By HUGO ODIOGOR
Syria is at war and the country is literally on the verge of disaster as we saw in Libya for eight months. The Syrian conflict has
lasted for the same period and now things seem to have come to a boiling point with the emergence of the Free Syria Army, made up of military defectors from government forces that have killed over 3,500 people going by the unofficial figures provided by aid agencies and opposition groups.
Hama, Homs and Deraa seem to be the centre of the resistance against the government of Bashar Al Assad, who is unwilling to accommodate the demand of his people to allow democracy to thrive. Assad took over from his late father Hafiz for almost a decade now and has maintained the same dictatorial philosophy of the Baath Party as we saw in Iraq under the Saddam Hussein leadership. The growing calls for Assad’s ouster are a severe setback for the family dynasty that has ruled Syria for four decades. Any change to the leadership could transform some of the most enduring alliances in the Middle East and beyond. The United States has been eyeing Syria for regime change since at least 2001.
The Arab League suspended Syria last week while Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and Qatar have openly condemned the killing of Syrians accused by government of being agents of the West. Turkey especially is bearing the weight of the repression in Damascus as thousands of fleeing Syrians have crossed over to its border with Syria.
The media is effectively restrained from covering the events in Syria but images of the repressive activities of the government have been coming through social media activists who are using multimedia facilities to get messages across to the world. Syria’s foreign minister Walid al-Muallem condemned the League’s announcement at a press conference on Monday and said the suspension of Syria from the Arab League is “illegal” and “dangerous”.
Foreign missions under attack
The embassies of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been breached by pro-Assad group who are angry with the attitude of these countries towards Damascus. A Jordanian embassy official reported last week that his country’s mission in Damascus was attacked after Jordan’s king Abdullah II told the BBC that Assad should step down and criticised the Syrian president’s violent crackdown on eight months of protests.
Angry Turkey’s prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, said he no longer has confidence in the Syrian regime, warning Al-Assad that his country is on a “knife edge” and the crackdown threatens to place Assad on a list of leaders who “feed on blood”. Turkey has also threatened to cut electricity supplies to Syria.
Erdogan also urged Assad to punish those responsible for last Sunday’s attacks on Turkish diplomatic missions in Syria. Addressing Assad by his first name, Erdogan said: “Bashar, you, who have thousands of people in jail, must find the culprits and punish them.”
There have been pressures on Assad from France, Germany, the United States and Britain which have been careful not to intervene forcefully as they did in the case of Libya but, with the emergence of the Syrian National Council and the Free Syria Army, it should be expected that Assad and his supporters are in for a full scale armed confrontation with the opposition. Separately, Germany, Britain and France are pressing for a UN resolution that would strongly condemn Syria’s human rights violations. The three European countries decided to move ahead with the General Assembly resolution after the Arab League confirmed its suspension. In October, they voted for a UN Security Council resolution that threatened sanctions against Syria if it didn’t end its crackdown. The UN estimates Assad’s crackdown has killed more than 3,500 people since the uprising began in March and human rights groups say security forces have carried out killings and torture which constitute crimes against humanity.
Syrian authorities have blamed the violence on armed groups, claiming that at least 1,100 soldiers and police have been killed since the uprising broke out. The protest movement in Syria against the government of Al-Assad first started following protests in the southern city of Deraa where the protesters were calling for reform and an end to corruption, but, as the demonstrations were met with live bullets, the rallies changed tone, calling for the fall of the government. It has since become a nation-wide resistance against the regime.
The prospect of a civil war in Syria is something Russia is watching very carefully. There have been anti-Russian demonstrations in Damascus where the protesters were demanding that Moscow stops selling weapons to Assad’s regime. Against the background of the NATO – backed military overthrow of Colonel Muamar Gaddafi in Libya, Russian experts are watching to see what would be the next move in Syria.
Moscow is not comfortable with the US war game in the region and had been following the steps of the Obama administration in the crucial moments in the Arab world. US President Obama has been critical of Assad especially in his speech address to the world after the murder/execution of Gaddafi in which Obama specifically mentioned Syria and Assad in what many international relations guru regard as an ominous threat for that country. Russia understands this all too well.
Russia’s weapon sales could be seen as part of the strategic moves by Moscow to serve as deterrence to any US military aggression in the region. Iran, Lebanon and China are also watching the unfolding events in Syria with keen interest. Russia and China have stood by Damascus amid concerns that the downfall of Assad would be a severe blow to their interests in the Middle East. The US and NATO have literally surrounded Russia and established permanent bases in Afghanistan, which could strike Moscow in just a matter of a few hours.
There was also the missile defense shield and NATO intervention in former nations of the Soviet Union. Syria’s relation with Iran is among the most important relationships in the Middle East, as it provides Tehran with an important foothold on Israel’s border and serves as a critical conduit for Iran to support Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza. On its part, Russia’s interest in Syria goes well beyond weapons trade and involves national and international security concerns.
Russia, as part of the defunct USSR, played a key role in the development of Syria’s economy where it built about 90 industrial facilities and infrastructure. One-third of Syria’s oil-processing facilities and electric power capacity as well as the three-fold expansion of land under irrigation were assisted by Soviet cooperation with Damascus. The economic tie between Russia and Syria has been robust as Russia’s commitment to free-market policies and Syria advancement towards greater economic liberalization has seen both countries working towards greater trade and investment. Syrians are interested in attracting Russian companies into large economic projects and also in Russian investments, which are rather modest so far. The areas of Russian interest include development of Syrian oil and gas fields, construction projects in power generation, sea ports, and the renovation of Syria’s industrial infrastructure. Russia’s oil and gas companies may also be interested in partnering with the Syrian government in constructing additional refinery capacity.
On its part, Syria hoped to increase its presence in Russia’s agriculture and textile sectors, while, in turn, Russia could supply Syria with equipment and machinery. It is therefore clear that Russia and Syria have much to offer each other. Enhanced cooperation with Russia is taking place in other areas too. Syria signed an agreement to allow Russia to modernize port facilities at Tartous and Latakia, to provide the Russian navy with Mediterranean berthing. This gives Russia its only access to the Mediterranean sea. No fewer than 50 Russian naval officers are reported to be deployed in Tartous to maintain and supply ships in the Mediterranean. In September 2008, it was agreed that Tartous should be developed into a full a naval base and the first stage of development and modernization will be completed in 2012. As a naval base, it could serve as a base for guided-missile cruisers and even aircraft carriers.
Its only naval base in Mediterranean is located in Syria. Moscow is aware that if Assad’s regime is toppled, its weapons sales, naval base and strategic national security interests could be jeopardized.
Russian military experts aver that “Moscow is trying to prevent war in Syria and a wider war between the US and Iran, which could kill hundreds of thousands of people.” Containing the US aggression which could engulf the world in war is seen as paramount to world peace” But the US State Department has dismissed the allegations that Washington has malevolent intention in Syria.