The golden end of the war in Syria

The contents of the article include informal conversations with senior officials and strategic analysts. Their names should remain confidential due to the derogatory nature of the subject matter in relation to their posts. 

All armed conflicts are motivated by God or gold, Mandelbaum said some years ago. With certainty we can say that God is no longer an excuse as "gold" seems to be the sole driving force in any conflict. Perhaps religious conviction is just the facade or the sprakler. The emerging civil conflict in Syria right now is another realistic example. There is no room for any doubt that there is no real ideological or humanitarian background in either of the conflicting sides; Neither by Assad, nor the various rebels, nor by other countries and the UN.

But let's take things from the beginning. Looking behind the current rhetoric, Syria is surrounded by a triptych of geostrategic factors: the internal strife, their potential allies (Russia, China, and Iran) and their potential enemies (Turkey and other NATO forces, of course.)

The internal instability in Syria may be dragged from the generalized climate of the Arab Spring, which is not proven how spontaneous it was, but certainly in some Maghreb countries (Egypt, Tunisia, Libya) has brought some tangible changes. Nevertheless the results will take a few years to show. The main problem inside and outside Syria, as we shall see, is to be found in the lack of identity of the rebels and the anti-regime forces. The Free Syrian Army based in Istanbul is ultimately a propaganda ploy or at best an exaggerated truth. Several officers have indeed defected, but in reality the defectors are much smaller in number and consisted mainly of junior rank officers. Provocative incidents are routine for months and stem from all sides. A renowned example is the trap set by certain rebels, to foreign journalists, who were taken to an area where the regime forces would definitely shoot at them and the Assad regime would be held responsible for their death. The situation worsens with massacres -mainly civilian casualties- from both sides, so that one side may accuse the other for hideous crimes. This is the main reason that the UN observers stay locked in their hotels for months now and they do not move out at all. The rebels are certainly more equipped than the previous months but still the scope of their identity is rather unclear. There is no collective coordination and action between the various groups and each group’s battle seems to be taking place on a neighbourhood to neighbourhood level and by word of mouth. Certainly this is also true for the forces in nefarious status as the Sabiha, which in essence is constituted by Alawite mercenaries. The alleged leaders of Sabiha are composed of relatives and friends Assad, like most of the senior officials of the state apparatus. Moreover, many alleged terrorist attacks –again on civilians mostly-, seems to have been instigated by external forces and more likely by Al Qaeda, to the great discomfort of the Americans.

Despite these appalling crimes such as massacres of young children, the regime has still two very powerful allies with permanent seats on the UN Security Council. On the one hand, China,  where its rhetoric props up Syria for its support shown in the Taiwan question but the truth is that Syria imports almost exclusively Chinese goods and there are far too many Chinese construction contracts in Syrian territory . The other ally who would veto in the UN Security Council for any move against the Syrian regime is Russia. The country has more reasons than China to support the Assad regime. Syria exclusively purchases its arms from Russia. Approximately 10% of Russian arms production is a Syrian demand and many weapon systems in Syria are operated by Russian hands. Also the port of Tarsus is the sole anchorage of the Russian Fleet in the Mediterranean. Russia will do everything in order not to lose this port of great geostrategic importance for her. Especially now, that it is once again a strong emerging actor in the international system. Finally, Russia is trying to create an energy monopoly in the world. Recently signed exclusive and long lasting contracts (B.O.T.) to explore and exploit oil and natural gas in Syria worth billion of dollars.

Under the shadow of these events the international community is called to react. Any involvement of the West is automatically blocked from Russia who wants to ensure its investments and its strategic interests. Any effort that has actually taken place -either bilaterally or at the UN level-, until now had no significant effect. The fear of diffusion of the crisis is more than visible. Besides already deadly conflicts have erupted in Alawite minority areas in Tripoli, Lebanon and more recently in the disputed borders with Israel. More to the point, this spill over effect is the fear of many regional countries such as Saudi Arabia, which is currently leading upon Syria through the Arab League. According to unofficial statements on diplomatic level the Arab League will not tolerate an escalation of the crisis on regional basis. Of course the fact that this reaction stems from Saudi Arabia once again raises questions, as this country has previously (Gulf War) facilitated NATO’s plans, actions and very interestingly war costs.

 The U.S. and NATO will be keen to overthrow the Alawite political elite of Syria because it is a loose Shiite branch that facilitates the transfer of arms and supplies from Iran to Lebanon in order to strengthen the Shiite organization, Hezbollah. This organization is branded by the West in its entirety as a terrorist organization, while some countries consider as a terrorist group only the militant wing called Al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya. On the other side, the Lebanese populace views Hezbollah as a supplement to welfare state, justice, education and freedom against Israel and its allies.

But the problem for the U.S. and NATO is not only the role and presence of Russia, but the fact that there is no clear rebel representation and identity. Even if they attempt to financially and militarily support some of the rebel groups, there is no guarantee that they are not indirectly enriching the confirmed presence of Al Qaeda in Syria. Moreover, NATO is unable to apply the supposed doctrine to manage a crisis with a median, which was relatively easy task in the case of Libya, as the rebels were already known to the West and they were better organized (allegedly by English agents) and most importantly  there was not present the spectre of Russia to raise objections. In contrast though, Syria is a much tougher environment than Libya, as it has a robust and functioning air force, a world class army and effective biochemical weapons. Here might be seen the role of Turkey. The narrative that Turkey just attempted to display its presence and influence in the region is completely insufficient, as demonstrated by the limited reaction to the downing of the Turkish fighters in Syrian territory. Perhaps the whole affair was motivated, it is more than likely. But the interweaving of geostrategic and economic interests renders the situation extremely complicated to distinguish who is actually "good and bad." Perhaps this is the reason why the conflict in Syria lasts longer and the Maghreb turmoil was so much shorter. The landscape remains cloudy as the "gold" of Syria whether you name its oil or construction contracts or weapons will be the most sought after feature for many of the “gold diggers”. The end of the conflict may occur when the U.S. discovers a consistent and trustable anti-regime group that could support or if they finally come to a behind the scenes agreement with the Russians, where they will be underwritten for all their current interests in Syria. Then suddenly you may see Assad to follow Gaddafi, Ben Ali, and Mubarak.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: The author of this article holds a PhD on Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. He has written numerous papers on defence and International Relations, European Union issues, Islamic Finance, Religion, History and Middle East Politics.  His current research interest is on theorising informal economy and World War II.

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