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Syria’s War, Another Tragedy on Euphrates: Who is Looking for What? by A Z

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It has been over two years since the Syrian opposition, propelled by long-held and varying grievances, rose against Bashar al Assad. With Assad’s long autocratic reign under serious threat, the regime responded with force, arresting protesters and torturing some to death. In the face of brutality and impelled by their international sponsors, the protests soon turned into an armed insurgency. Given Syria’s location and geopolitical stakes in the region, the only way the rebels could have secured a favourable outcome was to be able to topple Assad on their own, either through peaceful means or through an armed insurgency. However, that was not to be and Syria today is stuck in an accelerating helix of proxy warfare. Syria has become the frontline of the Shia-Sunni conflict reignited by Iraq, with à la carte intervention by international and local powers such as the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. The fact is that every considerable world and regional power –Turkey, the Gulf Arabs, Iran, Israel, the US, Russia, the West and others- is now involved in Syria. This has sent the stakes spiralling and now any outcome will entail a huge price. Any possibility of a clear victory for the rebellion appears remote in view of the infighting and deep divisions within its ranks. While Assad’s regime has turned out to be more tenacious than was estimated, with all the powerful nations arrayed against it, a clear-cut victory for the regime is also out of question. Facing an existential threat for their community, Assad’s forces are killing on whatever scale it takes to survive. However, Mr Assad’s vaunted “security solution” is not working. He cannot regain control of the country. Meanwhile the loss of life has now surpassed 100,000 in this small country.

The truth is that Assad’s regime was never as vulnerable or unpopular as it was depicted to be by the West and the Gulf Arabs. The proof being that after two years of a savage war and international isolation he holds almost all the major towns and cities of the country and the nucleus of his regime has held together. His forces have also made some gains on the battlefield in the past two months. The rebels are so divided and dysfunctional that they are not capable of ensuring a collective victory. In fact the rebels’ hopes reside in a Libya-style solution in overthrowing Assad, as was Gaddafi by NATO in 2011, and then rebels taking over in the world view.

So amidst all the cynicism and savagery, is there an end in sight to the civil war? I think the only credible hope lies in the multi-party parleys that the US and Russia have talked about sponsoring. This holds the only realistic chance of the warring parties to step back from the violence. For the regime it makes sense as it is in a stronger bargaining position after the recent gains in the battlefield, whereas the opposition can be pressurised by their backers to participate. However, for these to happen in a meaningful way, the US will need to reconcile itself with the reality by abandoning its insistence on the regime change and allowing Iran to participate in the talks. The US assertion on regime change has been a hurdle for Russia and China, especially in view of the experience following the overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya. And Iran wields the greatest influence on Assad’s regime. For the talks to go anywhere, the rebels and their foreign backers will have to abandon hopes for a definitive victory and look for a modus vivendi with the Assad regime. This could comprise an agreement to the changes in the structure of the regime, security for the Alawite community, the exclusion of more extremist forces from a role in the future government, a greater role for the majority Sunni community in the set-up, and genuinely fair and free elections. Any diplomacy with a pre-condition who holds power is set to flounder because both sides believe they can win this war.

In the event the above talks fail then Syria seems likely to descend into a deadlock with various groups holding on their fiefdoms in various parts of the country while civilian suffering continues to rise. Western and Gulf Arab governments would not really mind such a stalemate as it would undercut Iran’s and Russia’s strategic positions. This can involve a ceasefire with sporadic hostilities, where each holds the territory it currently controls.

However, in the longer run this will likely see the conflict spilling over beyond Syria. Syrian crisis has placed Lebanon in the most precarious position in its history since the end of its civil war. Hezbollah’s entry into the war has strengthened the divisions in a highly polarized country. Recently there have been clashes between Alawites and Sunnis in the city of Tripoli. The Sunnis up in arms in Iraq are looking for alliances with the rebel forces in Syria. As the Kurds in Syria carve out a niche for themselves, tensions in Kurdish areas in Turkey continue to rise, whereas Syrian Kurds look to the Kurds in Iraq for succour. Syrian civil war also has major implications for Jordan which can feel a palpable disquiet in its overwhelmingly Sunni population as Syrian refugees in Jordan now amount to about 20% of that tiny country’s population. Any further gains by the extremists in Syria will also embolden their counterparts across the border in Jordan.

Quite an imbroglio! Isn’t it? However a more Machiavellian analysis of the stakes and options in Syria’s war throws up an intriguing picture how quid pro quos on offer make Syria’s war a murky issue to resolve.

While Assad and his allies are fighting for their survival, by now it is evident that the Western states will not accept an end to the war till their allies can secure a victory. Meanwhile, civil war is not a bad option for the West and Israel because it knocks out Syria as an opponent to Israel and keeps Iran under immense pressure. Hezbollah is preoccupied by Syria and not with Israel. The differences among the Muslims in the region have both deepened and sharpened thus further diminishing any possibility of mounting a challenge to Israel anytime in foreseeable future. Turkey is sucked into the Syrian crisis instead of broadening its influence in the region and other Turkic countries. And the Gulf Arabs continue to do the West’s bidding. This explains why the US, which is extensively involved both directly and through Qatar and Turkey, continues to lay down unrealistic preconditions for a negotiated settlement of the issue. The White House’s continued insistence on imposing a regime change sounds more and more like an alibi for a very long conflict. Moreover, Washington appears to have shut the door on the idea of Iran, a main player, attending Geneva talks. This again is unrealistic if the aim of negotiations is to end the fighting. So, in reality the US is enabling a massacre that it could do considerably more to end, simply because the war is becoming a quagmire for America’s enemies, Iran and Hezbollah, and is costing Russia support throughout the rest of the Arab world because of its standing by Assad’s regime. Gulf monarchies, which in peacetime tend to be troublesome American allies, have invested small fortunes on the rebel side, sending weapons and establishing exile political organizations. The more the Syrian war sucks up the attention and resources of its entire neighbourhood, the greater America’s relative influence in the Middle East. This is also the reason why Britain and France are so keen to send further weapons to the rebels. Thus Britain and France are both playing mischief to ensure that the savagery in Syria continues, as they both well know that ending the EU embargo on arms for the rebels will kill the prospects of any talks by raising the rebels’ hopes for the eventual full-blown Western military intervention a la Libya.

Though hostilities between Syria and Israel can also not be ruled out, Syria is not in a position to pose any danger to Israel. In fact, for Israel the thought of Hezbollah and Iran being sucked into a civil war with the Sunnis infused with terrorist backing is not a bad prospect – i.e., those two sects killing each other instead of uniting against Israel. The only resolution of the war that could be of interest to Israel is the emergence of a regime in Syria that is willing to cede the Golan Heights to Israel and sue for peace with it. That is not on the cards for now as the struggle is now led by Jihadists and Israel has every reason to be worried about the opposition as much as about Assad.  Hence, Israel too seems content to watch the killing continue and one doesn’t see the Arabs or Muslims getting together to stop it.

Unfortunately for Syrians, in the real world we live in, humanitarian concerns never trump nations’ blatant state and geopolitical interests. The American historian and polemicist Daniel Pipes is just being brutally candid when he writes: “Western powers should guide the conflict to stalemate by helping whichever side is losing. The danger of evil forces lessens when they make war on each other.” As long as the war continues to suit Israel and the West, no efforts for peace will gather enough motivation to end it. For anyone seeking to understand it in the historical context, “The Great Game” -a book with the tale of how superpowers coldly schemed for centuries over Central Asia in utter disregard to the consequences for the region’s citizens- tops my list of recommended reading. Similarly, in order to gain control over energy resources, every major world power (regardless of any changing of the guard) is ready to support policies and upheavals invoking misfortune for the populations in the Middle East. Euphrates’ waters have turned to blood yet again.

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Asif Zaidi

14 Comments

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  • There is an apparent overlap of interests between Israel and Iran to keep the current regime in place, however unlikely of an outcome. This is the inevitable contradiction that Israel faces among many of its policy choices. On one hand Israel faces Arab countries’ support of Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and on the other hand Iran’s support of Assad. Assad is the more predictable player in this game, which is a reason why Israel should slightly favour his victory (only at the moment, unless Arab states manage to form a non-Islamic coalition in the Syrian opposition), though this doesn’t mean that there is no threat from Iran. As a matter of fact, as mentioned above, Iran is currently the biggest threat for Israel. The fact that both Israel and Iran might favour Assad only means that both sides see Assad as a vital player to their geopolitical goals. For Israel, support of Assad means that Assad ought to continue his policy of continued peace talks with Israel, no matter how difficult to achieve. Unfortunately, Assad is unlikely to remain in power and for this reason Israel should not rely on the option of his victory, even though supporting him indirectly will give Israel time and necessary chaos in Syria.

  • Yes, indeed. As a matter of fact, there are signals that Israel was supporting Assad indirectly. For example, reports surfaced that Israeli-made unmanned aerial vehicles were flying over Syria to monitor and attack Syrian opposition. Publicly at least, Israel has claimed that it does not want to get involved in Syrian affairs, and that it is only ready to send purely humanitarian aid. Although one could claim that intelligence behind these reports is fabricated, Israel’s initial support of Assad makes sense if we consider the following. First, the Free Syrian Army is supplied mostly through Lebanon because the border is porous. This means that many supplies can be sent through the Mediterranean. Libya has admitted sending the financial aid, while the Qatari Prime Minister said that Qatar should send weapons to the opposition. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s rival for regional dominance, has shown support for the opposition with its foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, stating that arming Syrian opposition is an excellent idea. Reports indicate that Saudi Arabia has implemented this policy. Other Gulf States are also implicated in arming the opposition. It is only natural for Israel to provide counterbalance. This is especially true since Israel can only benefit from a weak Syria, or as some analysts describe, that Israel would like to see a divided Syria. It also makes sense from a strategic element as analysed above; namely that Israel seeks to isolate Syria from other Arab states. Assad may be a devil, but he is a devil “that Israel knows.” Supporting him is not a safe option, but it is an option that will weaken Syria and prolong the crisis, giving more time to Israel to think what to do next.

  • A long, drawn-out conflict in Syria doesn’t threaten American interests; to put it coldly, it might even serve them. Assad might be a monster and a despot, they point out, but there is a good chance that whoever replaces him will be worse for the United States. And as long as the war continues, it has some clear benefits for America: It distracts Iran, Hezbollah, and Assad’s government, traditional American antagonists in the region. In the most purely pragmatic policy calculus, they point out, the best solution to Syria’s problems, as far as US interests go, might be no solution at all.

  • Syria will never be Assad’s again, he knows it and is willing to take down everyone with him. Meanwhile Obama’s bluff regarding chemical weapons has been called, decades of a solid US reputation are going down the drain. Russians have proven to be much better allies than the Americans.

  • the current debacle in Syria is two pronged,it is about the change of one demonic regime (for possibly another I dont know) and a proxy battle with Iran and Hezbollah,both of whom are throwing in Men and Money to keep the murderous Assad propped up.Neither Iran or Hezbollah will be allowed to win,a victory for them would bolster them against the coming war with the US over the Iranian nuclear program as for Hezbollah a victory for them would see them rewarded with weapons which Israel cannot tolerate – this fight is set to continue,deepen and get ever more bloody.

  • Thank goodness, the US/NATO push for WWIII (that came horribly close in 2007) has been halted, with a bloody nose for the invaders of Syria. Hence the current weasel voice of fake ‘moderation’. No, a ‘peace conference’ to legitimize the present battle lines is not a good idea. It would give the prize of a Syrian foothold to the al Qaida death squads sponsored the West – victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Peace can be ensured by the ending of the West’s aggression. The Pentagon & NATO’s Nazis can retire to lick their wounded egos, & be satisfied with the oil they have stolen, & the slaughter they have inflicted on Iraq & Libya. Syria & Iran can, at least, be spared that, as the world can be relatively happy with no WWIII.

  • Govts in the west cannot commit ground troops quite simply because their citizens know they are corrupt, do not believe a word they say, and, hold them in utter contempt! Now whether they are controlled by Zionists I do not know, but when the Russians are berated for selling a strictly defensive missile system to Syria, that will limit the Israeli Air Force ability to criminally attack a sovereign nation, you do begin to wonder!

  • Isn’t it a fact that Judaism is responsible for Islam as well as Christianity? They all have Jewish roots. Judaism & Islam are cousins I believe Ishmael & Isaac were brothers, sons of Abraham. Christianity has as their saviour also a Jew. Jews mortal enemies according to Talmudic Rabbinical ramblings are the Gentiles. Christians on one hand are useful to them to separate their cousins from their rightful lands. And their economies that you speak of are at the mercy of international Jewish bankers, so yes it’s no wonder they’re not stable. You say Zionist but that’s just a cover for JEW aka bolshevism, socialism , Marxism & liberalism. They’re being exposed for their treachery as in the past centuries that got them expelled from country after country.

  • By now we all know (or are becoming aware) that anti-Semitism is a Jew concoction, whereas the real problem is “anti-gentile” that is carried out by Jews. Eastern European (kazars) are not Semitic people, however they continually murder Palestinians who are Semitic people. So Fady you have to ask yourself “who are the anti-Semites”? And by the way Kennedy was printing monies from the U.S. treasury that would’ve put the “Jew” fed out of business. He was also demanding inspections of Israel’s nuclear program to make sure they weren’t for offensive means. So we can leave that up to the reader to ponder whether the Jews our friends that attacked a clearly marked USS Liberty in “67” were to blame.

  • Agree, Kevin. The Zionist have control of the US and western governments, this is all about world domination, Israel doesn’t want peace, president John F Kenny tried to shut down the Israeli Nuclear program down and was assassinated, they will stop at nothing. Russia and china are one of few that is not being controlled by these psychopaths.

  • It’s all about the standard, “peaceful” application of Islam. You know, Shiite vs. Sunni, Sunni vs. Christian, Shiite vs. Christian. Count on them to fight on forever. .

  • Very simply, Syrian Civil war is part of a regional war between Shiites and Sunnis with the Christians in the middle. The USA are firmly on the side of the Sunnis, partly because the Sunni countries have more oil, partly because of their crusade against Iran, still trying to get them back for the humiliation of their puppet, the Shah, being kicked out by fundamentalist Islamists and the resulting hostage humiliation (the USA has a long memory) and partly because the Sunni countries are more compliant in accepting the right of Israeli to attack and bully the Palestinians and the countries around them. It is not about democracy; the USA is quite happy to let the minority Sunni leadership in Bahrain kill and imprison members of the Shiite majority with Saudi help when they protest in favour of democracy. The USA is not very good at foreign policy and seems to screw up everywhere they get involved in, either supporting tyrants compliant to the USA (and Zionist) agenda or illegally destabilizing or overthrowing regimes and creating chaos. A period of American isolationism might benefit the world.

  • According to this poll 70% of Syrians support the government: http://www.islamicinvitationturkey.com/2013/06/02/nato-study-assad-winning-war-70-of-syrians-support-him/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

    Protests are occurring in rebel held areas against the FSA, al Nusra and all their offshoots: http://www.breakingnews.sy/en/article/18417.html

    The rebels are not holding onto areas because they have the support of the residents but because they have weapons and people are afraid of them. If a ceasefire was agreed this would leave large swathes of the population under the control of rebels and terrorists who they have not elected and who they do not support. A military victory for the Syrian army followed by a presidential election is the best solution.

  • All assertions by the writer are correct. The comments confirm that it is a common knowledge that the west and Israel started and are fueling the war. Their biggest aim is its prolongation to ensure maximum deaths, misery and devastation. But. would the outcome be to their plan or it would be a repeat of a la Chengis Khan mission instead of the success in shape of Israel after inflicting two World Wars on the humanity. Rationally, one may not agree but it will be a la Changiz Khan . Iran and Israel both know it. The west is more a joker for Israel in the game. The success of hawks in Israel has sidelined their wiser and knowledgeable people who have been urging to not bring doom to themselves. I am a sunni but know that Iran is right and will win. It will be a miracle like so many in past when one prophet single handedly won from empires with the strength of truth and justice only. The nature also show us so many examples where rational approach not always give same results as not every seed converts into a plantdespite going through the same process. This secret and reality will decide the winner between Israel and Iran. Let me also correct that it is not repeat not a war between Shia or Sunni but between right and wrong and truth in shape of Iran will win prevail whether we like it or not. I only pity for the innocent who are being hurt in the process. But, I would urge the west and Israel to stop this game of inflicting misery and conquest of humanity lest it would astound them with their own annihilation.