In light of the current encouraging events in Washington, the hearings on Benghazi, on the Boston Marathon Bombing, and the Extortion 17 press conference at the National Press Club yesterday, Syria has recently taken a back seat in the news. But that isn’t to say that there aren’t a lot of very serious developments.
To say that the situation in Syria is extremely complex, is putting it mildly. The conflict has already taken between 70,000 and 80,000 lives, nearly 80% of whom were civilians, and created more than a million refugees who have fled to neighboring countries.
The chaos that has engulfed Syria for the last two years has been fueled by a huge number of foreign fighters, many of whom came from other conflicts and are connected to terrorist groups, particularly those connected to or inspired by al Qaeda.
One of these, Jabhat al-Nusra, is now easily the most dominant fighting force of all the diverse groups that comprise the opposition in Syria. It is also responsible for the increasing number of atrocities being reported, which the Western press has consistently blamed on the Assad regime. These include huge bombs in densely populated areas, sectarian murders specifically targeting Christians, beheadings, and terrorist attacks on schools and other civilian targets. al-Nusra is also reportedly working with Free Syrian Army fighters (the ‘good guys’) and training them how to build car bombs.
On the other hand, Assad has his own terrorist organizations. Both Hezbollah and Iran’s IRGC fighters in Lebanon were sent by Iran, and have been actively engaged in the conflict on the side of Assad’s forces ever since. Over time, they have become increasingly involved in Syria’s civil war, supplying troops and military advisers to help Assad retain control of his country.
There are still patriotic Syrian forces fighting fiercely against Assad for a free Syria, and our sources tell us that their numbers are over twice that of the rest of the unruly opposition. There is speculation that their numbers have been infiltrated by Islamist jihadis, and it clear that the US has increasingly difficult to tell the ‘good guys’ from the ‘bad guys’. Any foreign policy that the US promotes which suggests that it can provide arms to just the “good guys” is simply hubris and, in my view, is very, very bad policy when they can’t tell the difference.
Many analysts, including myself, had anticipated that despite the strong backing of Iran, Assad would not be able to withstand indefinitely the onslaught of the opposition forces, which only a few months ago were gaining ground very rapidly. At the time, I qualified my comments by saying that it really depended on how much Iran was willing to invest in supporting the Assad government. The answer turned out to be “Quite a lot”.
Syria is strategically important to Iran as a land bridge to supply arms and technical support to Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, and to give Iran Land access to the Mediterranean. The fall of Assad would seriously compromise Iran’s power in the region. This makes the stakes for Iran very high indeed.
Meanwhile, Senior IRGC commanders have been seen in Syria while on assignment to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Their presence in Syria underscores the strong links between Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah.
It is essential that we do not to overlook the strength of this relationship in considering the current situation in Syria, because while the media concentrates on the conflict between the opposition and Assad, there is another maelstrom brewing underneath the surface that is being either being willfully ignored or irresponsibly discounted.
Should Assad be ousted in the coming weeks or months, it is overly simplistic to say that Syria will become another Islamist country in a growing sea of Islamist countries. However, in the end, it is undoubtedly true.
If the current situation continues, it is no longer so clear that Assad will be ousted. Syria is so strategically important to Iran, and Iran’s support is so significant, that if there is no international interference, or a dramatic shift in power in the opposition that favors the Syrian Free Army, it is quite possible that with Iran’s support, Assad will continue to remain in power.
But (and it’s a big but) things are already changing.
The recent use of chemical weapons in Syria was supposed to represent a “red line”, according to President Obama, but a dispute over whether they had or had not actually been used has allowed the President to stall any military intervention, despite his earlier warning. This is critical because it demonstrates to the Muslim world that the US does not stand behind its warnings and can be considered a non-issue as they develop their plans for war and power.
Another dispute over which side used chemical weapons is equally critical. It is well known that Syria has been developing chemical and biological weapons for many years, and the factories and weapons depots are spread all over the country. A number of them have already been seized by oppsition forces. In other words, it is no longer a question of whether the terrorists can get them, because both sides already have them.
There is a difference, however, between having chemical weapons and using them. Israel said at the end of last month that it had found evidence that the Syrian government had repeatedly used chemical weapons during the month of March. But there have also been strong indications that opposition forces have also used chemical weapons.
Carla Del Ponte, a member of the U.N. commission that was charged with investigating the possible use of nerve gas in Syria, said there are “strong, concrete suspicions” of Sarin gas being used, “on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities.”
Although Israel has tried to stay out of the Syrian conflict, Netanyahu has made it very clear that sending chemical or biological weapons to Hezbollah will be a red line, and he has already demonstrated that, unlike our own administration, a red line still has meaning in Israel’s lexicon.
The two sets of air attacks last week that destroyed both weapons convoys and weapons factories were stern proof of that. The convoys included precision-guided missiles, which certainly could have escalated the level of confrontation, had they been allowed to get through to Hezbollah.
Israel may now be quickly drawn into Syria’s civil war. Assad has openly promised to supply “game-changing” weapons to Hezbollah and Israel has vowed not to allow these shipments to get through. Such advanced Iranian missiles, armed with chemical or biological weapons, would represent a potentially devastating assault on Israel’s civilian population, something Israel’s government cannot allow.
Assad has also reportedly given orders to engage attacking Israeli aircraft “without further warning”, should they attack “again”. However, shooting down attacking Israeli war planes is probably not one of Syria’s options, since Israel has been using over-the-horizon smart missiles to target Syrian convoys and chemical plants, and has not, to the best of my knowledge, had any over-flights over Damascus.
Nasrallah said Hezbollah expects more strategic weapons from Syria in the future, and Assad has promised that Syria will “give Hezbollah everything” in recognition of its support. Hezbollah already has an estimated 100,000 rockets and missiles, and hundreds of stationary and mobile missile launching pads throughout Southern Lebanon. A recent report stated that 110 of these missiles were already aimed at Tel Aviv.
So the situation in Syria is now at a 211 degrees Fahrenheit, and ready to boil over. Despite his bravado, Assad can probably not withstand a multi-front war at home and across international boundaries, particularly not with Israel.
Iran, however, may want to create a new distraction as it nears completion of its nuclear weapons program. It’s complicity in the recent North Korean crisis, for example, was for just that reason, coming immediately after the presence of a secret multi-function nuclear site not far from Iran’s Fordo nuclear plant was revealed. By fueling an international conflict between Hezbollah, its ally, and Israel, its designated enemy, Iran will most assuredly create a very significant distraction.
But that may well lead to both the further destruction of Syria and Lebanon brought on by massive Israeli retaliation, and a new international confrontation that may be, for the first time in history, a face off between nuclear powers, at least one of which will not be afraid – in fact may be eager – to use its newly acquired nuclear weapons.