Guessing Game

Events in Syria have everyone in the region girding for an uncertain future.  The Israeli Defense Forces have canceled weekend furloughs for officers and for soldiers in some units due to concern over Syria; a limited precaution, but a precaution all the same.


Israel is concerned with three different scenarios. The first is concern about the transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons to a third party like Hezbollah.

The second worrisome scenario is the fragmentation of the country, whereby certain parties or even a lone gunmen may gain access to bases with chemical weapons or other weapons systems, and then try to use them against Israel …

And the third scenario is the possibility that Assad – feeling his back against the wall – will decides to take Israel with him, and as a result fire everything he has toward Israel.

They probably believe that Assad might soon be, if he is not already, history — and the wide range of possible scenarios they’re prepared for means that nobody really knows what happens next.

The NY Times says Washington is also beginning to think about the future. There is now a “growing conviction that the Assad family’s 42-year grip on power in Syria is coming to an end” and that events may spin out of control. Chief among Washington’s worries is that Israel may strike at Assad’s WMD stockpile to keep them from falling into other hands. Any such strike would derail Washington’s transition plans.

Obama administration officials worked on contingency plans Wednesday for a collapse of the Syrian government, focusing particularly on the chemical weapons that Syria is thought to possess and that President Bashar al-Assad could try to use on opposition forces and civilians.

Pentagon officials were in talks with Israeli defense officials about whether Israel might move to destroy Syrian weapons facilities, two administration official said. The administration is not advocating such an attack, the American officials said, because of the risk that it would give Mr. Assad an opportunity to rally support against Israeli interference.


One of those hands into which WMDs might fall is al-Qaeda. “The Obama administration must also worry about Mr. Assad’s arsenal, including chemical weapons, falling into other hands, including those of Al Qaeda — a risk at the center of the administration’s concerns, according to Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group.”

That would upend Washington’s transition plans. But what transition are they planning for?

One possible outcomes of a Syrian collapse is a distintegration of the multi-ethnic state into its constituent parts, unleashing a flood of refugees and inter-ethnic reprisals that would make Bosnia a walk in the park. The Alawites, who are the co-religionists of Assad, fear a massacre at the hands of Saudi inspired Sunni militias. Syrian Christians are also fearful. Ironically the Kurds, who have been fighting for a separate homeland for years are in the best position to deal with trouble because they’re already ready for anything. “Kurds have essentially walled off their northeast section of the country. Their armed militia, helped by their compatriots in Iraq, can hold out against all but the most concerted force.”

Any hopes that Russia and China would open the door for Western allies to take orderly charge of the Syrian transition were dashed when both countries vetoed a UN resolution to impose sanctions on Syria.


China has been following the lead of Russia, which has long expressed fears that any U.N. move could be used as a legal justification for armed foreign intervention in Syria. Though Western powers have been leery of intervening in Syria, the sanctions also would have been hitched to a section of the U.N. charter that allows for the use of force.

Russian diplomats cite last year’s precedent of Libya, where a U.N. resolution was cited as justification for a Western-led bombing attack that helped oust Moammar Kadafi.

It is almost as if the Russians wanted to say: let’s see us see which of us can stand to watch the region burn down.

Meanwhile mystery shrouded the whereabouts of Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian leader has been variously reported as dead, dying or in hiding. The Telegraph reports Assad and his family have retreated to the Latakia, perhaps because it is more secure than Damascus at the moment, away from the infiltrators who killed 3 officials at the pinnacle of his government.

Opposition sources and a Western diplomat stated Mr Assad was in the coastal city of Latakia, directing the response to the assassination of his top lieutenants, according to Reuters.

Mr Assad, who has not made a public appearance since Wednesday’s bombing, was said to be commanding the government operation but it was not clear whether Assad travelled to the Mediterranean Sea resort before or after the attack.

“Our information is that he is at his palace in Latakia and that he may have been there for days,” said a senior opposition figure, who declined to be named.


Latakia was the core of the historical Allawite state in the period following the Great War.

The uncertainty in the Levant is a reflection of the wider risks created by the withdrawal of American power from the region, the sharpening conflict between Sunni and Shi’a powers and the fall of the old-line authoritarian regimes. These three developments have turned the Mediterranean basin into a powder-keg.

The map of the Middle East changed after the Great War and did again after World War 2.  Thus the Syrian civil war, like the Spanish civil war of the past century, is not an isolated local event as much as the symptom of a larger conflict. In that context, the diplomatic approach pursued by the State Department will prove wholly insufficient to rectify the power imbalances and ambitions that are at the root of the crisis.

Events in the Middle East are part of the larger wider shift taking place in the world. The collapse of “too big to fail” institutions in Europe and America their companion phenomena — perhaps the cause of these fevers. The IDF might be girding its loins but the problem that is manifesting itself is Syria is goes much further than they can reach. Everyone may find as Sheriff Brody did in the movie Jaws, that we’re all going to need a bigger boat.

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