Belmont Club

The Syrian Timebomb

Following news reports that Syrian armor and infantry were firing wholesale in to Deraa, McClatchy Newspapers said that the Obama administration was considering a range of “targeted sanctions” against Damascus.  “The White House declined to elaborate, an indication that it was trying to coordinate a response with European allies and other nations, the course it followed with the onslaughts that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi unleashed against anti-government demonstrations.”

A “raw report” from a STRATFOR informant said that Bashar Assad may have given up on trying to contain the protests with promises of “reform” and may be preparing to unleash a Hama-style campaign, a reference to the attack his father unleashed on the city by that name in which between 20 and 40 thousand people were killed.

The Wall Street Journal reported that “Syria’s government, in a statement on state news agency SANA, said it deployed the military units in Deraa on Monday at the request of families and residents of the city to help quell “radical terrorist groups.” The statement, which quotes a military source, said a number of people from “extremist terrorist groups” died in the operation but that it was working to restore calm and security to the city.”

When Syria shakes, it appendages bear watching for mischief. Hezbollah has been accused by the government of Bahrain of attempting to overthrow its government. “The government in Manama in a report to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Hezbollah was training opposition groups in Lebanon and Iran to undermine the ruling monarchy.” Why would Syria instruct its Frankenstein monster to attack now? A Lebanese MP from the Saad Hariri’s party accused Hezbollah of dragging his country into foreign adventures at the behest of their Syrian masters.  “Implicating Lebanon in Syria and Bahrain’s conflicts affects the internal arena, paves the way for more assassinations, sows strife, and aims at surpassing people’s claims to stamp out illegitimate weapons,” the MP said.

This is an oblique reference to Syria’s ultimate Gotterdammerung Plan: to provoke war with Isael to pull Assad’s chestnuts out of the fire.  The details were supplied by Robert Fisk, who claims that Syria is egging Hezbollah restarting sectarian tensins in Lebanon. The Syrian ambassador to Lebanon has also demanded that Future Party politicians be brought to justice. That is expected. Since Hariri is backed by the Saudis and Bahrain is backed by the same Saudis, the two sides of the fight card are quite clear.

But in every Middle Eastern fight there is always the mystery bout.  Israel is never far out of the sight picture of Damascus. Only last month Syria sent a shipload of weapons to Hamas containing missiles. It was intercepted by the Israeli Navy. But the point is clear. Syria wants an option to pull a trigger on Jerusalem.

The AP says that the Obama administration is working desperately to keep its options open with both Israel and Syria.  “Despite a ruthless crackdown on pro-reform demonstrators, there is no international appetite for a warlike approach to Syria — a crucial Mideast playmaker with ties to Iran and a say in any eventual Arab peace with Israel. In contrast with the quick international decision to launch an air campaign in nearby Libya, the United States is responding cautiously to mounting civilian deaths in Syria, preparing steps such as slapping new travel limits and financial penalties on Syrian leaders.”

But how long he can keep up the ‘measured approach’ is questionable. The article went on to say that recent events in Syria have driven almost the last nail into the coffin of President Obama’s “engagement policy” the capstone of which would have been an agreement between Israel and Palestine.  Sensing the death throes of this approach, Aluf Benn writing in Foreign Policy, argued that the administration should forget it and recognize that the only stable ally it has in the Middle East is Israel. “Who is going to rule Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia five years ahead? What will happen in Iraq if and when U.S. forces leave? And will Iran prevail as the new regional superpower under its current leadership, or will it go through regime change and return to the pro-Western camp? … About the only thing America can be sure of, even if Obama wishes it were otherwise, is that Israel is still ‘the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk.'”

That is all the more reason to strike it. If Assad finds himself unable to contain the unrest he may tempted to unleash Hezbollah, not just against Bahrain, or against Hariri but to strike at the only target hated by the entire Arab World — Israel.  A war with Israel might temporarily unify the dissenters in his country. By donning the mantle of the “Resistance” the Opthamologist of Damascus may see his way past the graveyard.

The only trouble with that strategy is that is fraught with imponderables. An Israel at war could go for Damascus. It may go for the Opthamologist himself. And then the countries of the region, already held together by the most tenuous of allegiances, may fall apart altogether in one huge bonfire. It would be the ultimate irony if President Obama, having campaigned on a platform of being all things to all dictators, and having collected his Peace Prize in advance, should preside over the wrack and ruin of the region.

But that is what happens in what Clausewitz called the “fog of war”. Nothing goes according to plan and the enemy gets to vote in the way things go.

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