By Riad Kahwaji
Fast moving events in Syria have exceeded the expectations of many global and regional powers, and differences amongst super powers on how to resolve the Syrian conflict appear to have reignited a Cold War era style showdown in the Mediterranean. Flotillas of warships from Russia, China, the United States and some NATO countries have reportedly massed off the Syrian coast in a show of force the world has not seen since the end of the Cold War in 1990.
China and Russia have used their veto power three times in the past 15 months to kill resolutions at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) aimed at tackling the situation in Syria. Moscow and Beijing have refused to impose sanctions on the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad or pass binding resolutions under Chapter 7 of UNSC charter that could allow use of force to compel the regime to comply with international will. Both countries have warned the West against military intervention to help the opposition forces topple the Assad regime. Moscow has its only naval base in the Mediterranean in the Syrian port of Tartus, and has made it clear it wants to protect its interests in Syria, the last remaining strategic ally the Kremlin inherited from the Soviet Union.
The Chino-Russian diplomatic and naval show of force appears to be sending a message to the international community that the days of a U.S.-dominated unipolar world that prevailed since 1990 has come to an end and from now on a bi-polar or multi-polar world order will be the norm.
However, while super powers and regional powers are chest-pounding to intimidate one another each trying to impose his will, the situation in Syria seem to be slipping from whatever control these powers could have there. Developments in Syria have proceeded with such a high tempo that it took a life of its own, unaffected with the squabbles at the UNSC or within the Syrian opposition parties abroad led by the Syrian National Council (SNC). The Syrian insurgents that are grouped under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have made substantial gains on the ground over the past couple of weeks. They have managed to penetrate the Syrian capital Damascus, and even controlled most of its streets for few days before regime armored forces retook most of the city. But most important of all the FSA appears to have captured most of Aleppo, the country’s commercial capital and second largest city in northwestern Syria. The FSA has driven regime forces from most of Aleppo province and the nearby Edlib province, and has practically carved out an enclave along the border with Turkey large enough to act as a safety zone, which the Syrian opposition has been asking the international community to help create in the country ever since the revolution started in March 2011.
Despite the fact the West has not come to the rescue of Syrian rebels as it did to the revolution in Libya where NATO warplanes paved the way for Libyan rebels to overthrow the regime there, the FSA has proved more resilient and stronger than many observers had estimated. Perhaps being composed mainly of defected Syrian soldiers has given the FSA the ability to predict the regime’s moves and use its arms depots to acquire needed weapons and ammunition, in addition to what they managed to acquire from the black market in neighboring countries using funds provided by Syrian opposition figures and Arab sympathizers. The FSA is believed to have many informers and agents within the regime forces that have helped it score major blows to the regime, including the assassination of four of its top defense and security commanders. The FSA currently has Syrian forces overstretched and exhausted all over the country. The regime is quickly running short on troops as increased defections has compelled it to keep brigades mostly made up of Sunni troops with questionable loyalty confined inside barracks and to only use four or five elite divisions made up mainly of Alawite officers and soldiers. The Assad regime is being forced to give up territory in order to keep control of strategic positions, like the capital, Aleppo, and the western as well as the coastal side of the country. The predominantly tribal eastern part of the country has mostly fell in the hands of the rebels with just a few pockets left for the regime, and the situation is very much the same in the south. The regime has even lost control of several border crossing points with Iraq and Turkey, and is on the verge of losing control of crossing points with Jordan in the south.
Meanwhile, Turkey has started massing troops along the borders with Syria in an apparent reaction to two main developments: The battle of Aleppo that sparked an exodus of refugees across the borders into Turkey; and Kurdish areas in northeastern Syria falling in the hands of armed militias allied with the Kurdish Labor Party (PKK) – Turkey’s number one enemy. Turkish officials have been threatening intervention to end bloodshed in Syria for the past year. But so far Turkish leaders appeared to “talk the talk” but with little if any “walk,” despite the downing of a Turkish jetfighter by Syrian air defenses six weeks ago. Iran, Syria’s strategic ally, has reportedly warned Ankara against intervention in Syria. A recent visit by Syrian Foreign Minister Waleed Moallem to Tehran was reportedly aimed at seeking Tehran’s assistance to confront the mounting internal and external pressure on the Assad regime. Some reports even spoke of Damascus’ desire to invoke the joint defense pact signed between the two countries a couple of years ago.
With supply routes from Tehran to Syria via Iraq or sea mostly cut in the recent events due to fall of border crossing points in FSA hands and newly imposed measures by the European Union to check sea-born arms supplies from Iran to Syria, the only remaining route is air. Iran has limited logistical capabilities and can only shuttle troops and light arms and ammunition via air to Syria. So observers believe Iran has two ways left to assist the regime with military support: Use its arsenal of ballistic missiles against parties that could intervene militarily against Syria; or, Fly troops to Syria to be used in the fight against FSA and other foreign forces. The Iranian troops could use armor and equipment sitting in Syrian Army depots unused due to shortage of “loyal troops to the regime.” It should be noted that Assad has asked Tehran several times to open other fronts in the region, especially in southern Lebanon via Hizbullah, in order to ease the pressure on him. However, according to military and political sources in Lebanon, Hizbullah has rejected this request and Iran did not exercise any pressure on Hizbullah to comply with Assad’s wish. With its supply routes from Iran via Syria cut and sectarian Sunni-Shiite tension high in Lebanon, Shiite Hizbullah is not believed to be interested in any military showdown with Israel. Iran, in turn, is not likely to sacrifice its strongest projection force – Hizbullah – to try and save a dying regime in Syria.
Feeling increasingly confident with high moral, the FSA is moving quickly to assert more control on the ground and even start planning for the post-Assad period free of pressure from the outside. The super powers might still have a narrow window to regain control of events in Syria if they move quickly within the UNSC. Paris has called for a UNSC meeting in the next few days on foreign ministers level to address the issue of “a transition of power in Syria.” As they meet and try to resolve differences and agree on a common plan of transition, events on the ground are swiftly unfolding unabated by what is going on outside. It is likely that whatever the international community agrees on could be unachievable on the ground because events have simply surpassed it. The eventual biggest international losers, regardless of how matters proceed, will be Russia and China, because regardless whether the whole Syrian regimes or part of it is ousted, their respective relations with Syria and the Arab world will never be the same. Coming events will prove that they have chosen to reclaim their place as super powers and end U.S. unipolarity at the wrong time and cause. The Syrian revolution might prove to be the only uprising which the foreign powers would not be able to dictate its outcome either because they were too late or too hesitant to act. One thing for sure, a post-regime Syria will help establish a new regional order within a possible new world order.
Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA