Syria and Middle East: Options and Implications (II)
By Andrei AKULOV
REPERCUSSIONS FOR REGION
No doubt Syria is the country where the so called the Arab spring has the most profound geostrategic implications. The fall of Bashar al-Assad’s government would make the Middle East quiet a different place. The impasse we have now emphasizes the polarization of regional actors along for and against Assad lines having in mind the risk that the ongoing internal escalation in Syria will have unpredictable repercussions on regional scale.
The West. The West has long loathed the Syrian government, just enough to remember its interventions in Lebanon, its support for Palestinian Hamas and enabling of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. But there are also examples of constructive cooperation the Western media somehow forgets about these days. Syria fought alongside the U.S. in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq. It offered to join the West in intelligence gathering efforts after 9/11 terrorist acts in the USA. It should also be taken into account that the Assad’s government fall could have negative impact on neighboring countries whose own sectarian power balances connect with Syria’s own. So a desire to get rid of the Syrian government is here to stay. But it’s an open question if its fall would really serve the Western interests. It’s a pity cool thinking is not up to fashion at present among Nato and EU leaders and a major part of Western think tanks.
The Persian Gulf states. The events in Syria give the Gulf States a chance to get rid of an important Iranian ally (the dangerous rival for influence in the region). They can offer significant financial support to those who oppose the Syrian government. Their ability to influence events directly is rather limited. Syrian opposition and Gulf states are divided along sectarian lines. Parts of the Syrian opposition have been courted by the respective governments, but there is still deep mistrust to overcome and that’s a long way to go. Of course no part of the Arab world is immune from the repercussions of the Arab spring. But by and large, the oil monarchies are clearly the least affected area. Bahrain and, to lesser extent, Oman and Kuwait saw some demonstrations but things seem to cool down there as the region is heating up. They are all rather small places easy to police, compared to Syria, for instance They have oil and money as tools to mitigate whatever discontent may spread among population. But they lost their most important ally – Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Iran is a dangerous opponent and a powerful actor in regional politics. Many in the Gulf states elite see playing the sectarian card as the best way to limit Iranian influence, since there are more Sunnis than Shia in the region. Though it may exacerbate their problems in Bahrain, Iraq and Lebanon, and encourage extremist salafi reactions in the Sunni community. In turn it may strengthen al Qaeda adherents and other extremists positions. Playing the sectarian card may backlash causing too much harm.
Hotspots. As mentioned before Syria occupies a strategic crossroads in the region. The potential fires from a spark are too many to enumerate. An event in Lebanon, for instance, could divert attention of the Syrian government from domestic situation. Or insurgents could slip across Syria’s long and porous border with Iraq to spark discontent among hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees. Kurdish discontent is vulnerable to a spark too. Despite the 1974 “separation of forces” agreement with Israel, war scare is common. Although monitored regularly by U.N. peacekeepers, the two countries keep fingers at the triggers. Israel is locked in a dangerous standoff with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas-ruled Gaza. The future of the standing peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan is uncertain in light of the protest movements. So, the Syrian instability makes Israel more nervous and on edge. Besides what about the regional unrest spreading to the Palestinian territories? Overall, it’s hard to know what implications are there for regional peace and security until there is greater clarity about Syria’s political future.
Iraq. Iraq’s reaction to the popular uprising in Syria is mostly determined by the chaos that would follow the collapse of Bashar al-Assad’s rule. Baghdad has little to offer to support Iraqi government but it does what it can to help. The sectarian nature of Iraqi politics, however, is a hurdle on the way of developing a decisive position on the issue. .
Jordan. The Jordanian government is deeply concerned about the turmoil in Syria, The spillover effect is a nightmare. Syria’s capacity to undermine Jordanian internal situation has some historic examples. So, the official reaction is cautious no matter outside pressure. It just avoids to provoke the neighbor. Amman is doomed to react carefully to events in Syria to ensure the security of the state.
Lebanon. Lebanon’s leading political actors hold vastly different views on the situation and desirable outcomes. But all sides fear potential descent into a sectarian civil war and seek to insulate Lebanon from its repercussions. Lebanon’s ability to influence the conflict inside Syria is almost non – existent.
Despite their common interest in toppling Syrian government, there is thing that is common for all players. No one wants to set the region ablaze.
POSSIBILITY OF MILITARY ACTION
This possibility exists, but now it seems the odds are not high. Syria is completely different from Libya, it has allies. Iran, Lebanon, especially Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. They will take action, especially Hezbollah and Hamas.
Syria and Iran has long maintained a close relationship. The West imposed sanctions on both what makes them be in the same boat.
Hezbollah in Lebanon is Syria’s loyal ally, with more than 20,000 soldiers, with tanks, missiles. The personnel got experienced confronting Israeli army. The organization has branches in Jordan, Yemen and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Hezbollah would immediately start these organizations if need be. The dilemma for the West, Turkey, and the Arab governments now openly opposed to the Assad regime, is what more they can do short of military intervention in some form. The formation of safe havens on Syrian territory is a significant step. So too is continued support for the Syrian National Council and peaceful elements of the Syrian opposition. Intensifying subversive actions is an option. Creating “humanitarian corridors” is an issue on the agenda. No doubt they will be used to transport Syrian spies, armed anti-government forces, military material and whatever is required for subversive activities. Although the Western countries the possibility of military intervention in Syria at present does not seem high, but “civil war in Syria” will create conditions for those who seek to undermine the Syrian state intervening on the side of militant opposition.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made his first official visit to Syria on May 10-11, 2010 after President Assad visited Russia in 2005, 2006 and 2008. It was the first visit by a Russian President to Syria, either from the Soviet or post-Soviet era. At the time of the visit President Medvedev gave definition of the bilateral relations to the Syrian daily al-Watan. The Russian leader wrote, “Naturally, elevating bilateral relations to a new level requires efforts. Before anything else, it requires multi-level political dialogue. What unites us is the idea of creating a just world order, based on the rule of law and equality between all nations—be them small or large—and to work amongst them to solve international affairs facing the world in the 21st century.” The President stressed that that what unites him with Syria is the common vision for a new multi-polar world order. The former USSR had played an important role in the in the development of Syria’s economy. With the participation of the USSR and then Russia, 90 industrial facilities and pieces of infrastructure have been built in Syria. Soviet-era assistance led to the development of one-third of Syria’s electric power capacity, one-third of its oil-processing facilities, and the three-fold expansion of land under irrigation. There areas of Russian interest include the development of Syrian oil and gas fields, as well as construction projects in fields such as power generation, sea ports, and the renovation of Syria’s industrial infrastructure. Before that following President Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Moscow in 2008, Syria had agreed to allow Russia modernize port facilities at Tartus and Latakia to provide the Russian Navy with Mediterranean berthing. With a significant history of cooperation behind them, and with many Russian energy companies focusing on expansion abroad in recent years, it would seem that Syria and Russia could have had much to offer each other if not for the present political turmoil.
Syria attacked on all fronts, Russia is among countries bucking the trend. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said further attempts should be made to engage with Damascus against the backdrop of Turkey considering imposing a buffer zone along its border to protect Syrians. Sergey Lavrov opposed the idea of an arms embargo, saying it is unfair to expect the Syrian government not to respond to unrest. He said something very important and absolutely true that is seldom mentioned by Western outlets in general – the most part armed opposition groups were provoking the Syrian authorities. The Russian support for Syria is not just empty words. Early December 2012 Moscow sent the air capable guided missile cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov and two escort ships on a two-month tour of the Mediterranean and would be dropping in on the Syrian port of Tartus. At present, the base is mostly used to support vessels of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Some 600 military and civilian personnel of the Defense Ministry serve there. The US aircraft carrier groups are frequent visitors off the coast of Syria. “Of course, the Russian naval forces in the Mediterranean will be incommensurate with those of the US 6th Fleet, which includes one or two aircraft carriers and several escort ships,” Admiral Kravchenko, former Chief of Main naval staff, explained. “But today, no one talks about possible military clashes, since an attack on any Russian ship would be regarded as a declaration of war with all the consequences.” “Having any military force other than NATO’s is very useful for the region because it will prevent the outbreak of armed conflict,” the admiral added.
The events in Libya weigh heavily on the Russia’s policy with Syria. Back in August Lavrov said “Russia will do everything it can to prevent a Libyan scenario happening in Syria.” meaning brazen exceeding by NATO the limits imposed by the UN Security Council resolution on Libya. Russia accused NATO of breaking the spirit of the U.N. resolution by picking sides in the Libya conflict and openly backing the opposition. Negative experience of NATO’s air campaign in Libya made it unlikely that Moscow would back the imposition of an arms embargo against Syria. Russia teamed up with China last month to veto a Western-backed U.N. Security Council October resolution condemning President Bashar al-Assad’s government for violence the United Nations and presented a draft of its own this December calling for all parties involved to show constrain. Sergei Lavrov has also said Western nations had taken an “immoral” stance on Syria by criticising Russia and increasing pressure on Assad while turning a blind eye to violent action by armed anti-government protesters. Russia holds an opinion there is little evidence to suggest that sanctions would help end the crisis in Syria or anywhere else.
By and large the Russian stance is based on the fact that both sides are to show restrain, it’s not a fair game to put the blame on the Syrian leadership only, the assessments of the situation are to be impartial. The UN or any other international body doesn’t serve the purpose of toppling governments. Russia firmly opposes the repetition of the Libyan scenario and calls to moderation and talks instead of provoking further escalation. It urges an end to violence in Syria but said the West should not ignore the danger posed by what he called extremist groups in the country.
WHAT’S IN STORE?
The Syrian internal situation will continue to escalate, causing a further rise in tensions between Turkey and Iran. And all this at a time when no one really knows how the political forces inside Syria are distributed and when which way the confrontation between Ankara and Tehran may turn. Any military intervention against Syria, the Middle East will break the pattern, resulting in a regional rebellion. Russia is an important actor trying hard to prevent the worst to happen. It had warned the USA not to start the Iraqi adventure.