By Alexey Pilko
The Syrian crisis remains in the focus of world media and a major issue for the international diplomacy. The UN Security Council is the scene of regular heated debate between supporters of tough action against President Bashar al-Assad led by the USA, and their opponents, particularly Russia and China. Such sharp differences between Moscow and Washington have not been seen since the war in South Ossetia, back in August, 2008.
Washington’s stance in the diplomatic battle around Syria clearly reminds of the Eisenhower Doctrine declared by the US president Dwight Eisenhower back in January 1957, which stated that any Middle Eastern country could seek economic or military assistance from the U.S. if it were the victim of military aggression by another state, “controlled by international communism”. In the modern version, with very little of “world communism” left, it might read somewhat like this: “any opposition group can receive economic, financial, military and other assistance from the United States if it is subjected to pressure from a regime that no longer serves American interests.”
And vice versa: if a regime properly serves Washington’s interests, any opposition group is in jeopardy. Namely this scenario has been deployed in Bahrain in the spring 2011. Most likely, a similar fate awaits the opposition groups in countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, whose political regimes make Syria look like a model of democracy. In other words, we are dealing with a classic case of double standards.
What are the aims of the U.S. policy in Syria? First, Damascus is Teheran’s last and only regional ally, and the collapse of Bashar al-Assad’s government would deal a serious blow on its position in the wider Middle East. In such a case, Tehran would be geopolitically encircled by hostile powers. There’s little doubt that after the neutralization of Syria, a military operation against Iran would be only a matter of time. And taking Bashar out of the game would allow the United States to secure its long-term domination over the Middle East.
Secondly, if the opponents of the President Assad’s regime take power in Syria, for Russia it will mean the loss of its main strategic partner in the Middle East. Thus, Washington will be able to push its political rival out of the region.
Thirdly, after achieving the desired outcome, Washington will maintain its “revolutionary momentum” and implement a large-scale and ambitious plan for a political transformation of the Middle East.
Certain peculiarities of U.S. tactics in the Arab world can be noted. Washington relies heavily on its allies. In Libya, France and Great Britain were the driving force behind operations against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. In Syria, France and Turkey are playing a similar role, as are the so-called oil monarchies of the Persian Gulf. But now, because this particular country has proved to be a tough nut to crack, the United States is increasingly taking the initiative.
Now, Syria’s regime is under unprecedented external pressure. Many global media outlets are waging an information campaign against the government in Damascus. A number of states, including the U.S. and the E.U. countries, have unilaterally imposed economic sanctions against Syria. In addition, the Syrian opposition continues to receive outside financial assistance. Occasionally, there are reports of illegal weapons shipments to Bashar al-Assad’s rivals, so the situation is starting to resemble an intervention.
In other words, only one final step is to be taken – a resolution unfavourable for the Syrian leadership adopted by the UN Security Council – before the fall of the current President of Syria becomes inevitable. Russia and China, however, mindful of the tragic experience of Libya, prefer to block any attempts to adopt such a resolution.
An analysis of the United States’ position toward Syria suggests that Washington is currently focused on organizing the international information campaign. U.S. officials have been painting a black and white picture: the political opposition, which is demanding that an authoritarian regime institute democratic change is the victim of merciless repression by that regime. With its wounds bleeding, it asks for help, and the international community is willing to provide it. However, Russia’s refusal give a nod to any move aimed at toppling regime in Damascus prevents this scenario from making it happen.
In real life, the situation is more complicated. The truth is that the activities of the radical wing of the Syrian opposition, which first took to the streets with ultra-radical slogans and then turned to armed struggle against the country’s armed forces, provoked the crisis unfolding in Syria. Russian leaders call for putting pressure on both sides of the internal conflict (between the government and the opposition) and forcing them to start a more constructive national dialogue.
However, if Bashar al-Assad’s regime stands, this will undermine the position of the United States in the Middle East. The Arab world will receive a clear signal that Washington is no longer the dominant force in the region, and there are adversaries that can foil its plans. There is no doubt that the United States will make every effort to prevent this from happening in the near future. But the question remains, how far will they go to achieve their goals?
Theoretically, the USA has several options. One is to keep on putting the economic pressure on Syria by tightening the sanctions and persuading more countries to join. Another is step up the information campaign against Damascus. Finally, as in Libya, local militants and armed radical groups as well as foreign mercenaries, may join the conflict. In any case, the United States and their allies have all the technical and financial capabilities needed to achieve their goals.
If these measures do not produce the desired result, we will start to hear talk of military action against Syria without UN Security Council authorization. However, it is almost impossible to predict how events would unfold under this scenario.
Alexey V. Pilko is Associate Professor at the Department of World Politics, Moscow State University.