ROBERT FISK of The Independent is not known for mincing his words. Having lived in Lebanon for most of his adult life, and having covered almost every Middle East conflict for the last 40 years, Syria’s complex role in the region is well-known to him.
Ruled with an iron fist by the Alawite Assad family, the Sunni business elite and the generals, Syria has played the diplomatic smoke-and-mirrors game as skilfully as the West.
By balancing the various energies at play – from Israel to Hamas to Hizballah – Syria has been able to keep her nose clean by not firing a shot in anger against Israel on the Golan Heights.
Conversely, Syria has supported Hizballah against Israel on another front, southern Lebanon. Its troops were sent packing from Lebanon after the assassination of Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, but it did not necessarily put a stop to covert Syrian influence.
But the Syrian paradox is most clear when one realises that the same government that was willing to cold-bloodedly slaughter 20,000 Islamists in the city of Hama in the 1980’s has offered refuge to Hamas – a Palestinian Islamist political movement.
Whilst the hard rule of Assad and his cronies should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the brutal Syrian political landscape, it’s his apparent unwillingness to disengage from his neighbour, Iran, which has been more the issue for western axis powers than his vicious crackdown.
It doesn’t take much to realise that the US and Europe would be keen to neutralise any relationship that is seen to empower Hizballah and Hamas, and threaten their ally, Israel, whose bluster against Iran grows by the day.
Add into the mix old Cold War foes of the West, Russia and China (as well as their historic double vetoes at the UN) and you have a recipe for what Fisk describes as “the arena for a new Cold War”.
Professor Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Connecticut University, agrees with Fisk because all the old actors are there, even if for varying reasons. He points a finger at NATO’s intervention in Libya colouring the Russian and Chinese perspective.
With NATO allegedly violating Resolution 1973 of the UN charter with its intervention in Libya, there are some real issues of trust with regards to NATO’s intervention in Syria, he says.
He also points to Russia’s concerns about NATO expanding its presence into the Middle East and Eastern Europe. “The Russians, who have a naval base in Syria and who’ve had a relationship with Syria since the 1960’s, don’t want to see the end of the Assad regime.”
Syrians in the Diaspora have told me that the picture is even more convoluted than the above. Analyst Ahmad Rahbane claims that Israel, already fretful about the Arab Spring, wants Assad to stay in power as the Syrian border is now the only stable one.
Assad is a case of the devil they know. Tel Aviv’s biggest fear is Syria’s new Russian-supplied P-800 anti cruise ship missiles, with a range of 300 kilometres, falling into Hizballah’s or other hands if Assad steps down.
Washington-based cleric, Muhammad al-‘Asi whose family is Syrian, said that Saudi Arabia – keen to push back the Mid-East “Shi’ah crescent” – was creating proxies in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Other sources told me they’d received reports of Hizballah fighters supporting the Assad regime.
Natalia Mihailova, a Chinese affairs expert writing on the website radio86.com, says that whilst China is Syria’s biggest commodity provider, China had invested in a 1 billion dollar oil refinery project in 2008, and enjoyed oil exploration rights in Syrian waters.
Syria had minimal economic interaction with the US and European bloc. In Syria, “oil was under everything”, she said, as by 2030 China would outstrip the US as the world’s biggest consumer of oil.
Quoting a maxim from Zhou Enlai, she said that “all diplomacy (in Syria) is a continuation of war by other means”. Global power plays had seen the countries taking their opposite corners.
Paul Craig Roberts, a former assistant to the US treasury during the Reagan years, was as forthright. He told Iran’s Press TV that the western focus on Syria had nothing to with democratic reforms or human rights, but a US effort to deny resources to China, the US’ biggest global competitor.
The Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, a Washington think-tank dealing in energy security, commented that it was energy needs that would determine China’s global strategies. China’s reliance on Mid-East oil was 70% (with 20% coming from Iran), and it needed to protect its resources.
But where do the people of Syria, longing for more representative leadership, stand in all of this? Sources in Damascus have told me that they estimate 12,000 people (about 9,000 civilians) have already died in the 13 month uprising.
Human Rights organisations and aid agencies have reported that the Syrian government has mined its borders to prevent people from fleeing the country. And the other day, an aid worker told me she was coming across refugees who’d been gang raped by soldiers.
And as Kofi Annan, the UN and Arab League envoy shuttles between Damascus and Arab capitals with his six-point peace plan, it’s hoped that Syria does not indeed become the stage on which superpowers brawl.
Natalia Mihailova of radio86 feels that whatever happens, it will be a “blockbuster performance” with, tragically, the ordinary people in Syria political puppets in somebody else’s cruel hands.