Israel’s attack on Assad’s military bases on Mount Qassioun above Damascus have provoked mixed feelings amongst Syrians. On the one hand, Syrians have been well aware for over two years that Assad’s army is designed not to confront Zionism but to slaughter the Syrian people. For a year and a half Mount Qassioun has been the launching pad for for artillery and missile attacks on civilian areas of Damascus and its suburbs. On the other hand, hatred and mistrust of Israel rightly runs very deep indeed among the people, far deeper than among the regime which, despite all its rhetoric, has not once (since 1973) responded to Israeli violations of Syrian sovereignty. Syrians know that Israel’s attack is an attempt to exploit the revolutionary situation for Israel’s own ends, that it is part of Israel’s confrontation with Iran – something Syrians want no part of, however much they may hate Iran’s criminal support of the genocidal Assad regime – and that it offers grist to Assad’s propaganda mill.
Here are some immediate responses to Israel’s attack. The Syrian National Coalition released this statement, including this line: “The Coalition holds the Assad regime fully responsible for weakening the Syrian Army by exhausting its forces in a losing battle against the Syrian people.” Many Arabic language Youtube videos show various Free Army and Salafist militias condemning both Israel and Assad’s regime.
I wrote this on Facebook:
Assad responds to the Israeli attack by escalating his sectarian massacres on the coast and his bombardment of Syrian cities, including the Palestinian refugee camp at Yarmouk. Infantile so-called ‘anti-imperialists’ everywhere cheer on Assad’s ‘heroic resistance’.
By ‘sectarian massacres on the coast’ I was referring specifically to the ongoing slaughter of Sunnis in al-Bayda and other areas of Banyas, causing thousands to flee the area.
Pulse editor Robin Yassin-Kassab discusses Syria on Al Jazeera’s Inside Syria.
We look at the internal divisions inside the Syrian National Coalition as they wrestle for legitimacy. To understand the reasons behind internal divisions inside the Syrian opposition, Inside Syria with presenter Hazem Sika discusses with guests: Najib Ghadbian; a representative of the National Coalition of Revolution and Opposition Forces in the UN; Robin Yassin-Kassab, a novelist and commentator; and in Athens-Ohio, Amr al-Azm, a professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University.
On January19th Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem gave an apparently conciliatory interview to state TV. “I tell the young men who carried arms to change and reform, take part in the dialogue for a new Syria and you will be a partner in building it. Why carry arms?” In the southern and eastern suburbs of Damascus his voice was drowned out by the continuing roar of the regime’s rocket, artillery and air strikes.
The UN and parts of the media have also called for negotiations. Until late January this year, however, the Syrian National Coalition – the widely-recognised opposition umbrella group – opposed the notion absolutely. But then SNC leader Moaz al-Khatib announced that he would talk directly to regime representatives (not Bashaar al-Assad himself) on condition that the regime releases 160, 000 detainees and renews the expired passports of exiled Syrians.
In the context of Moallem’s media offensive (and in the absence of concerted international financial or military support for either the SNC or the revolutionary militias) al-Khatib’s announcement calls the regime’s bluff. It doesn’t, of course, mean that negotiations are about to be launched. For a start, the regime only intends to negotiate with, as it puts it, those “who have not betrayed Syria”. Like successive Israeli regimes, it will only talk with the ‘opposition’ it chooses to recognise. This includes, as well as pro-regime people posing as oppositionists, Haytham Manaa’s National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, a group which has no influence whatsoever on the revolutionary fighters setting the agenda. The SNC – which does have some influence on the ground, and would have far more if it were sufficiently funded – is definitely not invited.
In response to non-violent protests calling for reform, the Baathist regime in Damascus has brought Syria bloodshed, chaos, and created the conditions in which jihadism thrives. The now partially armed revolution is doing its best to roll back the bloodshed and to eliminate the regime that perpetrates it.
Yet Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch, one of the more perceptive analysts of the Middle East, argues that after more than 60,000 lives have been lost, “the last year should be a lesson to those who called for arming the rebels.” In a previous article, Lynch noted, “Syrian armed groups are now awash with weapons.”
Anyone laboring under the delusion that pro-revolution foreign powers have flooded Syria with hi-tech weaponry should scroll through the blog of New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers or peruse the web pages displaying improvised catapult bombs and PlayStation-controlled armored cars. These are hardly the tools of a fighting force that has been armed to the teeth.
While it’s true that some armed groups — particularly the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra — have sometimes found themselves in possession of plenty of weaponry, the resistance remains overwhelmingly dependent on the weapons it can buy, steal, or seize from captured checkpoints and bases.
Simply put, the assumptions of those who called for arming the rebels have not been tested because the rebels have not been armed — except in irrelevant, sporadic and, in Lynch’s words, “poorly coordinated” ways. For instance, an ammunition shortage slowed the original rebel advance in Aleppo to a destructive halt.
Following my previous comment on the astounding failures of Syrian political elites, I must report some optimism. The Syrian National Council has accepted its place within the new Syrian National Coalition (it makes up a third of the new body), and the Coalition has won recognition by the Arab League, France, Japan and others.
The Coalition’s choice of leaders is the most inspiring sign, one which suggests both that the Coalition is no foreign front, and that another, much more positive aspect of Syria is finally coming to the fore.
President Ahmad Muaz al-Khatib is a mosque imam, an engineer and a public intellectual. He is Islamist enough for the Islamists and less extreme Salafists of the armed resistance to give him a hearing, but not Islamist enough to scare secularists and minority groups. He has written books on the importance of minority religious rights and women’s rights in a just Islamic society. His speeches since assuming his position have reached out to minorities and to the soldiers in Asad’s army, who he described as victims of the regime.
Vice President Riyadh Saif is a businessman, former MP, and a liberal democrat.
And Vice President Suheir al-Atassi, daughter of foundational Ba’athist Jamal al-Atassi, is a human rights activist, a secular feminist, a founder of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, and a key activist of the grassroots Local Coordination Committees. She is the sort of person who should have been representing the Revolution at the highest level from the very start.
All three leaders have been active participants in the revolution inside Syria, and all three have suffered imprisonment. All three are known and respected by Syrians inside the country.