What if Damascus falls?

This article is a translation of "Wat als Damascus valt?"

Syrian refugees already dominate the news about the EU migration crisis, but fears are growing that a fall of Damascus is no longer excluded. In that case many more millions would try to escape.
Last week there have been demonstrations in several cities in which the supporters of Assad are concentrated, such as Latakia and Tartous, to express the feat that the government forces are no longer able to stem the advance of ISIS (which already has large parts of Syria and Iraq under its control), al-Qaeda/al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and other groups. 

In the longer run the nuclear agreement with Iran, the military coup in Egypt, and the problems Erdogan has run into in Turkey due to his support to the jihadists in Syria and the war against the Kurds, may weaken the opposition against Assad. But ISIS is still able to use American equipment captured in Iraq for a lightning offensive in Syria and that prospect has led Russia to make a last try to end the civil war by a compromise. 

Putin therefore had a meeting with the Saudi crown prince (and minister of defence) in St Petersburg in mid June and in spite of all the differences there was agreement to encourage the ‘Syrian opposition’ to enter peace negotiations. What these two consider to be ‘the opposition; is of course miles apart, because the Islamists in Syria are being supported by religious fanatics in the Saudi ruling class who are willing to spend a lot on the spread of the ultra-orthodox Wahabi-Sunni form of Islam. The secular regime of Assad in Syria is for them an anomaly that must be removed.

No wonder the Syrian minister of foreign affairs, Walid al-Moualem, travelled to Moscow in late June to find out what had been agreed between the indispensable ally of Damascus and the financier of the most fanatical rebel formations.

Two weeks later it was again the turn of the Saudis, this time the foreign secretary, to come to Moscow. However, the fact that on 13 August Khaled Khoja, the leader of the militarily insignificant Syrian National Council, came to Moscow for discussions, confirms that the Russians have no confidence that Assad on his own can hold the line against ISIS, al-Qaeda/al-Nusra and a host of smaller jihadist groups. This weekend the SNR will again come to Moscow for talks.

Washington too has expressed timid support for the Russian proposals to form a common front against ISIS, and the American demand that Assad must leave, appears to have moved into the background (at least as far as Obama and Kerry are concerned). On August 7 the Russians therefore agreed to a resolution of the UN Security Council that should make it possible to trace the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, exactly two years ago. That most probably had been done to provoke the US and Britain into intervention in Syria, which thanks to a revolt in the British House of Commons and hesitation on the part of Obama (and a Russian move to ask Assad to have his chemical weapons destroyed), did not materialise.

The 17th of August another unanimous declaration was adopted in the Security Council to start negotiations in Syria. The fact that only Venezuela expressed reservations about the lack of a reference to a role in these negotiations for the government in Damascus, and warned against a repetition of the Libyan scenario (in which a UN resolution was used for regime change), says something about the urgency with which all countries involved are viewing the situation in Syria. But will this lead to concessions?

Or will we have to wait for the day, after four years of civil war, 250 000 dead and 12 million people chased from their homes, that the bloodbath will enter a new stage with the hoisting of the black flag of ISIS over Damascus?

Kees van der Pijl

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