The roving eye
THAT ROCKY ROAD TO DAMASCUS
By Pepe Escobar
Asia Times Online
November 24, 2011
The trillion-dollar question in the "Arab Winter" is who will blink first in the West's screenplay of slouching towards Tehran via Damascus.
As they examine the regional chessboard and the formidable array of forces aligned against them, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the military dictatorship of the mullahtariat in Tehran must face, simultaneously, superpower Washington, bomb-happy North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members, nuclear power Israel, all Sunni Arab absolute monarchies, and even Sunni-majority, secular Turkey.
Meanwhile, on their side, the Islamic Republic can only count on Moscow. Not as bad a hand as it may seem.
Syria is Iran's undisputed key ally in the Arab world -- while Russia, alongside China, are the key geopolitical allies. China, for the moment, is making it clear that any solution for Syria must be negotiated.
Russia's one and only naval base in the Mediterranean is at the Syrian port of Tartus. Not by accident, Russia has installed its S-300 air defense system -- one of the best all-altitude surface-to-air missile systems in the world, comparable to the American Patriot -- in Tartus. The update to the even more sophisticated S-400 system is imminent.
From Moscow's - as well as Tehran's -- perspective, regime change in Damascus is a no-no. It will mean virtual expulsion of the Russian and Iranian navies from the Mediterranean.
Yet key lateral moves by the West are already on. Diplomats in Brussels confirmed to Asia Times Online that the former Libyan "rebels" -- now trying to come up with a credible government -- have already given the go-ahead for NATO to build a sprawling military base in Cyrenaica.
NATO has no final say in such matters. This is decided by the boss -- the Pentagon -- interested in emboldening Africom in coordination with NATO. As many as 20,000 boots are expected to be deployed on the ground in Libya -- at least 12,000 of them Europeans. They will be responsible for Libya's "internal security", but also be on alert for possible, further military campaigns targeted at -- who else -- Syria and Iran.
BRING THOSE SHI'ITES DOWN
As much as the latest "coalition of the willing" -- which by the way repeats the Libya model -- is against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, it also represents a Christian/Sunni war against Shi'ites, be they the Alawite minority in Syria or the Shi'ite majorities in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.
This is part and parcel of the "strategic opportunity" identified by the powerful Israel lobby in Washington; if we strike against the Damascus-Tehran link, we deal a mortal blow to Hezbollah in Lebanon. That, ideologues believe, can now be sold to world public opinion under the cover of the former Arab Spring -- now "Arab Winter" after a metamorphosis, before "Arab Summer", into the Arab counter-revolution.
As Tehran sees it, what's really going on regarding Syria is a "humanitarian" cover for a complex anti-Shi'ite and anti-Iran operation.
The road map is already clear. A fractious, unrepresentative Syrian National Council -- Libya-style -- is already in place. Same for a heavily armed Sunni "insurgency" crisscrossing the borders in Lebanon and Turkey. Sanctions are already essentially hurting the Syrian middle class. A relentless, international campaign of vilification of the Assad regime has been deployed. And psy ops abound, with the aim of seducing sections of the Syrian army to defect (it's not working).
A report by a Qatar-based researcher for the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) even comes close to admitting that the self-described "Free Syria Army" is basically a bunch of hardcore Islamists, plus a few genuine army defectors, but mostly radicalized Muslim Brotherhood bought, paid for, and weaponized by the U.S., Israel, the Gulf monarchies, and Turkey.[Note 1: See "Revolutionary road: Among the Syrian opposition." (#2 below; Escobar had to do a lot of reading between the lines to reach these conclusions. --J.O.M.)] There's nothing "pro-democracy" about this lot -- as incessantly sold by Western corporate and Saudi-owned media.
As for the National Council, based in Washington and London and sprinkled with the usual dodgy exiles, its program calls for governing Syria alongside the same military that has been --à la the Egyptian military junta -- shooting civilian protesters. Makes one think that the only sensible solution would be for the people in Syria to topple the police state Assad regime, while being vehemently against the dodgy Syrian National Council.
THIS YEAR'S MODEL (DICTATOR)
Then there's the usually misguided and misinformed West, which believes that the Arab League -- now no more than a puppet of U.S. foreign policy -- is siding with the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people. Angry Arab blogger As'ad Abu Khalil is correct when he says that after the fall of president Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, "the League is now an extension of the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC]."
The GCC is in fact the Gulf Counter-revolution Club. Their favorite sport is to privilege "model" dictators -- starting with themselves, but also including Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen and the little kings of Jordan and Morocco, who will be annexed to the GCC because they wish they were in the Persian Gulf (geography dictates they aren't). On the other hand, the GCC abhors "bad" dictators -- the snuffed-out Muammar Gaddafi and Assad, who not by accident are from secular republics.
The House of Saud, Jordan, and rising Qatar are more than comfortable doing the U.S.'s and Israel's bidding. The House of Saud -- the GCC's top dog -- invaded Bahrain with 1,500 troops to smash pro-democracy protests very much like the ones in Egypt and Syria. The House of Saud helped the ruling, Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty in 70% Shi'ite Bahrain to conduct widespread torture; Bahrainis confirm that everyone tortured was forced to confess direct links with "evil" Tehran.
In Egypt, the House of Saud supported Mubarak even after he was deposed. Now it supports -- with over US$4 billion so far -- a military junta that basically wants to keep power, unchecked, over a "democratic" facade.
The House of Saud couldn't possibly coexist with a successful, democratic Egypt. Anyone believing the House of Saud's claim to defend human rights and democracy in the Middle East should check into an asylum.
The Arab League -- also a House of Saud extension -- gave a green card to NATO to bomb a member state. It suspended Syria on November 12 -- as it had done with Libya on February 22 -- because, unlike in Libya, U.S., and European designs in the United Nations Security Council were duly vetoed by Russia and China.
Welcome to a "new" Arab League where if you don't prostrate in front of the GCC altar, you're condemned to regime change.
Worshipping the GCC can't compare to worshipping the Pentagon and NATO. Jordan and Morocco are members of NATO's Mediterranean dialogue, and Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are members of NATO's Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. In addition, Jordan and the UAE are the only Arabic Troop Contributing Nations for NATO in Afghanistan.
Ivo Daalder, the Obama administration's ambassador to NATO, has already ordered Libya to enter the Mediterranean Dialogue, alongside Morocco, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania, and Israel. And early this month he told the Atlantic Council what's needed for an attack on Syria; an "urgent necessity" (such as giving the impression Assad is going to raze Homs to the ground); "regional support" (that will come in a flash from the GCC/Arab League); and a U.N. mandate (it won't happen, as Russia and China had made it clear).
So one may expect exactly that from the "coalition of the willing"; some black ops blamed on the Assad regime; immediate support from GCC/Arab League; and probably unilateral action, because via the UN is a no-no.
THE GREATER MIDDLE EAST DREAM
No wonder some sound minds in Damascus, watching the tea leaves, decided to take some action. Damascus did send secret couriers to sound out Washington's mood. The price to be left alone; to cut all ties with Tehran, for good. The Assad regime was left wondering what would they get in return.
The Alawites, roughly 12% of the population and members of the ruling elite, won't desert the Assad regime. Christians and Druze expect only the worst from a possible, hardcore, Muslim Brotherhood-dominated new order. Same for a crucial neighbor, the Nuri al-Maliki government in Baghdad.
Russia knows that if the current Libyan model is reproduced in Syria -- and with Lebanon already under a de facto NATO blockade -- the Mediterranean will indeed become that dream, a NATO lake, which is code for total U.S. control.
Moscow also sees that in the U.S.-conceived Greater Middle East -- and talk about "great," spanning from Mauritania to Kazakhstan -- the only countries that are not linked with NATO through myriad "partnerships" are, apart from Syria: Lebanon, Eritrea, Sudan, and Iran.
As for the Pentagon, the name of the game is "repositioning." As in if you leave Iraq you go somewhere else in the "arc of instability," preferably the Gulf. There are 40,000 U.S. troops already in the Gulf -- 23,000 of them in Kuwait. A secret army for the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency is being trained by former Blackwater, "repositioned" as Xe, in the UAE. A NATO of the Gulf is being born. NATOGCC, anyone?
When the U.S. neo-conservatives ruled the universe -- that was only a few years ago -- the motto was "Real men go to Tehran." An update is in order. Call it "Real men go to Tehran via Damascus only if they have the balls to stare down Moscow."
Note 1. See "Revolutionary road: Among the Syrian opposition." (#2 below)
--Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His new book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).
REVOLUTIONARY ROAD: AMONG THE SYRIAN OPPOSITION
By Emile Hokayem
International Institute for Strategic Studies
November 15, 2011
After meeting with Assad loyalists and opponents in Lebanon last week, it is clear that the Syrian uprising’s third phase will be not only more violent but could be a decisive one. Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders told me that they are gearing up for direct confrontation in coming months with the forces loyal to President Assad, regardless of whether they have the support of a foreign intervention.
They say defections are increasing, and a FSA officer boasted to me that men at arms number 17,000 across the country (most go north to the Turkish border, while an estimated 500 are coalescing at the border with Lebanon). Until regional conditions improve to their benefit, FSA commanders told me they are advising sympathisers to delay their defection.
Asked about his level of confidence in the Syrian National Council (SNC), the opposition’s umbrella group, a senior FSA officer said there were contacts but also disagreements because SNC members didn’t understand security matters. He also said that the FSA had to force the SNC to harden its position by threatening to form and announce an independent Syrian Military Council.
The coming confrontation will mark the third phase of the Syrian conflict since the initial uprisings in Damascus and Deraa. Despite the heavy-handed security response of the regime, the flames of insurrection were fanned across Syria in the months after the uprisings. Revolts in Hama, Homs, Idlib, Bu Kamal, Deir Ez-Zor, and many other regions, however, ended with a tactical victory for the regime as it managed to prevent mass insurrection in Aleppo and Damascus and foiled the opposition’s ambition to use Ramadan as a turning point.
The third phase started with the (arguably shaky) consolidation of the opposition, increasing military defections, the Arab League’s failed mediation attempts followed by its suspension of Syria’s membership, a hardening of Turkey’s position, and growing calls for (still-undefined) international intervention, but also growing economic pain for the regime. At the same time, attempts to convince key constituencies to drop Assad through signaling and sanctions have failed to deliver quick results. The business élites and Sunni urban class of Damascus and Aleppo have not yet deserted the regime. And, arguably thanks to regime manipulation, the uprising is increasingly acquiring a sectarian coloring.
My conversations with Syrians in Beirut and northern Lebanon left me with the sense that the initial revolutionary euphoria has given way to a darker mood. No side can afford to back down anymore. Anti-regime Syrians told me they have gone too far to stop, and that the pain and death that would inevitably follow would massively outweigh the cost of persisting. In any case, they argue that the regime has suffered deadly blows to its internal legitimacy, lost any Arab cover, cannot resurrect an economy that may shrink by as much as 8% -- and that, now more than ever, victory is in reach. They also exude frustration and anger at attempts to reason with Assad, writing him and his clique off as butchers and autocrats.
Pro-regime Syrians display a typical mix of intransigence and complacency. They are convinced that they face criminal and Gulf-backed Salafi groups, that Syria is the victim of a conspiracy because of its self-proclaimed place as the heart of Arabism, that Turkey has expansionist ambitions of Islamist nature (“We exposed the length of Erdogan’s beard,” an Aleppo businessman told me), that Bashar Al-Assad is serious about reforms anyway, and that the security forces are being bloodied and yet still winning. Asked how they envision tomorrow’s Syria, they talk about a resurgent Syria that will defeat all its enemies and become a fortress against Western aggression and Islamist gains.
The demand I invariably heard from anti-Assad Syrian activists in Beirut and refugees and defectors in Lebanon’s north was for an internationally imposed no-fly zone over parts or all of Syria to protect civilians. They however are less clear about important details: Who should lead it? How broad should be its mandate? How to avoid a regional escalation? How to overcome the opposition of regional and international powers?
I told Syrian activists that there was no readiness or willingness in the West for such an operation despite the relative success in Libya. NATO’s secretary general and other senior Western officials have resisted this idea. I also pointed to the testimony last week of Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East affairs, who counselled against a resort to violence. Feltman has a point: entering active resistance mode would recast the narrative from revolution to civil war, give an advantage to a regime all too willing to use force, and worry or alienate fence-sitters and minorities.
The members of the FSA I met or talked to make another case: while they certainly care about the protection of civilians, they argue that only when Assad’s air dominance is eroded can major units defect with all their gear and heavy weaponry and confront the regime’s hardcore loyalists. They say it makes no sense for these would-be defectors to flee with mechanized assets, transport vehicles, and command-and-control equipment if this makes them more visible and more vulnerable from the air. They add that a no-fly zone would help them capture and occupy barracks, government buildings, roads, and other infrastructure, which they have refrained from doing so until now. To be sure, this military rationale does not align with the logic of humanitarian intervention under the responsibility to protect doctrine that was invoked in Libya.
Asked to describe current FSA activities inside Syria, a senior FSA commander listed:
- protecting demonstrations;
- facilitating the movement of defectors;
- identifying regime informants;
- securing exit routes and supply lines;
- stocking weaponry and ammunition;
- linking and organizing defectors inside Syria.
--Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security at IISS-Middle East, is on research tour through the Middle East. Next week he will look at the struggle for control of Syria from Turkey.