James G. Jatras on Bashar al-Assad and the war in Syria

by Sparta on January 15, 2013

in James George Jatras (team member), Syria

NOTE: This is the first time I’ve been on Al-Jazeera where all three analysts (me, plus two others) were skeptical of the claims of the western policy, and there wasn’t one voice blah-blahing on behalf of “democracy and the Syrian people”© vs. “the brutal dictator who’s killing his own people” (as opposed to the US-supported jihadists who are killing their own people – except for the foreign fighters, of course).

Al-Jazeera is based in Qatar, one of the prime supporters of the anti-Al Assad opposition, along with US/NATO (including Turkey) and Saudi Arabia. Does this indicate some new flexibility? Probably not.

– James George Jatras
(former US diplomat and a senior fellow at the American University in Moscow)

al Jazeera – Inside Syria: Making heads or tails of Bashar al-Assad

Diplomatic wrangling and ground battles continue amid international efforts to oust embattled Syrian leader.

It was a week that began with a long-awaited speech from an embattled president and ended with a small, but not insignificant, victory for rebel forces battling to remove him from power.

A prisoner swap took place and international diplomats continued to talk about finding a solution, but the violence on the ground has continued unabated.

In his first speech in seven months, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad presented his own plan to end 22 months of conflict.

“The primary message Bashar [al-Assad] is saying is: ‘I am not going anywhere.’ and I think this illustrates the bankruptcy of the approach taken by the US and its closest allies – Saudi Arabia and Turkey.”

– James Jatras, former US diplomat

But this was a plan that would keep him in power, and not what any of his Syrian opponents and international critics wanted to hear.

In a lengthy discourse to a packed house of fervent supporters, Assad blamed the fighting on what he called ‘terrorists’ and accused foreign powers of ‘destabilising Syria’.

This came as opposition fighters on the ground continued to battle to maintain control of a strategic military airport in the north after they captured it from government forces after weeks of fighting.

Meanwhile, on the diplomatic front, Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, has been holding talks in Geneva with senior US and Russian officials: “If you are asking me whether the solution is around the corner, I’m not sure that is the case. But what I am certain of is that there is an absolute necessity for people to continue to work for a peaceful solution and that it is the wider international community, especially members of the Security Council, that can really create the opening that is necessary to start effectively solving the problem.”

That was Brahimi’s assessment of the situation during a news conference in Geneva, but he was somewhat less diplomatic in an interview he gave later: “In Syria, in particular, I think that what people are saying is that a family ruling for 40 years is a little bit too long. So the change has to be real. It has to be real, and I think that President Assad could take the lead in responding to the aspiration of his people rather than resisting it.”

Not surprisingly, the Syrian government was not impressed with that. They made their feelings clear in a statement from the foreign ministry, which said in part: “Syria is shocked by the statements of Lakhdar Brahimi, who has overstepped his mandate and exhibited a flagrant bias for those parties known to be conspiring against Syria and its people.”

“Despite the fact that many of us here us in the West dismiss his speech as delusional, Assad would not have said what he said without taking into account the operational balance of power on the ground. The Assad military machine obviously remains intact despite everything that the opposition has been able to do so far.”

– Fawaz Gerges, the Middle East Centre

On Monday, international troops had positioned surface-to-air patriot missiles, shipped from the Netherlands, along the Turkish border with Syria. The weapons form part of a growing NATO military presence meant to protect Turkey, but Russia and Iran see it as provocation that could spark a regional conflict.

Then on Wednesday, Syria rebels freed 48 Iranians in exchange for more than 2,000 prisoners. The Iranian hostages were kidnapped in Syria by rebel fighters last August. The rebels accused them of carrying out a reconnaissance mission on behalf of Syrian government forces.

Victoria Nuland, the US state department spokeswoman, described most of them as members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard: “We note that most of the Iranians who had been captive, held captive, are members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Just another example of how Iran continues to provide guidance, expertise, personnel, technical capabilities to the Syrian regime.”

To discuss all these recent developments, Inside Syria with presenter Hazem Sika, is joined by guests: Fawaz Gerges, the director of the Middle East Centre and a professor of international relations at London School of Economics; James Jatras, a former US diplomat and a senior fellow at the American University in Moscow; and Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow at Royal United Services.

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