Weekly update of Syrian crisis: State institutions nearing collapse
Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its commercial capital, seems to becoming the central front in the war between President Assad’s government and the fragmented opposition movement that has been fighting to bring down the government since last March. Since the Free Syrian Army (FSA)—the catch-all name for the different armed groups contesting government control—seized large parts of the south of the city in recent weeks, both sides have been preparing for a showdown. The rebels are reported to be stockpiling arms, food, and medical supplies, while the government has brought in troops, tanks, artillery, helicopters and combat jets, and is preparing a counteroffensive to take back lost territory. Shelling and air attacks to ‘soften up’ the defenders have continued virtually non-stop, and cell phone and internet service has reportedly been cut off.
The UN refugee relief agency, the UNHCR, said on Tuesday that 200,000 of the inhabitants of Aleppo have fled their homes since the fighting reached the area, out of a population of over 2.5 million. An FSA officer told reporters that neither the FSA itself or the local towns and villages had enough resources to feed and shelter residents displaced by the fighting.
Fighting also continues in the capital, Damascus, where some suburbs have been the scene of fierce battles between rebels and loyalist military forces. A Syrian opposition group, the Local Coordination Committees, claimed that loyalists conducted two separate massacres of civilians in the suburbs of Jdeidet Artouz and Yalda on Wednesday, with a total death toll of 77.
Meanwhile, footage surfaced on the internet on Wednesday that purports to show suspected loyalist militiamen being summarily executed by rebels in Aleppo. A spokesman for the FSA’s ‘Unity Brigade’ told London’s Guardian newspaper: “We were able to kill 20 of them and arrest another 50 … Others are being kept for trial after the collapse of the regime.” The Syrian National Council, based in Turkey, condemned the killings.
The various rebel groups fighting the Syrian military are becoming increasingly well-armed and coordinated, according to several sources this week. The UN has confirmed that the rebels have captured and used tanks in combat (rebel tanks attacked a Syrian military airbase near Aleppo on Thursday), and according to a report from NBC TV news on Tuesday have also received a shipment of shoulder-launched surface to air missiles, capable of bringing down helicopters and low-flying aircraft. An FSA spokesman denied the report two days later. In addition, it is clear that the rebels are becoming increasingly adept in the use of roadside bombs, which proved deadly for American and NATO forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Though the US denies it is supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition, restricting itself to supplying ‘non-lethal’ items like secure communication equipment, Reuters reported on Thursday that President Obama had signed a ‘finding’ authorizing the CIA to assist the rebels in other ways. Any activity is likely to be taking place at a covert base near the Turkish town of Adana, close to the Syrian border, the existence of which was reported by the news agency last week. The base was reportedly established by Turkey and some Gulf States for funneling weapons and intelligence to the rebels, and helping them coordinate their campaign to topple Assad’s government.
While the fighting continues, Syria’s banking, and perhaps more seriously, agricultural systems are breaking down. Reuters reported that while deposits and withdrawals are still possible, loans and credit to firms has dropped off to almost zero, in a symptom of the bleak economic outlook amongst the fighting, as many seek to move their assets abroad. Worse, a report from the World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that Syria’s farmers will have enormous difficulty harvesting their crops thanks to shortages of fuel, labor, and water, as well as the danger from the fighting. The WFP estimates that 1.5 million Syrians will need emergency food aid in the next six months, especially amongst Syria’s poorest citizens, who are most vulnerable to rising food prices.
In another sign that the Syrian state itself is collapsing, a new report from the respected International Crisis Group warned this week that the Syrian government is fragmenting, coming closer and closer to devolving into “a formidable militia engaged in a desperate fight for survival.” The report goes on to warn that, thanks to the ongoing conflict, “The regime essentially has been stripped down to a broadly cohesive, hardcore faction fighting an increasingly bitter, fierce and naked struggle for collective survival. It is mutating in ways that make it impervious to political and military setbacks, indifferent to pressure and unable to negotiate.”
The report also highlights the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict, with growing fears in Syria’s Alawi community that they will suffer bloody reprisals if the Ba’ath government falls, thanks to their identification with the regime in the minds of many of Syria’s Sunnis.
At the United Nations, the General Assembly is expected to vote today on a symbolic, non-binding resolution drafted by Saudi Arabia, which condemns the Syrian government and calls on all parties to end the violence and seek a peaceful solution. It also criticizes the Security Council for failing to do enough to halt Syria’s slide into chaos and civil war. The vote was originally scheduled for Wednesday, but was delayed because it called for the imposition of sanctions and for President Assad to step down, making it too controversial for some member states.
Kofi Annan, the Arab League and UN special envoy for Syria, resigned on Thursday, announcing that he will not seek the renewal of his mandate when it expires at the end of the month. This move follows the failure of both sides in Syria to implement his peace plan, and continued bickering between world powers. Mr. Annan criticized the permanent members of the Security Council in a statement announcing his resignation in Geneva, saying “At a time when we need – when the Syrian people desperately need action – there continues to be finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council.”
There is as yet no word on who will replace him, but Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon stated that he intends to appoint a new envoy at the end of the month, in consultation with the Arab League.