Hope for Geneva, less for Syria

Submitted by martin on 12 November, 2013 - 3:21

The big powers are pleased because on Monday 11 September the exile Syrian National Coalition said it would participate in the planned second Geneva peace conference for Syria.

This version of the article is longer than the version in the printed paper.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations official for Syria, says that he hopes that a date for the peace conference can be fixed before the end of the year.

The chances of the conference ending the civil war look small, though. Syria expert Joshua Landis writes: "talks to end the Syrian conflict will be sterile without [the main military] commanders at the table. The top four say they are unwilling to sit at the negotiation table with the regime".

On the other side, the Assad regime, feeling itself strong enough to stop the opposition advancing decisively, is unwilling to make the move that might bring a deal, dumping Assad himself.

The map above (with the text in French) shows estimates by the French newspaper Le Monde of which militias control which areas. The brown shading shows areas where Arab nationalist groups and more cautious Islamists linked to the Muslim Brotherhood are strong; the different green shadings, other Islamist groups; the yellow shadings, Kurdish nationalists.

Le Monde reckons that the more secular groups - mostly Arab-nationalist and often led by army officers who have defected from Assad - have strength in the south, near the border with Jordan. They get arms from the USA and from Saudi Arabia, Islamist itself, but anxious to have predictable and controllable allies in Syria.

The more cautious Islamists are strong in the south and parts of the north-west. They get supplies from Qatar, Turkey, and rich individuals from the Gulf.

Stronger in the north, however, are more strident Islamists, ranging through to the two rival Al Qaeda groups, Jabhat al-Nusra (now officially accredited by Al Qaeda chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri), and ISIS.

Another survey of the opposition groups, by Hassan Hassan, concludes that "salafi-leaning [more religiously-purist Islamist] insurgents are the single most dominant force in liberated areas".

Hassan, however, notes: "The size of extremist groups is not an accurate indicator of the support for their ideology within Syrian society. Fighting groups are also not ideologically homogenous, as many fighters join groups for their effectiveness on the battlefield and discipline".

Other reporters note conflicts between the militias and civilian committees (as well as the frequent conflicts between the militias themselves). Mohammed Al Attar writes of "a deepening enmity between Al Raqqa’s civilians [in north-central Syria] and the armed brigades, ISIS in particular. The civilians do not seem to be in a position of strength when it comes to these types of confrontations, yet at the same time they have never before been so determined..."

The SWP's Socialist Review, in October, reprinted a report from Yasser Munif on Manbij, in north-central Syria. "For many of the revolutionaries in Manbij and other areas, the pressing issue is how to effectively oppose Al Qaeda organisations". He describes conflict between local people and ISIS, and says that ISIS have retreated a bit, but only after taking control of two mosques and kidnapping and killing the imam from the biggest mosque. Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, another Islamist militia, are also established there.

"The revolutionary committees", writes Munif, "have been very good on a local level, but have not been able to transform this effectively onto a regional or national level".

Triumph for the Islamist militias would mean a new civil war between the rival groups among them; great sectarian slaughter of Shia Muslims and Christians; and a Syria fragmented or even more repressive than Assad's.

The people at the base who started the revolt in Syria as a democratic and secular uprising against the dictatorship are ill-placed to combat the militias, with their various foreign backers. All we can do to help them, we should do: but a real victory for them requires the sidelining of both Assad and the sectarian militias.

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