Martin Chulov reports: Just over a month into Syria’s uprising in 2011, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze sect, Walid Jumblatt, travelled to Damascus to visit Syria’s then security tsar, Mohammed Nasif. As well as being the Assad family’s most trusted senior official, he was also the linchpin of Syria’s close ties with Iran and Hezbollah, a man bound more than most to the fate of the regime.
“He said to me at the time, it’s either us, meaning the Alawites, or them, meaning the Sunnis,” Jumblatt recalled. “I knew which way this was going then. He added, ‘even if it cost us a million dead’.”
More than five years later, the toll in the now raging war is well past a quarter of that estimate – international monitors stopped counting last August. The sectarian dimension to the fighting foreshadowed by Nasif is a reality. So is the destruction of much of the country, including the ancient city of Aleppo, which after years of being viewed as the key to Syria’s fate last week slipped from the grasp of the opposition and into the hands of the Syrian regime’s allies, led by Hezbollah.
The encirclement of Aleppo is a significant moment in a war that has led to more unrestrained savagery, international repercussions and unlikely alliances than most others in modern times. Another emerged last week, as Hezbollah and Syrian troops were beating back the al-Qaida-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra from farmlands to the north of the city. As that battle raged, the US was drafting a deal with Russia that would create a joint operations centre to coordinate attacks on al-Nusra and Islamic State.
The move has created despair among the ranks of the Syrian opposition, which insists that a pact between Moscow and Washington will entrench the Syrian leader, whom Russia and Iran have saved from defeat over the past 12 months. Adding to the alarm of the now diminished rebel ranks is a detente, also signed during the week, between Moscow and Ankara, after a seven-month standoff, as well as the Turkish prime minister’s remarks that Ankara was interested in peace with Damascus.
“This all means that Assad is no longer at risk,” said a senior official in the western-backed Syrian opposition. “This means that he has won.” [Continue reading…]