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 PalestineChronicle.com.

image_pdfimage_print
Posted by on Jan 14 2013 . Filed under Articles, Commentary . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 . You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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”

Leave a Comment

Please insert the correct number.


The Free Zone | Blog

  • May 30, 2016

    Palestinian Schoolgirl Expelled from Speech Contest Grand Final

    Leanne Mohamad, the 15-year-old student at Wanstead High School in London, who won a regional final of the Jack Petchey Speak Out Challenge on her stories of the Nakba, has been expelled from the competition. - Leanne Mohamad, won the Speak Out Challenge with her speech ‘Birds not Bombs’, in which she details the historical and current reality for Palestinians under Israeli occupation. - However, her speech was met... More →
  • May 30, 2016

    Gaza Fishing Syndicate: Israel Again Reduces Fishing Zone to Six Nautical Miles

    Following the expansion of the fishing zone in southern parts of the Gaza Strip by Israel to nine nautical miles last month, Israel, once again, announced reducing it to six nautical miles across the coastal enclave. - Nizar Ayyash, the head of the Palestinian Fishers Syndicate in Gaza, said the Israeli authorities have informed Palestinian fishermen about the unilateral reduction of the fishing zone. - Ayash affirmed... More →
  • May 29, 2016

    PPCS: Israel Held 729 Palestinians without Charge or Trial since Start of 2016

    The Palestine Prisoners’ Center for Studies (PPCS) has revealed on Friday, May 27, 2016 that the Israeli occupation authorities have issued and renewed the administrative detention orders of 729 Palestinians since the beginning of the year. - Riyad Al-Ashqar, PPCS spokesman,noted that administrative detention orders increased by 35 percent compared to the same period last year. - Alashqar further stated that some... More →
  • May 29, 2016

    Israel Indicts Palestinian Astrophysicist Despite Decision to Free Him

    Palestinian professor and astrophysicist Imad Barghouthi is facing charges of “incitement” by Israeli authorities, despite a decision Thursday by the Israeli military appeals court to release him from custody due to lack of sufficient evidence, according to the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society (PPS). - In a statement released by PPS on Sunday, the group said Israeli military prosecution submitted the indictment to... More →
  • May 27, 2016

    No Israeli Resistance to Bilin Protests – First Time in 11 Years

    Bilin in the West Bank stages a weekly demonstration of resistance against Israeli occupation. For the first time in the 11-year history of this popular form of opposition, Israeli forces did not use tear gas and other crowd control weapons to disperse protesters, locals said. - Witnesses said Israeli forces photographed protesters, and ambush attempts failed. Protesters raised Palestinian flags and marched in the... More →
$12,000.00
$10,800.00
$9,600.00
$8,400.00
$7,200.00
$6,000.00
$4,800.00
$3,600.00
$2,400.00
$1,200.00
$0.00
Support Palestine Chronicle
Support Palestine Chronicle
"The Palestine Chronicle is a beacon. History, witness, analysis and ways forward are here, written with authority and humanity. Long may it publish." — John Pilger.
Subscribe to Newsletter
Enter your email address to subscribe to our mailing list.
Email:
I Remember My Name
separator
Jerusalem Interrupted: Modernity and Colonial Transformation 1917-present
My Father Was A Freedom Fighter
Disclaimer RSS Feed Contact us Donation Popup
© Copyright 1999-2016 PalestineChronicle.com. All rights reserved
Powered By MediaSeniors