Political Comment (30 July 2012)
Against the background of continued acrimony in the Security Council, the Syrian government has launched a counteroffensive which has regained control of areas in Damascus seized by rebels and was closing in on Aleppo at the end of the week. The Arab League has invited President Bashar al-Asad to step down and is dispatching a mission to Russia and China. Egypt's new president has met with the leader of Gaza's Hamas administration, Isma'il Haniya.
Syrian Government Strikes Back
At MEES press time on 27 July fierce fighting was continuing in Damascus and Aleppo and the authorities appeared to have halted and partially reversed the gains made by the surprise opposition offensive which began on 15 July and acquired significant momentum with the 18 July assassination of a number of senior regime figures including President Bashar al-Asad's brother-in-law. At the moment the loyalist armed and security forces enjoy a preponderance of firepower which is partly negated by the exigencies of urban warfare, and neither side looks as if it is about to land a knockout blow (although State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on 26 July that there is concern ï¿½that we will see a massacre in Aleppo, and that's what the regime appears to be lining up forï¿½). In an otherwise confused situation there were only two certainties: that the Security Council will remain paralyzed; and that the Syrian opposition will fail to present a united and coherent front.
At the Security Council, it is becoming clear that the longer the Syrian crisis drags on, the more bitter the recriminations are becoming. After the deputy US ambassador to the UN, Jeffrey Delaurentis, announced on 25 July that ï¿½since this Council failed to shoulder its responsibilities,ï¿½ the US would turn to alternatives such as the ï¿½Friends of Syriaï¿½ group of nations, Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin declared that "such a policy has been followed by Washington and a number of other capitals since the beginning of the crisis in Syria and this has significantly exacerbated it," adding that the US would "bear the responsibility for the likely catastrophic consequences of such steps." Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was even blunter, describing the Americans' failure to condemn the 18 July assassinations as "a direct justification of terrorism" and adding that "to put it mildly, we donï¿½t understand the refusal of our partners to condemn the terrorist attack in Damascus."
As for Syria's fragmented opposition, the latest candidate to unite the various factions inside and outside the country is one of the most senior defectors from the Asad regime, Gen Manaf Tlas, the son of former defense minister Mustafa Tlas. In an interview in the Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat
on 26 July, Gen Tlas declared that "I left Syriaï¿½to try to help the best I can to unite the honorable people inside and outside Syria to set out a road map to get Syria out of this crisisï¿½a group from inside and outside Syria should cooperate to accomplish this phase." However, he emphasized that he "did not leave Syria to lead the transitional period" and warned against any Iraqi-style wholesale purge of the institutions of state, saying that "there are many people in the regime whose hands are not covered in bloodï¿½we should preserve the national institutions in Syria and preserve the state and tackle only those who committed wrongs in handling the crisis."
Arab League Sends Mission To Russia And China
The Russians must be aware that their support for Mr Asad is not making them popular elsewhere in the Arab world, but if they are not they are about to be told so by the head of the Arab League, Nabil al-ʹAraby, who was charged by a meeting of League foreign ministers in Doha on 22 July with visiting China and Russia to discuss their habit of vetoing Security Council resolutions on Syria. "Our message to the Russians will be, with clarity and frankness, that the veto decision they took is viewed as being against Arab interests," Mr ʹAraby said in an interview published on 24 July. "We hope for a review of the matter. Especially given that they know that the days of the current regime in Syria are numbered." He also claimed that the Doha meeting ï¿½ which called on Mr Asad to step down, an invitation he is unlikely to accept ï¿½ marked a hardening of the League's position on Syria, and that "there is now no talk about political reform, but a transfer of power."
Mursi Meets Hamas Leader
The Israelis will have been watching closely as Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi met with Gaza Hamas leader Isma'il Haniya in Cairo during an official visit on 26 July, reversing former president Husni Mubarak's refusal to recognize Hamas' takeover of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2007. Ideally Hamas ï¿½ which is an offshoot of Mr Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood ï¿½ would probably like the Egyptian president to open the border with Gaza unconditionally, but the outcome of the Cairo meeting suggests that both sides are approaching the question of their future relationship cautiously. A spokesman for Mr Mursi said that the subjects discussed included "lifting the siege and the suffering of the people in Gaza" and reconciliation between Hamas and the PA, while a Hamas statement said only that Mr Mursi had "promised to take measures that would ease the life of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip."
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