Syrian president Bashar Assad keeps churning out new gimmicks for his people. Last week his regime announced its intention to issue new Syrian identity cards, which will now bear fingerprints. Every citizen will be required to trade in his old card for the new one, which “will implement the latest technology and incorporate all the information the authorities need to know.”
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What has prodded the regime to embark on this 28 million euro project now, of all times? No one in Syria buys the story that Assad is suddenly enamored of modern technology. The wily strategy underlying this initiative, according to the regime’s opponents, is to deprive three million displaced or refugee Syrians, mostly opponents of the government, of new Syrian identity documents. This will allow the regime to monitor those wishing to return when the war ends, thus giving it great power.
Another version is that Assad wishes to limit the number of citizens participating in the upcoming presidential elections, to be held in March 2014. The new identity cards will ensure that only people living in areas controlled by the Syrian army will be able to vote.
Does this mean that Assad is preparing for an end to the war, including elections?
His neighbors, Iran and Turkey, seem to be coordinating moves ahead of the Geneva II conference to solve the Syrian crisis, scheduled for January 22. Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who was in Iran last week, issued a joint statement with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif to the effect that “Turkey and Iran see eye-to-eye regarding the end of the Syrian crisis, which has no military solution.”
This is a dramatic turnaround in the position of Turkey, which for the past two years has called on the international community to undertake any measure, including military action, to remove Assad and establish an alternative regime in Syria, or at least to establish buffer zones that are protected by military forces. Turkey now has no reservations about Iran’s offer to mediate between Syria and Turkey, and has not denied assertions by Iran’s ambassador to Turkey that the two countries share intelligence.
The joint statement of the two foreign ministers was not a spontaneous event. According to reports originating in Turkey, the two countries reached an agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear plans early in November, but the public announcement was delayed until after the signing of the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 nations. It seems that Turkey is adjusting to Iran’s new standing in the region, especially now that restrictions on its gold exports to Iran have been lifted. Turkey wishes to increase its trade with Iran to $30 billion a year by 2015, trebling it by 2020. This is consistent with the American steamroller, which was brought to bear on Turkey to encourage its support for a Geneva II conference that would have no preconditions, such as the removal of Assad before talks start.
Turkey is not the only country that is re-examining its policies towards Syria. According to reports from Lebanon, Qatar has announced that it will desist from supporting Islamist groups there and will contribute $20 billion for the reconstruction of Syria, whichever regime comes out on top there. Qatar has not confirmed or denied these reports and is still vehemently attacking Assad, but given its desire to consolidate its relations with Iran, it is doubtful whether it can continue with its anti-Syrian policies.
Some Lebanese observers have even commented that Qatar’s new leader, Emir Tamim Al-Thani, has exchanged letters with Assad recently, with Qatar expressing its wish to “return to Syria,” in contrast to the previous Qatari leadership, which adopted a highly belligerent anti-Syrian stance.
An American-Russian agreement on the structure of the conference is also part of the new mix. With the Syrian opposition having been driven into a corner, with no option but to agree to attend the conference, it comes as no surprise that Assad is planning for the next stage.
There are still many difficulties and it’s not at all clear that the conference will take place on time. Not all the movements that comprise the Syrian opposition have agreed to participate under the conditions that were presented. The Kurdish opposition, for example, is unwilling to give up its decision to establish an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria, though it’s worth noting that the Syrian Kurds are deeply at odds with the Kurdish leadership in Iraq.
The resistance militias which operate deep inside Syria are deeply divided as well, especially the radical religious groups, the group affiliated with Al-Qaida and the Free Syrian Army, whose units often fight one another. The absence of a central leadership and a unified command that can make commitments in the name of all opposition forces leaves Assad as the only one who can ensure stability, as long as he stays in power. This is particularly so after he emerged successfully from the chemical weapons crisis, which, in the eyes of the West, was far more important than the 150,000 civilians that have been killed by conventional weapons.