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The International Writers Magazine: Comment

The War Dynamics on Syria
• Mawan Asmar
The bets are on the United States will hit Syria. The war drums are beating faster than usual. While it seemed at first US President Barack Obama was likely to surgically missile the country sooner than later, it is now certain he will wait till 9 after September when US Congress meets from recess, debate and vote on the issue.

Washington has long become “trigger-happy” in the region despite its debacle in Iraq. For the Middle East, this would be the fifth major conflict involving international powers in the Middle East in less than 22 years with the USA leading the way.

Too bad, Britain would not probably join what is deemed to be a series of strikes because of its “no-to-war” vote taken by its parliament who are still feeling the backbites of Iraq when its soldiers patrolled the south of the country. In its place, is France, another player that seems to be itching to go.

But that was the initial position when French socialist president Francois Hollande rallied behind the Americans and going for military action in the east of the Mediterranean. For a while, it seemed and unlike its previous policy of caution and diplomacy, one it practiced during the debates prior to the strikes on Iraq, France is now prepared to jump in. However, the French President too, is now seeking the support of his parliament.

No doubt France however, may want to make capital out of this international incident and expand its role in world politics which Britain being an ally to a super-power has practiced for far too long as a key to its waning global leadership.

Meanwhile Syria its bracing itself for hits by the Americans who have already stationed five destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean fully loaded with missiles including tomahawk cruise, ready to strike for what is claimed as the use of chemical weapons in the country.

American officials say they are certain that the chemical weapons on Al Ghouta, one area of Damascus on 21 August in which up to 1400 people were killed was instigated by the regime although this is strenuously denied by the government.

Many specialists are saying this is a replay of the 2003 war on Iraq then claimed by the George W. Bush administration that Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear weapons. It turned out that was to be false and what the Americans wanted was to remove him from power.

Now, again Syria is on the table. The chemical attack happened precisely when UN inspectors were on a 10-day visit by the Syria government to inspect for chemical weapons in the country. But the attack has sparked controversy between those who support the present Baathist regime and its detractors.
Some say there is no way the government would order an attack on its people right under the noses of the UN inspectors. Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and his officials are at pains in pointing this out with their view supported by Russian President Vladamir Putin.

But this is falling on deaf ears, regardless of the exact details of which side fired the chemical agent. Arab League meetings in Cairo are convinced it was the Syrian Baaths which were behind the attacks and are calling for UN and western intervention.

The drums of war are beginning once again to be heard in the Middle East. Governments are bewildered with different anxieties expressed, and with officials and leaders no longer feeling the campus with the Baath regime and regarding it like its earlier counterpart in Iraq, a nuisance rather that a responsible government.

This is also a reflection of the changes in world politics where views alter according to the power game and their interest. In former times, Egypt and Syria had joined the US-led coalition in the 1991 war to unseat Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

The US administration is dallying between wanting to strike quickly, wait for the report of the UN inspectors which could take from few days till at least two weeks and get a show of hands from the US Congress.

Lips have been tightly shut, although the political and international relations issues are now getting in the way. Obama can go it alone in ordering strikes, but he now wants the views of Congress with him to seal what is becoming a major foreign policy issue of his last term administration.

He is playing it very cool and says he wants the support of the rest of the nation in America to embark on something that may become too dramatic to contemplate.

However, political cynics point out it was the anti-strike vote in the British House of Commons which tipped the balance in favor of a strike-delay which means the US has lost one of its most important allies and will very probably rob Britain from taking part in any future strikes.

But conflict or not, there is a great indication the coming clash in the Middle East would be limited, contained and surgical, according to western strategists. It would be a series of strikes, and not a full-scale war just as it was the case on Libya when a whole NATO coalition went after the regime from the air.

Underpinning that is what is now claimed the “moral” justification for a strike on Syria to show the Baath party the West will not just stand idly by, a collectivized view made coherent by the American administration and it would be morally wrong to sit and do nothing while people are being gassed. No one can absolutely be certain from which side the gas came from but there are inferences that it may have come from the regime itself.

US President Barack Obama has always said the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be red lines, but he is keeping options close to his chest. Many are asking what would be the point in surgical strikes if there is no regime change at the end of it. Indeed, such would give the regime a “comfort zone” that once the bombs and missiles have stopped everything would go on as usual.

This is a view very much held by the opposition who are fighting the regime and have been so, practically since the conflict started when the West eyed the death toll rise in the country, reaching today to more than 100,000 civilians (probably much more) killed since the start of the civil war in the country in March 2011.

Will this conflict be the end of settling scores, or another piecemeal solution that will put a temporary halt to fighting in the country, only to enable both parties buy-time, re-equip and resume their fratricidal fighting, once the American strikes are over.

The Baath regime in Syria has proved to be far more formidable than it was thought to be the case with the government digging in its feet against a nefarious opposition of a mixed bag of Islamists, Al Qaeda-fundamentalists, democrats, secular groups and those in exile. On top of that there are many who are portraying the civil war as between the Sunni majority and the Alwaite minority lead by the Baath leadership. But the fact it is far more complicated than that with both Sunnis and Alwaites affected.

The groups in Syria materialized, armed and ready suddenly, to claim the next throne of government through proxy regional and international powers and non-state actors which have acted as their friends and supported, with the international relations of the region being turned upside down as the ramifications of one state having intense consequences on the other nations.

Ever since it began, the civil war in Syria have been fuelled by axis and allied powers, heightening the security situation inside the country, its surrounding areas, wider region and internationally to Turkey and Europe.

On the one hand, Lebanon and Jordan have been affected, opening up their borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees. In Jordan, camps have been set up just set inside its northern border with Syria where thousands have been coming into the country daily.

As of August 2013 it has been estimated by the UN there are around 2 million Syrian refugees who have left the country to neighboring states such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq with figures around 500,000 settling in refugee camps in each of the first three countries. The total number of displaced people in Syria stands at 4.5 million.

Over the pace of the conflict, these refugees represented strong pressure on the infrastructure of these countries and many started to talk about an impending water crisis in Jordan in a country that has traditionally been a water-scarce area. Since the conflict, Turkish officials say, they have spent a $1 billion on the upkeep of refugees.

This has been compounded, also in the case of Jordan, of serious security incursions and breaches of its border by Syrian fighters occasional hitting inside Jordanian territory whilst in pursuit of opposition forces to the Baath regime.

Aside this, there is a strong regional and international dimension to the Syrian conflict. It has been claimed Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been vociferous supporters of the Syrian opposition, providing it with financial and military support. They are among the most forthcoming amongst the Arab countries which have preferred to adopt a low key stance on the Syrian regime.

Internationally as well Turkey has been proactive in its approach against the regime while Britain, the USA and other European powers have been clearly supporting the opposition though in a less blatant way.

Such support have been buttressed by an estimated 6000 mercenaries who have been slipping to Syria mainly through Turkey and are fighting with the opposition, a reminder of the so-called Afghan-Arabs who flocked into Afghanistan in the 1980s at the height of Soviet occupation.

On the other hand, are the friends of Syria, like Hezbollah, many of whose fighters (8000 plus) are fighting in Syria - then Iran, Russia and China who are seen as staunch supporters, and in many ways see the country as their political fault line and sphere of influence.

Hard politics is being played here. Hezbollah sees the Syrian regime as a bulwark against Israel, and one it can be allied with in the regional balance of power. Over the years, they have built strong relations and have common strategic views of the region. To bolster the Syrian regime, its armed men are currently fighting in the Syrian civil war and that’s why many western strategists are arguing Hezbollah will not do anything such as rocketing Israel’s northern border in the event of cruise landing on Syria by the United States.

But that still leaves Iran in the equation, a long-time protagonist of the United States and Israel. It has found a prudent ally in Syria, and one that is staunchly anti-American but could be relied on to maintain a reasonable balance of power in the region, at least where Iran can have some kind of influence in the region which is incidentally becoming more forthright in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

The US has long regarded Iran as what George W. Bush branded as one of the “Axis of Evil” together with Syria and South Korea. Washington has always based its foreign policy dynamics in reigning in Iran because of the country’s nuclear program which Tehran has always said it was for energy purposes and not as war mechanism projectiles. But antagonism continues to persist between the two states especially since the Iranian Revolution of 1978.

Syria’s other friends are Russia and China, two powers with long-term relations with the Syrian regime whose importance lies in rending the UN Security Council ineffective because of their veto power. For the Russians as well, Syria is seen an important piece of the domino. If it falls, the prestige and influence of Moscow is likely to be badly dented or fall with it, leaving the area as a cushy place for America and the West to fill in and became another open area for western hegemony.

With all these international players, and not counting the actors in the region, even a limited set of strikes are considered to be very risky at this point in time because of so many divisive factors related to power-politics, strategic balance of power, acquisition of nuclear missiles like with Iran while Israel not mentioned at all, and plus the fact of the Arab Spring. The popular Arab uprising which hit the region by storm has unleashed new levels of changes and analysis in the region.

The Arab Spring had indeed got rid of certain dictators in the Arab world as in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and created calls for change, it brought to power Islamists who have either realigned into the system as in Tunisia and less so in Libya, whilst this experiment proved disastrous in Egypt, bringing chaos and eventually military rule in the country.

Instead of reasonable stability, the Arab Spring has brought chaos as well, as highlighted by the civil war in Syria which is actually heralding the impending strikes by the USA and getting into what can become a political and military quagmire.

The international relations of the Middle East are awaiting real changes. Because of the volatility in Syria and the surrounding countries, a US strike may not be an easy one and will only make America more hated in the Arab world and polarize the region even further between pro and anti-western supporters and thus divide the region even further.

The Arab Spring has for the most part unleashed a new psychological barrier where the Arab street is no longer afraid as can be seen by the mass demonstrations that gripped the Arab nation from its far western part to its extreme eastern, its north and south from Syria, and to a lesser extent Lebanon and Jordan to Yemen and Oman.

All these factors make this region highly volatile. Unlike any other previous conflicts, this time it is states, parties, people who are polarized and split down the middle along with their international supporters. Such factors are obviously continually being assessed before the alarm bells of missile will be hurled into a very cloudy situation.
© Mawan Asmar Marwan Asmar - a political analyst based in Jordan. September 4th 2013

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