The Biblical conversion of Paul to Christianity “on the road to Damascus” implied a turning point for the onetime antagonist of Christ. But now the road to Damascus is an unmarked and uncertain path, full of treachery and hidden motives ...
Events unfolding in the Levant — particularly with regard to the externally-sponsored conflict underway within Syria — during April and May 2013 were being played out like a flickering, imprecise lantern show in the international media, distorting and mis-directing major states’ policies toward the region.
The actual events on the ground were on one planet; those same events portrayed in the international media and political arenas were on an entirely different one. But that was not by accident: there has been a strong element in reporting and policy statements of attempting to portray the origins and the “inevitability” of outcomes along the lines of wishful thinking.
What is being disguised by all of this is an underlying series of conflicts, which Defense & Foreign Affairs has attempted to lay out over the past few years. Again, there are several fundamentals:
1. The deep geo-strategic competition — indeed, profound strategic rivalry — between Iran and Turkey, something which is now coming to a head;
2. The historical rivalry between Russia and Turkey, briefly contained in recent years, but now resurging;
3. The evolving (over the past half-century in particular) fear on the part of the Sunni states and communities that Iran can and will strategically dominate them, not merely on the grounds of Iran’s Shi’a religion, but on historical Persian (ie: non-Arab) cultural and strategic drives (which have been apparent for more than three millennia); and
4. The reality that there is no external power presently in the Levant-Mashreq-Arabian-Persian Gulf-Red Sea region which has sufficient authority to ensure quiescence and compliance. This has not been the case for about 500 years.
But on the current situation: To begin with, there were reports during the first week of May 2013 that chemical weapons had been used in the conflict in Syria, and this — very significantly — followed “concerns” by the US about possible use by the Syrian Government of chemical weapons, despite the fact that there had been no suggestion of such use.
Then there were three significant strikes by Israeli Air Force aircraft (probably F-16Is launching a series of highly-accurate SPICE smart bombs and possibly other weapons from Lebanese airspace) against targets in Syria on May 5 and — against the Republican Guard base the Mount Qassyoun military facility outside Damascus — on May 7, 2013.
Turkish and US official agencies indicated that the two events were linked, and made misleading — and knowingly incorrect — statements on some aspects of what were, in fact, two very separate and unrelated incidents.
The statements by US and Turkish officials seemed to indicate that a “red line” had been crossed by the Syrian Government of Pres. Bashar al-Assad, and that this opened the way for possible US intervention.
All of this has been against a backdrop of an international portrayal of the Syrian situation that:
(i) The Government of Pres. Bashar al-Assad was about to collapse at any moment, a portrayal which had been defied by events for some three years;
(ii) A spontaneous civil war was underway in Syria, despite the reality that it was a war promoted by the US and fueled by weapons, manpower, logistics, and propaganda, from Qatar, Turkey, and, to a degree, Saudi Arabia, with those players pursuing separate agendas which all entailed the removal of a pro-Shi’a ‘Alawite Syrian Government supported by, and supporting, the Shi’a Government of Iran; and
(iii) The vilification of Iran for its pursuit of nuclear weapons (which was true insofar as this was the stated case by the West, but which case was supported by Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia out of their direct geo-strategic competition with Iran, in the hope that the US and Israel would actually be prompted to fight Iran on their behalf).
What has been attempted by the Turkish, US, UK, and some other governments and media is to obfuscate some of the realities, and blur other issues so as to portray a situation which is not realistic. That is not to plead a case for Pres. al-Assad or Iran, but rather to highlight that, if policy judgments are to be taken, that they be taken in light of the facts seen in appropriate context.
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Syria and Chemical Weapons
The Syrian Armed Forces have long held stocks of chemical weapons. The Global Information System (GIS) and Defense & Foreign Affairs Handbook have noted for some years: “Syria is considered to have chemical agents and munitions. It has a biological agents and munitions program and may already possess biological agents and munitions. Israeli and US analysts report that Syria has the capability to produce botulinum toxin, ricin toxin and anthrax at its two biological warfare centers. Additionally, Syria is considered by UK and US analysts as having the most sophisticated chemical weapons program in the Arab world. It has delivery systems suitable for use with chemical and biological munitions. Syria signed the Geneva Protocol with reservations, and signed but has not ratified the Biological Weapons Convention.”
However, it is clear that the chemical weapons and CW doctrine and units in the Syrian Armed Forces are directly and absolutely copied from those of the (former) USSR. The claims of sarin gas being used in the current Syrian fighting, however, show a substance and use doctrine totally alien to Syrian Army practice. Defector debriefs have indicated that Syrian chemical weapons are designed for major urban warfare in which entire communities are targeted for destruction; they are not suitable, or designed, for open street warfare where Syrian Government forces would be exposed. As well, sarin is a substance — often made up in a bathtub concoction — used more by al-Qaida and other terrorist groups (such as the attack by members of Aum Shinrikyo on March 20, 1995, against civilians in a Tokyo subway).
The principal chemical weapon in the Syrian arsenal is VX.
“Evidence” of Syrian Government alleged use of “chemical weapons” came in the form of polluted soil samples provided by the Sunni jihadis fighting the Government. Significantly, however, there was no actual evidence of chemical weapons residual in these samples, nor in the corpses delivered as “proof” of a Government CW attack. Despite this, significantly, the US Government issued statements implying the credibility of the CW use reports by the Syrian Government, and noting that this was pushing the US closer to a situation whereby a “red line” had been crossed by the Assad Government, requiring US response. Not surprisingly, this was further promoted by the Turkish Government.
However, by escalating a climate which, de facto, promoted a belief that the Syrian Government was using, or would use, chemical weapons, the US White House has begun to build acceptance for an escalation of US aid to the Sunni rebel groups to include, initially at least, weapons and munitions. That was strongly suggested by US Defense Dept. officials at the beginning of May 2013.
There is clearly a process which was being created to generate or sustain the sense of “inevitability” that the tide was (still) turning against Assad, and the threat of US intervention remained high. As well, the confluence of events with the allegations of chemical weapons use and the Israeli air strikes, the impression was being given that Israel had now entered the fray in an attempt to ensure the overthrow of Assad. [However, the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, emphasized in a statement May 6, 2013, that it had reached no conclusions about the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war, but indicated that the “rebels” appeared to have been the ones using the sarin.]
But it was clear that Israel’s actions had nothing to do with the media froth — stirred by politicians — about chemical weapons. Neither was there any indication that Israel wished to see the end of the Assad Government.
Israel, Syria, and Turkey and Iran: A Love-Hate Quadrangle
The Israeli strikes in early May 2013 against Syrian targets were all very carefully delineated to ensure a message as well as a military outcome. Firstly, Israel did nothing to strike at Syrian military units conducting their campaign against the jihadist insurgents. It targeted units conveying Iranian weapons being routed to HizbAllah units for use against Israel, particularly Fattah 110 missiles.
The strikes can be seen as parallels to the Israeli Air Force strikes in late October 2012 against the Yarmouk factory and the Sudan Technical Center, near Khartoum, Sudan because these facilities were providing similar Iranian-developed weapons to HizbAllah and Gaza-based HAMAS.
The US Associated Press noted on May 5, 2013: “Israel says the Iron Dome [anti-missile defense system] shot down hundreds of incoming short-range rockets during eight days of fighting against HAMAS militants in the Gaza Strip last November . HizbAllah fired some 4,000 rockets into Israel during the 2006 war, and Israel believes the group now possesses tens of thousands of rockets and missiles.” The logic of the May 2013 strikes was, for Israel, clear: Iran had attempted to test how far Israel’s restraint would go, knowing that, for the time being, Israel was anxious that Pres. Assad not be overthrown, largely because the Government of Israel believed a Sunni-dominated outcome would be far worse for Israel and the region.
As well, from an Iranian standpoint, Tehran was conscious of the reality that it might have to move strenuously to safeguard its investment in Syria. A Sunni-dominated Syria would end, for the time being, any prospect of Iran’s strategic reach to the Mediterranean. Iran’s only other option would be to mend fences with Israel, and start to restore the millennia-old Iran-Israel partnership, as the late Shah of Iran had done.
In the meantime, Iran has made it clear to the Turkish Government that Tehran would absolutely not allow Syria to go without a fight which could — and almost certainly would — ultimately entail “strategic actions” against Turkey on a number of fronts. Turkish Prime Minister Reçep Tayyip Erdogan is already confronted by several major challenges: (a) the fact that the Turkish Armed Forces are largely impotent, because he decapitated their leadership out of fear of a new military coup d’etat to restore the General Staff’s supremacy in government; (b) the continuing demands for Kurdish rights; and — among many other challenges — an economy which is delicate and dependent on Russian goodwill to a far greater degree than he would readily wish to acknowledge.
Prime Minister Erdogan attempted to mitigate the growing Kurdish situation by striking what he felt was a deal with the imprisoned leader of the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan: the Kurdish Workers’ Party), Abdullah Ocalan, who still languishes in a Turkish prison under sentence of death. On March 20, 2013 (Kurdish New Year), he announced an “historic call” to end the fighting between the PKK and the Turkish Government. The ceasefire would require all the PKK’s armed fighters inside the country to leave, a process which began in early May 2013.
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This — like the triumphal “deal” to normalize Turkish-Israeli relations brokered by US Pres. Barack Obama on March 22, 2013 — was, however, illusory. PKK sources, even as they began moving to safe- havens in Iraq in the first week of May 2013, acknowledged that Ocalan had made his “call” as one more step to stave off the hangman, and his followers understood that. But the fight was not, in reality, paused or shelved, and Iran has, in fact, stepped up its active support for the PKK and other Kurdish movements fighting the Turkish Government, mostly from safe-havens in Iraq.
Iran has the capacity to mobilize the PKK and other Kurdish movements against Turkey, and this may be a challenge which the Erdogan Government cannot ultimately meet. In all of this, as well, the issue of the Armenian community’s potential rôle in all of this cannot be under-estimated, and Armenia — with a strong lobby in the US — is an ally of Iran, Greece, and Turkey. Moreover, the Greek and Cypriot governments have a stake in seeing an initiative to break up Turkey succeed, given the threats which Turkey has continued to make against Greek Ægean territorial waters and islands, and to continue its military occupation of more than one third of Cyprus (with attendant and ongoing blackmail of Cyprus to delay or confound the development of offshore Cypriot natural gas reserves). For now, and despite growing closeness between Mr Erdogan and US Pres. Obama, Turkey’s chances of joining the EU are slipping further away; indeed, the EU itself is fighting for cohesion.
Several critical strategic questions remain for Mr Erdogan, such as whether he can, through the grudging re-establishment of the restoration of “normal” diplomatic relations with Jerusalem, stave off Israel’s active participation in covert acts hostile to Turkey’s survival. At present, Israel has been persuaded that the preservation of Turkey would be in Israel’s strategic interests, but it is worth remembering that until the beginning of 1979, Israel fought hard to help sustain the unity and strength of Iran.
That changed progressively over the subsequent decades to the point where the Binyamin Netanyahu Government of Israel has come to actively participate in steps designed to weaken and even dismember Iran. Turkey’s transformation from secular and anti-Islamist bastion to Islamist and anti-Israeli activist state may not have been hallmarked by a visible “revolution”, but its change is as profound as was the 1979 change in Iran.
Washington may not have noticed it (although the White House has embraced it), but Israel can hardly much longer ignore it.
In all of this, of course, Russia has a profound influence. When Turkey found itself strategically isolated at the end of 2008 and early 2009, it was forced to kow-tow to Moscow, which had the ability to cut off the flow of much of the transit oil and gas to Europe, via Turkey, from the Caspian. This would have devastated the Turkish economy, so Ankara made noises of friendship and cooperation with Moscow3. Not that there was any improvement in the historical animosity between the two, but the mutual containment situation prevailed briefly. Subsequently, however, Ankara has begun openly opposing Russian strategic interests, including Russian commitments to Syria.
Moscow was not letting this confrontation pass unremarked.
The US Obama Administration’s call for Russian help in removing Syrian Pres. al-Assad, therefore, should be seen as asking Moscow to act against its own interests, and yet Washington phrases the request as though Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin was somehow unreasonably supporting a dictator who was bound to fail. US Secretary of State John Kerry called on Pres. Putin in Moscow on May 7, 2013 (while also meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov) in the knowledge that both sides did not wish to appear at odds over the Syria issue. But it should be seen as extremely unlikely that Russia could be persuaded to act against its own vital strategic interests merely because Obama and Kerry want to support a situation which would ultimately be inimical to Russian interests in the area.
From another perspective, the actions of Iran in the area need also to be seen through the prism of the forthcoming (June 14, 2013) Iranian Presidential elections, in which outgoing Pres. Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad was hoping to see a continuation of his policies through the election of his key protégé, Esfandiar Rahim Masha’i. This seems unlikely.
This writer noted, in a report in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis of October 6, 2009: “Finding a way in which Ahmadi-Nejad can be removed from office [by the Supreme Leader] without further damaging the image of clerical governance, and finding a suitable replacement who has the authority of a Bonapartist, yet still subservient to the ‘Revolution’.”
“One clear candidate appeals to many clerics: Tehran Mayor Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf. Mayor Qalibaf, who has strong battlefield leadership credentials from his service in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC: Pasdaran), is a strong opponent of Ahmadi-Nejad, and yet is seen as strongly nationalistic and supportive of the clerical system of government. Dr Assad Homayoun, President of the opposition Azadegan movement, told GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs that his sources indicated that there was movement toward replacing Ahmadi-Nejad with either an active Pasdaran leader, or a strong civilian such as Qalibaf.”
That remains the outlook, and the influence of the Pasdaran should not be under-estimated, either in the election of a new leader, or in the strategic actions taken with regard to Syria. Israeli writer Brig.-Gen. (rtd.) Dr Shimon Shapira, writing in Jerusalem Issue Brief on May 5, 2013, even went so far as to say that Iran planned to take over Syria, citing a mid-April 2013 visit by HizbAllah leader Hassan Nasrallah to Tehran for meetings with Supreme Leader ‘Ali Khamene’i and Gen. Qasem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Pasdaran. Suleiman reportedly prepared an operational plan named after him and “based upon the establishment of a 150,000-man force in Syria, the majority of whom will come from Iran, Iraq, and a smaller number from HizbAllah and the Gulf states”.
Shapira went on to note: “Mehdi Taaib, who heads Khamene’i’s think tank ... recently stated that ‘Syria is the 35th district of Iran and it has greater strategic importance for Iran than Khuzestan [an Arab- populated district inside Iran]’. Significantly, Taaib was drawing a comparison between Syria and a district that is under full Iranian sovereignty.”
In all of this, in Iran, Israel, Turkey, the US, and elsewhere, we see the play of short-term interests — such as elections — versus long- term interests.
Caught in the middle of all this, in many respects, is Cyprus and the development of the Eastern Mediterranean gasfields, held hostage by Ankara, which has promised to make investment and exploitation in and of the offshore Cypriot gasfields — and therefore the provision of an alternative energy supply for Western Europe, independent of Turkish transit fees — difficult. Turkey is holding out, logically, for a stake in the energy resources.
In all of these developments, too, we see huge gambles being taken as Washington, Ankara, Doha, and Tehran attempt to win “throw-of-the-dice” gains before their situations change irreversibly.
By. Gregory R. Copley