Talk of the Syrian crisis in the past week has taken a sharp shift away from internal dynamics and towards foreign military intervention. Grabbing headlines has been the growing anxiety of Syria’s large stockpile of chemical weapons, amid threats and counter threats from regional powers of an all-out war.
Israel has been leading the chorus of concern, issuing almost daily threats of military action against Syria and Lebanon should the Syrian regime transfer its arsenal to Hezbollah, or if they fall into the hands of Qatari and Saudi-backed Islamist insurgents leading the fight against President Bashar al-Assad.
Israeli threats of intervention were countered by warnings from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who recently stated his arsenal is capable of hitting targets across Israel, as well as Syria, which said it will only use its chemical weapons in case of “external aggression”.
Iran also stepped into the fray, with a senior commander of its elite Revolutionary Guards warning that the Islamic republic would respond to an intervention in Syria by delivering “decisive blows” to “hated Arabs”, referring to America’s oil-rich Gulf Arab allies.
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The focus of the Syrian crisis has now taken the dangerous turn observers have been fearing for the past 16 months — towards the prospect of regional conflict. While chemical weapons appear to be Israel’s stated concern, it disguises Israel’s true interests in Syria, which is to take advantage of a rare opportunity to weaken its old foe. A transfer of Syria’s ballistic missiles to Hezbollah is improbable simply due to the Lebanese group — experienced in guerilla warfare — lacking the sufficient infrastructure and know-how to operate them. A senior Israeli defence official even sought to calm the rhetoric of his country’s political leaders by stating that Assad was “responsibly” safeguarding Syria’s chemical weapons. Russia has issued similiar reassurances in a bid to nullify an excuse for intervention.
What the past week of rhetoric reflects is continued manoeuvring between the two world powers, Russia and the United States, both engaged in a fight for influence in Syria. The West has all but given up hope of pursuing tougher action against Assad via the United Nations, and is now mulling alternative options to bypass the UN, Russia and China.
Israel’s increased rhetoric began over a week ago, when The New York Times reported that Pentagon officials held talks with Israeli defence officials on a possible Israeli military intervention in Syria. The discussion was followed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Israel, her first trip to Washington’s most important Middle Eastern ally since September 2010. While subsequent media reports have talked of US attempts to dissuade Israel from launching unilateral action in Syria, the sharp tone from Tel Aviv since Clinton’s visit suggests otherwise.
The threat of a war with Israel coincides with a failure by Syrian rebels to make serious gains on the ground. Rebels have failed to transfer the momentum gained from the assassination of Syria’s top four security officials into concrete results. A major rebel offensive on Damascus last week, which, according to various sources, drew thousands of fighters from the north as well as the western border region with Lebanon, was successfully repelled by the Syrian army.
Following the failure in Damascus, rebels launched a second offensive in Aleppo, which is still ongoing, with army claims that is starting to recapture key districts. The capture of border posts by Islamist groups has been met with a closure of the gates on the Iraqi and Turkish frontiers. Sources in Syria say that rebels, largely operating in rogue militias and without a central command, have managed to hold territory in fringe regions along the Lebanese, Turkish and Iraqi borders, but have failed to make significant inroads. The Syrian army continues to hold ground in the country’s principal centres, while rebels work with supportive networks along the border regions to sustain their fringe strongholds.
Abdelbasset Sida, the head of the Syrian National Council (SNC) — Syria’s external opposition — said that the regime has also allowed anti-Turk Kurdish rebels to take the reins in the country’s north east, withdrawing Syrian forces from the predominantly Kurdish area. This prompted Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to warn his country might intervene to strike Kurdish guerillas. While Assad’s forces continue to thwart advances by rebels on the ground, he is also preparing deterrent forces in the event of a military intervention from either Israel or Turkey.
Israel’s warnings of war may be a confirmation from Western powers that Syria’s insurgency is ultimately incapable of toppling Assad short of intervention. Washington is acutely aware that any Israeli intervention will undoubtedly kill the Syrian revolt and bolster support for Assad. The decision now is whether the revolt is so hopeless on its own that Israel, with US support, moves to take matters into its own hands, crippling the Syrian state, and knocking out Iran and Russia’s most important Arab ally.
The threat of Israeli intervention may also be a means by Washington to coerce Moscow to compromise on a transitional government. Russia has everything to lose and the US everything to gain from the Syrian revolt. Syria is Russia’s ally, and host to Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean. A Saudi- and Qatari-sponsored Islamist victory in Syria will inevitably weaken Moscow’s influence in the country, and ultimately, the Middle East.
A source close to the Syrian government confided that Russian officials in meetings with Syrian leaders had originally backed an “iron-fist” approach to crush the rebels. But Western and Gulf Arab sustenance of the rebels has prevented the Syrian army from total victory.Indeed, Russian support for Assad and Western backing of the rebels has created a military deadlock in Syria, with neither force capable of totally annihilating the other. Instead, Moscow and Washington are now jostling for favourable positions to aid their hand in negotiations, and ultimately produce a compromise more inclined with their interests.
Snippets of the intense negotiations have been disclosed, first with a gaff by the Russian ambassador to France, Alexander Orlov, that suggested Assad would be willing to give up power in a transitional government. In turn, the SNC had its own gaff this week when spokesperson George Sabra said the organisation — now largely a tool of the West and Gulf Arab states — would be willing to accept a regime figurehead in a unity government.
Of course, both sides withdrew their statements, but it is indicative of a possible softening in Moscow and Washington’s positions, and perhaps a sign that both are leaning on their local proxies to iron out a deal.
The Wall Street Journal cited US officials as saying that Syrian defected general Manaf Tlass might be the ideal compromise candidate to lead a transitional government, appeasing the US and Russia, and with an established reputation to win the trust of remnants of the regime and influential factions of the opposition. The report confirms information revealed to me by sources close to internal negotiations inside Syria at the time of the defection, who said Tlass would be considered for a prominent role in a transitional government, and with US backing, would win over Syria’s political opposition.
Much remains to be seen from Syria’s armed rebels, ranging from Islamists to neighbourhood watchmen, who are rightly sceptical of Tlass. The once close friend of Assad still retains important connections to the regime, and would only offer a superficial change akin to US-orchestrated transfers of power in Yemen and Libya, both of which are ruled by remnants of their former regimes. Tlass’ comments from Saudi Arabia last week show Saudi endorsement of his candidacy. As a primary backer of Islamist militants, including al-Qaeda linked militants according to Iraqi government officials, Saudi support for a transitional government is crucial.
But an Israeli attack on Syria lurks in the shadow in the event that negotiations between the world powers collapse, a card Washington is willing to wave in the face of Russian resolve. An Israeli strike on Syria would, nevertheless, have catastrophic consequences for the region and the world. It is unfeasible to think Hezbollah and Iran would not respond, as their recent warnings have illustrated, turning what began as peaceful Syrian demands for self-determination into a region-wide bloodbath beyond the control of the great powers.
Wary of this outcome, and the direct impact such a reckless act would have on oil supplies and prices, the United States and Russia would be wise to ease on their positions, pull their allies back from the brink, push for a compromise in Syria, and bring stability back to an incredibly volatile Middle East.
*Antoun Issa is a Beirut-based Australian journalist and the news and opinion editor of Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar English