Monday, January 14, 2013

Syria: is the Cold War thawing?



A Free Syrian Army fighter fires at Syrian Army positions in Tal Sheer village, north of Aleppo province, Syria, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. (AP Photo / Manu Brabo)
AP Photo.
WITH the Syrian death toll reportedly rising to 60,000 according to the UN, the 23 month-old uprising – which started off as a peaceful protest against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime – has developed into a conflict with Cold War overtones.

President Bashar al-Assad’s January address to the troubled Middle East nation – his first in six months – was a flowery monologue that evoked Al-Qaedah whilst giving little to his opposition and even less to the international community. UN envoy Lakhdar Ibrahimi described Assad’s speech as a “lost opportunity”.

Or as Syrian media activist, Ahmad Rahban, commented: the only new thing in Assad’s address (in which he mooted political transition on the one hand, and a refusal to deal with “terrorists” on the other) was his reference to the resistance as a coalition of “soap bubbles”.

The problem, as many Syrian commentators have pointed out, is that the key dramatis personae in the conflict – Iran, Russia, China, Turkey, Israel, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – all have their own geo-political agendas.

And while the bull elephants trample the grass, says Sami Ibrahim of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the welfare of the beleaguered Syrian population appears to be the least consideration. A massive humanitarian disaster is unfolding.

Apart from 4 million Syrians being internal refugees, the UNCHR estimates that there are some 750,000 refugees in neighbouring states such as Turkey and Jordan. This means that a quarter of the Syrian population has already been displaced by the conflict. To make matters worse, Syrian government forces have been widely accused of war crimes.

In the meantime, the Friends of Syria – an assembly of nations convened by the US outside the UN Security Council in the light of Chinese and Russian vetoes on sanctioning Assad – 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 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 NATO, has been cautious on direct engagement. The Security Council vetoes by Russia and China have also assured that Syria will not go the way of Libya. NATO forces will not be taking out Assad’s airforce.

However, 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 trouble Beijing too much.

Nicholas Wong, writing for 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” cohort.

In the case of Russia, it’s a re-visiting of the Cold War era to counter US influence. Russia’s relationship with Syria goes back to the 1950’s. The Syrian port of Tartus is Russia’s last naval base in the Middle East.

Iran’s alliance with Assad and Hizballah is often portrayed as a Shi’ah alliance, but it is not the honest answer. The ruling Alawite clan, a 10% minority which controls Syria via its own network and a Sunni elite, embraces an eclectic mixture of beliefs foreign to Shi’ah Islam.

The truth is that Iran’s long-standing alliance with Syria is more political than religious. It is centred on Iran’s regional interests and the balance of power, especially in Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported the Syrian resistance– but for their own reasons; the blunting of what they perceive as a “Shi’ah crescent” from Iran to the Arabian Peninsula. The Shi’ah constitutes nearly 20% of the Saudi population, and a significant percentage in the Gulf. They are the unwelcome elephants in the Arabian room.

Turkey, a Euro-Asian power, had mended its fences with Syria after decades of post-colonial tension. But skirmishes close to its southern territory saw another chilling of detente with Damascus.

The Turks have taken in over 300,000 refugees and have worked quietly, and mostly behind the scenes, with the IHH – a Turkish humanitarian organisation –successfully negotiating the release of 48 opposition-held Iranian Republican Guards for 2,000 Syrians held in Assad’s jails.

For the Israeli house, jittery about the Golan Heights and Hizballah in Lebanon, Assad has been a case of the devil you know. Israel’s recent air-raid on Syrian territory against an alleged arms convoy travelling to Lebanon was not only a pre-emptive strike at Hizballah, but Iran.

Given the impasse – the intransigence of Assad and the inability of the opposition to coalesce – the rise to prominence of Mouaz al-Khatib, a geophysicist and Islamic cleric, as an identifiable leader of the Syrian Opposition Coalition has been hugely significant. It could finally offer some hope.

A proponent of political plurality who sees dialogue not as surrender, but the lesser of two evils, he has recently met with the Foreign Ministers of Iran, Russia and the US vice-president, Joe Biden.

Syrian opposition sources told me this week that Al-Khatib’s offer to enter into a dialogue with Syrian vice-president Farouk al-Sharaa – on the condition that 160,000 political detainees be released – is not only a calling of Assad’s bluff, but could be an important step towards negotiating a transitional government.

Even Moscow is showing a subtle shift. Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev suggested, in a rare criticism of Assad, that his refusal to engage in dialogue was not good for Syria. Media activist, Ahmad Raban, said the leaders had begun to realise that the bloodshed could not continue.

“Things are really bad. Five thousand people are dying every month. We Syrians have been forgotten. The world must act as one to stop the violence,”he said.