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PV Vivekanand: Sign of foreign intervention
July 01, 2012
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The Middle East is edging towards a military conflagration over Syria. All of Syria’s neighbours have declared military alerts and mobilised their armed forces to deal with the contingencies that they expect from the conflict.

A meeting on Friday between US Secretary of State and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in St. Petersburg failed to bridge their countries’ differences over how to deal with Syria, which is in the grip of a 15-month-old rebellion. Moscow remains adamant in its rejection of any plan that would see Syrian President Bashar Al Assad removed from power and refuses to endorse foreign intervention to end the crisis.

The focus shifted to Geneva on Saturday, where UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan presented a proposal for a transitional unity government to the new Action Group on Syria. The plan calls for the government to include opposition figures and exclude figures complicit in the Syrian regime’s bloody suppression of dissent.

The Annan plan does not stand a chance. In fact, his mission was a non-starter from the word go since Assad would never accept to step down and is determined to crush the rebellion through the use of military force. Nearly 15,000 people have already died in the conflict, the bulk of them killed by Assad’s security forces and a militia made up of members from his Alawite community.

The West once described Iraq’s Saddam Hussein as one of the worst dictators the world has seen. People in this part of the world always knew that Assad could turn out to be another, given his the violent record of his father and predecessor, Hafez Al Assad, who used to physically eliminate political dissidents or lock them up for decades before releasing them only when they appeared to be nearing death.

The nature of the Syrian regime — Alawites make up only 12 per cent of the population but they occupy top layers of the government and security forces — and the former president’s slaughter of more than 20,000 Syrians who rose up against him in the early 1980s are two other factors behind the early conviction that the rulers of Damascus will never leave power. They will fight to the end.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has thrown his weight behind the Assad regime. He is helped by China in his determined stand against effective UN Security Council to pressure Damascus to end its carnage of its people.

Putin’s support for Assad is seen linked to fears of the Arab Spring’s “Islamist wave” eventually crossing into Russia and Moscow’s anxiety to avoid setting a precedent where foreign powers decide who should rule a country. Russia has strong military ties with Syria and maintains its only naval facility outside its territory at the Syrian port of Tartus in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Factored into the effort to end the bloodshed in Syria is the international bid to force Iran to abandon its high-level nuclear enrichment programme and vice-versa. Tehran supports the Syrian regime to the hilt and supplies weapons and other forms of assistance to help fight off the challenge that Damascus faces.

Iran continues to defy calls for a halt to its nuclear enrichment programme and insists on its right to develop atomic energy for peaceful purposes. There is no evidence that Iran is pursuing a clandestine programme to build nuclear weapons, but it is keeping the world guessing about its nuclear intentions. That might indeed be a calculated deception.

Iran might not be anywhere near a credible programme to build nuclear weapons, but it would serve Tehran’s interests to let the world believe otherwise. However, Tehran has taken its brinkmanship too far and invited sweeping international sanctions that are affecting the country’s oil-based economy.

At the same time, the Iranian leadership could not be expected to succumb to international pressure and isolation and agree to dismantle its high-level nuclear enrichment. It is highly unlikely that the ongoing negotiation between Iran and P5+1 powers — five UN Security Council veto-wielders plus Germany — will ever produce a solution that will satisfy the US and its allies, particularly Israel, which has not ruled out unilateral military action to cripple the Iranian nuclear programme.

The latest issue of Aviation Week says that the administration of US President Barack Obama considers 2013 as “the likely window for a bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear and missile facilities. It could be earlier, timed to use the chaos of the Syrian government’s fall to disguise such an attack…”

Aviation Week argues that Iran’s refusal to shut down its uranium-enrichment programme “will not buy it much more time…”

“The tools for such an attack are all operational” and the US suspects that Iran has already conducted its first nuclear test in North Korea, says the magazine.

As things stand now, Tehran will never come around to accept the demand that it call off its nuclear enrichment programme. The US and allies are perfectly aware of it, but want to play it safe. And hence the attention is on Syria with a view to ousting the Assad regime and depriving Tehran of its strongest ally in the Arab World.

Washington seems to believe that Iran will be more amenable to pressure if the Syrian regime is dislodged. A Syrian departure from the Iranian camp will lead to the loss of the central part of “the Shiite crescent” that King Abdullah II of Jordan predicted after the US invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003.

If the Aviation Week report reflects the real thinking in Washington, then we are nowhere near a solution to the crisis in Syria.

However, military movements in recent weeks indicate that foreign intervention could be forthcoming.

Turkey and Syria have deployed military tanks, anti-aircraft guns and missiles to their border. Syrian rebel fighters are getting heavier armour from the US and its allies and are said to be backed by European special forces operating in Syrian territory and near the Turkish border.

With no possibility of UN-authorised action, the hands of the US-led West and its allies could indeed be forced.

The only way to avert a Turkish-led military operation backed by the US and its allies is an agreement between Washington and Moscow on a plan to remove Assad from power. Such an accord seems to have all but disappeared from the horizon.

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