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    Middle East
     Jun 28, 2012


Assad forces world powers to think again
By Victor Kotsev

Just as he appointed yet another cabinet, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday declared on state television that his country was "in a real state of war from all angles". This was a change of rhetoric by Assad, who until recently insisted that he was only fighting gangs of "terrorists" sponsored from abroad. "When we are in a war, all policies and all sides and all sectors need to be directed at winning this war," he added.

The war is very real, although speculations of imminent North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) involvement seem premature and exaggerated. Tuesday was one of the bloodiest days in the 15-month rebellion, with extraordinarily heavy fighting reaching the capital. Unconfirmed reports have it that a major Republican Guard compound guarding in the presidential palace came under sustained assault, and opposition groups claimed that at least

 

115 people were killed in the country during that day only. Elsewhere, the Syrian regime has reportedly lost effective control over large swathes of territory.

The international front, too, is heated, and the tensions are escalating. After losing a modernized Phantom F-4 military reconnaissance jet last week, shot down by the Syrians, Turkey warned on Tuesday that it would attack any Syrian forces approaching its border, and sent reinforcements there. This is a symbolic step, and Ankara backed away from threats to retaliate militarily for the incident - or to involve NATO under Article 5 (common defense) of the Washington Treaty - but it is nevertheless significant. NATO's declaration of support Tuesday also strengthened Turkey's hand.

Importantly, the Syrian rebels are now in a position, at least theoretically, to draw Turkey into their clashes with the pro-regime Syrian army, by provoking the latter to chase them closer to the northern border. In practice, it is less clear whether this crisis would truly work in their favor: one, because it is not certain that Ankara will follow through with its threats, and two, because the rhetoric might backfire in unexpected ways. As the US-based intelligence analysis organization Stratfor pointed out in a recent report, the Turkish threat to fire on any Syrian forces near the border may also discourage potential defectors from approaching.

There is a lot more to the intrigue than meets the eye. Despite Turkey's protests that the downed jet was unarmed, was conducting a training exercise, and only strayed into Syrian air space "briefly" (the Turks also claimed that the plane was shot down in international air space), Ankara is far from an innocent bystander in the Syrian crisis. Turkey has supported the rebels for over a year, offering them bases on its territory, facilitating high-level defections, and even repeatedly threatening to send its military to establish buffer zones where the rebels could organize undisturbed by the army. In fact, the most recent ultimatum against Syrian forces nearing the border seems very much an extension of these threats, and a first step leading to the creation of such a buffer zone down the road.

Whether or not the Turkish jet was flying low over Syrian territory, as Damascus claimed (the Syrians insist that the missile they used to shoot it down had a range of less than two miles, and that there was a second plane involved as well), the incident appeared to serve an important purpose for Assad. Over the last month, as the foreign-backed rebels acquired lethal anti-tank missiles that have started to claim an ever-greater toll on the Syrian forces, the government has started to rely increasingly on helicopters and planes in order to project power. This development boosted calls at the United Nations Security Council to establish a no-fly zone over Syria, after the example of Libya last year, and also put additional strain on the Syrian air force.

A spike of defections ensued, including a Syrian military pilot, Colonel Hassan Hammadeh, who allegedly aborted a bombing mission and flew his Russian-made Mig-21 jet into Jordan last week. Other high-ranking pilots (including generals) followed by land, have been bringing their families into Turkey, and for a moment the situation in Syria began to resemble closely the one in Libya right before the Western-led intervention there started last year (among other developments back then, a number of pilots and top regime officials defected en masse).

According to a Daily Telegraph report last Friday, a number of high-ranking Syrian officials were planning their "exit strategies". A Reuters report dated June 26, nevertheless, contradicted this information, citing US intelligence officials who claimed that Assad's inner circle had remained cohesive. It should be noted, furthermore, that the Syrian air force is one of the branches of the military most loyal to Assad, and a wave of defections there could be a serious threat to his rule.

Shooting down the Turkish jet, therefore, conveyed a message to both Assad's enemies and his own hesitant soldiers: that his regime is strong and defiant, and will not go down as easily as Libya's regime did. Aided by the Russian anti-air missiles which it received over the last year (one of which was most likely used against the Phantom), Syria would be able, and would not hesitate to extract a heavy price for any violation of its territorial sovereignty.

For its part, speculation that the Syrians had thought the Turkish plane was one of their own aircraft seeking to defect raises another point: that deserters could not expect any mercy.

As a side note, an international military campaign against a Third-World country, even one conducted on alleged humanitarian grounds, often serves an additional purpose of displaying the qualities of the weapons each of the major world powers is offering to sell to others. Thus, the campaign against Libya last year also resembled an air show that allowed the French Rafale jets to symbolically compete against the British Typhoons and the different aircraft in the American inventory. [1] Back then, they all performed wonderfully, faced with the mediocre Libyan air defenses; now, however, there are new Russian gadgets in display (whose value just went up following the shooting down of the Phantom), and the major arms exporters would think twice before exposing their reputation to danger.

Following the downing, there seems to be less talk of a no-fly zone, even though a few days is hardly enough time to gauge whether there is a substantial shift in this line of rhetoric. In any case, the discussions at NATO of Syria as a threat to Turkey show that the West now takes Syria more seriously than before.

A subtle though important shift in logic is taking place: while earlier talk of a no-fly zone and military intervention appeared to presume that the Syrian regime was about to crumble (the major threat was thought to be directed at its own people, while the violence could destabilize the region indirectly), the current debates suggest that Syria is strong enough to threaten a major NATO member in conventional ways. These two arguments are not completely irreconcilable - for example, one could point out that Assad's increasing military belligerence, both at home and abroad, is a sign of his political decline - but they diverge significantly, and it is important to watch carefully how the rhetoric evolves.

Assad has additional trumps up his sleeve. According to reports in the Turkish press, for example, the reinforcements sent to the Syrian border over the last days had to guard themselves carefully against Kurdish guerrilla attacks. The Syrian regime has a strong clout among the Kurdish militants in Turkey, and the fact that heavily armored convoys intended to project force across the border can hardly travel safely even through their own territory shows how volatile the situation is for Ankara and the West. The same methods used to subvert Assad's rule from the inside can be used in reverse as well.

All this is not to say that the pressure on Assad has lessened, or that his chances of holding on to power in the long run have improved significantly. A direct foreign intervention at present is unlikely (more so after the Phantom incident), but as the civil war in the country escalates and the rebels continue to bleed the minority-backed regime, the strategic calculus may change in the future.

Also, given that the Syrian crisis is inextricably linked to the standoff between Iran and the West, surprises are possible. If the Assad regime crumbles, this would weaken Iran greatly, and could placate temporarily disgruntled American allies (such as Israel and Saudi Arabia) which might otherwise seek to draw Washington into a war with Tehran. Since the costs of a war in Iran will be even greater than those of a war in Syria, the Americans and the Europeans might consider the idea.

In this line of thought, the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Israel on Monday - his first visit to the Middle East since reassuming office last month - has fueled much speculation. Most analysts have it that the Russian and Israeli position diverge greatly on Syria, and point out that Russia supports the Syrian regime while Israel is indirectly (according to some reports also directly, if secretly) siding with the rebels.

Some, however, disagree, or at least qualify this analysis. According to another recent Stratfor report, for example,
Putin's visit is intended to make the United States nervous and to try to lay the groundwork for shifts in Israel's relation to Russia that could pay off in the long run. The Israelis, however, do have things they need from Putin. They cannot control regime change in Syria, but to some extent Russia can. And here Israeli and Russian interests coincide. Israel would tolerate the survival of the al Assad regime as long as Syria does not become an Iranian satellite.

Russia could counterbalance Iran if al Assad's regime survived. If, on the other hand, his regime fell, Israel and Russia both have an interest in a moderate Sunni regime. [2]
One thing that the Israelis would need badly from Putin, whichever way the Syrian crisis escalates, is his help in preventing Assad from firing missiles at Israel. In the past - for example, in the wake of the 2007 Israeli strike against a Syrian nuclear reactor - Turkey served as a mediator, but now Ankara has compromised its role with both Israelis and Syrians.

The threat is significant, regardless of Israel's behavior vis-a-vis Assad. Syrian officials have threatened to "set the region aflame," if pushed to the brink, and this is often interpreted in the same vein as Saddam Hussein's missile attacks on Israel during the First Gulf War. Back then, the former Iraqi dictator calculated that attacking Israel would break Arab consensus against him, and by most accounts, he came close to succeeding (only the fact that the US exerted massive pressure on Israel not to respond saved the day).

Today, Assad finds himself in a broadly similar situation as Hussein, and Israel is watching nervously on the sidelines.

In all, while a foreign intervention in Syria does not appear imminent, the civil war there is escalating, the international intrigue is becoming ever more convoluted, and all sides involved are preparing feverishly for any contingency. To echo a cliche, a long and hot summer is expected in the region.

Note:
1. SPECIAL REPORT - How Libya is a showcase in the new arms race, Reuters, April 4, 2011
2. Putin's Visit and Israeli-Russian Relations, Stratfor, June 26, 2012


Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)





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