What, Exactly, Is Going on in Syria?

Published on Alternet.org, by Vijay Prashad, Feb 1, 2017.

The world’s media is lost in the twists and turns of factions and evolving geopolitics … //

… The Russians, Iranians and Syrian government called for the Astana (Kazakhstan) meeting in late January from a position of strength. It was a meeting for Turkey to establish itself as a major interlocutor for the eventual ceasefire that will come for Syria. The main Saudi proxy – Jaysh al-Islam – led the delegation of the armed opposition, a clear sign that Saudi Arabia has thrown in the towel. Turkey’s leading proxy – Ahrar al-Sham – did not attend, but sent its blessings. The United States was not invited. It has been clearly made marginal. It would be too much to expect this meeting alone to bring peace to Syria. But it is a process that will take time to unfold.

Turkey’s abandonment of the armed opposition and Saudi Arabia’s indifference to events in Syria led to a deep debate inside the obdurate section of the armed opposition. Ahrar al-Sham, after its defeat in northern Syria, broke apart, with its former leader – Abu Jaber – taking on the leadership of the new al-Qaeda formation – Tahrir al-Sham or Hetish. These are hardened extremists, certainly, but they are not the only ones. The previous al-Qaeda affiliate – Jabhat Fateh al-Sham – remains in place, but it is now frequently accused of drifting into the arms of ISIS after it absorbed the fighters of the pro-ISIS formation Jund al-Aqsa. Meanwhile, Jordanian fighters from this group have left and – with encouragement from the Jordanian cleric Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (the mentor of the founder of al-Qaeda in the region Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) – might form a Syrian Taliban. It is a mess. There is no getting around the fact that the armed Syrian opposition is in the grip of a terrible ideological nightmare. In this dream, the Taliban and al-Qaeda begin to seem moderate when compared to ISIS … //

… The Russians and the Syrians have been bombing ISIS positions with moderate success. The more that they concentrate on this fight, the more likely that the new armed opposition formation in western Syria will strike against the government-held cities and towns. This is where the Syrian government had concentrated its fire. Soldiers from the 104th Airborne Brigade of the Syrian Republican Guard and from Syrian Army’s elite Qassem Units were sent to Deir Ezzor from western Syria and have made inroads against ISIS. Whether they will be able to secure the town once more is unclear.

US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed, in a phone call, to coordinate the war against ‘international terrorism.’ What this will mean in practice is to be seen. For now, talk of regime change in Syria is off the table, not only in Washington, but also in Ankara and in Riyadh. On the ground, however, matters are much more complex. Defeat is not easy to accept by the armed opposition. It will spill more blood before it becomes clear to these fighters that this war is now over.

(full text).

(Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of 18 books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016). His columns appear at AlterNet every Wednesday).


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