Current Affairs

Dangerous Liaisons in Syria: Is it a Civil War or a Proxy War?

The aggression involving the mass deportations and displacement, ethnic cleansing and evacuations of millions in Europe during World War Two, along with post-war border changes, continued population expulsions and repatriations meant that the prolonged chaos required common standards that would heal the hostilities and build bridges to support people seeking asylum from persecution. The violations against human rights values as expressed by the United Nations Charter of Human Rights[1] along with the precedents set by the Nuremberg Trials meant that the post-war crises in Europe required a multilateral treaty that defined the status of a refugee and the responsibility of state parties to ensure that they grant asylum and uphold the duty to protect all people no matter their nationality. By 1951, the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was approved and recognises the right of all people to seek asylum and to be treated fairly and without discrimination. It defined a refugee as having a well-rounded fear of being persecuted and unable to return to country of former residence due to the likelihood of persecution.[2]

The Convention has since been subject to one amendment via the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (1967) that removed the geographic limitations and enabled a universal reach ahead of the global crises taking place outside of Europe. This included the Middle East particularly after the Six-Day War in 1967 in Israel where the implications of the war increased the pre-existing millions of Palestinian refugees that remain in camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.[3] Continuous hostilities in Iraq, Yemen and Syria and the growing number of forcibly displaced persons from predominately Muslim countries as well as internally displaced requiring humanitarian assistance grown exponentially that numbers of displaced from Syria alone have been estimated at 12.5 million.[4] Of this total, over 1 million Syrian refugees sought protection in Lebanon along with 655,675 in Jordan[5] and both countries are not party to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. With the massive refugee crises exposing the failure to cope with the current framework together with the inappropriateness of international refugee law regulating the influx, considerations about the effectiveness of the Convention and the evolving nature of today’s refugee issues has called for the adoption of new changes to pre-existing international protection regimes that understand changes methods of modern warfare and the relationship between Islam and Democracy.

The modern history of Syria is fairly unique in the Middle East, particularly because those that have held the greatest control over the last century following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire have been the Alawi, a form of Shiite Islam and thus a Muslim minority. For the sake of brevity, you can read in detail my historical comparative between Turkey and Syria here in addition to my analysis of the Syncretistic religions of the Near Eastern region here. France initially occupied areas of the Near East including Lebanon and Syria, but with ongoing sectarian violence and finally the fall of France to the German Nazis during World War Two, a series of favourable events particularly with British authority now playing a role in the region enabled the independence of Syria, officially proclaimed in 1945. Prior to this, France provided the Alawis with the opportunity to access political decision-making during the difficulties that the French faced with sectarian violence in return for their support. Developments in transport and education enabled the historically isolated Alawi community particularly from the Latakia region – who have had a long history of persecution by the Sunni majority – to access to the rest of the country along with positions in the military, factors that reinforced and mobilised social and political solidarity. As such, power was conversely afforded to the Alawi minority over the Sunni majority as the authority of the military strengthened, a military controlled predominately by the Alawi and after a number of coups finalised by the 1963 Syrian coup d’état, the Ba’ath Party seized control of the country.

The hostilities continued in the region including internal leadership upheavals and the ruthless damage against the Syrian armed forces by Israel’ powerful display of military prowess in 1967; in six days, the Israeli forces seized the Golan Heights, destroyed the Egyptian Army and captured the Sinai peninsula and a number of other assaults that incapacitated Syria to defeat. This finally led to the revolution led by Hafez al-Assad who remained President of Syria for decades after 1971 when he – at the time stood as defence minister – overthrew president Noureddin Mustafa Ali al-Atassi and his right-hand Deputy General Secretary, Salah Jadid, the latter – due primarily from the influential and powerful role he played politically – had attempted to remove al-Assad and ultimately backfired. Russia’ political involvement in the country was clear at this time, particularly with Jadid’ relations with the Eastern Bloc and plans to strengthen ties with communism; Nuritdin Mukhitdinov as Soviet Ambassador to Syria playing an influential role in developing closer ties to Russia. Providing armament – becoming the main supplier – and permitting the Russians to lease a naval facility in Tartus, Syria remained an ally as part of Russia’ Cold War efforts against the United States, the latter along with their pre-existing relations in the Middle East particularly with Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey initiated further tensions with Syria.

The deadly arms race in the Middle East is an example of politically and religiously fuelled competition in the region. Russia has become the main supplier of arms to the Assad regime, recently deploying advanced S-400 air defence systems to Syria [allegedly to protect their naval base] that is comprised of mobile missile launchers capable of detecting flying targets and effectively providing the country with battery capabilities that boosts its defensive security, effectively making non-stealth jets inoperable.[6] Similar missile systems were recently delivered to Iran, altering the security balance by closely matching the military powers of Israel and the US, which could thus permit an uninterrupted pursuit of dangerous domestic initiatives including the advancement of its controversial nuclear development program. Though United State’ fleet has been upgraded to overcome the strengthening defence through the development of new stealth assets and long-range bombers including LRS-B or B-21 Raiders,[7] it nevertheless poses a concern that could shift the dynamics and enable Iran to pursue nuclear technology independent of any lethal responses. Hidden under the guise of a peaceful source of power, nuclear facilities that have the technology capable of developing weapons along with a joint Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation could clearly engender a real shift in the balance of power in the region. This is particularly hazardous for Israel, with Iran consistently threatening to ‘wipe Israel off the map’[8] where former Ambassador to Syria Hojatoleslam Akhtari stating, “[t]he only way to subdue the enemies is by refusing to compromise on the goals of the resistance and to remain strong; the future of criminal nations such as the Zionists will be erased from the history books.”[9] Consistent deterioration in diplomatic processes on the nuclear question with Iran vis-à-vis violations of the Paris Agreement – a framework by the United Nations on climate change with assessments on nuclear infrastructure as part of the mitigation strategies to reduce global warming – raises legitimate concerns as to just how dangerous Iran’s military capabilities has become.

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Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider (LRS-B) Long Range Strike Stealth Bomber

The United States’ place in the Middle East is not without its controversy, particularly its involvement in Iraq, oil politics and its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Operation Desert Storm in January, 1991 was a military operation against Iraqi forces in Kuwait where over 100,000 people were killed. Though a strategic success, it was ultimately a failure in the aftermath since the violence continued long after; following the encouragement of minorities in Iraq – including the Shiite and Kurdish minorities – to weaken the regime through rebellion by supplying armament, the United States was party to the ultimate massacre of women, children and men as part of Saddam Hussein’ brutal suppression. The USA grossed $36.2 billion on foreign weapons sale in 2014 and controls almost 50% of the global market on weapons, with Russia coming in second.[10] Is it just an economic battle – one that would afford the greatest power – between two states utilising the differences in political philosophies to justify the onslaught of continuous violence and displacement of millions of lives? Following the Ba’ath party’ successful coup against the leadership of Abdul al-Karim Qasim with the support of the USA, by 1968 a bloodless coup led by General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr meant that the relationship and position of USA deteriorated in favour of the Soviet presence.[11] To challenge this, the USA sponsored – along with the support of the Iranian government at the time due to border disputes – the Kurdish people with armament and the initiative to rebel in exchange for autonomy. It was a fatal and unfilled promise for the Kurds.[12]

The relationship between the United States and Iran dates long before the Iranian revolution, the former known to having a hand in the 1953 coup d’état where documents verify how both the USA and Britain assisted the coup against Mohammad Mosaddeq and replaced by the preferred Shah.[13] It was not long after that oil in the region was privatised with the USA and Britain in control. The growing Soviet influence only compelled further attempts to infiltrate power in the Middle East, including Lebanon where the 1958 crisis exposed President Camille Chamoun’ close relations with the USA and despite the growing frustration between sectarian groups and pro-Western imperialism, President D. Eisenhower nevertheless intervened under what was considered the need to protect Lebanon and the Middle East from the ‘threat of communism’. It is the same reason for the United State’ funding of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. The Iranian Revolution solidified a massive shift in the region when the Islamic Republic of Iran was born through the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, and though the latter publically confessed an incompatibility between Islam and Communism, deteriorating relations with the United States only compelled closer ties with both China and Russia. Iran shifted toward a coalition that included Syria and soon found itself participating the foreign factious politics as seen with Houthi rebels in Yemen – a Shia Muslim minority – whom they support to aggravate Saudi Arabia. This led the Saudi government in a multi-national coalition of predominately Sunni-Arab states to restore president Abdrabbuh M. Hadi  of Yemen following the rebellion, leading to the deaths, injuries and displacement of tens of thousands of people and a widespread humanitarian catastrophe of an already impoverished state.

The Saudi influence in the region is undeniable and their stratagem in Syria – by supporting the Islamist rebel fighters in Syria – clear along with Qatar and Turkey. Muslim theologian Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab and author of Kitab at-tawhid or the ‘Book of Unity’ and fundamental to the teachings of Wahhabism, took a puritanical approach to the teachings not just of the Qur’an but also of the hadiths and became the primary power in the Saudi region following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The Saudi State has long promoted Wahhabi Islam, an ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam, and is a major provider of military and financial assistance toward a number of group that adhere to Islamist ideology, channelling assistance through ‘charitable’ funds to poorer, Islamic states that often aid in the construction of mosques and training Imams. In a damning report, the European Parliament[14] identified the Saudi Wahhabi regime along with the Salafi – which is known to be an extension of the former – as supporting global rebel groups with arms and fiscal provisions and thus making them better equipped and capable to fight effectively on the ground, which is a clear advantage in areas of the Middle East for instance. “From the most nebulous organisations to the most organised ones, from smaller cells to the most complex networks, no country in the Muslim world is safe from their operations, crude or sophisticated as they always aim to terrorise their opponents and arouse the admiration of their supporters.”[15] I hardly think a country where women have no rights and people continue to be beheaded for supposed crimes such as witchcraft would have the moral standing to cultivate an ethical approach to international relations.

United Nations Security Council Resolutions on the civil war in Syria where consistently vetoed against by both Russia and China, including S/2016/846 whereby Russian representative Vitaly I. Churkin stated: “After destroying Libya, the troika of permanent Western members of the Security Council had turned its sights on Syria. Furthermore, the French delegation had not put forward a single constructive initiative,” statements that were furthered by United Kingdom with Matthew Rycroft reacting with, “[t]he current tactics being used in Aleppo under the guise of combating terrorism were turning the situation into a catastrophe. The Russian Federation’s commitment was hollow and a sham. Instead of investing in peace and diplomacy, it had cooperated with the Syrian regime, and it was Syrian civilians who bore the brunt of that complicity.”[16] Accusations that the Russian Federation were derailing the resolutions and preventing diplomacy to immediately end the bombing of Aleppo, but Syrian representative went on to defend Russia purporting that the draft text from France was intended to fuel the crisis and enable France the “golden opportunity to revive its colonial power.”[17]

Really, just France? It is clearly not the only country that cares little enough for the millions of innocent women, children and men in the Middle East to say qu’ils mangent de la brioche!

Water politics is certainly controversial as the Taurus mountain regions in Turkey sources the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that provides the water for Syria and the Persian Gulf, threatening the water supply with the effective control of its flow through the construction of dams including the Atatürk Dam funded in part by the United States. The risk is not a joke neither do deterrence theories protect the probability of an outbreak of devastating consequences as exemplified by the drought in Iraq following the Keban Dam built in Turkey and the Tabqa Dam (built in response with the support of Russia) in 1975. In 1990, threats to bomb the Atatürk Dam following vehement protestations from Syria and Iraq due to the temporary reduction – thoughts its effects certainly felt by the two states – of the Euphrates river to fill the dams reservoir had Turkey threatening to completely cut the flow of water; the water flow is currently at 2/3rds of its former capacity prior to the dam. The scarcity of water in the region itself has had devastating effects and to utilise the dam as an instrument of war could lead to a much greater struggle and risk; the former, further displacement, sanitation and environmental disasters that may result in the deaths of millions of lives, whilst the latter and of greater concern, the direct involvement of China – who supports Russia, Syria and Iran – directly into the conflict.

 atatu%cc%88rk-dam-turkey-courtesy-dursun-yildiz

Atatürk Dam has reduced the water flow down the Euphrates-Tigris by 1/3 than what it was prior to its construction.

It would almost appear that since the decline of Ottoman power – an empire that stretched for hundreds of years in the region – the Middle East as become a hunting ground for gruesome Western hands salivating over the accessible fiscal rewards, manipulating authoritarian puppet states, fuelling religious tensions and sponsoring sectarian divisions that result in a monopoly of power struggles that intensifies hatred and has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the region. The religious divisions between Shia and Sunni Islam only enabling foreign interference. Now with Trump inaugurated as President of the United States of America, one wonders how his mindless leadership supported by the conservative evangelical Christians who have monolithic, premillennialist ideas of the Second Coming as well as a very strong influence on US Foreign Policy, will effect pre-existing adversaries between the superpowers? And what about China, sitting passively in the background as it watches from over the Caucasus Mountains? Are they believed to be Gog and Magog, the devil ousted from Heaven and who deceives (does anyone suspect?) the nations ‘to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea?’ One wonders about the Chinese army multiplying and the consistent increase in spending on military growth with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) the world’s largest standing army. Was Napoleon Bonaparte a military genius or a prophet when he said: “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will tremble the world.”

Has the trumpet been blown?

 

 

[1] Article 14, The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees
[2] Article 1 (a)(2)
[3] Brahma Chellaney, Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis, Rowman & Littlefield (2015) 50
[4] Syria Regional Fact Sheet: http://www.care.org/sites/default/files/documents/CARE_Syria_Regional_Crisis_Fact_Sheet_22092015.pdf
[5] https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/02/syrias-refugee-crisis-in-numbers
[6] https://www.rt.com/news/361586-russia-s300-supplied-syria/
[7] http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/americas-lethal-new-b-21-vs-the-b-2-stealth-bomber-15352
[8] Mark A. Tessler, A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Indiana University Press (1994) 393
[9] Dwight Jones, The Judas Factor: As Judas Betrayed Christ, America Will Betray Israel, Charisma Media (2015) 113
[10] http://time.com/4161613/us-arms-sales-exports-weapons/
[11] Bryan R. Gibson, U.S Foreign Policy, Iraq, and the Cold War 1958-1975, A thesis submitted to The London School of Economics and Political Science (‎2013)
[12] Bryan R. Gibson, Sold Out? US Foreign Policy, Iraq, the Kurds, and the Cold War. Palgrave Macmillan (2015)
[13] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/19/cia-admits-role-1953-iranian-coup
[14] European Parliament, “The Involvement of Salafism/Wahhabism in the support and supply of arms to rebel groups around the world” Directorate-General for External Policies of the Union, Directorate B [Policy Department]: EXPO/B/AFET/FWC/2009-01/Lot4/23 June/2013.
[15] Ibid
[16] https://www.un.org/press/en/2016/sc12545.doc.htm
[17] Ibid.

 

 

One thought on “Dangerous Liaisons in Syria: Is it a Civil War or a Proxy War?

  1. Sara,
    Very good history lesson for the region.. One senses the Trump group is impatient in their effort to get a world war started, illustrated by coming out of the gate and publicly confronting China, Iran and Russia. Combine these worrying developments with the fake news Amnesty International report (broadcast around the Earth), the resultant commentaries about “taking Assad out”, and it seems clear war is at the top of the agenda. This should serve as a blaring wake-up call to action for any man or woman concerned about preventing World War III.

    Liked by 1 person

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