Turkey and Russia at loggerheads over Syrian crisis as rebel forces grow stronger

Tue, Dec 4, 2012, 00:00

ANALYSIS:Syrian warplanes yesterday bombed a rebel-held security building near the Turkish border, wounding 11, as Russian president Vladimir Putin said he and Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan disagreed on how to resolve the crisis.

During talks in Istanbul, Mr Erdogan, who backs the rebels, failed to persuade Mr Putin, who rejects foreign intervention in Syria, to end support for Damascus. “Russia and Turkey . . . cannot find a common approach on how to regulate the situation in Syria, but our assessments of the situation completely coincide,” Mr Putin said.

In Cairo, Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said the Syrian government could fall “anytime” because of rebel gains. “Now they are fighting in Damascus . . . I think there will be something soon . . . Facts on the ground indicate very clearly now that the Syrian opposition is gaining, politically and militarily.”

Several factors have improved rebel performance over recent weeks. They have received fresh shipments of arms, particularly anti-tank weapons and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, or obtained arms from captured military bases and stores.

While units operating under the Free Syrian Army remain largely independent and without overall operational command and control, ultra-orthodox Sunni Salafi jihadis are increasing in numbers. They are being paid more frequently and are better-armed.

Writing in the Washington Post, David Ignatius said that al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, the Front for the Protection of the People of Syria, has 6,000 to 10,000 fighters, 7.5 to 9 per cent of the total number of rebel gunmen. When the Jabhat emerged at the start of 2012, its fighters amounted to 1 per cent of gunmen; three months ago, they represented 3 per cent.

Aggressive fighters

The Jabhat’s recruits – Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Saudis, Somalis, Jordanians, Chechens and Pakistanis – are concentrated in Aleppo and Idlib in the north, Deir al-Zor in the east, and around Damascus. They are the most effective and aggressive fighters who tend to mount risky raids on military sites, thereby securing spoils in captured weaponry. They also assume leadership in units of the Free Army and local militias, and mount suicide bombings.

The Jabhat seeks to engage in holy war (jihad) against the “godless” secular Assad regime, which the organisation condemns for the harsh treatment of rebel forces in Homs early this year. The Jabhat is fiercely opposed to the involvement of western governments, regarded as enemies of Islam.

Moderate fundamentalist and secular Syria commanders operating under the Free Army franchise see the Salafis as essential in the conflict but argue that, once the regime falls, the Free Army and its associates will have to fight the Salafis, particularly the Jabhat.

Meanwhile, al-Jazeera reported that foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi, a Christian loyalist, had defected and travelled to Britain. His departure would amount to a psychological blow to Damascus.