Syria, the end game

Drawing by Niyaz Karim

Drawing by Niyaz Karim

The crucial question is not whether the Assad regime will hold for a few weeks or months, but how it will impact the region and the world if the Assad regime goes or is saved.

Syria is the biggest test of the US-led West-supported powers today that will decide who won and who lost in the regional power matrix. The Bashir Hafez al-Assad regime of Syria may well be facing the existential question, but the real stakes are much beyond its longevity or lack of it. The crucial question is not whether the Assad regime will hold for a few weeks or months, but how it will impact the region and the world if the Assad regime goes or is saved.


Russia and China have pitched in very strongly in favor of the Assad regime and have thrice vetoed United Nations Security Council resolutions moved by the West and the Arab world. These resolutions, if not vetoed, would surely have hastened Assad’s fall and would have been a repeat of the Libyan drama. Through these resolutions the Western community, backed by several important Arab states, wanted to put more pressure on the Assad regime; ostensibly to put an end to the 17-month-long bloodshed in Syria. The United Nations has put the death toll in the Syrian popular uprising against the Assad regime at 17,000 thus far, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said that more than 23,000 people have been killed.


The Western world’s real designs are steeped in power politics and driven by long-term strategic objectives in the region. On the larger canvass, the Syrian issue has pitted the US-led West and their Arab allies against Russia and China, the latter having substantial politico-strategic and business interests in Syria. US President Barack Obama has taken a strident approach vis a vis Syria and indications emanating from Washington are that the US would not be averse to bringing the military option on its front burner.


Russian mistake in Libya


Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, however, has matched the Western rhetoric word-for-word and made it clear that a military option against the Assad regime would not be permissible. Lavrov has described as “unrealistic” the Western community’s demand for Assad’s resignation as a precondition for a political settlement, while contending that Russia was not backing any regime or any individuals in Syria. Lavrov said that the US-led West may have a reason to use the military option against Assad if his regime were to launch chemical warfare against his opponents. It is a clever statement from Lavrov as he knows that Assad would not even think of taking such a suicidal step.


Russia has stiffly opposed use of outside force for ending the Syrian conflict. Russia seems to be repentant for caving in to the Western pressure in the Libyan crisis and giving its de facto approval to a no-fly-zone over Libya last year. The Russian acquiescence paved the way for NATO launching air strikes against government troops. The end-game began in Libya when NATO’s air strikes, led by France, began shortly after the UN Security Council passed a resolution on March 17, 2012 setting up a no-fly zone in the airspace of Libya. As a result, the Arab world’s longest ruling dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who ruled Libya since he seized power in a 1969 coup, met a bloody end on October 20, 2011.


The death of Gaddafi hasn’t changed the lot of common Libyans much. Clearly, Russia is realizing its miscalculation over Libya and does not want to repeat the mistake vis a vis Syria that would inevitably rob Moscow of its last remaining Soviet-era ally in the Middle East.


The Riyadh, Tehran factors


To the uninitiated, the ongoing crisis in Syria can be explained as an extension of a decades-old rivalry between a Sunni Saudi Arabia and a Shia Iran with both Riyadh and Tehran having immense diplomatic and strategic stakes in Damascus. In other words, after the fall of the Ba’thist regime in Iraq, Syria is the latest battleground for Shia-Sunni bloody game for supremacy.


The chess game being played over Syria, therefore, has to be understood from the vastly different perspectives of these two major players, Saudi Arabia and Iran. From Riyadh’s perspective, the mission is two-fold: (i) use Libya-type diplomatic and military tactics to topple the Assad regime to give a body blow to Iran and then move on to defang Iran militarily and decapitate its nuclear program; (ii) insulate the Sunni world by firewalling key Sunni states in the region, including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-member countries.


From Tehran’s viewpoint, Syria is an important spoke in the Iranian strategic wheel. Syria provides Iran the much-needed pan-Arabism concept because Syria is a predominantly Sunni country with Sunnis being 74 % of its population, while the Shias are less than five per cent. Syria is ferociously anti-US and anti-Israel, one of the few prominent Arab states left today to be against Washington. This suits Iran perfectly. Russia and China – both of whom have considerable presence in Syrian diplomatic and business space - too are wary of the US and seldom toe the American line. But the interest of the Russians and the Chinese in Syria are much different from the Iranian interest in Damascus.


The Iranian stakes in Syria are deeply strategic. It is not for nothing that Iran has, for years, loosened its purse strings to Syria and been giving arming Syria to the teeth with military hardware and even surveillance equipment. But all this is being done by Iran for the Assad regime. In case the Assad regime is ousted, which is not an unlikely scenario, Iran would be found guilty of having put all its eggs in one basket. The thought must have crossed the minds of the Iranian strategic establishment too. Iran would be having Plan B ready to stay engaged with a post-Assad Syria.


Though Iran has stepped up its presence in Syria to give an impression that it is helping the people of Syria, not just the Assad government,the Americans are not fooled.  This is borne out by the on-record statement of US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta who said, “We areseeing a growing presence by Iran.” The Americans have openly said that Iran has been raising pro-Assad regime militias to fight therebels.

In the recent past Iran has been laying stress on its nuclear program because of geo-political reasons and the pattern of expenditure on arms by Iran on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and GCC on the other. From 1990 to 2004, Iran was head and shoulders above its regionalrivals in terms of arms expenditure. In this period, Iran’s defense expenditure rose by over 16 per cent, while that of Saudi Arabia andthe GCC moved from – 4 per cent to 8 per cent. The trend has reversed since 2004-05 as Saudi Arabia and GCC, buoyed by spike in oil prices,increased their annual defense expenditure from one per cent to 28.2 per cent and from 1.6 per cent to 18.1 per cent respectively. Incontrast, a sanctions-hit Iran had to take a hit in its expenditure on defense and it declined by –4.9 per cent in this period. In thisscenario, developing a nuclear weapon is the game changer for Iran and that too at much lower cost.

The ongoing Syria crisis may give Iran a God-send opportunity to give its nuclear program a vital push. Iran may coax Syria to attackIsrael. Such a scenario would help both Iran and the Assad regime. For the besieged, beleaguered Assad such a move would divert attention ofhis people as well as the lead players. 

For this Iran needs time as its nuclear program, according to available reports, hasn’t reached the sewing-up-the-last-button stage.The Assad regime is keeping Iranian hopes alive. President Assad also knows that he is no Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who ruled Libya for overfour decades but died a disgraceful, and possibly torturous, death in October 2011 as the Arab Spring stormed Libya. Unlike Libya, Syria isa frontline Arab state which has vociferous support from major regional power like Iran, a small but not insignificant state likeLebanon and sympathizers in Iraq and Yemen. More importantly, Syria has outfits like Hamas and Hezbollah in its kitty. This is a deadlyassortment at Assad’s disposal, a luxury that Gaddafi didn’t have. 

Assad should have another comforting reason: the shifting US foreign policy. The US has already withdrawn its troops from Iraq in December2011. The Americans have declared their draw-down policy vis a vis Afghanistan by the middle of next year. The Obama administration isgetting more and more China-centric and has marked a shift in its foreign policy by declaring the 21stcentury as a “Century ofAsia-Pacific”. This provides a beacon of hope for Iran.

Russia as well as China are well aware of the predicament of a presidential polls-bound United States and are in no hurry. TheIranians too will pursue the hold-out policy with respect to Syria. The ball is in America’s court whether it gives priority to the Gulfor the South China Sea. Time is of essence.

Though Iran has stepped up its presence in Syria to give an impression that it is helping the people of Syria, not just the Assad government, the Americans are not fooled. This is borne out by the on-record statement of US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta who said, “We are seeing a growing presence by Iran.” The Americans have openly said that Iran has been raising pro-Assad regime militias to fight the rebels.

In the recent past Iran has been laying stress on its nuclear program because of geo-political reasons and the pattern of expenditure on arms by Iran on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and GCC on the other. From 1990 to 2004, Iran was head and shoulders above its regional rivals in terms of arms expenditure. In this period, Iran’s defense expenditure rose by over 16 per cent, while that of Saudi Arabia and the GCC moved from – 4 per cent to 8 per cent. The trend has reversed since 2004-05 as Saudi Arabia and GCC, buoyed by spike in oil prices, increased their annual defense expenditure from one per cent to 28.2 per cent and from 1.6 per cent to 18.1 per cent respectively. In contrast, a sanctions-hit Iran had to take a hit in its expenditure on defense and it declined by –4.9 per cent in this period. In this scenario, developing a nuclear weapon is the game changer for Iran and that too at much lower cost.

The ongoing Syria crisis may give Iran a God-send opportunity to give its nuclear program a vital push. Iran may coax Syria to attack Israel. Such a scenario would help both Iran and the Assad regime. For the besieged, beleaguered Assad such a move would divert attention of his people as well as the lead players.

For this Iran needs time as its nuclear program, according to available reports, hasn’t reached the sewing-up-the-last-button stage. The Assad regime is keeping Iranian hopes alive. President Assad also knows that he is no Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who ruled Libya for over four decades but died a disgraceful, and possibly torturous, death in October 2011 as the Arab Spring stormed Libya. Unlike Libya, Syria is a frontline Arab state which has vociferous support from major regional power like Iran, a small but not insignificant state like Lebanon and sympathizers in Iraq and Yemen. More importantly, Syria has outfits like Hamas and Hezbollah in its kitty. This is a deadly assortment at Assad’s disposal, a luxury that Gaddafi didn’t have.

Assad should have another comforting reason: the shifting US foreign policy. The US has already withdrawn its troops from Iraq in December 2011. The Americans have declared their draw-down policy vis a vis Afghanistan by the middle of next year. The Obama administration is getting more and more China-centric and has marked a shift in its foreign policy by declaring the 21stcentury as a “Century of Asia-Pacific”. This provides a beacon of hope for Iran.

Russia as well as China are well aware of the predicament of a presidential polls-bound United States and are in no hurry. The Iranians too will pursue the hold-out policy with respect to Syria. The ball is in America’s court whether it gives priority to the Gulf or the South China Sea. Time is of essence.

The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic analyst. His latest book was “Global Jihad: Current Patterns and Future Trends”. 

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