Syria's Rebels Jockey for Position Ahead of US Election
If you thought that the only people focusing intently on Ohio’s returns were caffeine-spiked politicos and journalists, think again. Foreign ministries, Syrian rebels, and armed forces across the world have a major stake in the outcome of November 6.
Syria’s fate hangs in the balance most of all. Nineteen months after the Syrian uprising began in the midst of the Arab Spring, Syria’s rebels and their supporters face increasing pressure to produce decisive action that will turn the conflict toward a peace process. Defining the prerequisites for peace has proven elusive; China’s recent proposal stops short of regime change, a nonstarter for Syria’s Russian allies but far less than what rebels appear willing to accept.
On the Ground | The past few days have seen a cascade of updates in Syria. After President Bashir al-Assad’s air force bombed the suburbs of Damascus, loudly ending a brief (and frequently ignored) ceasefire for the high holiday of Eid on Oct. 27, rebels struck back with a series of bombings inside Damascus and engaged in an offensive to take the strategically important Taftanaz air base, although they have withdrawn as of Monday, Nov 5th. Shelling and fighting have been reported at and near the Yarmuk refugee camp, where the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated that Palestinians have engaged in combat on both sides. Assad’s regime had been a source of refuge for Hamas before the group moved its headquarters due to rising instability; anti-Assad groups of Palestinian fighters have been organized and are fighting alongside rebels, according to several reports.
Apparent War Crimes | Last week, rebels posted a video that appears to show unarmed, captured pro-Assad forces being beaten, forced into a pile, and shot. The video has drawn widespread condemnation from human rights organizations; Rupert Colville of the UN High Commission for Human Rights stated that the victims “were no longer combatants and therefore, at this point, it looks very like a war crime.” The Syrian conflict was designated as an internal armed conflict or civil war by the International Committe of the Red Cross in July 2012; international humanitarian law applies wherever conflict is taking place in Syria.
Doha | As day broke on Sunday, Nov. 5 for the conference in Doha, Qatar, 20 representatives of the various rebel factions gathered to generate a more united front for the opposition with clear political objectives. Whether real progress will be made prior to the final returns of the U.S. presidential election remains to be seen; the group’s first unified statement is that the removal of Assad himself is a precondition for any negotiated peace. Secretary Hillary Clinton recently revoked U.S. support for the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council, making room for a broader consensus — and fresh recognition for a Doha-generated body — on the next steps in Syria. What those steps are will clearly change depending on whether President Obama faces two months of a lame duck presidency or four more years. Despite Obama’s decline in popularity in the Middle East, including within Turkey, the world at large appears to want four more years. A change-up in U.S. leadership will produce a tangible shift in the conflict, and as Syrian tanks move into the demilitarized buffer zone in the Golan Heights, Assad may be hedging his bets against any shift that bolsters Israel’s resolve.
So far, leadership within the Syrian opposition remains uncertain. Businessman and noted dissident Riad Seif is rumored by some to have the confidence of his peers, but Seif’s struggle with prostate cancer and his own denials may make him a transitional figure at best. On Sunday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi to discuss the Syria crisis; the two concluded that, “There wasn’t any agreement on anything,” according to al-Arabi.
Every change holds greater significance in the last moments before the U.S. election is decided and the Doha conference concludes. But barring a major shift in the conflict, such as the sudden use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, the actors will be playing a game of wait-and-see with Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa while jockeying for strategic gains on the ground.
So if you’re tired of listening to that uber-politico friend who treats the presidential election as a matter of life and death, just remember: in Syria, it is.
This article originally appeared at the Truman Doctrine.