The Syrian crisis continues to grow worse, with Hilary Clinton now threatening Russia and China of “paying a price” if they continue to “support” Bashar al Assad in Syria. This is a scant few days after nine-party Action Group meeting in Geneva, where both sides agreed to a political solution in Syria. Promptly, the two sides – the American and Russian came out with two different interpretations to the agreement; the US claimed it meant a transitional government incorporating both sides but without Assad, while the Russian interpreted it to mean a transitional government which would contain both sides, the question of Assad being left to the Syrians to decide. For the Americans, any agreement on Syria must start with a regime change, a goal with which the Russians and Chinese do not agree.
The Friends of Syria meet is going on in Paris, where Hilary Clinton made the “Russia and China will pay speech”, prompting Russia to respond that the US still seems to suffer from a friend or foe mentality. Kofi Annan distanced himself from both the US and the Russians, blaming both sides for “destructive competition” on Syria.
Meanwhile Turkey has again stirred the pot with its provocative flights over Syrian airspace leading o shooting down of a Phantom reconnaissance aircraft by Syrian air defence. Turkey claimed that the shooting had occurred in international airspace – more than 13 kilometres from Syrian border. This is a claim that is difficult to accept when we consider that it was anti-aircraft fire with a limited range of 2-2.5 kilometres that brought down the Turkish aircraft. Unnamed US sources have toldWall Street Journal and other newspapers that they have data to indicate that the Syrian version of the incident is indeed right and Turkey seemed to have been trying to test the Syrian air defence leading to the incident. Russians have also offered to share their data with others to substantiate the Syrian version of the incident.
Though Turkey is not keen to escalate matters with Syria beyond a point, it has taken a step that further involves Turkey in the Syrian civil war. It has promised to prevent Syrian forces from approaching the Turkish-Syrian border, which means a zone within the Syrian border where Turkey will physically prevent Syrian forces from entering, in effect creating a “safe zone” for the rebels within Syria. It has already prevented Syrian air force from entering a 4 km zone from the Turkish border.
The UN observers have been withdrawn from Syria and the ceasefire that Annan had engineered has collapsed. There is little doubt that a brutal civil war is now unfolding in Syria. From the beginning, the Assad regime has been clear about not allowing rebels to hold territory, which then could be used to create a Benghazi-like enclave in Syria and a possible base for foreign intervention. It has used overwhelming force in order to prevent such enclaves from emerging, which explains its use of heavy weapons in civilian areas. The other side – and we are not clear that there is just one side – is being supplied with arms, money and intelligence from foreign powers, who are intent on regime change. While the arms and money are coming from Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies, newspaper reports now make clear that CIA is deeply involved with the distribution to various groups within Syria. Turkey of course continues to provide bases for the Free Syrian Army within its territory from which attacks on Syria are being launched.
What is ominous within these developments is the kind of sectarian and extremist forces that are rearing their heads in Syria. Syria, like Lebanon and Iraq, is not homogenous. It has Alawis, Christians, Kurds, Druze as minorities, who make up about 45% of the Syrian population. Backing Muslim Brotherhood and Sunnis in Syria is not only dangerous for the social fabric of Syria, it also threatens Lebanon, which has passed through decades of sectarian civil war. Much of West Asia can unravel if the Syrian state collapses under the pressure of civil war. The question here is not whether a Bashad al Assad regime is good or bad; it is simply that pushing a civil war into Syria will inevitably escalate into a breaking up of the Syrian state with enormous consequences for the region.
If the western imperial powers had any sense, they would have learnt from the military intervention in Libya. Or Iraq. Removal of the brutal Gaddafi regime has now brought in 60 militias who are warring with each other and preying on the Libyan population. The writ of the Libyan Transitional Government does not even run in the airport in Tripoli, which was seized recently for 36 hours by one of the militias. The Libyan affiliate of al Qaeda is a major partner of the NATO powers and now has a major say in Libya. Worse, it is now shipping arms and armed fighters all over the region including to Syria.
The consequence of “humanitarian” regime change a la Libya is now visible in Mali. Mali is widely held to be a stable democracy. Though Tuaregs have been asking for a Tuareg state in northern Mali from the 60’s, they neither had a majority there nor did they receive support internationally. All this changed with the fall of Gaddafi. The link with the al Qaeda affiliate in northern Mali – Ansar Dine — seemed to have emerged only in the aftermath of the Libyan NATO intervention. Once the Libyan state disintegrated, the Tuaregs, who were in Gaddafi’s army, got access to a huge cache of arms and weapons. In alliance with the extremist Islamists in Mali, they defeated the lightly armed Malian defence forces in the north and have now taken control over half of Mali.
The question is whether this was merely an unintended consequence of the NATO military intervention or was it something more sinister. There are rumours that France engineered the defection of the Tuaregs from Gaddafi by promising them support for creating a Tuareg state in northern Mali. It is also possible that the link up with the Islamists was forged through the Libyan counterparts of Ansar Dine, who are very much a part of the NATO allies in Libya. Interestingly, France is arguing now for a “political resolution” of the Tuareg issue, effectively legitimising their claim over northern Mali.
As we and others have argued, the US game plan in Syria is to isolate Iran and Hezbollah further. Syria for them is only a piece in a much larger strategic chess game. The US and Israeli strategic vision is that Iran — as the only long term threat to Israel’s overwhelming military dominance of the region – must be taken out and a regime change in Syria will help in this overall objective.
What Hilary Clinton and the US want is that Russia and China should acquiesce in this larger strategic objective. There are two problems with this approach. If the US and Israeli plans succeed and there is a regime change in Syria now and later Iran, the US and its allies can completely freeze Russia and China out of access to West Asian oil and gas.
But that is not all. It will also establish the principle that the US and NATO can decide on regime change in any country — whoever they feel and whenever they want — without going through the UN, merely by referring to the humanitarian “right to protect”. It would also open the doors for US intervention in Central Asia and other countries, which Russia regards as within its zone of influence. Post Libya, where NATO started with the UN mandate of “protecting civilians” and quickly broke this mandate to militarily intervene and force a regime change, Russia and China are going to be far more cautious. This is why the US and Russia are at odds over Syria.