Thursday, 26 April 2012

Syria plays for time

Three Syrian intelligence officers were killed April 25 in the Barzeh neighborhood of Damascus, the United Kingdom-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, AP reported. The death of the intelligence officers briefly exposes the greater game playing out behind the scenes in Syria. A game where the Alawite government of Bashar al Assad is not the only one involved.

The Syrian regime has held close relations with the Iranian ruling polity for some time, giving it legitimacy and close protection over the years. Indeed, it is Iranian influence in the Levant that has turned this internecine scuffle between the various Syrian demonstrators and the regime, into a battleground for subterfuge. 

Quiet movements are going on inside Syria as intelligence agencies dual for the upper hand. France has discussed invoking Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which permits action that could be enforced militarily, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said April 25, AP reported. These and various promises of imminent NATO force against Syria are just words and nothing has been done nor is likely to be done.

There have been reports that the attacks against 10 Syrian security officials in Sahm al-Golan village April 20 was conducted by transnational Jihadists, the like of which seem to appear in conflicts around the Middle East. 

What is noteworthy about this is that it could point to a lack of Syrian civilian action against their regime. These protestors prefer instead to demonstrate peacefully and air their grievances in more tradition and less violent ways. 

Indeed, reports from both Syrian State TV and the Free Syrian Army, one of the more public of the various Syrian movement factions, stated that militants attacked an oil pipeline in Syria's Deir al-Zour province April 21.

Interference of Iranian elements has been a strategic worry for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in dealing with the unrest in Syria. And a reason the Arab countries have largely deferred dealing with the unrest in Syria. 

While the Assad regime is widely considered amongst the Arab leaders to be a harsh and oppressive government, the regime holds strong ties with big players in the region. It is Iran’s tactics for supporting Syria and Assad that warrants the closest attention. The jihadist attacks in Syria hint at subtle moves by these Arab states to deal obliquely with Iranian influence inside Syria without direct recourse to Riyadh, Amman, or even Ankara.

The Arab states look to undermine Iranian influence in the Levant because Iran has been pursuing a strategy of hegemony in the Middle East since the time of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and indeed throughout much of its history. 

Due to its intrinsic geographic isolation Iran, and before it Persia, has needed to reach out for insulation and control the lower river and flatland countries towards the Mediterranean in the West and the Persian Gulf in the South. Iran has been threatened in the past from armies crossing through modern-day Iraq. 

Recently, given the vacuum left in Iraq by the departing US troops, Iran has consolidated implicit control over Baghdad through a strong Shiite government.

Iran’s game in Syria is to back the Assad strong-man because of his Tehran-friendly Alawite tribe’s minority status, and also because the majority Sunni population of Syria align themselves more closely with the traditional enemies of Iran: the Arab regimes. 

Losing Assad would not necessarily mean losing Syria for Iran, but supporting him certainly makes sense in the larger scheme for Tehran. They look to grip deeper influence over the Syrian regime in order to spread their control closer to the Mediterranean. Access to this body of water is a strategic necessity for Iran, and one it will be closer to attaining if the current government of Syria stands.

At a quick glance the Assad regime appears to be faltering like Libya before it. But Syria is not Libya. Damascus still retains a lot of support from its populace, as evidenced strictly by the dearth of popular uprisings (currently only a small fraction of the population has taken to the streets). 

Also Syria would not be a push-over like Gaddafi’s regime because the Syrian military is much stronger and has not yet split internally, and shows no signs yet of doing so. Air defences in Syria are comprehensive, especially around key towns such as Al Zabadani Izraa, and Al Kiswah. 

This would deter any NATO-imposed no fly zone. And French rhetoric aside, no European or NATO country has the appetite for the prolonged and bloody fight any attempt at Syrian regime change would be.   

Iran knows this and Syria knows this. That is why their intelligence personnel are working hard at ending or downplaying the uprising in Syria. Their movements betray a sense of urgent purpose, one they are treating calmly and rationally as their mutual advantages increase. Every passing day that Assad stays in power, the Syrian regime, and by extension Iran, grows stronger and more legitimate.

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