By Asa Winstanley
30 April 2015
Recent events in the war in Syria make for pretty grim reading. The death toll continues to rise, to the point where the UN is no longer seriously counting. There was more than 257,000 dead on all sides at the last count, according to the most widely-cited figures, that of the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The SOHR issued its latest grim tally on 16 April. This figure includes civilians and combatants. The majority of the dead (almost 150,000, or 58 percent) are combatants. Of those combatants, the majority (55 percent) are Syrian army forces, pro-regime militias or alleged informers.
Despite a period in which the Syrian government seemed to be making gains, and recapturing parts of the country from the armed opposition groups, the latter have over the last two months had a series of important victories.
A March offensive led to the armed opposition capturing the city of Idlib, a north-western provincial capital. Although only a small city, this victory, and the subsequent occupation of Jisr al-Shughour on Saturday are significant, since they bring al-Qaeda closer to Lataqia, the coastal heartland of support for the regime.
Although supporters of the Syrian opposition have lauded this as a "liberation" of Idlib, it is clear that the assault was spearheaded by Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria. To say the least, this is a group in no way interested in democracy and human rights.
Al-Qaeda has now won an important series of victories in that region. Who is behind this newly invigorated military push to install al-Qaeda in Syria? According to one expert, it is none other than that most important of US and British allies: the Saudi dictatorship.
Joshua Landis, editor of the widely-read Syria Comment blog, and Director of the University of Oklahoma's Center for Middle East Studies told Middle East Eye this week that with this new assault, we are seeing "the King Salman effect," referring to the new ruler of Saudi Arabia, after King Abdullah died in January.
"The Saudi king has changed the priority of the kingdom. Under the previous king, the Muslim Brotherhood was the main enemy, not Iran," Landis said. While Abdullah lived, his obsessive animus against the Brotherhood meant that it was hard to coordinate a joint war with other anti-Assad regimes who were more friendly to the Brotherhood, such as Qatar and Turkey.
"But today, King Salman has clearly changed Saudi Arabia's priorities, so that Iran and getting Iran is the most important thing and has prioritised it above attacking the Brotherhood," said Landis.
Now, with Salman in power, and with Idlib bordering Turkey, it seems that those reactionary Gulf forces have realigned, and thrown their weight behind al-Qaeda in Syria. Each of those regimes has different preferred militias, but all significant non-ISIS anti-regime militias now fighting in Syria are allied with al-Qaeda's affiliate to one extent or another.
(The case of the "Islamic State" is a different one, since the latter and al-Qaeda, although sharing much the same hideous ideology, have been fighting it out in a term war. But in certain circumstances, it has not been unknown for ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra to join forces, such as they did in the Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, Yarmouk, at the start of April.)
Since Idlib city, the capital of Idlib province, was captured by al-Qaeda and its allies, these forces have won a series of victories against the Syrian government in the province.
And, as these fanatic Saudi-Turkish-Qatari proxy forces fought in the north-west, Israel joined in the fight further south. Oddly enough they were backing the same ultra-reactionary forces. As I have documented in this column before, Israel's war strategy in Syria is to let "both [sides] bleed, haemorrhage to death". They want to prolong the war in Syria for a long as possible, and they have hit on the wheeze of propping up al-Qaeda forces in order to do that. They also, of course, want to fight Hizballah, the leader of the Lebanese resistance against Israeli occupation, which is also fighting a war against al-Qaeda and ISIS in the south-western Qalamoun region of Syria, bordering Lebanon. Hizballah has long been a backer of the Syrian regime, which supplies it with weapons to fight Israel.
On 22 April, Israeli bombers hit Hizballah and Syrian army forces in Qalamoun, according on reports on the pro-Saudi channel al-Arabiya. Only three days later, Jisr al-Shughour was captured by al-Qaeda to the north.
Israel is also allied with al-Qaeda in the Golan, where is has regular contacts with their forces on the ground, as it recently admitted, and as I have mentioned here before.
It is increasingly clear that the war in Syria is not so much a civil war as a proxy war of regional powers. And the alliance between the Saudis, the Turks, the Qataris, the Israelis and al-Qadea is increasingly clear in this latest assault in the north.
While it is likely to prolong the war, and "bleed" the country further, it seems unlikely that this material support that US and British allies are providing for one of the most horrific armed groups in the world will come without any form of blow-back or other consequences for its sponsors. Jabhat al-Nusra may be holding fire against the Saudis for now, but, as an al-Qaeda affiliate, that situation is unlikely to last in the long term.
An associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London.