Before Geneva 2, Al-Qalamoun Battle And The Duel Against ISIS

Those who want to go to Geneva are linking the conference's fate to the position that will be adopted by the United States, as though they were wishful to test this position once again

By George Semaan

The Syrian opposition is facing critical choices, leaving no room for anticipation or stalling. Domestically, it is invited to turn its arms towards an opponent, which has started to pose a threat equal to that of the confrontation against the regime's forces. Hence, there can be no more delays. It is also invited to participate in the Geneva 2 conference, amid commotion and debates threatening to divide its political body, and undermine whatever coordination is left between it and the forces fighting on the ground. This is a wager – with unguaranteed results – over what it could accomplish from its political program, but also a test that might be the last for its relationship with the Friends group gathering in London tomorrow.


It is no secret that the United States is practicing immense pressures on the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, to get it to attend the Geneva meeting. But the opposition feels that by going to the conference in such circumstances, and without any specific guarantees related to the ceasefire and the establishment of a transitional government with full executive prerogatives to pave the way before the regime's departure, is like heading there toothless or without any pressure card. In the meantime, the regime's troops have achieved some progress on the ground – especially in Rif Dimashq and its suburbs – and are preparing for the greater battle in Al-Qalamoun, one which is similar to Al-Qusayr battle. Meanwhile, the gap is widening between this opposition’s political and military structures, and within each of them.


Many sides in the opposition are in favor of attending the Geneva 2 meeting, and this will be determined during its imminent meetings in Istanbul. If the National Council decides to uphold its position against participation without clear guarantees, it would not only be risking the Coalition's unity, but also its own, considering that around half its members – or a little less – want to be present. What is certain so far is that the international-regional conference will fuel the disputes in the ranks of the Syrian regime's opponents, both internally and externally.


Those who want to go to Geneva are linking the conference's fate to the position that will be adopted by the United States, as though they were wishful to test this position once again. They will head to the meeting based on guarantees related to the formation of a government with full executive powers, and in which President Bashar al-Assad would have no role. So far, the United States has not recanted its public position and is still saying there will be no role by President Al-Assad. But at the same time, it is not proposing a roadmap that would lead to that end, or expressing a prior understanding over this issue with its partner, i.e. Russia not Europe. This situation does not inspire trust within the Coalition, as it believes that the experience with the American policy towards the Syrian crisis throughout the past two and a half years has not been very encouraging in most cases, if not all of them. The last episode at this level was the surprising shift in the policy of President Barack Obama's administration, considering that more than a month ago, the world was expecting a strong American strike that would undermine the capabilities of the regime in Damascus, shake its foundations, and force it to fully surrender to the requirements and decisions of the Geneva 1 conference. This would have allowed the opposition to achieve progress on the ground, threaten the regime's existence, and push it to Geneva 2 while wounded and weak. However, the Coalition received a painful blow and was extremely disappointed when it felt that the American-Russian agreement over the destruction of the Syrian chemical arsenal was the main goal.


Those who wish to attend Geneva 2 – which will probably be decided by the Coalition – believe that the conference constitutes a serious test for Washington's stance. So can the latter agree with Moscow or force it to start from the beginning by turning the page of President Al-Assad's regime? Or will it continue to deal with Syria as an open arena or pit, in order to settle scores and conflicts in the region, seal deals and establish a network of relations and interests, without any regard for the nature of the conflict in the country or the opposition's calls for change? If this is the case, the opposition can exit the conference and seek alternative options with numerous sides that are against this American inclination, namely with prominent European and regional states. If this is not done, the armed factions will – for the most part – slide towards extremism and grow closer to An-Nusra and its likes among fundamentalist Islamic formations.


In that sense, Geneva 2 will be a decisive event that will determine the Syrian opposition's fate and the future of the relations between the two superpowers (i.e. America and Russia) and the regional powers. Israel can be reassured about its American and Russian allies, which eliminated the Syrian chemical threat and will definitely try to neutralize the Iranian nuclear threat. As for Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, they are not concealing their disgruntlement towards the international position vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis, while Paris and Ankara expressed their understanding of Riyadh's rejection of its seat at the Security Council and are not reassured about the American-Russian vision for the required solution in Geneva. These capitals, which are worried about Washington's stance, fear that just as it did with the chemical deal, Obama's administration will continue to devise understandings with Moscow and Tehran over other files, from the Iranian nuclear file to the future of Afghanistan, America's pullout plan from this country, and the regime's map in the Great Middle East. Consequently, many regional powers are opposing this monopolization of the decision when addressing the fate of the region and its security, political, and economic system without taking their interests, concerns, and fears into account, and are reconsidering their options and relationships network.


Until the Geneva 2 meeting is held, the Syrian opposition will have to face an equally critical event, with two major duels ahead. The first is the preparation for the greater duel in Al-Qalamoun region, considering that this battle will determine the fate of the capital and the opposition's presence in its neighborhoods, suburbs, and countryside. As for the second, it is the confrontation of the forces of extremism and fundamentalism, at the head of which is the Levant organization (ISIS) that is eating away at the regions harboring it, which are outside the regime's control. The regime wants Al-Qalamoun battle to be similar to what was seen in Al-Qusayr. But this battle might not be easy or quickly settled by whichever side, considering that the mountainous and rugged nature of the land would make it difficult for the military vehicles and tanks to move around. Hence, the balance may tilt in favor of the fighters, although Hezbollah's full implication in it – as revealed by the signs – could act as a source of support to enhance the positions of the regime's troops. In addition, the expansion of the theater of operations to Lebanon and its Eastern mountain chain will threaten with the widening of the scope of the fight to Sunni hotbeds, from Ersal to Central Bekaa, among other neighboring regions that support the opposition. This would be enough to push the smaller "brother" to the brink of the abyss, considering that if it does not slide into wide-scale fighting, new convoys of refugees will reach it, at a time when it is still seeking ways to deal with the crisis provoked by those who preceded them to it.


But what is more dangerous than the Geneva 2 and Al-Qalamoun battles is that the opposition will soon find itself facing a duel, in which it must engage at whatever price: the confrontation of the Jihadist movements, namely the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Indeed, the latter is spreading its control over areas supposed to be "liberated," managing them alone and fighting to prevent any other faction from participating in this management, which caused it to enter in conflict with the population in many cities, villages, and neighborhoods. In the meantime, the Free Army and the other factions have started to perceive it as a tool serving the regime, considering that whenever they liberate a region, Damascus regains control over it indirectly through ISIS and its sisters. Hence, according to the commanders of the Free Army, the organization is a mere branch of the regime, with brigades led by officers who until recently were officials in the regular army and its apparatuses in the various areas, especially in the East and North. And they have evidence to back their claims, including the fact that President Al-Assad's forces are sparing the ISIS positions from the bombings, while carrying out assassination operations targeting dissident officers and militants on the other fronts. Furthermore, some of those arrested by ISIS are ending up in the regime's prisons!


For that reason, many expect the situation to reach a point where the Free Army and the factions loyal to it will be forced to turn their rifles towards ISIS, in order to settle their scores with it and attempt to eradicate it, especially since the population in many areas under its control are expressing fear over its actions and do not like seeing it among them. But the Free Army is growing more scattered and lacking the minimum level of coordination, to the beat of the political disputes inside the Coalition. What it is suffering cannot be compared to what the other organizations are going through, seeing how they are receiving all forms of support. Consequently, nothing guarantees its victorious – or even its safe – exit from these two duels, while Syria's Friends, some of whom are meeting tomorrow in London, cannot keep eluding their responsibility for the status of the opposition on both the political and military levels.


Some of the symptoms suffered by the Coalition are due to these "Friends," whose various inclinations and policies are carrying a negative impact within its ranks and deepening the schism and divisions in this already frail body. At this level, no proof is required, considering that France and Britain have a position, America has a different one, and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar have yet another one, while the list goes on. And what is further weakening the Coalition is the lack of coordination between it and the Free Army, which is also the responsibility of Syria's Friends that are still reluctant to provide this Army with the necessary financial and military support it needs, as expressed more than once by its Chief of Staff General Salim Edriss. In light of the sustainment of this policy, it is feared that the capabilities of the Free Army and its troops will dissipate, causing whoever is left in the Coalition to head to Geneva without any weapons or fangs. What is even worse is seeing all the armed factions sliding towards extremism and turning Syria into an accessible destination for all the Jihadist movements. At this point, all that is said about an international project to gather all these formations on one giant battle arena in order to attack them all at once, destroy them, and limit their ability to move throughout the region, would become true. War on terrorism has not stopped, as neither America nor Russia has stopped it.



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