Around here there is much consternation about why Obama hasn’t started another war in Syria. No not a direct one but a Libyan NATO-style war. What’s holding them up anyway?
Me, I figure that’s it’s just about oil. Or rather the lack thereof. But that’s an easy armchair analysis. What I really want is something way more cynical. So a post in Counterpunch titled Cynicism Around Syria quickly grabbed my attention. And a subtitle of “Russia as Smokescreen” was more icing on the cake. It did not disappoint so I’m going to quote about a third here and mention that there are still additional good morsels in the rest.
But if the Russians are standing on principle, why is the United States not more aggressive on Syria? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted, ”œSyria is a unique situation that requires its own approach, tailored to the specific circumstances occurring there. And that is exactly what the Arab League has proposed ”“ a path for a political transition that would preserve Syria’s unity and institutions.” On February 28, 2011, Clinton went before the UN Human Rights Council to offer the US position on Libya: ”œWe have seen Colonel Gaddafi’s security forces open fire on peaceful protestors. They have used heavy weapons on unarmed civilians. Mercenaries and thugs have been turned loose to attack demonstrators. Through their actions, they have lost the legitimacy to govern. And the people of Libya have made themselves clear: It is time for Gaddafi to go ”“ now, without further violence or delay.” Why doesn’t Clinton simply substitute al-Assad for Colonel Gaddafi and Syria for Libya? Clinton sees the Syrian case as much more complex. Why is Syria more ”œunique” than Libya?
In Beirut last month I asked Fawwaz Trabulsi (author of the 2007 A History of Modern Lebanon) just this question. Trabulsi, who is starting a new journal called Bidayat, has been in touch with various currents inside and around Syria. He tells me that the problem for Syria is its location. The Arab Spring has transformed the security arrangements carefully constructed by Israel (with US oversight). The fall of Mubarak in Egypt leaves in doubt the 1979 peace treaty, and so raises questions about Israel’s Southwestern border. New energy in the Palestinian movement threatens the stability of the West Bank, and despite the pacification policy through settlements and walls, there is a sense that political fissures might open up at any point. Lebanon and Israel remain in an uneasy state, with the border patrolled by a weak-kneed UN force (the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, deployed in 1978 should no longer have interim status). This leaves Syria, where Bashar al-Assad’s regime has operated as Israel’s loyal border guard. Israel is not willing to see a violent regime change in Syria. There is simply no credible or reliable alternative to al-Assad. Neither Israel nor the US, therefore, has aggressively sought to remove al-Assad from power. That energy is reserved for the drumbeats against Iran.
Writing in the Israeli paper Haaretz, Zvi Bar’el writes that Washington and Tel Aviv do not wish the precipitous departure of al-Assad. ”œHe is seen as a safety valve against a violent attack by Hezbollah on Israel or against its physical takeover of Lebanon. He has also made known his disagreements with Iran following the controversial visit of Ahmadinejad to Lebanon [in 2010].” One member of the Israeli cabinet told the Washington Post, ”œWe know Assad. We knew his father. Of course, we’d love to have a democratic Syria as our neighbor. But do I think that’s going to happen? No.”
The US and Israel are currently hiding behind the Russians (and to some extent the Chinese) in the UN Security Council. None of them have any interest in the removal of al-Assad from power. To their minds, Syria should not have a Libyan solution but a Yemeni one: the violence will simmer, the opposition will tire, then al-Assad will be allowed to create a successor in name only who will retain the lineaments of the regime intact but will provide a new face for Syria. Just as the ”œnew” Yemen cannot be allowed to be a threat to Saudi Arabia, the ”œnew” Syria cannot be allowed to upset the Israeli applecart.