Syrian Update.13.05.13

Syrian Update                                                                                                 13.05.13




Howard Adelman


After two years of hearing that the situation in Syria cannot get any worse with its protracted violence resulting in over 70,000 killed and over a million refugees, divisive identity politics, state failure and proxy warfare, the situation continues to deteriorate. Are we finally on the verge of a breakthrough on the Syrian front? Tony Burman in the Saturday Toronto Daily Star wrote a column insisting that Syria was now facing a “fateful fork in the road”. Clearly, if it is a fork in the road, it is one not only for Syria, but for Israel, Turkey, Iran, Hezbollah, Russia and the United States as well as many others. The conflict may be centred in Syria but the repercussions go far beyond Syria`s borders. There are a whole series of events that point to a dramatic shift in the Syrian situation. They include the following:

  • Israel`s recent airstrikes, its third in recent weeks after four decades of non-violence on the Syrian-Israeli front, against a military research facility at Jamraya, Syria and against stockpiles of Syrian missiles at a Republican Guard base and Iranian long-range missile storehouses evidently destined for Hezbollah that caused massive explosions in Damascus and killed dozens of elite troops near the Presidential Palace. Syria responded that the attack constituted a “declaration of war” and Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah`s leader, subsequently announced that Syria would now supply Hezbollah with “unique weapons that it had never had before” while, in response, President Obama defended and justified the Israeli attacks;
  • The proven impotence of Syria to respond militarily to the attacks in spite of Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad`s insistence that Syria would “not allow this to be repeated” and “would respond immediately to any Israeli attack” though Israel did take the precaution of deploying two of its Iron Dome missile defense batteries on its northern border and closed civilian flights to the northern Israeli city of Haifa;
  • Jordan appears to be at a dangerous precipice itself as it tries to stay out of the Syrian conflict while bearing the crushing weight of a half million Syrian refugees instigating Jordan’s representative to the United Nations, Prince Zayd bin Ra’ad, to warn the U.N. Security Council of the strains on Jordan’s economy, social services, water resources, and political stability to the breaking point in a country beset by a severe economic recession with debts comparable to Ireland and Iceland;
  • If the humanitarian and economic crisis were not severe enough, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accused Jordan of arming and training rebels and sending them back to fight the Syrian army and threatened to visit Jordan with the “fire” of the Syrian war;
  • U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, after a visit with President Putting of Russia, announcing an urgent convening of an international conference on Syria hopefully before the end of May that would preserve the “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Syria, an announcement which Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League Envoy to Syria who keeps threatening to resign, greeted as the first hopeful sign in two years;
  • Prime Minister David Cameron also meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama on the international conference on Syria to be held in Britain;
  • The announcement of the new international conference was immediately followed Israel publicly warning that Russia planned to sell US$900 million worth of S-300 missile batteries to Syria which would significantly raise the stakes in the Middle East arms race;
  • The immediately preceding escalation of the Syrian civil war by the resort of the Syrian government to the use of chemical weapons, specifically sarin, in Daraya, five miles outside of Damascus, on 25 April (and previously in Aleppo and Homs) sending a clear message from the Bashar al-Assad regime that they will resort to the ultimate military measure to save the regime and Damascus from the encroachment of the rebels, though Carla Del Ponte head of the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria suggested opposition fighters were possibly responsible for the use of the chemical weapons (there was “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof”), a suggestion quickly dismissed by the USA;
  • The escalation was also marked by a much greater and expansionary role for the Iranian expeditionary training mission using Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Ground Forces, Quds Force, intelligence services and law enforcement forces directly in the ground fight in Syria, significantly reinforcing Assad`s fighting ability on the ground and allowing Assad to reverse some of the rebel gains;
  • Within the Syrian opposition, there has been an increase in the role of Islamists, most significantly, al Nasra, so that backing the rebels may inadvertently result in backing of another Islamist regime in the region;
  • The escalation of the American sanctions against not only the Assad regime but against Iran by cutting Syria off from the diesel supplied by Venezuela`s state-oil company, PdVSA, by ensuring that the shipments cannot be insured in a similar pattern used to stop the resupply of repaired helicopters by Russia to Syria on the Merchant Vessel Alaed under the sanctions strategy of`”no insurance, no supply line” and the prevention of the use of Iraqi air space to resupply Syria;
  • At the same time, the Alawites are preparing for a possible defeat in Damascus by shoring up their strength in the Alawite coastal region by securing the ground route by retaking the strategically located Homs and ethnically cleansing the area of Sunnis as indicated by the recent slaughters in Baniyas and Baida (According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, government military forces in coordination with pro-regime militias attacked Baida, a predominantly Sunni coastal town, killing over a hundred, including many women and children);
  • The heating up of rhetoric by liberal hawks on supplying the Syrian opposition with lethal weaponry – they have now joined the conservative hawks in urging a more activist military role for the United States – with significant leaks that the Obama regime is on the verge of or on an “upward trajectory” toward providing “assistance that has a direct military purpose” or, at the very least, implementing a no-fly zone to cut of resupplies to Damascus by air as well as protect rebels on the ground from attacks by helicopter gunships;
  • The arousal of liberal doves (e.g. Zbigniew Brzesinski, Fareed Zakaria, Marc Lynch) opposed to such intervention lest the U.S. become more directly involved in conflict with Iran and, in turn, with Russia while making the situation in Syria even worse while still supporting America`s role as the largest humanitarian aid provider to Syrians ($400 million) as well as doubling its nonlethal aid to the opposition to $250 million;
  • In the meanwhile, American public opinion is not only divided but internally conflicted with a PEW poll at the end on April indicating 45 percent of respondents in favor, while 31 percent said they were opposed to taking military action against the Assad regime if it were proven that it was responsible for using chemical weapons while a New York Times/CBS poll at the same time found that 62 percent of Americans do not believe the United States has a “responsibility” to intervene in Syria;
  • The sideshow but significant efforts of the Syrian rebel Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade to ensure that they are part of the political process by abducting four more Filipino UN peacekeeping forces on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights “for their own safety“.


Given all of these developments, I expect the United States to continue to rely primarily on diplomacy, but with a greatly enhanced urgency and by reaching out to Russia,  combined with escalated economic sanctions to push towards a regime change by peaceful means and avoiding becoming directly involved militarily in Syria as the least worst option America faces.   

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