By Matthias Gebauer in Marrakesh, Morocco
With diplomatic gestures and considerable money for aid projects, the international community is seeking to prepare as best as possible for the time after the fall of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. They hope to prevent the chaos that could include bloody conflicts in the power vacuum left in his wake.
At a major meeting of the "Friends of the Syrian People," a group that includes the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany and a number of Arab countries, the countries took steps to recognize the opposition alliance of the National Coalition as its legitimate negotiating partner, massively increasing the group's clout.
The decision had been blocked for months as a result of internal fighting within the opposition forces. The agreement now also suggests that the opposition coalition, under the leadership of former imam Mouaz al-Khatib, would represent an acceptable interim government for the "Friends of the Syrian People" once Assad's regime eventually falls. The group already claims direct influence over the rebels fighting in Syria today.
But no one at the meeting in Marrakesh on Tuesday seemed ready to predict when Assad's fall might come. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle reiterated that the Assad system was showing clear signs of erosion. But, even today, his troops are fighting bitterly against the opposition rebels. The fact that the fighting remains so fierce is of deep concern for the international community as it considers the months ahead.
Yet again, representatives of the international community warned the Assad regime in a closing communiqué against the deployment of chemical or biological weapons against his own people. Any such deployment, the document warned, "would draw a serious response from the international community."
In recent weeks, the US has speculated several times over the possibility of an intervention in Syria if Assad were to deploy his arsenal of chemical weapons like Sarin or FX gas against rebels or cities. The US army has reportedly even developed emergency plans for that eventuality. So far, however, no country has shown a willingness to intervene in the highly complex Syrian conflict.
Germany Considers Humanitarian Aid
In Germany, politicians have stated they want to become active in humanitarian efforts in Syria. During the meeting, Westerwelle announced that Berlin would increase its budget for humanitarian projects from around 70 million ($91 million) to 90 million. Among the uses for the money are additional aid for refugees in Syria during the winter months. The United Nations estimates that by the beginning of 2013, around 4 million Syrians will be reliant on help from outside the country. In addition, close to a half-million Syrians have fled abroad -- where they are sitting out the bloody conflict in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
Officials at Germany's Foreign Ministry are currently considering concrete projects for areas of Syria that have already fallen under the rebels' control. For example, groups organized by Germany's international technical cooperation agency, GIZ, are soon expected to help repair destroyed streets and power sources, along with providing food to local populations. Initially, German aid workers are expected to operate solely from southern Turkey because of the perilous security situation. But a deployment in Syria is only a question of time.
The long statements in Marrakesh are also intended to send a message to Damascus. Foreign Minister Westerwelle described the decisions taken at the meeting as having sent a "powerful symbol." The foreign ministers are hoping that the international pressure might lead Assad to step down, though there are still no signs that this might happen. Besides, Assad still has the support of the Russian government, which immediately criticized the decision to recognize the opposition groups.
Worries about Jihadist Influence
Observers suspect that Assad has long since come to terms with the possibility that he will either become the victim of his own circle of power or be killed by rebels in combat. That increases the nervousness in Berlin and elsewhere that the president could be prepared for anything. It is believed that Assad has bunkered down with his last remaining confidants in Damascus. But with the exception of the Russians, few have a good idea of what is actually happening on the ground in the Syrian capital.
Meanwhile, a further problem that has kept the intelligence services busy wasn't even discussed in Marrakesh. Officials in Washington and Berlin alike are increasingly worried about the role played by Islamists within the Syrian rebel movement. Leading the pack is Jebhat al-Nusra, which is directly affiliated with the branch of the al-Qaida terrorist network in neighboring Iraq.
Because of their military experiences during the Iraq war and years of combat against American troops, fighters with the brigade are having some success against Assad's forces. But at the same time, the post-Assad Syria they aspire to is more likely to be the kind of Islamist emirate they previously sought to establish in Iraq than any kind of democratic transformation.
According to the horror scenario circulating among intelligence service experts, if Assad were to fall, the extremists could begin an endless battle against a new government in a manner similar to what was experienced in Iraq. Alternately, they could also secure major influence for themselves within a new government.
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