Geopolitical tensions in Syria have just ratcheted up several more notches in the wake of a belligerent Sunday Opera House speech from President Bashar al-Assad. Reuters is reporting that he is calling for a “war to defend the nation”. He characterized the opposition rebels as terrorists and ‘agents of foreign powers’ (read the U.S.). Assad seemed to close the door on a negotiated path to disarmament in saying it was impossible to negotiate with the other side, then he softened his stance by indicating he would talk with the other side if it abides by a cease fire.
Still, news outlets observed a crowd of sycophantic followers interrupting his speech from time to time, raising their fists and shouting “With blood and soul we sacrifice for you, O Bahar!” Sounds like a cease fire would be unilateral, if at all. One thing was made clear in the address; Assad was not stepping down under any circumstances.
With the U.S., NATO and Russia already pulled into the 21-month-old uprising, the makings of a perfect storm to ignite the Middle East are in place.
If most recent developments out of the U.S. are true, the ignition spark may have been reached. Turkey solicited permission from NATO for American help to defend its border with Syria. After the NATO OK, 400 Americans and “equipment” have been deployed to the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey over the next few days according to reports from GlobalSecurity.org and Boston.com, among others. The divide between Turkey and Syria stems from an incident last summer when a Turkish fighter was shot down in Syrian air-space. A report suggests additional “equipment” will arrive later this month by sea. Patriot battery units (surface to air missiles in civilian lingo) are reportedly part of the cargo.
As I indicated in my first submission on the subject, numerous sources, including The Guardian Newspaper, reported that two Russian landing ships, are steaming toward the Syrian port city of Tartus. While their arrival hasn’t been confirmed as yet, the ships should be there any day now.
The Guardian also reports a landing craft from the Russian Baltic Fleet is paying a visit soon. There are reportedly several hundred marines on board adding to the estimated 600-1,000 now said to be aboard the vessel. The December 18th LA Times reports not one, but three Baltic Fleet ships in that time frame.
ABC News is passing on yet another Syrian ship-landing story out of Russia. Sunday, December 30th an official in the military general staff was quoted as saying that the yet another ship had just departed the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk and was chugging toward Tartus with an early January arrival date slated. No word yet on its intentions, but Russian diplomats are sticking to that old evacuation of Russian citizens cover story.
U.S. News & World Report magazine quoted Michael Weiss, co-chair of the Russian Studies Center based at Cambridge University, as postulating that the real docking purpose was to run weapons and materials to the Assad regime and send President Obama a clear message, that Assad’s our guy.
So whatta you gonna believe? Now a federation, the Russians have retained one glaring character flaw from the old commie Soviet Union days. They’re still circumspect as hell. In other words Russian officialdom lies like a sobaka. Since late 2011, there have been numerous reports of Russian ships allegedly docking in Tartus. The problem is, their state news agency, ITAR-TASS either generously parses or outright lies in response to docking questions or any other questions having to do with Russia’s participation in the Syrian civil war.
Marching astern, here are a few other “here we come to save the day,” predicted Russian ship landing accounts. Back in August a BBC broadcast named three large landing ships from Russia’s Northern Fleet, each with 120 marines on board as heading to Tartus. One would anchor off of Tartus, which, though busy, is not all that big. The other two would use a floating dock. The Russians roundly denied the story but their defense ministry spokesperson allowed as to how the ships “might dock there at some point for logistical reasons (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) and huffed that “they had every right to do so.”
But China.org.cn can do these stories one better.This Chinese Internet Information Center (how’s that for an oxymoron?) whose news is written by administrators only, quotes Russian news sources that the anti-submarine Admiral Chabanenko was in area seas way back in January of 2012.
Would Russia risk a larger war in its attempts to save al-Assad’s gizzard? Again, the BBC offers a compelling reason for Russia’s unstinting support that could bring the region to an expanded armed conflict. And it’s all about arms. Syria has ordered some $3.5 billion worth of such hardware from Moscow in recent years.
Russia hates the perception that America calls the shots whenever and wherever it feels like it. This from the bloodiest government in modern history responsible for tens of millions of deaths while still communist prior to 1989.
With U.S. and Russian interests at apparent loggerheads, at least publicly, the stakes are incredibly high whether Assad is overthrown or not. Nobody seems to be able to predict with certitude which way his regime will go. An interesting side note contributing to ongoing tensions is the fact that al-Assad is an Alawite Muslim. Some of the key members of his administration and military are Alawite Muslims as well, though some are defecting.
There is historical animus toward Alawites in Syria as roughly 75% of Syrians are Sunni Muslims. Assad’s father defied a standing rule that all Syrian Presidents must be Sunnis. Later, a fatwa was issued re-branding Alawites as Twelver Shiite Muslims. Still not Sunnis, but the move seemed to quiet the controversy at least on the outside. It also brings Iran into play with its large Twelver numbers. It remains one of a myriad of issues dividing the country while the real central power is still in the hands of the Alawites.
The math adds up to several options. Cease fire talks that al-Assad seems to call for, a really nasty broadened skirmish based on the most recent events (remember, U.S. President’s are often challenged at the very beginnings of their terms) or a new government with new leaders and a protracted period of continued instability. The peacekeeping occupation of an international force also remains a possibility.
Dictators are given to bluff and bluster; especially those whose regimes are in danger of toppling. Let’s hope cooler heads prevail, though in Syria such heads are in short supply.