Thursday, February 23, 2012

What does the civil war in Syria really mean for Iran, Russia and China?

I was recently asked by a reader to update two of my past articles, Iran's asymmetrical response options and For Israel war is the continuation of national suicide by other means, and that is an excellent idea, considering that the first one was written in 2007 and the second one in 2010.  I did touch upon these issues in a more recent article, Iran in the crosshair again, which does to a certain degree update the former two, but this might be a good time to look at the big picture of what is taking place and try to get a feel for where it all might be headed.  If the three above mentioned articles (which I recommend you read - if you have not already -  before reading on further) looked at the possible outcomes of an attack on Iran primarily from a military point of view, it might be interesting to look at where the most changes have occurred: in the political field.  After all, military conflicts never take place in a vacuum and, if anything, the war in Kosovo has shown that the side which militarily "wins" (the Serbs) can at the same time loose politically.  So let's look at what the major political shifts are not from the point of view of some reporter sitting in Los Angeles or Rome, but from the point of view of Iran and Israel.

The creation of an anti-Shia front:

The outcome of the war in Iraq and the de-facto takeover of Iraqi politics by Shia parties as resulted in "push-back" reaction in many Sunni Arab states, in particular in Bahrain and Syria.  The behind-the-scenes but direct involvement of Gulf States like Qatar in the war in Libya and the transformation of the Arab League into a "US/NATO invitation committee" clearly shows that the rich oil sheikdoms are becoming concerned and have decided to counter what they perceive as the "Shia crescent's" threat.

But let's remind ourselves of what we are talking about here: the Shia crescent is nothing else but a list of countries where the Shia have been systematically and brutally repressed and excluded from the political process either by secularist (Shah in Iran, Saddam in Iraq), Wahabi zealots (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia) or a mix of both (Lebanon).

It also happens that these are the parts of the Middle-East in which most oil can be found.

In other words, the Shia crescent is nothing else but the territories where the Western Empires have used local Sunni proxies to oppress and impoverish the majority population while stealing their natural wealth.  This is what all this nonsense about the "terrorist Mullahs" and the "Shia threat" really is designed to conceal: that the Shia, inspired by Iran and Hezbollah, are engaged in a national liberation struggle which threatens all those billionaires which have been in bed with the British, the USA and the Israelis since day one.

Everywhere you look, Sunni leaders, and in particular of the Wahabi type, have been working hand-in-hand with the Zio-American interests, even at the clear detriment of the interests of the local Muslim population (Balkans, Caucasus, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, etc.).  Oh sure, there are regular clashes between the US and various Wahabi groups worldwide, but they are tactical, local, in nature.  In the big picture the West and the Wahabis have always walked in lockstep with each other (as seen recently in the case of Libya).

And don't let the fact that the Shia mostly deny all this deceive you: that denial of the obvious reality is an old Shia survival technique destined to blame any Shia-Sunni tensions on any and all conceivable causes but the obvious one: the religious one.  I think that this is a very misguided approach, but it has been historically the one most Shia have chosen: Shias much rather believe themselves to be a part of the big Islamic "Ummah" than to contemplate the outright distressing possibility that most of the Muslim world is hostile towards them (which is what the historical record shows).

The civil war in Syria really brought it all out in the open and if in the past one could debate the putative successes of Iranian diplomacy with its Gulf neighbors and the various smiles and hugs it resulted in, but the fact is that Iran's neighbors are now all joining forces against it.  Even Turkey, which tends to be cautious in its policies towards Iran is now fully involved in the external intervention in Syria, which is another bad sign for Iran.

As for Hezbollah, it always new that all the Arab and Sunni expressions of support for its causes were just that - empty words, lip-service to the personal popularity of Hassan Nasrallah, but that in reality Hezbollah had no other friend or ally except Iran.  In his famous 2006 "Divine Victory speech" Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah said the following:
The people of Lebanon gave strong proof to all the peoples of the world. The Lebanese resistance provided strong proof to all Arab and Islamic armies. Arab armies and peoples are not only able to liberate Gaza and the West Bank and East Jerusalem, they are simply capable of regaining Palestine from sea to river by one small decision and with some determination. The problem is that when one is torn between two choices and is asked to choose between his people and his throne, he chooses his throne. When he is asked to choose between Jerusalem and his throne, he chooses his throne. When he is asked to choose between the dignity of his homeland and his throne, he chooses his throne.  What is distinct about the resistance movements in Lebanon and Palestine is that they chose the dignity of their people, holy places, and freedom and offer their leaders, sons, and dear ones as sacrifices to join the throne of God Almighty.
These words are a direct slap in the face of all the hapless Sunni and secular (Baathist) Arab leaders who literally for decades drowned the world in fiery speeches and yet have never achieved anything: from the Wahabi fat cats of the Gulf, to the Masonic Baath (corrected typo) Phalangist leaders of Lebanon, to the "progressive/popular" secular leftists leaders of the various Palestinian factions, none of them ever managed to scure even a modest victory against Israel.  Compare that to the Shia who defeated the USA in Iran, then defeated the USA again in Iraq, and then defeated Israel's four brigades, three reserve divisions and entire Air Force and Navy with roughly one thousand second rate Hezbollah soldiers (the best Hezbollah fighters were all kept north of the Litani river).  What Hassan Nasrallah is saying is this: the reason why the Arab and Islamic world was always defeated is because it was lead by unworthy leaders who care about their thrones more than anything else.  Such talk is tantamount to a death threat to all these leaders and they are now "circling the wagons" under the protection of Uncle Sam and his Israeli overlords to stop the Shia liberation movement.

The USA as re-grouped and has Iran surrounded:

Juan Cole has recently published a map of US bases all around Iran which really says it all:

What this map is not showing is how the spread of force levels has changed since, say, 2007.  Nor does it show to what degree the US lines of supply have become shorter (in Afghanistan) or disappeared all together (Basra is no more a key transit area).  While there still is an important US presence in Iraq, most of it via its huge mercenary forces, the bulk of the US Army combat units has been withdrawn to safer locations and is now available for deployment.

That still leaves plenty of US bases as potential targets of an Iranian retaliatory missile strike, but at least the Iraqi Shia allies of Iran have less of a chance to easily hit US military personal in Iraq.

Finally, should the USA decide to mount a sustained campaign of air and missiles strikes against Iran, it now has the regional resources to to so.  Iran is now as surrounded as Kosovo was.

The civil war in Syria as the litmus test of Western power:

I have said that many times already, and I will say it again: I despise the Baathist regime of Assad Jr. almost as much as I despised the regime of his father. To me, what is happening to Assad today is exactly what happened to Gaddafi, Saddam, Noriega and so many faithful servants of the US Empire who have been dumped by their American masters as soon as they became useless. Assad, specifically, was all to willing to torture 'suspects' 'rendered' to him by the US CIA and there is no doubt in my mind that his regime let Israeli agents kill Imad Mughniyah.  And, of course, Assad is yet another example of a leader who only cares about his "throne" to use Hassan Nasrallah's expression, and who will do anything to hold on to it.  So please don't mistake any of what I say below as a defense of Assad or his regime.

Just as was the case with the anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya, there is no doubt in my mind that the anti-Assad forces are nothing but US/NATO puppets, from the diplomatic prostitutes of the Arab League, to the Wahabi snipers in Homs, to all the doubleplusgoodthinking "humanitarians" who flood the Internet with crocodile tears about the civilians victims in Syria but who strenuously fail to say anything about the butchery of the Bahraini Shia.  

Libya provided this bizarre hodge-podge of wannabe humanitarians with a grand rehearsal for their current operation, the big difference that Gaddafi and his sons were clueless clowns whereas Assad seems to be a more sophisticated player.  That, and the fact that the Alawi and Christian communities are probably terrified of what will happen to them if the Wahabis take power in Syria, makes Assad a tougher opponent than Gaddafi.

What makes things worse in Syria is that is has the misfortune of being at a strategic crossroads of the entire Middle-East and that is plays a crucial role not only for Iran, but even more so for Hezbollah.  That, in turn, means that the "throne-loving" leaders of the Middle-East, the US/NATO and the Israelis all see in the civil war in Syria the perfect opportunity to deal a sever blow to their Shia enemies.  Hence the toxic "sacred alliance" against the Assad regime, all in the name of democracy and human rights, of course...

I can't call the outcome of this civil war yet.  There are too many variables and too many possible developments.  My personal feeling is that the fate of the Assad regime might well be decided in Moscow and Beijing as I don't see the Assad regime indefinitely resisting against the combined onslaught of all the forces arrayed against it.  As for Iran, it also does not have the political weight necessary to save Assad from eventually loosing power.

In contrast, Russia and China have enough weight, in particular in the form of money, to throw around to strongly influence the events on the ground, but will they do so?  That, at least for me, is the big question.

So far Russia and China have a checkered record at best, which includes the betrayal of Iran and Libya at the UNSC, but which also includes the recent veto of the anti-Syrian resolution at the UNSC as well as numerous statements that no military action against Iran is acceptable to them. 

I think that many people are making way too much over the recent visit of the Russian mini carrier group (one aircraft carrier, one frigate, four tankers, one tug and two corvettes) to the Syrian port of Tartus.  This was very much a political visit, scheduled a long time ago, and not at all the deployment of a real task force to "defend the Assad regime" against any US or NATO attack.  In fact, the Russia flotilla was a mix of Northern Fleet and Baltic Fleet vessels whose area of responsibility does not include the Mediterranean.  Yes, it is true that the Russian Navy would be interested in having a permanent base in Tartus, but this would be a re-supply and maintenance base, and not at all a military base designed to project Russian military power in the region, much less so intervene in internal Syrian political strife.  So let's make something absolutely unequivocally clear: neither Russia nor China will ever use military means to oppose a US/NATO intervention anywhere in the world unless it is against Russian or Chinese territory or forces.  Those who believe otherwise are dreaming.

This being said, its not the Russian or Chinese military power which might influence the outcome of the civil war in Syria, but Russian and Chinese "soft-power", mainly in the form of money: in the form of official loans, of course, but also by means of behind the scenes pay-offs and bribes of various key actors, combined with technical assistance to the regime, and diplomatic pressure on the West (Russia and China do have excellent political "levers" which they could potentially use against the West).  What is not so clear to me is whether Russia and China are willing to use much of their capital (financial and/or political) to save this weak, corrupt and untrustworthy regime from collapsing.

Sure, for Iran and Hezbollah a collapse of the Assad regime would be a disaster, but for Russia or China?

Looking at even the bigger picture, would even a US/Israeli war on Iran be a disaster for Russia and China?

The sad reality is that, at least so far, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and, even more so, the Collective Security Organization (CSO) have failed to live up to the idea of being a counter-weight to NATO and the US.  NATO has the huge advantage of being an organization totally controlled and operated by the USA, with the rest of the Alliance playing the role of a symbolic fig-leaf concealing the ugly fact that the Europe is a US colony.  In military terms, NATO is just another combined joined task force operated by the US military.  The SCO has two independent heavyweights, Russia and China, who remain in many ways suspicious of each other and who both want to retain their full independence.  The CSO is much more Russian controlled, but that also means that it has a much smaller, strictly regional, role and importance.

The US therefore enjoys the immense advantage of having a fully integrated NATO as the cornerstone of its imperial project, supported by a list of local entities (Arab League) all capable of acting in full unison once the order is given by Uncle Sam (or his Zionist overlords).  Add to this an immense and sophisticated propaganda machine, the Western corporate media, and you come to the inevitable conclusion that there is nobody out there who can really stand up to the US/Israeli Empire and make it back down.  Oh sure, the Russians did make the US and NATO back down over Georgia in 2008, but the Russians were actually willing to have a full scale war with NATO and the US over this issue, whereas most leader is the West did not give a damn about Georgia or Saakashvili.  Like in Chechnia, the West would have preferred to win, but a small loss was really no big deal for them.

I am afraid that the exact same logic, but in reverse, might be applied to Syria and Iran: whereas the West, fully controlled by Zionists interests, is hell-bent on a confrontation with Syria and Iran, the Russians and Chinese are show very little desire to really take a firm stand on this issue.  Syria is not in the South China Sea or the Caucasus and its economy is too small to really matter to Moscow and Beijing.  In contrast, Iran is awfully close to the Russian Caucasus and a war involving Iran might have a spillover effect on the Russian southern border.  Not only that, but Iran's economy is far more important to Russia and China, so my guess is that there would be far more willingness in Russia and China to prevent the West from returning Iran into its sphere of influence than to do much about Syria.

And yet, consider this: if my 2007 analysis is still correct and the USA and Israel cannot 'win' in Iran, at least not in the sense of achieving regime change, and if Syria does not really matter enough to Moscow and Beijing, is there any rationale at all for direct Russian or Chinese intervention in either conflict (other than the usual loud protests and other expressions of outrage at the UN?).

Conclusion: an international anti-Shia coalition

First, it appears that an international anti-Shia coalition has been successfully formed by the USA in its efforts to support Israel.  The primary aim of this coalition is to weaken Iran's influence in the Middle-East by all possible means.  Second, the USA is now in a much safer position than it was in 2007 to be able to respond to an Israeli strike on Iran or even to launch a missile and air campaign of its own.  Third, there are as of now no signs that Russia or China are willing to directly intervene to save the Assad regime in Syria.  In the case of Iran, since regime-change is probably not achievable in the first place, there is not clear rationale for a direct Russian or Chinese intervention in a possible war between Israel, the US and Iran.

If the above is correct, that leaves Iran and, even more so, Hezbollah, in a very difficult position.  One could say that they are the victims of their own successes, Iran in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon.  In this context, I think that it is fair to say that the Assad regime has proven to be a fantastic liability for both Iran and Hezbollah, and that suggests a possible solution to this problem: the replacement of Assad and his band of highly secularized minions by some regime more committed to the Iran-Hezbollah alliance.  The problem with that is that unlike the Shia of Bahrain or Iraq, the Shia in Syria are a minority (13% split into three factions) and that the Alawis are tainted by the role in the Assad regime. So where would such a leader come from?

Syria always was the weak link of the Iran-Hezbollah alliance, and most definitely the weak link of the so-called "Shia crescent".  By striking there the West has correctly identified this civil war as a low-cost operation (for itself, of course, not for the Syrian people) with very high potential rewards and it is now using all its power to win this battle.

Iran and Hezbollah might want to take heed of the US expression, "hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and settle for anything in the middle" and pray that the worst, whatever that may be, does not happen in Syria.  Still, it remains highly likely that once the dust settles in Syria, both Iran and Hezbollah will find themselves in far weaker and vulnerable situation than before the conflict began.

And Israel in all that?  The fact that I did not mention it at all in this analysis should not be taken as meaning that it is irrelevant to these processes.  Israel is crucial to it all since it is on Israel's behalf that the entire US policy in the Middle-East is conducted.  Let me repeat this: the grand purpose of the entire Imperial operation against the Shia is to help Israel deal with Iran and Hezbollah.  The question remains, of course, whether the Israeli leadership is willing to listen to reason and stay put while the Americans are doing their bidding, or whether they will commit yet another folly and strike at Iran with no possible hope to achieve anything tangible (other than feeling good about themselves).

I would say that the past record clearly shows that the Israelis have never missed an opportunity to do something stupid, and that this time, pushed by, on one hand, their own rhetoric and, on the other, their belief that they can get Uncle Sam to rescue them from even a self-created disaster, they will end up attacking Iran probably sooner, than later.

The Saker