Belmont Club

Crisis in Syria

The Arab-Israeli conflict has officially slipped to number 2 on the US foreign policy priority rankings. Events in Syria are the new number 1.

Mideast peace, America’s defining issue for decades of dealings with Israel and its Arab neighbors, was just a postscript Monday as Hillary Rodham Clinton made perhaps her final visit to the region as secretary of state.

Three years after President Barack Obama declared the plight of the Palestinians “intolerable,” his administration no longer sees the failing Arab-Israeli peace efforts with the same immediacy. U.S. interests are focused now on Iran and Syria, though the deep differences between Israel and the Palestinians are not ignored.

In Damascus, a Tet-style offensive by Syrian rebels brought fighting to the streets of the capital, saw an army helicopter downed and featured a suicide bombing attack that killed the Defense Minister and others close to Assad.

The Washington Post says Assad is now like a “wounded wolf” who may use chemical weapons to save his regime. That possibility was given credence by a Jordanian statement that it is taking steps to defend against that very possibility.

Jordan has taken precautions to ward off a possible Syrian chemical attack, Jordan’s foreign minister said Tuesday, reflecting concern that Syria might use such weapons if the uprising there threatens the regime.

“The matter is of grave concern to us, and we have taken all necessary measures to confront that,” Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said. He declined to say what measures were taken.

“We will not allow anything to threaten the internal security of the kingdom,” he told reporters at a joint news conference with visiting British Foreign Minister William Hague.

In the meantime, the great powers sponsors of the belligerents were looking to negotiate an end game. Even Iran is interested, a sign that the eventual fall of Assad may be inevitable.

In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast warned against foreign intervention in Syria. Iran, one of Syria’s strongest allies, offered to mediate and host a meeting between Syrian government and rebels to help resolve the conflict. “Iran is prepared to use all its capacities to resolve the crisis in Syria,” Mehmanparast told reporters Tuesday.

One proposal being put forward by Western diplomats is the so-called ‘Yemen’ solution. “US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, interviewed by the BBC during a Middle East tour, said she hoped Moscow would open the way for a Yemen-style transition to avoid all-out civil war. Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down in February after months of protests, in a US-backed transfer of power brokered by Yemen’s wealthy Gulf Arab neighbors.”

Another is a ‘Chapter 7’ solution that will “authorize actions ranging from diplomatic and economic sanctions to military intervention. US officials have said they are talking about sanctions on Syria, not military intervention” — plainly preparing the groundwork for another Libyan operation.

Yemen or Libya: those are the options on offer by the Western allies. But those may not be the only outcomes possible. Russia, which has to date opposed UN sanctions hinted darkly at the possibility of escalation.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also warned that passing U.N. Security Council sanctions against Syria would amount to direct support for rebels and could draw the country into civil war.

“The battle for the capital, the decisive fight (is under way in Syria),” Lavrov told reporters in Moscow …

“Instead of calming the opposition, some partners are fostering a further escalation,” he said.

“It is a dead-end policy to support the opposition. Assad will not go on his own and our Western partners don’t know what to do about that.”

Russia’s reluctance to capitulate is understandable. From a geopolitical standpoint, the Syrian conflict is more than civil war. It is a struggle for regional supremacy between the Sunni and Shi’ite states of the area. “The Saudi agenda in Syria is no secret. The hardline Sunni monarchy is battling Iran’s Shia clerics for hegemony in the region, and Syria is Iran’s last significant ally. For the Saudis, Syria is a prize too valuable to be left to the Syrians.” That explains Hillary’s preference for the Yemen solution, the desire by Britain for a UN chapter 7; it explains the improved armaments of the Syrian army. It may even explain the arrival of suicide bombers upon the scene.

The reason that Syria has supplanted the “Arab-Israeli” conflict as primary is simple: it is about great power control over the region and about hegemony within the Islamic world.

In the meantime things are definitely heating up. According to news stories originating from the Philippines Syria is like a burning theater, where patrons are charged to go in and then once faced with the fire in the hall are charged for the privilege of using the fire escape. Reports say Filipinos are being charged $10,000 to flee the country, as even more “are continuing to arrive, brought in by illegal labor recruiters in Syria, despite the violence plaguing the country”.

That could be a metaphor diplomats should bear in mind. Conflicts in the Middle East are like a roach motel. It is expensive to check in on a conflict; but even more expensive to check out.


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