue of armed groups should be dealt with. Some still contend that Assad has been too lenient, and demand that he crack down harder. They argue that if that had happened at Daraa when the unrest began there, the turmoil would not have spread to other provinces.

An informed source says Assad opted for a different approach: “The president was right. The military solution required the correct political circumstances in addition to preparing the Syrian army for this kind of fighting and training it in urban and street warfare.”

According to this source, these tactics were employed in the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr, and “accomplished the mission with the least possible losses. The principle was adopted of controlling the neighborhood one house at a time. The army did not behave like a regular army that enters and establishes centers that turn into targets for gunmen. It used the style of commandos.”

The source indicates that Assad was convinced from the outset that the crisis would have to be dealt with “like a skin rash. In other words it cannot be remedied before it completely plays out. All one can do is reduce it and contain it to prevent it from spreading.”

Sources close to the regime say an effort is underway to restructure the 17 security agencies and place them – depending on the specialization of each – under the control of either the interior ministry, the army command, or the presidency. Combined, they will make up a new National Security Council. Assad wants this council to be truly accountable to the new parliament’s security and intelligence committees, which are to play a full role comparable to that of their counterparts in Western countries.
The sources say Assad is also keen to keep the security forces and the military out of civilian affairs and the media. All military and security personnel have been directed to stop dealing with the media and leave such matters to the relevant civilian officials.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
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