Negotiations, “Elections,” and al-Qaeda’s assault on Syrian Ceasefire

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

There were five major stories in the US and European press about Syria today:

1. The cessation of hostilities is in danger of breaking down (typically Western politicians and press blame this on the Syrian regime, but as far as I can tell, it is because of a counter-offensive by al-Qaeda-led rebel groups).

2. The Syrian regime held elections in the areas where it is strong (about 70% of the population lives under regime rule). The French denounced these elections as a sham, and they are likely to return a 250-MP parliament dominated by the ruling Baath Party, a seedy Stalinist police state. Why bother to hold these phony elections?

3. Negotiations began again in Geneva between the regime and the non-radical rebels. UN envoy Steffan de Mistura said he wanted them to focus on political transition, that is, the crafting of a new constitution and the holding of new nationwide elections. The opposition is insisting that Bashar al-Assad step down before such a transition can be accomplished, while the regime says that al-Assad is a red line. The Americans and Russians want the two sides to leave the question of the presidency until later and concentrate on the elements of transition below that level, e.g. the constitution and new electoral rules.

4. Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) has somewhat reasserted itself north of Aleppo and in the hinterlands of Damascus. But it was never part of the ceasefire.

5. If the negotiations fall apart and the civil war heats up again, the US is planning to give medium weaponry, including manpad anti-aircraft munitions, to the “vetted” rebels–who, however, seem to be perfectly willing to cooperate on the battlefield closely with al-Qaeda, so that the CIA weaponry will benefit, and some will go to, al-Qaeda (Nusra Front), which reports to Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks.

As I said, as far as I can tell, the opposition’s charges that the regime spoiled the cessation of hostilities is simply not true. Before the ceasefire began, the regime had taken back control of the main route from Damascus to Aleppo, including small towns southwest of Aleppo. I wrote Sunday,

“As the Syrian Arab Army and its Iranian and Iraqi militia allies have been busy to the east at Palmyra, al-Qaeda has spearheaded the reconquest from the regime of al-Eis, al-Khalidiya, Birna and Zitan, small towns along the strategic M5 highway linking Aleppo to Idlib Province (a province dominated by al-Qaeda and its allies). These advances are mainly al-Qaeda’s, or al-Qaeda’s in conjunction with allies. A Shiite site observed, “The attack on Zitan and Birneh is to be led exclusively by Jabhat al-Nusra fighters. Nevertheless, yesterday’s capture of al-Khalidyah was carried about by joint troops of Jund Al-Aqsa, Ahrar ash-Sham, Ajnad Al-Sham, Jabhat Al-Nusra and the Free Syrian Army’s 13th division.” The 13th Division of the FSA is a “vetted” group that receives CIA-supplied weaponry such as anti-tank t.o.W. munitions, which is to say that the United States is in bed with al-Qaeda in taking al-Khalidiya from the al-Assad regime.”

Aljazeera, which is sympathetic to the rebels, nevertheless admits that the some 100 fighters killed altogether on both sides in the past four days in the north died because the Syrian Arab Army and its militia allies have been trying to get al-Eis, al-Khalidiya, Birna and Zitan back from al-Qaeda and its local allies. The charge that there is an assault brewing on east Aleppo, a rebel stronghold, may or may not be true, but that isn’t anyway the story here. The story is that some elements of the Free Syrian Army have broken the ceasefire, and have de facto allied with al-Qaeda. these are the guys you want to give shoulder-held weapons that can bring down an El Al airliner?

As for the elections held by the regime, they are intended to demonstrate to the West that the Baath Party and President Bashar al-Assad are genuinely popular, and that they can’t just be set aside– they have millions of votes behind them. (This is North Korean thinking; in fact, the West will dismiss the polls as coerced and phony, and holding them will do the regime little good). It is true that most Syrians prefer the regime to Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) or al-Qaeda (the Nusra Front).

Whether the negotiations will go anywhere in Geneva is a big question mark. Likely developments on the battlefield will be more important. If the ceasefire does not in fact fall apart, then the next elections will have to allow voting in de facto rebel-held areas, moving Syria toward a multi-party system.

As for the CIA repeating all the mistakes of 1980s Afghanistan in Syria, it boggles the mind. Isn’t Obama in charge of this policy? It doesn’t sound like he is.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

France 24: “War in Syria: Intense fighting around Aleppo as peace talks resume”

Posted in Featured,Syria | 13 Responses | Print |

13 Responses

  1. What I find striking, is the ease with which “the West” habitually dismisses elections delivering results which are not to their liking (Palestine, East Ukraine, Krim, and upcoming Syria are but the latest examples). Nevertheless, the West is ever so eager to use elections which deliver results that please them (eg Kosovo, where a rather small margin of 55% voted for independence in heavily criticised elections).
    This manner of acting only reinforces the widespread belief that the West uses double standards, and very effectively undermines the case for democracy.

    I wonder why are you so light on this, Mr Cole?

    • you can’t have meaningful elections in a police state where criticizing the president leads to torture

      • Dr. Cole: you can not have meaningful elections if the moneyed class controls both parties in the USA – curtesy of the Supreme Court of USA.

        • Marx disagrees with you

          ““We know that heed must be paid to the institutions, customs and traditions of the various countries, and we do not deny that there are countries, such as America and England and if I was familiar with its institutions, I might include Holland, where the workers may attain their goal by peaceful means.”

          link to

    • I spent about 6 weeks in Syria a couple of years before the Arab Spring. It was clear to me that Syria was a dictatorship – but that at the same time Assad was quite popular with the Syrian people. Assad has committed many human rights abuses and this election cannot be seen as free and fair. At the same time, if free and fair elections were held I think Assad would win. There simply isn’t an opposition except for ISIS and al-Qaeada. Assad doesn’t really want democracy – he would rather continue as dictator. The west doesn’t really want democracy either – they would like to see Syria ruled by a Sunni dictatorship like the one in Bahrain. Syria is a chessboard and the Syrian people are just pawns.

  2. other peoples’ minds are also being ‘boggled’ by the usa / cia / dod “Plan B’

    Meanwhile hawks in the CIA and Pentagon want to turn the fighting in Syria into a campaign against the Russians. They want to provide serious anti-air capabilities to al-Qaeda and its “rebel” allies should the current cessation of hostilities not hold. I consider that to be a CIA offer to the “rebels”: Break the ceasefire and you will be rewarded with better quality weapons.

    One can only hope that the Obama White House, which earlier had rejected a proxy war with Russia, will therefore also reject this lunatic scheme.

    link to

  3. Re “the opposition’s charges that the regime spoiled the cessation of hostilities”: what is your assessment of the many charges that the regime has continued sieges of civilian areas, notably Darayya, which is only 10 km from downtown Damascus, throughout the cessation? Many have said that these sieges constitute war crimes.

    • Siege should be lifted on both sides.

      However FSA units in SW Aleppo launched major campaign in alliance w/ al-Qaeda and took several villages. That was pro-active on their part.

  4. I must be missing something, but how can there be a viable ceasefire when some parties (like Al Qaeda and ISIS) are not invited. I’m not a fan of either, but still something is missing in this equation. Since the West is orchestrating this, it’ll turn to s*** like everything else in the ME it gets involved in. Al Nusra (and probably ISIS too) have a pretty large contingent and needed to be somehow included, even if the other parties end up uniting against them. They just can’t be ignored!

    • People should know about the continuing anti-Assad, anti-Nusra protests in the opposition controlled town of Ma’arat Numan. This was posted in Facebook by Kenan Rahmani on 4/14/16:

      ‘4/13/2016: Amazing, amazing anti-Assad, anti-Nusra protest in Ma’arat Numan with Syrians singing “Yalla irhal Jolani” to the tune of “Yalla irhal ya Bashar.” This protest marks the 32nd consecutive day of anti-Nusra protests in Ma’arat al-Numan.
      “Yalla irhal” means “Get out” so they are calling on Jolani, the head of Jabhat al-Nusra, to get out.
      Keep in mind that these protesters are the ones that so many pro-Assad people tried to dismiss as undercover extremists. Also a huge number of women can be seen in the protest supporting the revolution against Assad and ISIS/Nusra.’

  5. As long as IS and Al-Qaeda are the opposition, Assad should win every election, or are we to believe that Syrien Women want the Burka back?!

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