Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | July 19, 2012

Middle East in flames

The Assad regime may well be in its final days now, with unconfirmed reports that Bashar al-Assad was injured in the bombing that killed three of his top advisors on Wednesday, and that Asma Assad, the dictator’s wife, has fled to Russia.

As of midday Thursday, the Assad regime is attacking rebel strongholds; it has not collapsed yet.  It is still very well armed, and can fight on for months if it remains unified and all it’s fighting is the rebels.  But those latter factors may be changing irrevocably.

The central question at the operational level will be whether Russia (and perhaps China) can continue to arm the regime.  But there is an equally important strategic question, and that is whether the remaining Assad loyalists can put together an alternative future that prevents an Islamist takeover.  Assad’s image is in tatters, and he will in any case remain a target for transnational jihadists.  His day is done.  Syria’s only alternative to an Islamist takeover now is a new regime featuring Assad loyalists, perhaps in company with allies of convenience: anyone else, inside Syria or abroad, who is terrified of an Islamist takeover.  (In the latter regard, I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of some assistance from inside Iraq.)

Although a Russian naval task force is converging on the Mediterranean Sea from the Northern, Baltic, and Black Sea fleets, it is a serious question how much of a Russian position there will be left to save in Syria when it arrives.   Assad has taken a major blow to his unity of command and credibility.  The strategic problem for Russia has moved beyond keeping Assad in the fight: from today, the focus will be on finding a way to influence the emergence of the new regime.  Whatever order Assad’s regime still maintains will be a mere convenience.

It’s possible Vladimir Putin will judge that shepherding in the new regime is a bridge too far for Russia’s current powers.  Some analysts think Russia intends to fall back geographically to a position of influence with, and naval access to, Cyprus and Greece.  It’s hard to say at this point, but Russia’s (and China’s) continued intransigence on a UN resolution on Syria – with yet another veto this morning – indicates that Moscow intends to fight the emergence of a Western-Arab coalition that brokers Syria’s future.  The question is not if Russia will fight that prospect, but where and how.

Rather than having already decided her strategy, I think Russia is developing it right now, watching events, preparing, and hoping to leverage whatever she can.  It isn’t possible to overstress that Russia is making her decisions based on an assessment that the old alignments and regional power structure are already collapsing.  There will be no pushback from them against new pushes from emerging actors.  Russia isn’t wrong: the US and Western Europe are increasingly out of position to do anything minor, and it is a certainty that we will not doing anything major.  So Russia will look for allies of convenience to promote the least-Islamist Syria she can; the bottom line for Russia is discouraging state Islamism in her near abroad.

King Abdullah of Jordan has warned, meanwhile, that the loss of regime security next door will allow chemical weapons to end up in the hands of terrorists.  (Syria has been an off-and-on producer of former-Soviet type chemical weapons for some time, in addition to the likelihood that some of Saddam Hussein’s inventory is still in Syria.)

By going after the Assad leadership, rather than the regime’s army, the Syrian rebels have encouraged defections from the army without the inconvenience of combat.  No one is sure where Bashar al-Assad is; the loyalties of his army will erode quickly if he has become irrelevant.  If he hasn’t, his remaining loyalists will need to see him in the next 48 hours to be certain of that.  Even if they do, however, the course has shifted.  It’s clear Assad’s regime is not survivable.  Its power could only be restored with a terrible and bloody campaign across Syria, one that Assad no longer has the stature to mount.  What the regional nations’ policies will coalesce around now is shaping a future without Assad.

No one would hope for the survival of the brutal Assad regime, with its ties to Iran, support for Hezbollah, and history of adventurism in Lebanon.  But there is no prospect of a moderate regime to replace Assad.  The closest thing would be some form of regime continuity.  From sheer position and material assets, the Assad-regime survivors may be able to put something together.  That outcome would almost certainly be the best for Syria’s liberals, moderates, and Christians, who have had a degree of freedom and protection under Assad.

But the momentum at the moment is with the Islamists around whom the rebels have coalesced.  Support from Arab and Western nations has come with few, if any, strings; the rebels will sort out their leadership among themselves.  They are not a unified bloc.  Their current operational unity may fragment in a sea of blood at some point, and they will be susceptible throughout to alliances with outside patrons.  Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood (with the backing of Saudi Arabia and Qatar) will be the main competitors for that role.

I believe Erdogan would prefer to establish primary influence in Syria without having to use Turkish arms, which would set off alarm bells all over a region already on edge about “neo-Ottomanism.”  Russia and Iran would have no qualms about using military force, but Iran, of course, is less well positioned to do that.  So far, the Muslim Brotherhood has hedged its bets, making common cause with the West, but keeping its lines of communication open to Turkey and Russia.  Unless the regional situation changes significantly, a coalition of the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran remains unlikely.  Iran and the Brotherhood represent the two main – and competing – visions for Islamist power.

Terror attack on Israelis

The other very significant event of the last 48 hours is the bombing attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria.  Elder of Ziyon reported in January on a foiled attempt to attack Israeli tourists in Bulgaria; now there has been a successful one.  The bomber boarded a tour bus full of Israelis and detonated his bomb on the anniversary of the bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1994.  Six people were killed in the attack, with three seriously injured. Although Bulgarian media have named a Swedish national, Mehdi Ghezali, as the bomber, Sweden’s authorities – and now Bulgaria’s – have contradicted that claim.  (H/t: Challah Hu Akbar).  The perpetrator reportedly had a US passport and a fake Michigan driver’s license.

Iran and Hezbollah were responsible for the 1994 attack in Argentina, and Israel justifiably considers Iran culpable in the newest attack in Bulgaria.  In addition to the attempts in Bulgaria, Iran and Hezbollah attempted six attacks on Israelis abroad between May 2011 and February 2012, in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Thailand, India, and Georgia.  In June, terror planners backed by Iran were arrested in Kenya, and were reportedly plotting to attack the embassies of Israel, the US, the UK, and Saudi Arabia.  And on 7 July, Cypriot authorities arrested a would-be terrorist plotting to bomb Israelis in Cyprus.  (The man, of Lebanese descent and undoubtedly backed by Iran, was using a Swedish passport.)

Iran is well aware that attacks of this kind make no dent in Israel’s national security, per se.  The attacks are intended to depress and discourage Israelis.  They are intended to rally Islamist radicals to perpetrate more attacks on Israelis.  They are intended to alarm the nations of the region about doing business with Israelis and Israel.  They are intended to rob Israeli life and Israel’s foreign dealings of normality and a sense of safety.  They may also be mounted as a warning: a “downpayment” on the asymmetric campaign Iran would theoretically launch if Israel attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The extended campaign against Israelis is something the mullahs seem to be putting more effort into than they are putting into Syria.  That may be only an appearance, but Iran doesn’t, in fact, have the power to conduct decisive military operations in Syria.  Her influence there depends on Assad.  With Assad on the ropes, Iran is shifting the focus of her campaign to holding Israel at risk and softening her up for a more decisive blow in the future.  Considered from the standpoint of geostrategy, Iran’s effective position in the Levant, with the de facto Hezbollah rule over southern Lebanon, has been protected in its rear by the Assad regime in Syria.  If it no longer will be, it makes sense now to ramp up the direct campaign against the will of Israel.

That this may well represent an acceleration of the Iranian timeline is certainly a point of concern.  It is worth noting, however, that what Iran doesn’t seem to have at the moment is operational sway with anyone in a position to make a geographic approach to Israel.  There is no concerted, orchestrated push against Israel from southern Lebanon and Gaza, although the conditions are conducive to such a push, and Iran has clients in both places.  It represents a real shift, for Iran to focus more on attacking Israelis overseas than on pinpricking Israel from her borders.  It may be informative about the state of Iran’s connections in the area as well.

In any case, the positions, assessments, and strategies of all the actors are in flux in the Middle East right now, and especially in the Levant.  The future character of Egypt is also a significant and still-developing factor.  Syria is the hinge-point of the future: if there is any way to preserve a non-Islamist regime of some kind there, the crisis will build more slowly.

But it will build.  The actors and motivations are the ones in the “Race to Jerusalem,” and if Syria falls to a Sunni Islamist regime, that will accelerate the competition.

Russia may be weird, cranky, and annoying, but Russia is correct that a Muslim Brotherhood ascendancy in Syria will remake the face of the Middle East for the worse.  Sadly, the Russian and Chinese vetoes are probably the main thing preventing that from happening, at least for the moment.  If Russia can scramble to win regional support for brokering a non-Islamist regime, perhaps backing it up with arms, cash, and even Russian military force in some fashion, that will remake the region in one way.  If she can’t do that, Islamists will remake it in another.  In either case, the US security position in the Eastern hemisphere will be damaged.  Because of our indiscriminate support for the rebels, any coalition Russia can put together will be a coalition against the EU – and us.

Note on the US aircraft carriers:  I urge readers not to consult DEBKA on this unless you just like cheap entertainment.  As predicted by your author, USS Dwight D Eisenhower (CVN-69), the recently deployed East coast carrier, went south through the Suez Canal on Tuesday to operate in the Fifth Fleet area of responsibility (in Southwest Asia/Persian Gulf), and is no longer in the Mediterranean.  USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) has moved from Fifth Fleet to the Mediterranean (Sixth Fleet), and is on her way to the shipyard in Virginia for a recoring overhaul.  Having been deployed since December 2011, she will not remain in the Med much longer.  There is no build-up of US carrier force in the Med.  The other carrier maintaining the two-carrier presence in Fifth Fleet is USS Enterprise (CVN-65), which deployed in March and will remain on-station in Southwest Asia until relieved by USS John C Stennis (CVN-74), coming from the West coast, in the early fall.

Stennis is deploying four months early, but the reason is that the Navy is effectively down to 9 carriers with Enterprise heading for decommission after this deployment, and Abraham Lincoln out of the rotation for the next 3.5 years.  Fewer carriers will mean longer deployments and shorter turn-arounds.  USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) is in a year-long pierside maintenance period that will end in January 2013, and USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) comes out of her major overhaul in December of this year.  Both will require months of shakedown and work-ups to rejoin the combat-ready fleet, something USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75) is doing right now, having departed a year-long maintenance period a couple of weeks ago.  Finally, USS George Washington (CVN-73) is homeported in Japan and dedicated to the Far East.

The reduced number of ready carriers is the reason for recent changes to the carrier schedules.  The US is not changing our carrier presence in the Eastern hemisphere.  Schedules will remain tight for some time, but the return of Truman and Theodore Roosevelt to the rotation will help.  USS Gerald R Ford (CVN-78) – the replacement hull for Enterprise – will be delivered to the Navy in 2015.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

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Responses

  1. Gee, I guess that the Obama admin wasn’t able to keep Assad in power after all, opticon….only a REAL president like Ronnie woulda been able to manage that.

  2. He woulda found ways to get around Congressional provisions against supplying arms to the Assad dictatorship and would have explained to the American people how he just, by golly, KNEW that there were moderate elements in Damascus with which we could make a great deal.

  3. I understand the Russians have again vetoed the latest US sponsored UN resolution to tighten the screws on the Assad regime.

    Disgusting isn’t it the way the Ruskies protect their malodorous client?

    Unfortunately, we’ve been providing the same service for our nasty-smelling client next-door for decades. I remember not a long time ago we used the threat of our veto (to kill a Russian/EU resolution) to ensure there would be no ceasefire so that our criminal clients could finish the destruction of the schools and civilian infrastructure in Gaza (Not to mention using phosphoros rounds against civilians. Query: do Palestinian kids burn just like Syrian ones?)

    The Russians who must be quietly amused at the sudden concern of the US for Arab civilians. Diplomatically, it’s a case of “what goes around, comes around”, with, this time, the US on the receiving end of a pointed Russian lesson. Meanwhile, more Arab kids burn as we and the Russians play diplomatic ping-pong.

    Makes you wanna throw up.

    • with, this time, the US on the receiving end of a pointed Russian lesson.

      And what would that lesson be?

      • That lesson is: if we protect our clients with our UN veto, they can, and will, do exactly the same when it suits.

        Unfortunately, in each case it’s innocent civilians who pick up the tab because it means that the respective clients of the US and Russia know that their behaviour is beyond the ambit of international law (nor is there any legal recourse for their victims). The Israelis know this. So do the leaders of ethnic Russian enclaves and Kremlin-friendly autocrats in the Middle East and West Asia.

        • The Russians are protecting a “client”? They may have a different take on it. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to see the Russian veto as a “lesson” to the US. A lesson implies education and schooling. The Russian veto means that we’ve learned . . . what? That US and Russian interests don’t coincide? The devil you say!

  4. Syria has the potential of making Yugoslavia look like a wild frat party in comparison.

    I am very concerned about Syrian chemical weapons stocks.

    As you clearly state Optcon, the chances of a broad based moderate opposition coming to power are slim to none. There is absolutely no real representation of Alawis or Christians in the ranks of the opposition. The Kurds and Druze remain a wild card. Internally the Sunni opposition is fragmented. And this is key, after the decapitation attempt of the regime, there will be no continuity option by survivors. It is either bloody victory or fall back and fight on from the Alawi coastal homeland for them.

    Overt intervention by any neighboring state will trigger counterintervention by other neighboring states with opposing interests.

    Syria will be partitioned before it is handed over, lock stock and barrel, to Sunni extremists. The stakes are too high for the powers against a Sunni takeover.

    I hope I do not see Christians being slaughtered in Syria. Not because their lives are any more precious than the rest, but because I dread Russia’s possible reaction and where this might escalate to.

    • chances of real democracy and power-sharing and fine civil society immediately emerging are real slim in places where’s there’s been nothing but authoritarianism and deliberate miseducation for generations.

      No real way to avoid a bit of the deluge in the aftermath and not worth avoiding really.

      Not too many of us would have liked to see the Soviet Union retained rather than have the awful mess in Russia and environs that we now see.

      no free lunches.

      • I agree with you on the USSR, but the situation in Syria is a tribal thing, this is about settling tribal scores.There were no atrocities during the breakup of the European SSR’s. It’s only when we look at the old cultural/ethic/religious fault lines in the Caucasus and Balkans that there was trouble. Twenty years after Dayton, ( and democracy), Bosnia still can’t get it’s sh-t together. And the moment the Western forces of suppression leave, they’ll start at it again till one side prevails. Kosovo,is defacto partitioned, nothing to do with democracy, just ethnic tribalism. Same in Nagorno-Karabakh, Ossetia Abkhazia.and Israel/West Bank.

        Coming soon to a neighborhood near you, the breakaway state of the South West US and Narco-Mexico. Lest you forget that the South West is conquered territory of the American Empire, that will soon have a Mexican majority. No free tacos

        Syria isn’t about democracy, it’s about power and survival, democracy is the last thing on the minds of the participants, and on the minds of the external powers vying for influence.

        • plenty good comment in regard to Eurpoe and out of respect for it I’m gonna defer busting your burritos over the rest. perhaps manana I’ll jget around to it.

          • No problemo. Hasta la vista, 🙂

        • Syria isn’t about democracy, it’s about power and survival, democracy is the last thing on the minds of the participants

          You’re right, just like in every other nation/state, including the US.

        • What American Empire?

          The Mexicans stole the Southwest from native Americans, the Apache from the pueblo Indians. 150 years before the appearance of Europeans on the N. American continent, the Sioux sweep down out of Canada and steal the ‘sacred’ black hills. Sour grapes is the only claim Mexicans have to the American southwest. Big fish eat smaller fish, until a society’s ethical evolution reaches an advanced stage.

          The continental boundaries of the US do not an empire make, unless you want to define ’empire’ as applying to similar in size Canada as well.

          We bought Alaska and Hawaii is smaller than Rhode Island…

          We returned Guam, the Philippines, the Panama Canal, etc…to their rightful owners.

          • No GB, the Spanish Empire stole it from the natives, (who stole it from God knows who), then the Mexicans, then us.

            .”Big fish eat smaller fish, until a society’s ethical evolution reaches an advanced stage”

            I’m afraid the Iranians/Saudis/Egyptians/Turks are thinking just along the same lines. 🙂

            • I stand corrected as to the Spanish empire but the principle and point remain valid.

              Just as Chihuahua dogs act as though they believe themselves to be much bigger dogs than they actually are, ideological/religious, fanaticism/barbarism leads the Islamists to suppose that their might is sufficient to effect the surrender of the US and then Russia and China.

              Disconnection from reality often leads to painful lessons.

              The question isn’t whether 7th century Islamism will eventually have its meeting with reality but only when and how painful the corrective lessons will be.

              • I hope to be around to see that day.

  5. Just as there’s no stopping an idea whose time has come, there’s no stopping a social movement that has seized the imagination of the public.

    In the M.E. the ‘idea’ and social movement that has seized the public imagination is the passion of radical Islam.

    The ‘dirty little truths’ about Islam that western apologists won’t face is that it is the radicals that stand upon Islam’s theological high ground, not Islam’s moderates, who are the equivalent of lapsed Catholics, modrn Episcopalians and ‘reformed’ Jews who rarely go to Temple and religiously vote democrat.

    Along with the fact that Islam can’t reform because to do so would require rejection of Muhammad as either deluded or a congenital liar, as reform requires rejection of Islam’s most fundamental tenet; that God dictated the Quran through the archangel Gabriel. Which makes the Quran’s words unchangeable, for to change even a comma is to suggest ‘correction’ of God himself.

    Muhammad wanted to be the ‘final’ and greatest prophet and so he based his ‘religion’ upon a premise that disallows reform, because to change the Quran, necessary for reform, collapses Islam’s theological foundation.

    Radical Islam is passionate because it is based in a megalomaniacs desire to convince the world that his view of reality is correct, therefore reaffirming his self-worth. Radical Islam is simply following the religious imperative to bring the world to Islam, to submission to God and by the sword whenever necessary.

    “Islam is a revolutionary ideology and program which seeks to alter the social order of the whole world and rebuild it in conformity with its own tenets and ideals. Islam wishes to destroy all States and Governments anywhere on the face of the Earth which are opposed to the ideology and program of Islam, regardless of the country or the Nation which rules it.” —Sayyed Abul Ala Maududi, Sunni founder of Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami, April, 1939

    “… those who study jihad will understand why Islam wants to conquer the whole world. All the countries conquered by Islam or to be conquered in the future will be marked for everlasting salvation. For they shall live under [God’s law]. Shia Supreme Ayatollah Khomeini, 1942

    The writing is on the wall and the Muslim Brotherhood will take over Syria as well as Egypt. The Taliban will take over Afghanistan in 2013. Pakistan’s government will fall to its radicals as well. A government ‘sympathetic’ to Iran will be elected in Iraq. At some point within the next 5 years Saudi Arabia will fall to the radicals.

    In 5 years every major M.E. country will be in the hands of the Shia and Sunni radicals. Iran will gain the bomb and nuclear proliferation will spread through the M.E.

    At some point, Shia and Sunni radicals will put aside their differences, (I against my brother, my brother and I against our cousin, I and my brother and cousin against ‘the other’) and form a new nuclear armed Caliphate, in order to fight the Great Satan.

    Then that Caliphate will covertly provide nukes to terrorist groups in an asymmetric war upon the West. All while denying any involvement and declaring that any retaliatory attack will precipitate a nuclear war.

    Once we lose a major city, the calls for the establishment of a “temporary” martial law to deal with the national emergency will begin and once we lose another city, the movement to establish ‘Fortress America’ will become unstoppable. All in the name of national security and for the children’s sake.

    “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and will lose both.” Benjamin Franklin

    This is as predictable as a kabuki play and in ten years what is now labeled by most as ‘wild speculation’ will be accepted as obvious historical dynamics.

    “When you’re one step ahead of the crowd, you’re a genius.
    When you’re two steps ahead, you’re a crackpot.” — Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

  6. The opticon, in her article “The Race to Jerusalem” states that, “There are three major influences at work in the current unrest in the Middle East. One is the genuine desire of many citizens for liberalization and reform.”

    I agree that many do want a liberalizing of onerous conditions and the reform within authoritarian regimes that would allow for that liberalizing to occur. I do not agree with the opticon’s assumption that the goal of the majority’s desire for reform and liberalization is the pursuit of greater democracy and individual self-determination.

    Rather, for the great majority, it is a greater freedom to create Sharia compliant governance wherein the majority’s desire resides.

    The liberal values that desire democracy, minority rights and individual self-determination are not consistent with the values that lead 84% of Egyptians to support the death penalty for apostasy. That statistic is the norm in the M.E. Even when residing in a liberal nation like the UK, 57% of British Muslims under 30 support the death penalty for apostasy and the adoption of Sharia law in the UK.

    Of course there are millions of moderates across the Ummah who quietly prefer a society where church and state are separate but they condone the radicalism because they know in their ‘heart of hearts’ that the theological tenets of Islam do not support their moderation.

    A silent minority has little prospect of affecting a society’s course when the majority passionately support radicalization. When the most radical members of the majority are entirely willing to use violence against any dissension and suffer no repercussions for that violence, the minority have no chance whatsoever of affecting that country’s course.

    Islamist parties won control of around two-thirds of the seats in the Egyptian assembly in recent elections. The Presidency was simply the icing on the cake.

  7. That SyrianKurdish/PKK dimension vis a vis Turkey that I mentioned seems to be taking a more substantial form. Even the wires are starting to pick up on it.
    http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/24/us-syria-crisis-turkey-kurds-idUSBRE86N12W20120724

    Riots are breaking out in the refugee camps in Turkey. That and the final dispensation of Syria’s WMDs might help explain why Jerusalem and Ankara are making noises about patching things up.

    • Turkey/Israel patching things up for the same reason that US/Turkey patching up…which is the same reason that Saudi Arabia was pushing for a peace deal for Israel/Palestinians,Arabs…..

      It’s all about all of them having a common enemy in Tehran….with branches in Damascus and Beirut.

  8. […] sign a health insurance mandateUS sends second aircraft carrier to Gulf for possible Iran showdownMiddle East in flames var jplayerswf = […]


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