Desperate wheeling and dealing

06 Feb

The gloves are off, both inside Syria and at the United Nations Security Council: this is the overwhelming impression one gets after the latest restive weekend in the Middle East.

Though reports vary and cannot be verified (for the same reason, the United Nations stopped counting the dead last month), hundreds were allegedly killed by “indiscriminate” army shelling in the city of Homs on Friday, and dozens more in the rest of the country. The bloodshed reportedly continued on Saturday and Sunday.

Meanwhile at the United Nations Security Council, Russia and China vetoed an Arab League-sponsored resolution calling on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down on Saturday, ending a diplomatic intrigue that had gone on for days. All other 13 members of the council, including the sole Arab representative Morocco (the sponsor of the resolution), voted in favor.

Whether the two developments are related – an important question in and of itself – is closely linked to the question whether Assad’s show of force is a sign of arrogance or weakness. He may well be trying to replicate, so far on a smaller scale, the massacre his father committed in the city of Hama in 1982 – where between 10,000 and 40,000 people were killed following a Sunni Muslim rebellion.

An interpretation apologetic to the regime would point out all the signs of foreign involvement in funding the rebels and claim that trying to pass a resolution at the UN calling for Assad’s ouster finally convinced him that nothing short of his father’s brutality would help him.

Certainly, starting such a bloody offensive right before a decisive vote at the UN Security Council would count as a very defiant act, and very humiliating to the United States and the Arab League. The same step, however, could be motivated by desperation. The Russian and Chinese vetoes did not appear certain until the last moment, and Assad may well have felt serious doubts whether or not they would come through. Even now it is not clear for how long his allies will have his back. He may well be feeling that he is running out of time.

Today, a decision to commit a large-scale massacre is more fateful even than it was back in 1982. Despite the frequent blackouts and the intense media censorship, the technology available to the average person, even in Syria, makes it impossible to hide such an atrocity for long. It is a very risky course to take, and not just because of the international outcry (and possible intervention down the road): it could well alienate some of the last genuine regime supporters.

Graphic videos, reportedly taken by activists in Homs and circulated on YouTube and Twitter, show mutilated children and adult bodies; unconfirmed reports claim that at least two neighborhoods of the city were indiscriminately hit with hundreds of shells by the army. If confirmed, this would certainly radicalize the population further. Something similar happened in June 2011, when a bloody exchange in the particularly sensitive city of Hama (the site of the 1982 massacre) intensified the protests and the rebellion. [1]

Besides, though the Syrian army has so far held together, desertion rates are growing and numerous reports from different sources claim that a sense of chaos is growing throughout the country. A general who defected in November 2011 told The Daily Telegraph that “the Syrian army combat readiness I would put at 40% for hardware and 32% for personnel”, predicting that “the army will collapse during February”. [2]

As the Telegraph points out, General al-Sheikh clearly had a strong interest in manipulating his account, and “few analysts or diplomats would agree with his view, believing that the regime, though weakened, has the resilience to cling on to power for months, if not years”. Still, the Syrian army is clearly showing signs of stress, as demonstrated by the very existence of the Free Syrian Army, a network of army deserters whose number is estimated at between 10,000 and 25,000 people.

Another sign of the growing weakness of the Syrian regime is the reported use of by rebels of smuggling networks originally cultivated by Assad in Lebanon as a means of supplying Hezbollah in Lebanon. [3]

Assad’s reliance on apparent Cold-War tactics was similarly replicated by Russia and China at the UN. Sources close to the Russian analyst community suggest that a kind of grand bargain may have taken place under the table at the UN, with Russia “receiving” Syria from the United States “in exchange” for Iran.

While this information has been impossible to verify, it deserves a brief consideration, even though purely in the realm of speculation. It would resonate to an extent with the hard line taken by Moscow and with the presence of the only Russian aircraft career at the Syrian city of Tartus (the only Russian naval base in the Mediterranean).

It would also resonate with the prognoses of an imminent confrontation between the United States and Iran, which have filled the Russian blogosphere in the last months and which apparently reflect much of Russian goestrategic thinking.

Despite the loud protests, the United States may also be less unhappy than it seems. The intervention in Libya last year cost billions of dollars, and one could expect a similar intervention in Syria to cost even more. The fact that Assad apparently invested over two billion euros (US$2.52 billion) in air defenses over the last couple of years [4] further softens any appetite for overt intervention, as does his regime’s possession of thousands of missiles, some tipped with chemical weapons.

Notably, a reorientation of Assad would also redefine the regional strategic equation for Israel. While currently the Israeli government seems to be quietly rooting against Assad, it wasn’t always so. As recently as a year ago, many Israeli politicians and high-ranking security officials were just-as-quietly rooting for him, under the assumption that “the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t”.

What changed their minds was reportedly the calculation that if Assad survives, he would be completely reliant on Iranian aid, and would be essentially a conduit of Iranian policy on the Levant, much more so than before. The Syrian regime’s decision to send hundreds of Palestinians to run the Israeli border in May, alongside threats by people in Assad’s circle to start a war of Israel if pressed further by the international community, also contributed to that outcome.

If, however, Iran is taken out of the picture and Assad is left to the mercy of the Russians, this might change things for the Israelis once again. It could, theoretically, be a way for the Russians to take their cut from the dismembering of the Iranian alliance.

Yet the probability of such a scenario would depend not only on a hypothetical deal being discussed at the United Nations, but also on the Syrian regime’s ability to survive, especially in the long run. Moscow may be in a position to help the faltering Syrian economy as well, but regardless of what it says and does now, if Assad shows signs of fatal weakness, the Kremlin will dispense with him mercilessly. Rumor has it that the Russians are simultaneously negotiating with the rebels a deal to keep the port of Tartus if Assad falls.

1. Hama massacre reignites Syria, Asia Times Online, June 8, 2011.
2. Syria’s most senior defector: Assad’s army is close to collapse, The Daily Telegraph, February 5, 2012.
3. Syrian Rebels’ Supply Lines, Stratfor, February 3, 2012. 4. IDF official: Nuclear Iran will limit Israel’s ability to protect its borders, Ha’aretz, January 17, 2012.

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Posted by on February 6, 2012 in Uncategorized


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