Syria: the Cold War Continues

Jan 14 2013 / 8:00 pm

By Shafiq Morton

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 – 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 opposition as “soap bubbles”.

The problem, as many frustrated Syrians have observed, is that the dramatis personae in the conflict – Iran, Russia, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel – all have their own geo-political agendas with regards to Damascus.

And at the moment, says Sami Ibrahim of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the welfare of the beleaguered Syrian population appears to be the least consideration. According to him a human rights disaster is unfolding right now as four million internally displaced refugees starve in the winter snow.

To make matters worse, reports of Syrian government forces and their allies being responsible for gross human rights violations such as civilian massacres and institutionalized rape have become rife – and too frequent from too many sources to be inaccurate.

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 Syrian 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 and a transition 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 influence in NATO, has been reduced to being a spectator. 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.

Unfortunately, Assad’s airforce will carry on bombing the Syrian population – which evidence shows he has done mercilessly – in spite of the opposition controlling nearly 70% of the country on the ground.

President Bashar al-Assad is said by Jane’s Terrorism and Security Report to have an arms stockpile twice as powerful as that of Muammar Gadaffi’s, and with reports of Russia eager to top up supplies, it looks as if the conflict could last well into the summer.

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 have any major impact on Beijing.

Nicholas Wong, writing for the website 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” entity.

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

Syrian opposition sources have told me that if it weren’t for Russian and Iranian support, the Syrian regime would have been toppled long ago. They talk with great concern about the presence of Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in Syria.

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.

The Nusairis – as the Syrian Alawites are often called – believe in re-incarnation and consume wine. The Nusairis are not Shi’ah. The truth is that Iran’s alliance with Syria is political. It is centered on Iran’s regional interests, amongst which is Israel.

Saudi Arabia has supported the Syrian opposition – but for its own reasons; the blunting of what it perceives as the “Shi’ah crescent” from Iran to the Arabian Peninsula. Not many know that the Shi’ah constitute nearly 20% of the Saudi Arabian population. They are the elephants in the royal family’s room.

For Turkey, bordered by Syria, the outcome has been maintaining a balance of power that doesn’t arouse the Kurds or the local Nusairi communities, and having to balance its energy needs with Iran (who allegedly threatened to cut off oil supplies) if Ankara intervened.

For some analysts in Israel, Assad has been a case of the devil you know as opposed to the devil you don’t (an unpredictable, but armed Sunni-led government).

Israeli policy is anticipated to become more hawkish after this month’s election as the electorate is expected to keel dramatically to the right. Polls predict Likud will win 32 seats in the 120-strong Knesset, which means another Netanyahu coalition – and even more sabre-rattling against Iran.

Former software tycoon, Naftali Bennet, leader of the extreme right-wing Jewish Home is expected to gain 16 seats and become Likud’s main partner. Bennet regards the Palestinian question as “insoluble” and wants to annex 60% of the Palestinian West Bank.

For concerned Syrians like Ahmad Rahban, a rabidly right-wing Israeli government itching to go to war against Iran will further destabilize the region. He is, understandably, not optimistic about the future – especially if Assad is allowed to stay.

He says that Tel Aviv believes Syria is the path to Iran. Rahban’s fear is that Assad will be forced to stay in power and 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.

– Shafiq Morton is an award-winning Cape Town photojournalist and author. He has covered the anti-apartheid struggle, the release of Nelson Mandela and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as conflict worldwide. He contributed this article to

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1 Comment for “Syria: the Cold War Continues”

  1. Mo

    Interesting and basically objective article (except when it comes to Israel where author can’t help but expose his bias; btw Israel’s government sits in Jerusalem, West Jerusalem if you like, but not in TA). However, I don’t understand this sentence: “Tel Aviv (Israel) believes Syria is the path to Iran.” nor the follow-up unless this is an attempt to say it’s all Israel’s fault! “Rahban’s fear is that Assad will be forced to stay in power and 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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