08.03.2014 Author: Viktor Titov

Syria still is in the Spotlight

56Russian Foreign Ministry made a statement on March 5, where Moscow called upon international politicians to support the practice of local ceasefires in Syria, which was pursued by Damascus. According to Russian Foreign Ministry, in parallel with the fights, Syrian authorities continue to expand the practice of local ceasefires, which covers more than 50 districts and localities in different parts of Syria, and the military are holding talks with militants in another 20 localities. In early March, about 400 militants laid down their arms in the towns of Madai, Bukeyn, Jdeidat Artus and Daraya to the west of Damascus. The checkup of 291 former militants who had refused to resist authorities was completed in Hasan near Homs on March 3. All of them were sent home. “We call upon all international partners and opposition politicians who can influence the event happening ‘on the ground’ to provide active support of this process that can save many thousands of lives and alleviate the suffering of the civilian population,” reads the statement. Earlier, Russian Foreign Ministry had expressed concern over media reports on the use of the territory of Jordan for the transit of weapons to Syria and training of militants of the Syrian opposition.

Nevertheless, the process of destruction of the chemical potential of the SAR is going on. According to recent information, with the reference to Sigrid Kaag, the head of the joint mission of the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in Syria, more than 40% of Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles will be destroyed in the next few days. According to her, about one third of ammunition has been removed from the country or destroyed on the spot by now. “The statistics will change within a few days, and we expect to reach 40–41 percent,” said Kaag. Earlier, it was reported that most of the chemical weapons, including the most dangerous components, will be removed from Syria by March 1. The second batch of highly toxic chemicals was evacuated from Syria on January 28. Hazardous substances were transported by Danish and Norwegian ships under escort of warships from different countries, including Russia. The first batch was removed from Syria on January 7. According to the original plan, it was planned to remove all Syrian chemical weapons by December 31, 2013, but the terms could not be met because of the unstable situation in the country. According to the new schedule, the most hazardous chemicals, including about 20 tons of toxic mustard gas, must be removed from the country by March 31 this year, and Syrian chemical weapons are to be destroyed completely by the end of June. According to the information available, about 5% of chemicals have been removed by now, that is about 30 tons. On March 3, the Syrian authorities presented a plan, according to which the removal of chemical weapons from the country will be completed by the end of April.

However, U.S. allies in the region are not slowing down the pace of providing “assistance” to Syrian militants. In late February, Moscow expressed its “concern over reports of various media on the use of the territory of Jordan for the transit of weapons for armed opposition groups and training of militants in training camps right before the opening of the mentioned ‘southern front’ against Syrian government forces”. For example, the newspaper The Asharq Al-Awsat quoted Najib Gadban, member of the National coalition of Syrian revolutionary forces and opposition in the U.S., who said that “these militants were trained by CIA instructors in camps in Jordan,” reads the statement.

On March 5, the Information and Press Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry noted that “the confrontation between the government forces and illegal armed groups, including international terrorists and extremists, is happening in Syria. The operation for liberation of the mountainous region of Kalamun to the north-west of Damascus has been developed. The town of Yabrud, where the terrorist group of Jabhat al-Nusra has entrenched itself, remains the last stronghold of militants there. The recent operation made it possible to blockade the town through which the infiltration of foreign jihadists and mercenaries had been carried out for a long time. According to media reports, the field commander of Nusra, H. Ammun was killed; he was wanted for his involvement in terrorist acts in Lebanon with the use car bombs.” Deadly clashes are going on in some areas of Aleppo. Syrian military defeated a detachment of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant that terrorized the population of the village of Mreya near Deir ez-Zor. Kurdish self-defense units are pressing jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in northeastern Syria near Tell Abyad. However, extremist and terrorist groups, primarily the groups of Jabhat al-Nusra, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and the Islamic Front, are trying to derail efforts aimed at concluding and maintaining local ceasefires and reaching new arrangements in this direction. Similar attempts were made in the capital’s suburbs Duma, Dara, Barz, Qudsi, Babill, Beit Sahm, where extremists repeatedly started provocative fire, attacked convoys of Syrian Red Crescent delivering aid to civilians. Of particular concern are reports that militants of Jabhat al-Nusra violated the agreement on leaving the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, reached on February 11, and renewed clashes with the forces of the Palestinian people’s militia. Blind mortar attacks on residential districts of Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, resulting in daily casualties, continue.

As it is known, on February 22, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution on the humanitarian situation in Syria. The resolution rests the responsibility for providing the civilian population with humanitarian aid and the cooperation with international humanitarian agencies both on Syrian government and opposition groups. The document does not contain any threats of coercive sanctions. However, in any case, this creates the necessary conditions for establishing at least some cooperation between the authorities in Damascus and the opposition that is aimed at supplying humanitarian aid to civilians. For that end, there is a pressing need to expand the practice of local ceasefires.

Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon held a meeting in Geneva on March 3. Along with the situation in Ukraine, they discussed the issue of the Syrian settlement. “The parties agreed that the way to settle the acute crisis in Syria lies in the plane of a comprehensive political settlement through the provision of a sustainable process of inter-Syrian negotiations, on the basis of the Geneva communiqué of June 30, 2012. In any case, the decision on the fundamental issues of the country’s future should be taken by the Syrians themselves, on the basis of mutual consent,” they noted in the Russian Foreign Ministry.

However, it is obvious that many foreign politicians do not quite understand or interpret correctly the correlation between the difference in positions of Moscow and Washington on Ukraine and Syria. The West is in a state of euphoria as a result of a quick gaining control over Ukraine, according to the opinion of Mubariz Ahmadoglu, Director of the Center for Political Innovation and Technology, announced at a press conference in Baku on March 6. “Perhaps, noting in his statement that Syria and Ukraine were not chess pieces on a ‘chessboard’ for the United States and Russia, U.S. President Barack Obama meant that the U.S. has “liberated” Ukraine from Russian influence and reassigned this country to its interests in this “chess game”, while passing Syria under Russian control at the same time. Immediately after such an indicative statement by Obama, the accents in the resolution on the situation in Syria, drafted by UN Security Council, were adjusted. In fact, the U.S. refused from its harsh position on Syria and shifted the accent in favor of Russia’s position,” said Ahmadoglu.

In fact, all is not that simple and straightforward. And there cannot be any exchange here. Another thing is that Washington could not care less about Syria, while the crisis around Ukraine is underway. However, this does not mean that once the situation is discharged, the U.S. will not return to a policy of military pressure on Damascus, including using threats and saber rattling. Moreover, fists of many American hawks of John McCain type, especially in the Senate, are itching to “teach Moscow a lesson” for its principled position on the events in Ukraine, primarily through military strikes on the SAR. According to the extreme right-wing American statesmen, it would be a kind of revenge on Russia for its protection of Crimea against a possible invasion of Ukrainian neo-Nazis and Banderovites from Western Ukraine. And we should admit that this option cannot be excluded completely. Venting the anger on much weaker sides is the typical behavior of Washington. E.g., to occupy Grenada, to invade Iraq, to bomb Libya. It is not the same thing as to compete with nuclear powers, especially in circumstances where the EU is not in a hurry to support the United States in its anti-Russian anger.

Meanwhile, on March 6, Syrian President Bashar Assad expressed his support for the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin in connection with the situation in Ukraine, according to Syrian agency SANA. Assad sent Putin a telegram where he, “on his own behalf and on behalf of the Syrian people”, expressed the solidarity with the attempts of Russian President to restore security and stability in Ukraine “in view of the attempted coup against the rule of law and democracy in favor of radicals and terrorists”. The telegram also reads that Damascus supports the “rational and peaceful approach of the Russian President, aiming to create a world system that supports stability and anti-terrorism efforts”.

Viktor Titov, PhD in History, a political observer on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook

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