Syria: the tension picks up steam. Eager Lion exercise – on the way to cross the threshold

By IndepthAfrica
In Andrei AKULOV
Jun 13th, 2012
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Andrei AKULOV

The possibility of intervention in Syria without United Nations approval is growing. The events in Houla, the following expulsion of Syrian ambassadors from a number of countries exacerbate the situation while the guilt of the Syrian government is far from being a proven fact. The tension picks up steam. Looks like warmongers gradually get the upper hand in the in desire to provoke a conflict.

Eager Lion 2012, the largest joint military exercise in the Middle East in a decade held in Jordan, lasted three weeks wrapping up on May 30. It brought together more than 12,000 special forces servicemen from 19 countries, including Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Qatar, Britain, France, Italy, Spain and Australia. Of those, 6,500 soldiers were from the United States, and 3,500 were from Jordan. The event drew special attention given the events in Syria. Some media outlets claimed Eager Lion was a general rehearsal before an invasion or cover for training Syrian militants. The US and Jordanian military brass say it’s not the case because it had taken three years in the planning and actually is an outgrowth of the annual bilateral “Infinite Moonlight” US-Jordan exercise that goes back to the 1990s. Perhaps so, but it’s an interesting fact that Assad, the surname of Syrian president, means “lion” in Arabic.

Around 3,000 US, Jordanian and Saudi special forces backed from air and sea and reinforced by armored components practiced landings on beaches and the rapid seizure of fortified mountain bases and command facilities on Jordanian terrain. Coordination of activity among forces with disparate weaponry, command structures, and capabilities was especially important. The command post was set up aboard the new USS New York amphibious transport dock, which was sent to the Red Sea to boost American strength in the region with 700 marines aboard, landing craft and helicopters for dropping troops opposite land targets. Though the exercise included all branches of America’s armed forces, it had a particular emphasis on Special Operations Forces (SOF), one of the reasons that a Special Operations Command General Ken Tovo was chosen to head the event. Special operations is one of the few areas of the US military that is slated to grow in the coming years against the background of military expenditure shrinkage. Between 70 and 80 percent of America’s deployed SOF were deployed in the so called Greater Middle East in the past decade.

Gen. James Mattis, head of the US Central Command, visited the exercise. Should the US attack Syria or Iran, he’ll be the one in charge. Additionally, Israeli media outlets revealed recently that Gen. Mattis sought approval from US President Barack Obama to deploy a third aircraft carrier to the Middle East to increase the military presence. The United States currently has two aircraft carrier strike groups deployed in the Persian Gulf area: USS Abraham Lincoln and USS Enterprise. According to the CNN the US Air Force has sent six of the stealth F-22 fighter jets to the neighboring United Arab Emirates.

The intention of the Eager Lion 2012 exercise is obvious – it’s an important adjunct to international intervention in Syria or Iran. US and Jordanian military officials said Eager Lion is expected to become an annual drill.

Statements of veiled and unveiled warning

On May 30 after the meeting of the UN Security Council the United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice gave a briefing to reporters and interviews to MSNBC and CNN. She threatened that if Russia does not change its stance on Syria, an action outside the authority of the United Nations is possible. Rice said that the most probable scenario is “that the violence escalates, the conflict spreads and intensifies, it reaches a higher degree of severity, it involves countries in the region, it takes on increasingly sectarian forms, and we have a major crisis not only in Syria but in the region. The Council’s unity is exploded, the Annan plan is dead, and this becomes a proxy conflict with arms flowing in from all sides. And members of this Council and members of the international community are left with the option only of having to consider whether they’re prepared to take actions outside of the Annan plan and the authority of this Council.”

The US and European countries had earlier imposed their own sanctions on Syria outside the UN. Actually they are already acting unilaterally. In April Rice addressed the possibility of establishing a humanitarian corridor to protect civilians and create a safe passage for aid – a proposal that has been put forth by former presidential candidate Senator Democrat John Kerry and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. What was important – she insisted that creating such a zone would require military force.

On June 1 the head of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee expressed doubt that Russia could be convinced to help ease Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad out of power. Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said she hoped the Obama administration would be able to use diplomacy to “get Russia to do the right thing” – at least by stopping arms sales to Assad’s government, which is using deadly force against an uprising in Syria. She didn’t come out in direct support of a military action but said “ you can’t separate Syria from Iran these days. They are kindred spirits in oppression.” We all know a military action against Iran is an option on the table.

In remarks to Danish students by the end on May, US State Secretary Clinton said every day of slaughter in Syria was strengthening the case for tougher international action. Though she stressed that a military action would require support from the rest of the world community. Something like that had been said before the Iraqi adventure.

On May 31 US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the American armed forces were ready to take any necessary action in Syria though Washington preferred to persuade Assad to quit by diplomatic means.

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are urging military action. They want airstrikes and arms for the Syrian rebels, no-fly zones, and so on (somehow they never mention a possibility of military action to help the government of Mali, for instance).

On June 1 French President Francois Hollande and Russian President Vladimir Putin disagreed over Syria at a meeting in Paris with Hollande saying more sanctions are needed to force President Assad from power and Putin saying added pressure on the regime may lead to civil war. “Any solution to the crisis requires the departure of Assad” – the French President said. Before the visit Hollande said he supported a military option backed by the UN Security Council’s resolution. We all remember how easily this condition is circumvented with the help of such inventions as “the coalition of willing” in Iraq or a resolution brazenly gone beyond like it was in the case of Libya.

In Australia, Foreign Minister Bob Carr also said military intervention was worth discussing. Australia has always sided with the USA in military interventions.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Selcuk Unal mentioned the possibility of invoking article 5 of NATO during at a press briefing on May 10. The article is the collective defense clause that commits NATO states to defend a member state when it comes under attack. The decision to use arms belongs to the treaty members only, there is no mention of international law. Turkey first raised the issue of resorting to article 5 on April 10, following an incident along Turkey’s border with Syria. Speaking to reporters traveling with him during his official visit to China, prime minister Erdogan said Turkey may consider invoking the article to protect Turkish national security in the face of increasing tension along the Syrian border.

Consequences to face

The intervention will be an egregious violation of international law that has already been gravely undermined by NATO and US unilateral actions (principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of states, of non-use of force, of peaceful settlement of disputes among states). Undermining the law means setting dangerous precedents of plunging the world into chaos and substituting it with the “whoever is stronger is right” jungle rule.

With a nation divided along sectarian lines there is a great chance of having to stay indefinitely as the Iraqi and Afghanistan experience demonstrates. The lesson is – it’s a tall order to reconcile the religious divisions with some parties of conflict turning against the occupiers. The cost will go up, the casualties will mount. The Syrian government still has strong support in the country. There are deep divisions based on religious and ethnic differences and unwavering allegiances predicated on self-preservation. It’s an accumulation of both hostilities and loyalties towards the government. An intervention could spur a civil war and result in an ethnic cleansing. The anti-US sentiment in the Arab world will inevitably spread, after all, Syria has long been at odds with its neighbor, Israel, which happens to be a US close ally.

A military attack on Syria would need political and material support of Turkey and Arab states. That is by no means assured. In this case Turkey would need to establish a protected zone in Syria for the opposition and those fleeing any fighting. Would it have the support of the Turkish people? And what about a Syrian Kurdish entity that might emerge from Syria’s internal turmoil? What if this new entity would be supported from the Iraqi Kurdistan that has in practice become an independent state as a result of the US military intervention? The Arab countries have been split many times before on international issues, with Assad gone their political support is uncertain. And it’s hard to predict how Iran would respond but the invasion of Syria would certainly strengthen Iran’s dedication to the nuclear program.

Then there is the issue of Hezbollah and tribal and political affiliations that extend beyond the Syrian border spilling into the greater Levant. There is a possibility of Hezbollah carrying out attacks against Israel or destabilizing Lebanon. With Jordan to the South, Lebanon to the East, Israel to the North and the influence of Iran, a confluence of events could spark regional disorder in the region.

The invasion of Syria presupposes the use of air power and ground forces. Government loyalists and rebels are cheek by jowl, no way there is a guarantee a pilot would distinguish one from another at the cloud height. It means inflicting friendly fire casualties, a spark for anti – NATO or anti-US feelings spreading quickly on regional or even regional scale as Afghanistan experience shows. One reason Obama got little criticism at home on Libya was that there was no American death toll. This time it would be different. Syrian cities are an amalgamation of ethnic and religious communities. The advantage NATO had in being able to divide Libya between the East and West, mainly by patrolling a few coastal roads, does not exist in Syria. Densely populated towns in close proximity to one another make a NATO mission all the more hazardous, as higher civilian casualties would be inevitable should NATO deliver air strikes.

Less extreme than direct intervention, providing weapons to the Free Syrian Army is also a contentious thing. As I said before the Syrian opposition is an opaque structure, a ragtag temporary union of different forces with opposite goals except the overthrow of the ruling government. The Syrian resistance is so much disorganized that the two main groups, the Istanbul based Syrian National Council and the Damascus based National Coordination Committee, cannot agree on whether they want foreign intervention or not. It’s hardly a force to unify the country and solve its problems in a democratic way without internal scuffles. Arms deliveries would escalate violence. The opposition groups may use the arms against each other and plunge the country into a turmoil to spill over the borders. It means with Assad replaced there is no one to fill the void.

These are very few of the consequences to follow, no doubt the issue has a great potential for further deliberation.

The United States and allies move further on the way of a war with uncertain consequences. NATO leaders stressed it many a time the Alliance needs Russia to cooperate in the field of missile defense, counter-terrorism, counter-piracy operations, a strengthened non-proliferation regime, etc. A unilateral action is Syria would hinder the process that already has enough bumps on the way. It would hardly create favorable conditions for sustainable security in the Eurasian region. Besides every single military operation requires large financial resources. President Obama’s national security advisor Tom Donilon estimated that the US spent approximately $1.2 billion on the operation in Libya. In 2012, Washington is going to spend $106 on the operations in Afghanistan. The coming presidential election is making President Obama pay special attention to domestic politics and be very careful with the budget. At the same time, the European states are still trying to overcome the financial crisis and rescue the Greek economy.

Wrap up

The recent military interventions led by the USA have actually all failed. Serbia lost its territory, Kosovo is a crime affected area without internal economic and political stability and international recognition, Iraq is divided and unstable, it’s future murky, Kurdistan is actually a separate state and fighting along sectarian lines and for oil revenues continues, Afghanistan is the place NATO is rushing back from, it’s future uncertain to put it mildly, Libya is uncontrolled and divided, Azawad in Mali, strongly influenced by Al Qaeda, is a consequence effecting the whole African continent. These are the examples to name a few. While visiting France Russian President Putin cited the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s intervention in Libya, asking whether the country is more stable after the ouster of strongman Muammar Qaddafi. “What is happening in Libya, in Iraq?” he said. “Did they become safer? Where are they heading? Nobody has an answer.” But the itching for foreign invasions is a thing hard to cure and the lessons of the very recent past seem to be never learned.

Despite the fact that the Annan plan is in dire straits, diplomatic resources have not run out. It means that the USA, the EU, Russia, China and all other interested parties can make the Syrian government and the opposition to sit at the negotiation table. They can act as mediators and monitor the fulfillment of any arrangements. Just give peace a chance!

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