The defection of Syrian prime minister Riad Hijab last Sunday, to a neighbouring country believed to be Jordan, represented a huge moral victory to the opponents of President Bashar Assad. It also dealt a heavy blow to Al Assad’s regime in the wake of the killing of senior military and intelligence aides last month and the protracted battle to reclaim the country’s largest city, Aleppo.
Defections by ambassadors, government officials and members of the military continue on daily basis, but while the US and others believe that Al Assad’s days are numbered, the regime is showing no sign of relenting.
Attention is now focused on the battle for Aleppo, the country’s economic hub, where members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have apparent control over some of its key neighbourhoods. The regime is massing ground troops in preparation for a comprehensive attack in a bid to regain control of the city. It has used jet fighters and artillery to bomb rebel held areas resulting in mass destruction and heavy casualties, especially among civilians.
There is a sinister diplomatic silence as well that seems to be timed with the start of the battle for Aleppo. If the city falls to the opposition then it will trigger a major change in the course of the ongoing civil war, allowing the rebels to have uncontested control over northern Syria along the borders with Turkey from which they receive their military hardware.
On the other hand, and if the Syrian regular army is successful in reclaiming the city, at any price, it will represent a massive military defeat for the FSA and their backers. But it will not spell the end of the popular uprising.
Diplomatic efforts may resume once the dust clears over Aleppo. After the resignation of special UN-Arab League representative Kofi Annan, hopes for a political settlement to the 17-month-long crisis had waned considerably. It is now clear that all parties associated with the Syrian crisis have chosen to take a wait-and-see attitude.
This is a sad reality for the more than 2.5 million inhabitants of Aleppo and its countryside. The fight for the city will be at their expense. It is reported that at least half of the population have fled already with many more leaving every day.
Diplomatic paralysis over Syria is shameful and the failure of the UN Security Council members to arrive at a compromise solution to implement a peace plan or present Damascus with a stern ultimatum means that the death toll among civilians will rise dramatically in the coming days. It has already passed the 20,000 death mark.
There is definite shortage of information, as opposed to a surfeit of disinformation, about the reality on the ground. Arab audiences are hostage to unreliable newsfeed by the two main satellite news channels, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. There is a growing sense that both stations, a Qatari and a Saudi, are implementing a partial political agenda. There are few independent sources of information on the ground. Both stations rely heavily on amateur footage uploaded to YouTube and eyewitness accounts by questionable sources.
Few news outlets talk about the presence of foreign combatants, mostly Salafists, or of outside military support to the rebels. On Monday, Syria’s official TV presented the testimonies of two Jordanians who were arrested after crossing into the country illegally. They admitted that they had been recruited in Jordan and sent to Syria to fight. While such evidence cannot be corroborated independently, western reporters have confirmed the fact that foreign fighters are now active in Syria.
Last week, members of the FSA said they arrested a group of 48 Iranians near Damascus who they claim had come to fight for Al Assad’s regime. It is difficult to fully understand what is going on in Syria in the midst of official news blackout and information monopoly by media opposed to the regime.
Meanwhile, Iran, a close ally of Assad, has boosted its diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the Syria crisis. Two top officials have been dispatched to Ankara and Damascus ahead of a planned conference in Tehran to review the Syrian issue. But Iranian efforts are unlikely to succeed. Russia, which has stood by the Assad regime from the beginning of the popular uprising, remains opposed to western initiatives that could lead to foreign intervention.
With the pause in diplomatic efforts, the parties involved — Russia, Iran, US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — are now backing the military option by supplying the combatants with weapons. Both sides are now armed and fighting a battle for survival. Meanwhile, Syrians are fleeing their cities and towns and most of the country is witnessing various acts of violence. The battle for Aleppo will be decisive but it will not spell the end of a horrific civil war that is tearing Syria apart.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.