Run-up to proxy war over Syria By M K Bhadrakumar

6 February 2012 — Asia Times

If a date needs to fixed marking the end of “post-Soviet era” in world politics, it might fall on February 4, 2012. Russia and China’s double veto of the Arab League resolution on Syria in the United Nations Security Council constitutes a watershed event.

Curiously, the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Anders Fogh Rasmussen chose the same day as the veto in New York to snub Russia; saying that that the alliance would have the first elements of the US‘s missile defense system (ABM) up and running in Europe by the alliance’s summit in May in Chicago, no matter Moscow’s objections.

The first double veto by Russia and China on the Syrian issue in the United Nations Security Council last October was a coordinated move that sought to scuttle a resolution that might be seized by the Western alliance to mount a military operation in Syria. But the repeat double veto on a motion pressing Syria‘s President Bashar al-Assad to abandon power conveys a much bigger meaning.

Makings of proxy war
The Syrian situation has evolved since October and has surged as a geopolitical struggle over the future of the Iranian regime, control of the Middle East’s oil and the perpetuation of the West’s preponderant influence in that region. Russia and China sense that they could be booted out of the Middle East.

With the double veto, the only option available for the US and its allies in Syria is to flout both international law and the UN charter and overthrow the regime in Damascus. Indeed, the option exists to backtrack from the path of covert intervention, but it is a remote possibility. According to former Central Intelligence Agency officer Philip Giraldi, writing in the current issue of The American Conservative magazine:

Unmarked NATO warplanes are arriving at Turkish military bases close to Iskenderum on the Syrian border, delivering weapons from the late Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenals as well as volunteers from the Libyan Transitional National Council who are experienced in pitting local volunteers against trained soldiers, a skill they acquired confronting Gaddafi’s army. Iskenderum is also the seat of the Free Syrian Army, the armed wing of the Syrian National Council. French and British special forces trainers are on the ground, assisting the Syrian rebels while the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] and US Spec Ops are providing communications equipment and intelligence to assist the rebel cause, enabling the fighters to avoid concentrations of Syrian soldiers.

Giraldi adds that the CIA analysts themselves are “skeptical regarding the approach to war”, as they know that the frequently cited United Nations account of civilians killed is based largely on rebel sources and uncorroborated. The CIA has “refused to sign off on the claims” of mass defections from the Syrian Army. Likewise, accounts of pitched battles between deserters and loyal soldiers “appear to be a fabrication, with few defections being confirmed independently”.

If Washington knows the ground realities in Syria, Moscow and Beijing know them, too. Thus, a test of will is developing over Syria. The US and its allies and Turkey can raise the pitch of the overt operations. But Russia can also raise the political and military ‘cost’ of the covert war. Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said over the weekend that Moscow will “do its utmost to avert a heavy-handed interference in Syria“, although it “cannot prevent a military intervention in Syrian affairs if this decision is made by any country.”

On the other hand, the West does not accept Russia as an arbiter in Syria and is bent on frustrating Moscow’s repeated attempts to bring the Syrian factions and government to political dialogue. Moscow senses that President Bashar Al-Assad’s political standing is weakening while the West calculates that the Russian stance becomes increasingly untenable.

The West has chosen to ignore China’s stance. Obviously, the West is dismissive about the dragon’s pretensions in the Middle East, whereas it takes the bear seriously, given its vast experience historically in the affairs of that region. So, the West’s propaganda barrage is pitting Russia as a hurdle to democratic reforms and change in the Middle East. The US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice chose her words carefully while grandstanding that she felt “disgusted” at Russia’s veto.

Russia is determined not be drawn into proxy wars which are a drain on resources, but the West is comfortable since the fabulously wealthy Qatari emir is prepared to bankroll operations. Again, ditching a traditional ally in the heat of the night could seriously dent Russia’s image in the Middle East at a historic juncture where a renewed geopolitical struggle is just about commencing, which would have long-term global impact. Keeping Russia, an energy powerhouse, from developing bonhomie with the oil-rich Persian Gulf oligarchies has been a priority in Western strategies through the past several decades.

To be sure, Lavrov and the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Mikhail Fradkov are proceeding to Damascus on Tuesday. The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Sunday, “Russia, in consultation with other countries, is firmly set to seek the quickest stabilization of the situation in Syria along the paths of the quickest implementation of long-overdue democratic transformations.”

The statement welcomed a continuance of the Arab League observer-mission to Syria, “which has proved its efficiency as a factor in de-escalating the violence.” The sense of urgency is palpable, but the West is certain to block Lavrov’s mission.

But the West is also unsure about pushing the envelope since its proxy, Burhan Ghalioun of the so-called Syrian National Council (a Syrian exile and academic in Sorbonne University) as yet finds little acceptance within Syria. Even his return to Damascus is problematic. And all this while the civil war is spreading inside Syria. Thus, the situation is fast acquiring the makings of a Cold War-era proxy war.

The backdrop is also fraught with disturbing parallels. China has come under US pressure with the latter’s declaration of its “strategic turn” to Asia.

‘Russia-China concerns’
Following the setting up of a US military base in Australia, Washington is currently engaged in talks with Manila to increase the American military presence in Southeast Asia. Manila is open to hosting American ships and surveillance aircraft, holding joint military exercises and asking the US back two decades after American forces were evicted from the Subic Bay, their biggest base in the Pacific.

At the annual Munich security conference over the weekend, Beijing registered its displeasure. Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun warned “countries outside Asia” to desist from attempts to “deliberately highlight the military and security agenda, create tension or strengthen military presence or alliance” in the region or “impose their will on Asia“. He asserted, “The Asian way should be respected” and he warned against “any attempt to twist international rules.” Zhang underlined that the rise of Asia “signals a move towards greater balance in the international power structure.”

Significantly, the Beijing newspaper, The Global Times also pointed out recently that the US‘s belligerent projection of military might increasingly leaves Beijing and Moscow with no choice but to react. It said:

So far Moscow and Beijing are relatively restrained, though NATO seeks to expand its strategic presence in East Europe and US strengthening its military alliances in Asia. But the two cannot fall back forever. For Beijing and Moscow alike, ties with the US have been stressful. The two don’t want to set off external doubts in their heated relations. But in both countries, an increasing number of people now advocate a Moscow-Beijing ‘alliance’. The two do have countermeasures against the US, and they are capable of deterring US allies. If they are really determined to join hands, the balance of power on many world issues will begin to shift.

Equally, Moscow’s ties with the West have deteriorated. The US-Russia talks on the ABM are in deadlock. Washington rejects Moscow’s plea for a legally binding guarantee that the US‘s ABM deployments in Europe will not impact Russia’s strategic deterrent.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, said in Moscow recently that the US and its NATO allies at present have 1,000 missiles capable of intercepting Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, covering all European Russia up to the Ural mountains. He said:

There are no guarantees that after the first, second, and third phases [of the US‘ ABM project] are completed, there will be no fourth, fifth and sixth. Do you really think they will halt all their technologies after 2020? That’s nonsense! They will go ahead with developing and boosting technical parameters of their interceptor missiles and performance capabilities of their warning [missile defense] systems …

The fact that the missile defense system can hit strategic missiles and the fact that those bases and fleet are deployed in northern seas demonstrate the obvious anti-Russian nature of the [US] missile defense.

Clearly, the Russian and Chinese double veto on the Syrian resolution represents a coordinated move to challenge the US on its triumphalist march from Libya toward Syria and Iran. Lavrov spoke to his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechen just before the voting in the Security Council. While casting his veto, Chinese ambassador to the UN Li Baodong said, “China supports the revised proposals raised by Russia.”

Xinhua news agency commented that the double veto “aimed at further seeking peaceful settlement” in Syria and “preventing possible drastic and risky solutions”. It pointedly explained the “Russia-China concerns” over Syria. The Chinese commentaries highlight that “globalization has dedicated a new logic in international relations” and Syria is a key theater for the West’s agenda to make the Middle East their sphere of influence.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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