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Syria: the Cold War Continues

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WITH the Syrian death toll (consisting mainly of civilians) rising to 60,000 according to the UN, the 21 month-old uprising – which started off as a peaceful protest against President Bashar al-Assad and his cronies – has become a complex case of Cold War meddling with little relief in sight.

President Bashar al-Assad’s recent address to the troubled Middle East nation – his first in six months – gave nothing to his opposition or to international negotiators keen to stop the bloodshed. UN envoy Lakhdar Ibrahimi, who visited Damascus in December, has described Assad’s speech as a “lost opportunity”.

Or as Syrian media activist, Ahmad Rahban, commented: the only new thing in Assad’s address was his reference to the resistance as a collection of soap bubbles.

The problem, as many frustrated Syrians have pointed out to me, is that the key dramatis personae in the conflict – Iran, Russia, China, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Israel – all have their own geo-political agendas in Syria.

The welfare of the beleaguered Syrian population, says Sami Ibrahim of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, appears to be the least consideration. A humanitarian disaster is unfolding right now as four million internally displaced refugees (nearly a quarter of the Syrian population) have been left to starve in the winter snow.

To make matters worse, reliable reports of Syrian government forces being responsible for human rights violations such as mass killing, torture and rape have become rife. Human rights group reports have fingered resistance fighters as well, but not half as frequently as Assad’s.

In the meantime, the Friends of Syria – a group of 60-odd nations convened by the US outside the UN Security Council in the light of Chinese and Russian vetoes on the nature of response to the crisis –has made little progress.

But then, the UN-approved Action Group for Syria (which included Russia and China) and which outlined a six-point peace plan in June last year failed to make an impact too. It saw special envoy Kofi Annan resigning in frustration.

The US, traditionally a powerful broker in the Middle East and NATO, has become just another player. The Security Council vetoes by Russia and China have assured that Syria will not go the way of Libya. NATO forces will not be taking out Assad’s fighter jets in the near future.

President Bashar al-Assad is said by Jane’s Terrorism and Security Report to have an armoury bigger than Gadaffi’s, and with reports of Russia eager to top up supplies, it looks as if the conflict could last a long time.

The interests of China and Russia in Syria are not the same. China has invested in Syria’s oil industry and is a major trade partner, but not to the extent where economic losses in Syria would trouble Beijing.

Nicholas Wong, writing for Open Democracy, suggests that whilst China wants to protect its strategic interests in the Middle East, it is also trying to ensure that a pro-west, pro-US (thus anti-Chinese) government does not replace Assad’s regime.

This, he hints, is one of China’s concerns about the effects of the Arab Spring. By backing Syria, China prevents the political dominoes from falling into Iran, a strategic “anti-western” bloc.

In the case of Russia, it’s a re-visiting of the Cold War era to counter US influence. Russia’s relationship with Syria goes back to the 1950’s. Apart from President Vladimir Putin wanting to maintain ties with one of his oldest allies, and supplying it with arms, the Syrian port of Tartus is Russia’s last naval base in the Middle East.

Syrian resistance sources have told me that if it weren’t for Russian and Iranian support, the Assad regime would have been toppled long ago. They talk with rising anger about the presence of Russian military advisors and Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in the country.

Iran’s alliance with Assad and its buttressing of Hezbollah via Damascus is often portrayed as a Shi’ah alliance, but it is not the honest answer. The ruling Alawite clan which controls Syria – and which consists of 10% of Syria’s population – embraces an eclectic mixture of beliefs foreign to Shi’ah Islam.

The truth is that Iran’s long-standing alliance with Syria is political. It is centred on Iran’s regional interests, and the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s imperial vision.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported the Syrian resistance – but for their own reasons; the blunting of what they perceive as a “Shi’ah crescent” from Iran to the Arabian Peninsula. The Shi’ah constitutes nearly 20% of the Saudi population, and a significant percentage in the Gulf. They are the unwelcome elephants in the Arabian room.

Turkey, a Euro-Asian power rising out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, had mended its fences with Syria after decades of post-colonial ill-feeling. But the uprising meant an about-turn in policy – and support for the anti-Assad resistance. This has not endeared Ankara to Teheran.

For the Israeli house, Assad has been a case of the devil you know as opposed to the devil you don’t (a so-called “Islamist” or Sunni-led government).

Israeli rhetoric is expected to become hawkish after this month’s low-key election as voters have keeled to the right. Veteran Israeli journalist, Uri Avnery, drily comments that Netanyahu will be left-of-centre in his own coalition. Iran may not have been on the pre-election menu, but many expect the sabre-rattling to continue again.

For concerned Syrians like Ahmad Rahban, a rabidly right-wing – if not neo-fascist – Israeli government intractable on resolving the Palestinian issue and obsessively paranoid about its Arab neighbours, will further destabilise the region. He is, understandably, not optimistic about the future.

Rahban’s fear is that Assad will be either forced (or tempted) to stay in power by his allies. He says this means he will only leave if Damascus gets razed to the ground, and before that happens, hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of innocent Syrians are going to be the victims.


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