Middle East in flames
posted at 3:47 pm on July 19, 2012 by J.E. Dyer
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.