Amidst confusing, even contradictory, reports coming out of Syria, it is clear that the world is poised on the brink of a greater conflagration than previously envisioned - a regional war distinct from the US-NATO action in Iraq and Libya, with wider ramifications. Major world capitals have decided their stand vis-à-vis Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. New Delhi is playing ostrich, but may again abandon traditional friends for imperialist allies, without factoring in critical national needs like oil and gas, and the impact a possible blockade of the Strait of Hormuz could have on our energy security.
Moscow and Beijing, meanwhile, are preparing to resist western unilateralism. Reports suggest that on May 29, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian military forces to move from local war to regional war operational status and be ready to escalate to large-scale war if the United States or European Union enters the Syrian civil war. On May 24, Moscow undertook a ‘surprise alert exercise’ involving four regiments of S-300 troops combining 8,700 personnel, 185 warplanes and 240 armored vehicles, which are now positioned to enter the Syrian war zone if necessary. Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service and Zaslon Special Forces units have also been deployed; these developments merit serious attention.
The stakes are high for Moscow. Besides the Russian naval facility at Tartus, a 30,000-strong Russian population is married to Syrians, and the Russian Orthodox Church has an interest in Christian communities in Syria. But most importantly, the plot to destroy Syria’s Shiite leadership involves a sinister design to use Syrian territory for a natural gas pipeline from the Gulf States to the EU, breaking Russia’s stranglehold on European energy supplies. Qatar, with the world’s largest gas-field, has reportedly invested US$ 1bn to 3bn in the anti-Assad fight.
Fiona Hill, senior fellow, Brookings Institution, notes that during the 2009 Chechen crisis, President Basher al-Assad helped President Putin by preventing many groups supporting the Chechens, including a Syrian ethnic group originating in the Russian North Caucasus, from collecting money and sending recruits there.
Hence, after the European Union decided on May 27 to lift the arms embargo on Syria rebels, Russia moved its naval fleets into the Mediterranean. On May 30, President Assad claimed that Russia’s had delivered the first batch of advanced S-300 missiles to protect his regime. These have a range up to 200 kilometres and the capability to track and strike multiple targets simultaneously; they are expected to limit Israel’s ability to strike Syria. Moreover, with Russia’s backing, Iran has reportedly brought its military assets close to Israel’s borders in Syria and Lebanon.
Reuters reported on May 5 that the United Nations independent commission of inquiry had evidence that the Syrian rebels had used chemical weapons (banned under international law), including nerve gas sarin, in the combat. There is no evidence that government forces used chemical weapons, according to member Carla Del Ponte.
Dr Christopher Phillips, associate fellow, Chatham House, observes that London wrongly believes that ending the arms embargo will compel President Assad to negotiate during the Geneva peace talks in June (which may not be held). Britain feels that ‘moderate’ rebels are losing ground to radical jihadis like the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jubhat al-Nusra, and must be beefed up. But each time the rebels have made gains, the Assad regime has received arms, financial aid and even fighters from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Hence Assad has no reason to compromise as his inner circle remains faithful.
American journalist Stephen Lendman points out that lifting the EU arms embargo is a fake, as the rebels have freely received arms since Washington’s began its regime-change war on Syria in 2011. The proposed Geneva II peace talks are also a sham. British Special Forces entered Syria in February 2012 to guide the rebels the way Libyan rebels were helped to overthrow Col. Gaddafi. Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists who helped overthrow Gaddafi were airlifted into Syria to topple Assad last November.
In fact, Moaz al-Khatib quit as president of the Syrian National Coalition precisely because the group is controlled by outside powers, read Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the frontline western proxies in the war. The conflict has engulfed large parts of the region and could ultimately impact Europe, for when the Muslim citizens of European nations fighting with the radicals in Syria return home, they will take the ‘revolution’ back with them.
Sociologist Mahdi Nazemroaya says Turkey, Israel, and Jordan are siding with the West. Turkey has done reconnaissance for NATO in Syria, and hosts NATO Patriot missiles aimed at Syria (which can be deployed against Iran and Russia), and helps the anti-government forces. Israel has sent Mossad into Syria and built facilities in the Golan Heights to aid the insurgency. Both countries repeatedly threaten Syria and push for NATO intervention and no-fly zones.
Lebanon is split between the pro-Syrian Hezbollah-led March 8 Alliance and the anti-Syrian Hariri-led March 14 Alliance. Washington is trying to cripple Hezbollah; hence Hezbollah has joined the fight on the Syrian side of the Lebanese-Syrian border. The March 14 Alliance has been sending weapons and funds to the insurgents from 2011; in November 2012, evidence surfaced that Hariri party member Okab Sakr was behind weapons shipments to Syrian insurgents in coordination with Turkish and Qatari intelligence officers.
Hezbollah joined the fighting when Syrian rebels began attacking Shiite villages on both sides of the Lebanese-Syrian border and attacking Shiite shrines in Syria. After the mosque where Hujr ibn Adi Al-Kindi and his son were buried in Syria was defiled, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia rushed to protect the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque. Religious minorities have been systematically targetted by the rebels (Druze, Maronite Catholic Christians, Melkite Greek Catholic Christians, Greek Orthodox Christians, Armenian Orthodox Christians, Syriac Orthodox Christians, Alawites, and Twelver Shiites) as also ethnic minorities (Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, and Turkoman).
For Iran, Syria is a “redline”. After the fall of Saddam Hussain, Washington said Iran and Syria were its next targets for regime change. So Tehran and Damascus supported all American opponents in Baghdad (Shia or Sunni) to keep the country unstable. Tehran has warned it will intervene militarily if US-NATO attack Syria. Beijing has been silent, but it is aware that Syria is part of Washington’s eventual move against it. New Delhi must study the emerging instability across the entire Gulf region and prepare its responses.