THE Syrian president, Bashar Assad, declared in late June that Syria was now in a “state of war.” He was speaking after the shooting down of a Turkish military jet which had entered the Syrian air space. Syria said that it had responded to a “gross violation of its territory.” Turkish officials, including the prime minister, have admitted that the plane did stray briefly into Syrian air space. The Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has confirmed that the downed jet was on a radar testing mission. Such tests help in providing information about the position of anti-aircraft guns and ground to air defences. Relations between Turkey and Syria have been tense since the uprising began. The wreckage of the jet was found in Syrian waters with telltale signs that it was shot down by an anti-aircraft gun. Anti-aircraft guns have a range of around two kilometres.
Syria had another important reason for being extra-sensitive of unidentified aircraft straying into its airspace. Five years ago, Israeli aircraft had flown over Turkish territory and then bombed a military facility in the Syrian desert. The Israelis claimed that the site they bombed was the location of a secret nuclear weapons reactor being built by Syria. In 2006, four Israeli jets had flown over the residence of the Syrian president, prior to an Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Syria has beefed up its defences against aggression from the air. The downing of the Turkish fighter jet is a warning that Syria has acquired a sophisticated defence against potential enemies.
A NATO attack on Syria will not be like their military adventure in Libya. That may be one of the reasons the West is trying a different model of intervention in Syria. This time, intervention could be through the auspices of Turkey, bolstered by the petrodollars from client monarchies like Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The al Sauds recently announced that they will be paying the salaries of the rebel “Free Syrian Army” with the approval of the Obama administration. Most of the casualties after the six point Annan peace plan was put in motion have been Syrian army-men. In the last week of June, the Syrian government announced that it had buried 112 of its army personnel.
Turkey, a NATO member state, has vowed to retaliate and has since massed troops along the long border with Syria. Talking after the shooting down of the Phantom F-4 fighter, Turkey’s prime minister, Reccep Tayyip Erdogan said that his country is changing the rules of engagement and would now treat every military element approaching Turkey from the Syrian border as “a military threat and will be treated as a military target.” This belligerent stance is aimed at thwarting Syrian efforts to stop the infiltration of rebel fighters and arms through the 550 miles long border the two countries share. Turkey is threatening to invoke Article 4 of the NATO treaty which allows member states to call for emergency talks.
The NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said that the alliance strongly condemned the shooting down of the Turkish fighter jet but said that Article 5 of the Treaty was not discussed. Article 5 calls for a united military response if a NATO member country is attacked. The Obama administration had announced that it would work with its NATO ally Turkey to hold Syria accountable for what US officials claim was “a deliberate act” of shooting down the Turkish fighter jet. But key NATO states like Germany are reluctant to get sucked into a military conflict with Syria. The Russian foreign ministry urged Turkey not to view the incident as “a provocation or intentional action” and that the shooting down of the F-4 fighter should not be used to further destabilize the situation in the region. But Erdogan seems determined to fish in troubled waters. In a speech to the country’s Parliament in the last week of June, Erdogan said that Turkey would provide “all possible support to liberate the Syrians from dictatorship.” The Syrian rebel army is being trained by NATO in a command and control centre in Iskenderum, near the border with Syria.
The trouble in Syria has already had its repercussions in neighbouring Lebanon where fighting has broken out between pro- and anti-Syrian government supporters. In Iraq, extremist groups have been mounting deadly terror attacks against Shia pilgrims and places of worship. “Syria is not Libya. It will not implode. It will explode beyond its borders,” Kofi Annan has warned. Even in Libya, the US/NATO intervention has only wrought chaos and anarchy. The legacy of the US invasion of Iraq is still playing havoc in the region, stoking sectarian strife and regional animosities. Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire issued a heart felt plea to stop the rush towards war in Syria. “We need to stop this mad rush towards a war the mothers and fathers and children of Syria do not want and do not deserve,” she wrote. But another more recent Nobel Peace Prize winner, the current president of the United States, seems to be all for a military solution to the Syrian crisis.
The Syrian opposition, now in possession of lethal sophisticated arms supplied by the West and its regional allies, has been targeting the Syrian army and government buildings in Damascus province and a few other cities. Stories in the American media have now acknowledged a widely known fact —- that the CIA is training the anti-government forces based in Turkey and other neighbouring countries. Gunmen backed by the West attacked a pro-government television station — Ikhbariya TV located in the southern suburbs of Damascus. Three journalists and four security guards were killed in the attack. After bombing the building to rubble, the militants took away another dozen employees. Their fate is still unclear. There was hardly any criticism for these heinous acts from those in the West posing as champions of democracy.
The UNHRC has said that Syrians are being increasingly targeted because of their religious beliefs. It has now come to light that those killed in the massacre at Houla were mostly Alawites. The western media’s pronounced bias was again on full display in the third week of July, when the international media reported that Syrian government forces were responsible for the massacre of more than 200 people near the city of Hama. About 24 hours later, the truth came out that there were only 15 casualties, all of them rebel fighters. The government troops were responding to an attack. The truth did not stop Indian newspapers from repeating the lie in editorials critical of the government in Syria.
The German newspaper, Frankfurter Algermeine Zeitung, has reported that the real authors of the Houla massacres were members of the Free Syrian Army, propped up by Turkey and the West. Alawites, along with Christian and other minorities, are known to support the government. Amnesty International has documented the killing of captured soldiers and the kidnapping and killing of people suspected to be close to the government. The UN’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict condemned the recruitment and use of children by the armed groups. The German media has reported recently that their Intelligence Services have found large numbers of Al Qaeda activists from other countries active inside Syria. The increasing number of suicide bombings bear testimony to this.
EYE ON IRAN
The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has been demanding the ouster of the Syrian president on every available occasion. She repeated the demand again when a special meeting was convened in Geneva at the end of June in a seemingly last ditch attempt to save the “Kofi Annan Peace Plan.” At the meeting the key international powers agreed to the idea of a transitional government which would include members of the opposition, being set up. Russia remained opposed to the American demand that Assad should not have any role in the proposed transitional government.
Before the Geneva meet, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, had categorically stated that Moscow “is not supporting and will not support any external meddling and this also applies to the fate of Bashar al Assad.” Russia as well as Kofi Annan wanted Iran and Saudi Arabia to be invited to the Geneva meeting to brighten the prospects for a negotiated peaceful settlement as both the countries are interested parties in the Syrian conflict. But the US secretary of state objected to Iran’s participation arguing that Iran had no meaningful role to play. The main goal of US and Israeli strategists is to instal a pro-American regime in Damascus, leaving Iran without friends in the region. Iran could then be the next candidate for regime change.
The final communiqué, issued after the meeting, said that the proposed transitional government “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.” Despite the demands of the US and its allies, Russia and China saw to it that the final communiqué called for a “Syrian solution” to the ongoing conflict. The UN peace envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, warned that “time was running out” and said that peaceful dialogue was the only way to avoid a full-fledged civil war. Annan also warned about the dangers of underestimating the “extreme dangers posed by the conflict — to Syria, to the region and to the world.” The Russian foreign minister said in Geneva that he was delighted with the outcome of the meeting saying that no foreign military intervention would be imposed on Syria.
Not surprisingly, the opposition was quick to reject the proposal of a transitional government that was proposed in Geneva. The Syrian National Council (SNC), the opposition umbrella group, staid that the latest proposals “were a farce.” The official Syrian newspaper, Al Baath, said that the agreement in Geneva failed because it resembled another enlarged meeting of the UN Security Council. Teheran said that the Geneva meet would have had a greater chance of success if the Syrian and Iranian representatives were present at the talks. “The meeting was not successful — because Syria was not present and some influential nations were not present,” said the Iranian deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdolohian.
President Assad meanwhile ordered his recently reshuffled cabinet to single-mindedly focus on crushing the uprising which is now in its 16th month. “When one is in a state of war, all our policies and capabilities must be used to secure victory,” Assad told the new cabinet. The Syrian government seems prepared for all eventualities. And it is far from isolated internationally. Venezuela, like other Latin American and Caribbean countries, has been with the Syrian government in its time of need. The Venezuelan government recently dispatched 35,000 tonnes of diesel to Syria. It is planning to send another ship full of diesel in the coming weeks. Due to act of sabotage and terrorism targeting gas and oil pipelines, coupled with sanctions imposed by the EU on the state oil company, Syrians have been facing an acute energy crisis. Iran has also been helping out.