Syria: Center of a Region Inflamed

Smoke rises from a battle in in Al-Qunaytirah, Syria, near the Israel border, on June 6. (Photo: Servickuz, Dreamstime.com)

U.S. President Barack Obama recently stated that a military strike "will degrade Assad's capabilities and upgrade the capabilities of the opposition." Middle East analysts question the humanitarianism the United States is espousing. Many see it as lip service covering the all-too-familiar strategic agenda of regional hegemony. "Don't expect anybody to thank the United States, even if it is for humanitarian reasons," Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, who analyses Arab public opinion, said. Polls show the vast majority of Arabs view any U.S. action as motivated by U.S. interest or the interests of the Israeli strategic alliance. Any action by the United States on Syria would inevitably be portrayed as yet another illegal war of aggression in the Middle East. No matter that 100,000 Syrian citizens have been killed in Syria's ongoing civil war. No matter that the fighting has spawned over 2 million refugees and transmogrified a nation into a war zone.

This seems to be a self-perpetuating problem caused in part by U.S. strategic reasoning. Balance-of-power scenarios keep figuring in U.S. policymakers' geopolitical rationale, no doubt aided and abetted by the dynamics of military industries. For example, maintaining a "balance of power" on the ground has been put forward as a U.S. precondition to engaging in negotiations to solve the Syrian conflict "peacefully." The United States won't co-host any conference with Russia in Geneva on peace in Syria unless the military status quo on the ground is deprived of the gains won by the Syrian Armed Forces.

The Middle East has been the focal point of global power struggles since the intractable battles of Vietnam. And the perception of U.S. hegemonic tendencies is nowhere stronger in the region than in Iran, Syria's key regional ally. The Syrian-Iranian relationship has strengthened down sectarian lines. The Sunni Saudis, for example, long since rivals of the Shia Iranians, see Syria as a battleground in the larger proxy war with Iran. It seems that no policymaker or strategist of Middle Eastern affairs can determine any outcome that does not involve some form of division and rivalry—be it on the local, regional or international level. From sanctions against Iran to military intervention, assistance and training, one way or another, policies applied to the Middle East by Western strategists based on standard strategic reasoning have never realized progressive stability, and have failed to effectively address the global problems of terrorism and WMD.

Since sanctions were applied to Iran, the Iran-Syria relationship grew stronger. According to Payvand News, as Tehran was frozen out of world energy markets, Iran sought alternative methods and infrastructure by which to sell its oil and gas and maintain its economy. Syria has been vital to this end, thereby necessitating Iranian support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Furthermore, with regard to the antagonism between Israel and Iran, Assad's political posture has meant that Damascus is seen by Iran as a strategic partner, providing Iran with a key ally along the border with Israel and providing access to Hezbollah in Lebanon. For Israel's part, Israeli intentions come down to furthering their own interests via the destruction of Iran, their theocratic rival.

If the United States takes unilateral military action in Syria, it will represent a failure of the international law regime. The failure will in turn reinforce the predominant perception in the Middle East of U.S. hegemony. A "shot across the bow," as Obama as referred to a limited U.S. military strike, would not prevent the accumulation and stockpiling of WMD. It would not dissolve the bent for greater defense, but rather would exacerbate the need for it on both sides. Russia's proposal today for Syria's chemical weapons to be taken into international custody—if serious and possible—has the potential to recalibrate the positions of the United States and the international community, but the core strategic aims that serve as the bedrock of global powers are likely to remain unchanged. 

Former U.N. Appeals Judge Geoffrey Robertson has this to say on the subject: "The fundamental rules of civilized humanity now include a prohibition on the use of poison gas against civilians—a prohibition barbarically breached by Saddam Hussein in 1988 when he gassed 7,000 Kurds at Halabja, only to be rewarded the next year by a U.S. trade mission led by Donald Rumsfeld. … What is required is a decision by a panel of independent international judges convened by the U.N. secretary-general to decide on Syrian government culpability."

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