Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Turning points ahead in Syria, but which side will come out on top?

Global Times - Op-Ed

Depending on which side you are on, the Syrian conflict has taken a turn for the better or for the worse following the Syrian Army's retaking of the rebel-held city of Qusayr earlier this month after a two-week-long offensive.

The siege, aided by Lebanon's Hezbollah, marks an upswing for the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, being the first decisive victory over a rebel-held city since the conflict began in the spring of 2011.

The tide appears to be turning in Assad's favor, while the rebels and their supporters have faced a serious setback. Decisive battles are now afoot that will change how the conflict plays out.

Qusayr, in western Syria, was strategically important to the Free Syria Army (FSA) due to its proximity to the Lebanese border and as a conduit for smuggling weapons.

With the fall of Qusayr, and the Syrian Army having retaken control of the Damascus to Aleppo highway, the government armed forces are moving north on the city of Homs and the rebel-controlled areas of the country's second largest city, Aleppo.

If the rebels lose these two cities, their options will be limited to try and hold the Northeast, largely restricted to guerrilla tactics to wear the Syrian Army down and prompt more desertions, as it did before when the uprising spread throughout the country.

As General Salim Idriss, chief of staff of the FSA's Supreme Military Council, put it to the press, "the best way for us to fight this regime is by guerrilla warfare or hit and run tactics without holding on to territory." By Idriss' own admission, the FSA has been weakened and is in serious need of more than light weapons to take on the Syrian Army and air force if it is to succeed.

The anti-Assad camp does not want the rebels to lose their footing. The US has announced it will provide military aid "different in scope and scale to what we have provided before," but other NATO allies have been less forthcoming.

Indeed, the hesitancy about supplying the rebels with heavy weaponry is that they could fall into the wrong hands, primarily radical Islamist groups such as the Al-Nusra Front, which has become infamous for a commander cutting out the heart of a dead Syrian soldier on videotape, as well as for its summary executions.

Furthermore, NATO countries are reluctant to go into Syria to enforce a no-fly zone on behalf of the rebels given the lack of public will for further foreign intervention, and that an air campaign has to factor in that Syria has Russian-supplied surface-to-air missiles.

Nonetheless, a turning point is looming for the anti-Assad factions as to whether to multilaterally heavily arm the rebels and resort to aerial intervention or not.

The US-Russia-sponsored peace talks have been largely scuttled due to the opposition not wanting to turn up as it is not in the best bargaining position.

For the FSA and its backers, a turn in fortunes is needed militarily to be able to push for more concessions at the diplomatic table.

On the international stage, a setback for the rebels in Syria is a blow in the West's campaign against Syria's ally Iran, and by extension to countering Russia and China.

The alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Army is being pushed as the proverbial "smoking gun" to rally support for major international intervention.

The weapons of mass destruction argument worked before when beating the drums for war on Iraq, and when public opinion in the West was not initially amenable to intervention in Libya, and recently in France's intervention in Mali, military actions were nevertheless condoned.

If the Syrian rebels get extensive backing and air cover as a result of the loss of Homs and Aleppo, then a different phase starts in the conflict. As it does if the rebels are not supported and pushed further on the defensive. Regardless, a rumbling conflict will likely rage for years, whether between what remains of the rebels and the Assad regime, or between rival rebel factions.

The violence that continues in Iraq, where more than 1,000 people were killed last month, should remind us how long this could linger.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Far East Comes Near

China dips its toe in the Middle East's troubled waters

Commentary - Executive magazine

That China is a rising global power is a given, although whether the People’s Republic will eventually usurp the United States as world hegemon is hotly debated. But as a saying goes in the Far East that reflects the region’s burgeoning confidence: “Europe was yesterday’s power, today it is the US, and tomorrow it will be Asia.”

With China the world’s second largest economy and forecast to overtake the US by 2025 if not earlier, Beijing undoubtedly has the biggest say among the ascendant Asian states. Yet when it comes to a political role in the Middle East, the Far East has traditionally acted as a bystander — an exception being Japan’s involvement in the 1990 Gulf War, albeit a non-military one, by providing $12 billion to the US war chest — but this has started to change in recent years.

An inkling of what’s afoot was a surprise diplomatic move by Beijing when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas made visits — separately, of course — to China in early May. Beijing announced a “four point peace plan” to Abbas, and the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry proposed hosting a future Israel-Palestine peace summit.

While both offers were politely rebuffed, the move was a notable development in China’s foreign policy, which has focused more directly on the Pacific Rim and its immediate sphere of influence than projecting political clout elsewhere on the planet. As analysts continuously, and rather obviously, emphasize, China’s foreign policy outside its backyard has been driven by securing commodities — as if China is unique in that respect and the US or other countries are not focused on energy in our “carbon era”.

In this regard, it is worth noting that around half of China’s oil imports are currently sourced from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and that is set to rise to 80 percent by 2020, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Trade — primarily energy from the MENA and goods from China — is slated to grow and diversify, with Beijing and the Arab states setting a target to bolster trade from a projected $222 billion this year to $300 billion in 2014.

To ensure a steady flow of energy from the MENA region, peace and stability are clear priorities for Beijing. That is likely one reason for its proposal to mediate in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and China could play a role as a largely independent actor without the historic baggage of the US or Europe.

Indeed, if China plays a canny game, it could push the Israelis — potentially via trade, as China is Israel’s top trading partner in Asia, with bilateral trade close to $10 billion in 2012 — to make serious concessions for a viable Palestinian state and in doing so garner support among the far more populous Arab and Muslim public that the US lacks due to its unflinching support for the Jewish state.

There is a long way to go though before China will become a heavyweight player in MENA politics. Indeed, it has been happy to “free load” along with the rest of the world on the back of the US’ military presence in the Gulf that keeps the Strait of Hormuz open for oil tankers. As pointed out in these pages last year, the US spent an estimated $6.8 trillion between 1976 and 2008 projecting military force in the Persian Gulf, so when taking into consideration the 6.2 billion barrels a year that pass through the Strait, the US is essentially footing a bill of $79 a barrel to keep itself and everyone else in Gulf oil.

China is in no position to incur such costs or replace the US as the “global policeman” — it only has one aircraft carrier — but Beijing is showing that it is willing to dip its toe in the Middle East’s troubled waters and in one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. It is indicative of increased Chinese involvement in the MENA’s geopolitics in the years to come.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Russia consistent in goal of bringing Assad to Syrian peace table

Global Times

Recently Russia came under fire for allegedly providing Syria with more missiles, considered a "game changer" in Damascus' ability to ward off the specter of foreign intervention. A Russia-US peace summit has been proposed to end the conflict in Syria, which has caused a reported 94,000 deaths.

Taken at face value, it would seem that Moscow is playing a duplicitous role, backing the Syrian regime on one hand and pushing for peace on the other. Yet Russia has been acting consistently in its foreign policy on the Syria crisis.

The latest outcry over Moscow's bullish support for the Syrian government stemmed from a New York Times article that claimed Russia had provided Yakhont cruise missiles and S-300 surface-to-air missiles. The article was duly pounced upon by the press as further evidence of Russia being an accomplice to the murderous Syrian regime.

But did Moscow provide missiles this time or not? Russia's response was essentially "so what if we did?".

"I don't understand why mass media are trying to make a sensation out of the fact. We do not conceal that we supply weapons to Syria according to signed contracts," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Why is Russia taking such a seemingly belligerent stance on the Syria crisis? The Kremlin is not keen on a repeat of NATO's intervention in Libya, which cost Moscow business and undercut its domestic and international standing by allowing the overthrow of the Libyan regime.

Moscow may also view any intervention in Syria as a precursor for a US-led attack on Iran. At another level, Moscow looks at the regime as the lesser evil compared to the multi-factional rebels. It wants to prevent Syria being taken over by Islamic radicals and the country turning into an "Afghanistan on the Mediterranean."

Moscow's fear of an "Islamist spring" and the rise of Islamic politics in the Middle East is that it could cause ferment in its own backyard, the Caucasus, where Russia has had a fraught history.

The church is also playing an increasing role in Russian politics and foreign policy, with Moscow willing to play the part of the defender of Christianity that secular Europe and the US cannot overtly do.

Moscow also has interests in Syria. The two countries have ties dating back to the Soviet era. Yet Moscow's relationship with Damascus is not an alliance, it is one of a client. Syria has nothing to really offer Russia in natural resources, and it is not a financially beneficial relationship either.

Indeed, in 2005, Moscow had to write off $10 billion of Syria's $13 billion Soviet-era debt to sell more weapons.

While the naval base at Tartous is frequently cited as a major factor in Russia's pro-Syria stance, the facility is of limited significance, hosting some 50 staff and modest docking capabilities, a far cry from, say, the US naval base in Bahrain with over 5,000 personnel.

But Syria's geostrategic positioning next to Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel is of clear importance, as is its 6,300 kilometers of oil and gas pipelines.

As for the Russia-US planned talks, to be held in Geneva, this is consistent with Moscow's end goal of a transitional government that involves the Bashar al-Assad regime's Baath party and the opposition.

Russia's role in the talks is crucial in bringing the Assad regime to the table. The struggle will be to bring in all the opposition forces.

To do so, the talks should involve more actors that are crucial in the conflict, namely Turkey and Iran, as well as the primary financial backers of the rebels, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

If the peace talks are successful, the Kremlin would have achieved its foreign policy objectives of preventing foreign intervention and an Islamist Syria, as well as retaining a regional foothold.