Is Cold War Being Replayed in Syria?

Following the exercise of vetoes by China and Russia on a UN Security Council resolution crafted carefully by the west in conjunction with Arab League aimed at diffusing current crisis in Syria, the problem in the country looks complicated rather than the other way around. The pan-Arab institution, as in the Libyan case, has been proactive to resolve the Syrian problem. In December last year it submitted an action plan requiring the government of Bashar al-Assad to delegate power and introduce reforms to address political transformation, which has gathered pace in the greater Middle East since 2011 under the guise of Arab Spring.

Although China too decided to veto the Syrian resolution on 4 February, it is Russia which has been at the forefront to oppose any punitive action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Consultations that preceded the Security Council vote attest that the Russian delegation was firmly against the adoption of a resolution by the UN, which they perceived to be a pretext by the west to impose regime change in Damascus in line with the Libyan precedence. Therefore, observers have commented that the shadow of Libya has loomed over Syria in the aftermath of blocking the Security Council from taking any action critical of the Syrian president.

Elaborating the Russian concerns about Syria, Dmitri Trenin has asked “Why Moscow Wants to Halt Arab Spring”. He believes that Russian stand on Syria is shaped even more by the recent experience of Libya, stray doubts concerning the Syrian opposition, and suspicions about the intentions of the U.S. government. His analysis in this regard brings about a comparative study of Libya and Syria in terms of their strategic and geopolitical significance.

According to Dmitri Trenin, Libya has always been peripheral to Middle Eastern geopolitics. In his words Syria is different and a civil war already in effect in the country could have serious ramifications on the stability of the entire region, which is volatile. His anxieties are that destabilization in Syria will have spill- over effects on neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

Considering stiff opposition from Moscow to an action against Syria by the international community i. e. the UN Security Council, it is obvious that there is a fierce competition between the west, particularly the U. S. and Russia for wielding influence in the greater Middle Eastern region. From the Russian prism the ongoing conflict in Syria, the festering sectarian violence fueled by rivalry between Sunnis led by Saudi Arabia and the Shitte whom the Iranians back, and the aborted revolution in Bahrain are the proxy battlefields where the struggle for regional dominance is being launched.

Dmitri Tenin’s conclusions as drawn in his thoughtful commentary ”Russian Line in the Sand in Syria” carried by the latest issue of Foreign Affairs suggest that national interests propel countries switch positions quickly. He has sarcastically cited the example of Cairo where the Americans let go Mubarak whom they embraced for three decades despite his autocracy in order to retain influence in transformed Egypt. The U.S. behavior towards Saudi-led intervention to suppress peaceful freedom movement in Bahrain reveals its double standard. Truly in Libya the U.S. waged war to topple Colonel Muammer al-Qaddafi with a view to keeping oil contracts. Understandably, the Obama administration was supportive of Bahrain because the latter has hosted the headquarters of U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

Writing a feature entitled “We Intervene in Syria at Our Peril” Ed Husain has observed that moral arguments in foreign policy will only work if these are in line with the U.S. interests. Dwelling on how national interests conflict with morality, he poses a valid question such as if there were to be more protests in China next year, would the U.S. lead a bombing campaign on Beijing? Certainly not, one can easily comprehend this. In support of this Ed Husain quotes Lord Palmerston, and then George Washington, who said “Nations do not have friends, they have only interests”.

As Russian suspicions about U.S. motives of engineering regime change in Syria heighten, Robert Dreyfess through his write up “The U.S Should Stay Out of Syria” offers useful advice to the Obama administration for avoiding an “optional war”. Such war is categorized as a “war of choice” by Richard N. Haass the most appropriate example of which is 2003 Iraq war launched by George W. Bush guessing that Saddam Husain possessed weapons of mass destruction. As opined by Robert Dreyfess the Middle East’s major Sunni powers led by Saudi Arabia and Turkey are already lined up in support of regime change in Damascus.

There is a growing perception that the U.S. is hell bent on isolating Shitte-dominated Iran accusing the Islamic Republic of secretly manufacturing nuclear bombs under the pretext of scientific research. By forcing Syrian leadership to relent power to the opposition group even by employing harsh economic sanctions, arms embargo and finally invoking the controversial norm of Responsibility to Protect, perhaps Americans believe that weakened Syria won’t be able to come to the rescue of Iran.

Aisling Byrne in “Asia Times” has been blunt in saying that “What we are seeing in Syria is a deliberate and calculated campaign to bring down the Assad government so as to replace it with a regime more compatible with U.S. interests in the region”. In the commentary “A Mistaken Case for Syrian Regime Change” the above author expresses the doubts about U.S. motives of leadership change in Syria. Such suspicion gets reinforced by American National Security Advisor Tom Donilon’s explanation in December 2011 when he said that “the end of president Bashar al-Assad regime would constitute Iran’s greatest setback in the region”.

The Russians have grounds for fear that the Libyan model might be pursued by the U.S. in view of its political and strategic objectives. In the wake of UN Security Council’s failure to agree on an action plan for ending violence in Syria, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Laprov has been busy conducting diplomacy with president Bashar for resolving the crisis. There is no end of negotiations and hence Russian envoy to UN Vitaly Churkin has announced that “the Security Council is not the only diplomatic tool on the planet”.

He may be right but recent developments concerning Syria and confrontational positions taken by Washington and Moscow in this regard have reminded us of Cold War mentality among the major stakeholders.

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