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Dr Musa A Keilani: Not peace, exercising war
June 27, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

It was known that US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who met in Mexico recently, would agree to disagree over international action to stop the 16-month-old bloodbath in Syria and bring about a political solution to the crisis. What was indeed surprising was an Iranian announcement on the same day that Russia, China and Iran are planning a joint military exercise in Syria.

Details of the exercise or the contribution of the three countries — and that of Syria itself — have not been released, but it is being called “the biggest of its kind ever staged in the Middle East” with 90,000 personnel, 400 airplanes and 900 tanks taking part.

China has reportedly sought Egyptian permission for 12 naval ships to pass through the Suez Canal in late June heading for the Russian naval base in the Syrian port of Tartous.

Russian naval vessels with soldiers on board are already heading for Tartous.

Iran, which has thrown its weight behind its staunchest Arab ally Syria, has not announced how many vessels and soldiers it will offer to the exercise, which will mark the first time that Russia and China would be introducing such a substantial military strength to the Middle East.

There could only be one conclusion from the exercise: Russia and China are moving to pre-empt foreign military intervention against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Not to be outdone in the effort to save the Syrian regime, Iran is chipping in.

Reports in the US media have spoken of a plan by Obama to stage a “limited offensive” Syria that could involve an enforcement of a no-fly zone and air strikes that would weaken the deeply trenched Alawite Officers in Syrian military. The operation will also see the Syrian opposition forces getting heavier weapons.

Apparently, the US hopes that the combined impact of grounding of Syrian warplanes and helicopters and of the advances that the rebel forces could make on the ground would prompt Syrian military officers to realise their vulnerability defect or stage a coup against Assad. But that bet is off now because the planned large-scale Russian and Chinese presence in Syria will be a deterrent against the US plan.

The question that is unanswered yet is whether Russia and China will fight a war with the US-led West to save the Syrian regime. Of course, Iran is ready to do so.

The introduction of the Russian, Chinese and Iranian military into the conflict on whatever pretext will change the rules of the game. The planned joint military exercise is a clear declaration that Russia and China are determined to enforce their resolve not to allow the US and allies to stage military operations to end the Syrian regime’s violent crackdown against dissent.

It also signals the end of the UN effort led by former secretary-general Kofi Annan to broker a peaceful transition of power in Syria. Annan’s initiative, which was backed by the Arab League, never stood a chance because the Assad regime had never been expected to accept any transition of power and that Damascus was only playing the UN along, stalling for time while stepping up its brutal suppression of its people. The Syrian opposition had rejected it at the very outset and that meant that the plan would remain on paper and the international community would go along with it since that was the only initiative in town.

Moscow knew this and Beijing knew this and hence their insistence that Annan should continue his efforts.

With Russia and China opposing effective UN action, the question of securing a UN authorisation for sanctions, let alone military action, is out of question.

It is unclear as yet what could follow the Russian-Chinese-Iranian-Syrian military exercise. It is naive to believe that the foreign forces would be withdrawn immediately after the exercises — whenever they are held — are over because of the reported US-planned “limited offensive.” If the foreign forces stay put in Syria, then it will allow the regime to crank up its military machine and intensify its assaults on rebellious regions with impunity against diplomatic and military pressure.

Several scenarios are being predicted for Syria. The most predicted scenario is that the country could degenerate into an Afghan-style or Balkan-style situation. On the one side, there will be the US, its Western allies and most of the Arab states as well as the Syrian opposition. On the other side will be Russia, China and Iran as well as the Syrian regime. Lebanon’s Hizbollah, which sees an existential threat for itself if the Syrian regime falls, could be expected to make its own contribution.

The Assad regime has survived so far because it could count on the support of significant groups — some say up to 40 per cent — of its population and disagreements among opposition groups to come up with a collective action plan.

The involvement of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as a leading force in the rebellion has induced many thousands of Syrians from all shades of opinions, to back the regime because they fear that the Brotherhood could seize power and “Islamise” the country.

A wild card in the equation is Al Qaeda, whose overt presence among the rebel ranks has been a dissuading factor for the US and allies not to give weapons to the opposition. The reluctance seems to have been addressed, with the Muslim Brotherhood being given the task of ensuring that the weapons reach the right people. However, the possibility could not be overlooked that there could be Al Qaeda agents among the Muslim Brotherhood members.

Al Qaeda’s agenda in Syria is murky. The regime had maintained an iron grip on security despite the occasional explosions and suicide bombings attributed to Al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda agents — many of them have reportedly crossed in Syria from Iraq — would find it easy to recruit young Syrians who have lost their families and relatives in the regime’s crackdown. They could be persuaded to take up the opportunity to wage a protracted war in pursuit of traditional Arab honour through revenge.

The writing is on the wall — it has been there since day one: What the region faces is a long lasting conflict with more blood being shed, no one emerging as winner and the international community unable to uphold its own principles or human rights charters.

The author, a former Jordanian ambassador, is the
chief editor of  Al Urdun weekly in Amman

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