Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment

Conflicts Forum

10 – 17 May 2013

This week has seen the further political consolidation of the strategic military shift begun by the Israeli attacks on Syria.  Netayahu – and other western leaders’ attempts – to mitigate Russia’s forceful counter-reaction to Israel have been to no avail – on the contrary, if anything, the Russian position has hardened.  The situation facing Israel as a consequence is that of a direct challenge to its attempt to embed an entitlement to take military action in Syria for whatever pretext (the passage of game-changing weapons to Hizballah, or the now somewhat passé propaganda claims about chemical weapons). The situation is this: Putin has promised Netanyahu direct retaliation for any further attack into Syria – and Putin’s deliberate opacity on whether the S300 surface-to-air missiles are already operational in Syria effectively undercuts not only direct attacks, but also any further stand-off air attacks, conducted from Lebanese airspace (given the S300’s 200 km range).  Putin merely smiled at Netayahu’s assertion that Israel could destroy such missiles (giving Israelis and Americans cause to shudder).  If this message was not clear, theRussian Naval commanderViktor then announced that a permanent staff of 20 officers would serve the Russian fleet in the Mediterranean. This fleet would consist of five to six warships – and possibly nuclear submarines. Finally, the Russian deputy Foreign Minister met with Sayed Hassan Nasrallah and said that Russia highly regarded the movement and recognised itsexceptional role and right to liberate its land.  (Compare this with the EU’s less than luke warm acknowledgement of the movement.)  Syria and Hizballah then upped the stakes by warning that (in retaliation for the Israeli strikes) theGolan front against Israel henceforth would be activated (a threat that at least one leading Israeli military commentator takes seriously), and that Hizballah henceforth would be acquiring ‘balance-changing’ weapons via Syria.  All this is of huge importance. Were Israel to ignore President Putin’s warnings and attack again, it is hard to see how the direct military intervention of outside powers could be avoided: we would be in a regional war.  However, were Israel to accept these new Russian ‘rules to the game’, it would undercut completely Israel’s threats against Iran.  There is absolutely no reason why these same tactics could not be replicated by Russia in order to deter Israel from any military attack on Iran. President Obama,meanwhile, might silently emit a sigh of relief that the credibility of Netanyahu’s threat against Iran has been weakened – even if the prospect of the emergence of this informal Russian military alliance may not be wholly welcome in America.

In Syria, the military gains by government forces continues.  The connection between Homs – Hama and its hinterland with its Lebanese logistics supply chain are being cut; the southern and eastern supply lines have been deeply affected; and the Army is making gains in Idlib and the north.  Effectively most opposition gains over the last two years have been rolled back, or are in jeopardy.  The Al-Nusrah Front now stands as the pre-eminent armed group with which the Syrian army is engaged.  Across the border in Turkey, two large bomb attacks on Alawite, pro-Assad villages, have resulted in attacks by Turkish locals on Syrians opposition forces situated in southern Turkey.  Contradicting the official line, a Turkish parliamentarian, echoing Turkish officials, has attributed the bombings in Turkey to the Al-Nusrah Front.

The exile Syrian opposition is experiencing further divisions as Saudi Arabia attempts to contain Qatari and Turkish advances in the Levant through putting an end to the Muslim Brotherhood domination of the Syrian National Coalition.  Saudi Arabia has entered into a coalition with liberal and secular oppositionists in order to try to impose a list of 25 names that emerged from a secular-democratic meeting held in Paris two weeks ago.  So far, this Saudi initiative aimed at spiking Qatar’s dominant influence over the formal opposition political structure has failed.  The US, still pre-occupied with countering al-Nusrah militarily, is likely to be wary of empowering the secular-liberal faction, who are judged by the US Administration to have almost no leverage with the armed elements on the ground: for the moment western hopes are pinned on the (largely ineffectual) General Idris, (whilst it is the Syrian army which alone is actually fighting al-Nusrah).  Whilst European states and America have moved to the position now of wanting negotiations with Damascus, they remain stuck on not wishing to have to eat ‘humble pie’ by negotiating with President Assad, yet see no alternative. More pressing perhaps is that they have no credible opposition negotiator from the opposition side to sit at the table in an international conference – or at least no opposition leader who could sit at the table and make any commitment on the part of the armed opposition, in the event of any agreement.  Most opinion doubts that the international conference (scheduled now for June) will indeed take place.

The fracture between liberal-seculars and Islamists-MB that is currently defining the increasingly hostile rivalry between Saudi Arabia, UAE and Jordan on one hand – and Turkey and Qatar on the other – is becoming a substantiveregional fracture, affecting politics particularly in Egypt and North Africa.  We are seeing the fragmentation of politics everywhere across the Sunni world, as politics breaks up into mutual antagonism, the break-down of conversations which lead to compromise, and to sustained verbal artillery barrages of accusation and counter accusation.  In short, the prospects of finding real consensus – even for basic ‘ground rules’ of democracy – across a diverse society such as that of Egypt, increasingly is becoming unavailable: factions (even those within particular currents) are often simply talking past each other.  And if consensus is becoming unavailable, so democracy too is likely to be becoming unavailable. Egypt appears to be in a state of dynamic disequilibrium: no-one is, or apparently can, attend to its pressing problems – and the liberal-secular faction will not countenance talking with the ‘other’, accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of ‘fascism’.  Wearily, Egyptians admit that all this is unlikely end up in a good place, but yet seem disinclined to take any action to avoid the anticipated ‘tragedy’.  There is no simple answer.  Intervention by the army is unlikely to achieve the acquiescence from the MB or from the people more generally, that it received in 1953.  These Egyptian tensions are being replicated, to one extent or another, across the Sunni world – and there is little sign of deeper thinking for now.

One Comment

  1. suzanne wrote:

    This seems to be the long term strategic point made by the United States, chaos for the sake of chaos. Chaos was a Roman God, seems an American one as well.

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