In the past month armed clashes have spread to the Syrian capital, Damascus, and the largest city, Aleppo. Armed opposition forces have taken control of several border points. On August 6, Prime Minister Riad Hijab defected to the opposition.
The regime of Bashar al-Assad — who inherited the presidency in 2000 from his father, Hafez al-Assad, who seized power in a 1970 military coup — no longer controls the country.
However, an end to the violence, which has claimed 20,000 lives since the uprising that broke out in March last year against Assad, looks far away. So, too, does the realisation of the uprising’s original aims: democratic rights and economic justice.
The regime has indicated it will cling to whatever power it can with counter-offensives in Damascus and Aleppo. Western demands that Assad face an international war crimes trial, and the nastier fate of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi who was brutally murdered after his overthrow and capture by NATO-led forces, has given Assad no incentive to compromise.
The West’s winner-takes-all diplomacy has also encouraged the regime’s international allies to keep arming Assad, particularly Russia, whose only naval base outside the former Soviet Union is in Syria.
Furthermore, anti-democratic forces have become more prominent within the opposition — which began as a non-violent mass uprising and became a civil war — due to the regime’s military response and Western support for armed opposition. Both the West and the Assad regime have also been fuelling conflict between religious communities.
As in Libya, the aim of Western support for the opposition has been to manipulate its agenda. However, unlike in Libya, the West has not intervened militarily against Assad.
One form of Western interference has been diplomatic: the creation of the Syrian National Council (SNC) from exiled politicians and defectors and its promotion in international institutions as a government-in-waiting and in the world’s media as the sole opposition voice.
Supply of weapons and cash has mostly been indirect, with the Western-aligned oil monarchies of the Gulf, in particular Qatar and Saudi Arabia, serving as intermediaries.
The role of these countries has meant that the main beneficiaries of outside military aid to the opposition have been Sunni Islamist outfits who have been joined by fighters from the international jihadi milieu.
However, the mass-based non-sectarian uprising has not been completely overshadowed by the military opposition, most of which is actually not comprised of Western-armed jihadis.
Mass protests, civil disobedience and strikes continue to be organised by the Local Coordinating Committees — the largest opposition network inside Syria. The LCC is opposed to Western intervention and stands for “transition to a pluralistic, secular and democratic system of governance, based on public freedoms, as well as legal and political equality among all Syrians”.
The SNC regularly appeals to the West, but another exile-based opposition group, the National Co-ordination Body for Democratic Change (NCBDC), has opposed Western direct and indirect intervention and blamed Western aid for the increasingly religious-sectarian nature of the conflict.
NCBDC president Haytham Manna, in an article in the June 23 Guardian, argued that taking up arms against the regime was a tactical mistake.
The LCC, however, argues that becoming armed was necessary for the opposition to survive the government’s military response and maintains a relationship with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The FSA is more of a brand name than a unified military force. Originally the name was used by groups of soldiers defecting from the government army.
It was later taken up by groups formed from local recruits in the communities where the uprising was strongest and by some of the foreign-armed and funded jihadis.
Most FSA groups are not foreign-armed. Some weapons were brought over by defecting government soldiers while others were simply purchased.
Weapons such as assault rifles are relatively easy to obtain in Syria, which has porous borders with Lebanon and Iraq. Some of these lightly armed FSA groups share the LCC’s secular stance. Others are influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which was the largest underground opposition group under the old regime.
However, the armed opposition advances in Damascus and Aleppo showed that recipients of foreign support gained a significant advantage through access to heavier weapons that could counter the government’s tanks and artillery.
An opposition fighter in Aleppo enthused to the August 9 Los Angeles Times: “Six or seven months ago, we didn’t have anti-tank weapons; now we do, and it has changed things for us. We already had the fighters ready, but now we have the weapons too.”
The July 22 New York Times linked the rebel advance to more US support, quoting “a senior Obama administration official” as saying: “You’ll notice in the last couple of months, the opposition has been strengthened. Now we’re ready to accelerate that.”
The NYT said: “A small number of CIA officers have been operating secretly in southern Turkey for several weeks, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border will receive weapons to fight the government.”
The CIA was trying to “keep weapons out of the hands of fighters allied with Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups,” the NYT claimed, despite having acknowledged that US “non-lethal” military aid was benefiting the Qatari and Saudi-armed groups.
One apparent beneficiary is the Tawheed Brigade. On August 8, Reuters said that with 2000 fighters, it was the largest armed group in Aleppo and had some foreign jihadis in its ranks.
A Syrian fighter from the group told Reuters: “There are some really extremist battalions that don’t cooperate well with us. They stay on their own. We’re trying to fold jihadis into our group so they back off their more aggressive tactics.
“That doesn’t mean we aren’t nervous. They could still turn and rebel against us.”
A separate August 8 Reuters article said that “leaders of several rebel brigades” had signed a pledge not to kill captives or “practice any form of torture, rape, mutilation or degradation”. This was prompted by mobile phone video footage of opposition fighters in Aleppo summarily executing prisoners who may or may not have been members of pro-government paramilitaries.
“The Aleppo-based Tawheed brigade, believed to have captured the men who were shot dead in Aleppo last week, was not on the list of signatories,” Reuters said.
Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported on August 7 armed men randomly shooting at members of the Christian and Alawite minorities, killing 16 people. On August 8, AP reported that a journalist from French television station France 24 had to flee Syria because of death threats received on Twitter from armed opposition forces.
The August 9 NYT reported a wave of violent crime, particularly kidnapping, in Aleppo since the conflict spread there, perpetrated by both sides and by opportunistic gangs.
“Rebel fighters have also been seen stealing cars and destroying a restaurant in Aleppo where Syrian soldiers have sometimes eaten. Some residents of Aleppo who say they care about peace and distrust both sides in the conflict said that both rebels and government militias … were targeting anyone they thought supported the other side.”
Despite the rising war crimes by elements of the armed opposition, the government remains responsible for most of the killings and abuses.
The reporting of opposition crimes in the Western mainstream media has risen to a greater extent than the crimes themselves, although overall coverage has remained sympathetic to the pro-Western external and internal opposition.
This, and increasing references from the Western media and politicians to the danger of Al Qaeda-affiliated groups taking root in Syria, reflects Western anxieties over controlling developments after Assad finally falls.
The West’s promotion of regime defectors such as Hijab and Manaf Tlass, a general who defected to France in July, reflects that the safest model of regime change is to decapitate and realign the existing regime.
However, to achieve this Russia’s support would have been necessary and a countervailing motivation in US policy was to use the opportunity to detach Russia from its closest Middle East ally.
On the one hand, the West has relied in Syria on the type of Islamist group that, from the proxy war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s to the intervention in Libya last year, have proved open to being used by the West against common enemies — but difficult to control afterwards.
On the other hand, the democratic movement has not been entirely extinguished. At the heart of this movement is a rejection of economic injustice stemming from Western-dictated neoliberal economic policies that Assad imposed.
Furthermore, public opinion in Syria is sympathetic to the Palestinians and intensely hostile to Israel, which has occupied the Syrian Golan Heights since 1967. Assad’s alliance with Iran and material aid to Lebanese and Palestinians resistance groups notwithstanding, Israeli politicians have noted that their border with Syria was Israel's quietest, despite being inside Syrian territory.
Israel has been lukewarm toward the West’s interference in Syria, fearing either democracy or chaotic disintegration.