Attack on Syria will provoke violence across MidEast

September 1, 2013
Sarah Benton

This posting has the analyses of three wise men:
1) Independent on Sunday: In Syria, it’s a case of all or nothing, Patrick Cockburn;
2) NY Times: Strike on Syria Would Lead to Retaliation on Israel, Iran Warns, Thomas Erdbrink;
3) Observer: Jordan fears the worst as Syria conflict threatens to destabilise wider region, Peter Beaumont

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini with Iran’s new President Hassan Rohani. Either all-out war – or a diplomatic arrangement, which would have to involve Iran says Patrick Cockburn.

In Syria, it’s a case of all or nothing

World View: History teaches us that limited Western intervention can only inflame this complex war and will do nothing to bring peace

By Patrick Cockburn, Independent on Sunday
September 01, 2013

The discredited justifications that preceded the invasion of Iraq still dominate British and American perception of military intervention in Syria. In a similar way in the 1930s, popular revulsion at the lies and exaggerations of First World War propaganda meant that the first accounts of Nazi atrocities were treated with scepticism.

Unsurprisingly, people who feel they were swindled into war 10 years ago by bloodcurdling accounts of Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction are dubious about their government’s claim that President Bashar al-Assad’s army used poison gas on a mass scale on 21 August. All the questions that should have been asked in 2003 about Iraq are being asked about Syria: what is the evidence for chemical weapons? How partial are the sources of information? Why should Assad do something so much against his own interests? Would a limited air assault on Syrian military bases deter him from using chemical weapons again, supposing he used them this time, or would it be the first step towards ever-deeper British and American involvement in the war?

All these are reasonable questions and many of them have reasonable answers. Unlike Iraq, it is known that the Syrian army has large supplies of chemical weapons such as sarin and that a mass attack took place. A hundred videos show the dead and dying. Doctors diagnosed the symptoms of gas poisoning. It is highly unlikely that the opposition had enough chemical weapons to simulate a government attack in order to provoke foreign intervention.

Of course, the use of poison gas was always likely to provoke the United States into action, something Damascus has been desperate to avoid for two years. But this does not mean they did not do it. Stupidity and miscalculation have shaped many wars. Recall that General Reginald Dyer believed he could quell Indian nationalists and strengthen British rule in India by ordering his soldiers to open fire at a demonstration in Amritsar in 1919, killing 379 people (other figures suggest 1,000 died). Whose bright idea was it to police a protest march in Derry with British paratroopers in 1972 on what became known as Bloody Sunday?

What is curious about the past week is the extent to which so many, especially the media and the British Government, misjudged the continuing rawness of the wounds inflicted by the Iraq war. I was in Baghdad for much of the conflict but I was always struck on returning to Britain by the lasting sense of outrage over the decision to go to war expressed even by the most conservative and non-political. As with the Munich Agreement in 1938, it has entered a deep layer of British historic memory, perhaps because people feel they were not only misled but lied to by their own government.

The parliamentary vote and opinion polls show that British governments have exhausted whatever capital of public trust they possessed when it comes to military ventures in the Middle East. Intelligence reports confirming that Assad used chemical weapons simply jog memories of past deceptions such as the “dodgy dossier” of 2003. Credibility lost then has never been regained. The government is like the little girl Matilda in Hilaire Belloc’s poem of that name who, having previously called the fire brigade falsely claiming her house was ablaze, burns to death when it does indeed catch fire:

Every time she shouted ‘fire!’

They only answered ‘little liar!’

Given the way the deceptions and failures of the Iraq war still resonate, no wonder David Cameron denies that military intervention in Syria today has anything in common with what happened in 2003. But the two countries are alike in their political make-up, with deep sectarian and ethnic divisions giving political convulsions an extra edge of fear and hate. Both were or are ruled by a single extended family or clan monopolising authority in a police state in which power is exercised through the intelligence and security services. They are tough nuts to crack: “Assad is as coup-proof as Saddam ever was,” says an Iraqi leader, who has spent much of his life trying to get rid of the latter.

In one crucial respect Assad is in a stronger position than Slobodan Milosovic in Serbia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. These three leaders were internationally isolated, while Assad has powerful and committed foreign allies. Russia is standing firmly by Assad as it reasserts its status as a great power after 20 years of retreats and humiliations that culminated in the Libyan war of 2011. It feels it was double-crossed then into agreeing to humanitarian military intervention by Nato which swiftly became a campaign to overthrow Gaddafi.

Even more committed to the Syrian regime’s survival are Iran and the Shia paramilitary movement Hezbollah in Lebanon. Both are highly conscious that the attempt to overthrow their long-term ally in Damascus is aimed at weakening them, and they are determined to repulse the threat. It makes sense for them to want to fight while Assad is still in power and not wait until he has been displaced by a hostile Sunni regime.

One important aspect of the Syrian conflict as it affects the US and Britain is lethally similar to the Iraq war. In each case any outsider intervening becomes involved in several inter-related but separate conflicts. In Iraq in 2003 the Iranians were glad to see the fall of their old enemy Saddam Hussein but fearful that an Iraq occupied by the US and Britain would provide a platform to overthrow the Tehran government. They did everything to make sure the Americans and British never stabilised their occupation of Iraq. “The Iranians have a PhD in this type of covert warfare,” remarks an Iraqi specialising in national security.

So much of what US and British leaders or commentators say about Syria sounds phoney or unrealistic because they focus on only one of the four or five conflicts going on in the country as a reason for intervening. The struggle most often picked as a respectable motive for backing the rebels is the popular revolt against the brutal Syrian police state which started in March 2011. But this uprising swiftly became a sectarian war with the Sunni Arab majority pitted against the ruling Alawite Shia sect and other minorities, such as the Christians and Druze. The Syrian civil war is also part of the intensifying Sunni-Shia conflict that is being waged in the tier of countries between the mountains of Afghanistan and the Mediterranean. And this sectarian battle is linked in turn to the confrontation, dating from the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, between the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and their allies, and an Iranian-led coalition.

If the Syrian political and military battlefield sounds very complex, it is; and it’s getting worse. A savage ethnic war exploded in north-east Syria last month with the al-Qa’ida-linked al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant driving 50,000 Syrian Kurds into Iraq.

US and British leaders selling military intervention in Iraq and Syria seldom explained and often did not understand this mesh of conflicts. But these contradictory alliances determine the political map of the region and the reality of foreign involvement in it. It is easy, for instance, to advocate arming and protecting Syrian villagers whose children are being incinerated by napalm dropped by government aircraft. But what if those best able to help those villagers are the veteran jihadi fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, who have just chopped off the heads of Alawite prisoners and shot dead a teenager selling coffee for blasphemy? For all the disclaimers, US forces attacking the government in Damascus are in de facto alliance with al-Qa’ida. Likewise in Iraq 10 years ago, the US and Britain were pretending to be fighting for democracy and against the remnants of Saddam’s regime. The reality was that in 2003-06 they had imposed an old-style imperial regime and had become participants in a cruel Sunni-Shia civil war on the Shia side.

What can be done to end the appalling and ever-growing miseries of the 23 million Syrian people? The answer is to make either war or peace effectively. Limited missile strikes on Syrian military bases are not going to compel President Assad to negotiate his own departure from power. The only military action that might do this is a full-scale assault including a no-fly zone and a no-drive zone. This means giving the rebels an air umbrella, as was done for the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 2001, the Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq in 2003 and the anti-Gaddafi militiamen in Libya in 2011. And thus fighting a full-scale war with the likelihood that Russia, Iran and Hezbollah will increase their support for Assad. Anything less than this full-scale military commitment simply stokes the war and increases the violence. It gives the opposition hope (particularly since so many of its official leaders reside safely abroad) that one day there will be a Libyan-type intervention by Nato on their behalf.

Limited intervention means that the stalemate will continue. One of the best chances for peace – the day of mutual exhaustion and realisation that nobody is going to win on the battlefield – is postponed. The analogy with Kosovo in 1999 is shallow and misleading since defeat was only admitted by an isolated Serbia after a 78-day air bombardment and the threat of a Nato land invasion.

If all-out war is not feasible, could peace come by negotiation? Here America and Britain’s stance has been hypocritical, publicly supporting peace talks while offering only surrender terms to the Assad government at a time when it controls most of Syria. This was largely the result of a miscalculation by world leaders in 2011-12 whereby they underestimated the staying power of the Assad government. Its collapse was gleefully predicted, a role for Assad in Syria’s political transition ruled out, while Iran, an important player, was to be excluded. A peace conference so out of keeping with the real balance of power is not going to stop any wars. But bringing Iran in would undermine the US, European and Israeli effort to isolate it over its development of nuclear power. The US would effectively have to recognise Tehran as a regional power, which would infuriate the Israelis and the Gulf monarchies.

Even then, peace would not come easily, if at all. The best interim solution could be a UN-monitored ceasefire as briefly occurred under the Kofi Annan plan in 2012. All sides are dependent on outside backers, and even those who most want to fight need weapons, ammunition and money. Heavy pressure could be put on them to agree to a peace conference and a temporary ceasefire.

This would be a Lebanese-style truce – unsatisfactory but better than full-scale war. A peace conference on this basis could be the political and diplomatic counterpart to the limited US military strike President Obama is contemplating. In practice there has been a stalemate in most of Syria for the last year. If the Syrian army did use poison gas, it shows it does not have the strength to retake even the inner rebel-held suburbs of Damascus. It is better therefore for the battle lines to be frozen under some form of UN supervision. Long-term solutions will only begin to be feasible when Syrians are no longer at the mercy of what Northern Ireland politicians used to call “the politics of the last atrocity”.

Jordanian women chant anti-U.S. slogans, during a protest by the Jordanian Communist Party and other leftist groups against any American military strike against Damascus, in Amman, Jordan, Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. Photo by AP.

Strike on Syria Would Lead to Retaliation on Israel, Iran Warns

By Thomas Erdbrink, NY Times
August 28, 2013

Iranian lawmakers and commanders issued stark warnings to the United States and its allies on Tuesday, saying any military strike on Syria would lead to a retaliatory attack on Israel fanned by “the flames of outrage.

The warnings came against a backdrop of rising momentum among Western governments for a military intervention in the Syrian conflict over what the United States, Britain, France and others have called undeniable evidence that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces used banned chemical weapons on civilians last week, killing hundreds. Mr. Assad has accused the insurgents who are trying to topple him of using such munitions.

Iran, which itself came under chemical weapons assault by Iraq during its eight-year war in the 1980s, has been a loyal ally of the Syrian government. Iranian hard-liners often say Syria is Iran’s first trench in a potential war with hostile Western powers. Iran has blamed Israel for the conflict in Syria, saying Israel is trying to bring down Mr. Assad.

“In case of a U.S. military strike against Syria, the flames of outrage of the region’s revolutionaries will point toward the Zionist regime,” the semiofficial Fars news agency quoted Mansur Haqiqatpur, an influential member of Parliament, as saying on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said Tuesday after security meetings in Tel Aviv that, “The State of Israel is ready for any scenario. We are not part of the civil war in Syria but if we identify any attempt whatsoever to harm us, we will respond and we will respond in strength.”

Iran has always taken the moral high ground on the issue of chemical weapons, actively opposing their use. If it turns out that Mr. Assad’s side deployed the weapons, it will be difficult for Iranian leaders to explain their support for Mr. Assad to their people, analysts point out.

A potential military intervention by the United States in Syria also represents a test for Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, who condemned the use of chemical weapons on his Twitter account on Monday, but stopped short of blaming either side in the Syrian conflict.

On Tuesday the new foreign minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif, stressed that Iran condemned the use of chemical weapons by any group. He also said Iran had pressed the Syrian government to assist the United Nations weapons inspectors who are in the country conducting an inquiry.

A cutout of US President Barack Obama stands on the sidewalk as demonstrators march in protest during a rally against a possible US and allies attack on Syria in response to possible use of chemical weapons by the Assad government, in Lafayette Park in front of the White House in Washington, DC on August 29, 2013. Photo by AFP/Getty Images

There is no evidence, he said, that chemical weapons were used by the Syrian government. But in remarks quoted by the official Islamic Republic News Agency, Mr. Zarif said there was some evidence that such munitions had been given to Syria’s insurgents.

Many analysts close to Mr. Rouhani privately say that Syria is an obstacle to change inside Iran. The country’s hard-liners say any attack on Syria is in fact an act of war against Iran, and point to a support pact in which both nations have vowed to defend each other in case of a military attack by a third country.

“Naturally Iran does not want to lose Syria as a foothold in the region,” said Davoud Hermidas-Bavand, a professor of international relations at Allameh Tabatabaei University in Tehran.

“But in the long run a solution for Syria will mean that officials in Tehran can soften their stance towards the U.S.,” he said. “It means we would have a more open domestic atmosphere.”

February 2013, across the border:Beirut, Feb. 8, protesters holding a Syrian opposition flag during a demonstration headed by Sunni Muslim Salafist leader Ahmad al-Assir, in support of residents of the northeastern town of Arsal in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Photo by Mohamed Azakir/REUTERS

Iran is widely seen as having close coordination with Hezbollah, the militant Shiite Lebanese organization that is an ideological ally. Both regard Israel as a common enemy, and Hezbollah is reported to have many rockets deployed in southern Lebanon capable of striking deep into Israeli territory.

Iran and Hezbollah are heavily engaged in helping Mr. Assad’s side in the Syrian conflict. Iranian military advisers have been seen in Syria, and Iran provides military support and training to Hezbollah fighters, who have joined the Syrian armed forces in recent months to retake rebel-held areas.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, meeting with visiting Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said of Oman in Tehran on Monday, predicted the Syrian conflict would escalate far beyond its borders if other regional nations continued to aid the Syrian opposition.

“Their supporters must know that this fire will finally engulf them as well,” Ayatollah Khamenei said, according to the Mehr news agency.

Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

A demonstrator holds a placard against the war in Syria depicting US President Barack Obama during an anti-war demonstration on the Istiklal avenue in Istanbul, on August 30, 2013. A thousand protesters took part in a rally on August 30, in Istanbul to protest against a possible military intervention in Syria. Photo by AFP/Getty Images.

Jordan fears the worst as Syria conflict threatens to destabilise wider region

Lebanon and Iraq see more violence and other Middle East countries raise level of military readiness

By Peter Beaumont, Observer
September 01, 2013

In the northern Jordan villages – some almost split by the border with Syria – people who have watched the flow of refugees into their country are “holding their breath”.

The sentiment is the same as in the other neighbouring countries, Lebanon, Turkey, Israel and Iraq: a fear that the Syrian conflict, which has already claimed more than 100,000 lives could spill over and destabilise the wider region.

The fear is not unfounded. Already the consequences of the Syrian war are being felt beyond its borders.

Worst affected so far have been Lebanon and Iraq, which – because of their own political fragility and sectarian competitions – have already seen violence and increasing instability.

Britain has advised against all but essential travel to Lebanon, where bomb attacks in the northern city of Tripoli killed 42 people last week, and as regional tensions grow over a possible US military strike on Syria.

On Friday, Lebanon charged five men, including a Sunni Muslim cleric close to the Syrian government, over the bomb attacks on two mosques in Tripoli.

Two other men, including a Syrian military officer, were charged in absentia with placing the bombs.

In Iraq concern has been mounting for months as the violence in its neighbour – in which Sunni jihadi groups linked to those in Iraq have been participating – has escalated.

And amid fear that a US strike could have wider repercussions, Jordan, Turkey and Israel have raised their level of military readiness.

The Jordanian newspaper Al-Ghad underlined the sense of fear, quoting people in the country’s northern areas speaking of their concern that their country might be hit in a revenge attack and discussing whether to move to the south.

Turkey has also seen similar rising fears, not least because of its government’s strong opposition to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, which has already seen cross-border fire and the planting of bombs. Last week the country began distributing gas masks and deployed a large team of chemical warfare experts close to the border.

According to sources, Saudi Arabia’s defence readiness has been raised and leave for the armed forces cancelled. In Kuwait, lawmakers have asked their government to inform them about plans for readiness to deal with repercussions of a strike on Syria, Kuwaiti newspapers have reported.

And in Israel, which some fear might be the target of any retaliatory attack, the government has moved extra anti-missile batteries to the country’s north, bordering Syria, issued gas masks to citizens and called up a limited number of reservists, including cyber warfare specialists.

Other countries advising citizens to quit Lebanon included Bahrain, Kuwait and France, while Austria told its people to contact its embassy in Lebanon before travelling there.

Bahrain and Kuwait also urged its nationals in the country to leave immediately, their state news agencies reported.

A senior security source in Lebanon said that around 14,000 people had left the country on Thursday alone, mostly Europeans.

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