The situation in Syria has reached a critical stage. Many fears associated with the state of affairs there appear to have materialized one by one; to include the worsening humanitarian crisis, fear of chemical weapons getting into the wrong hands, the growing influence of extremists, and the potential spillover of the conflict in the wider region.
Each one of the above-interconnected anxieties carries serious implications. As has happened in the past, dictators in the Middle East inadvertently try to widen the conflict. This was the worry in the case of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi. While these dictators were removed without any such immediate repercussions at the time, nonetheless, the resulting vacuum is causing the gradual spread of chaos across the wider region of Middle East and North Africa.
In both Iraq and Libya, regime change could not have taken place without external intervention. And, it is looking more likely in Syria as well especially when AQ linked extremists are outperforming the other forces of opposition in Syria.
The Worries About Syrian Chemical Weapons
To deal with these Syrian worries, US has decided to deploy 200 military personnel to Jordan that will prepare the ground for military operations, if needed. These troops are in addition to the US Special Forces that have already been carrying out joint military exercises with their Jordanian counterparts.
The most serious apprehension obviously is in regards to the Syrian chemical weapons and there are accusations that the country may have already used them. However, Assad regime claims it did so after its introduction by the opposition forces. While US has been examining the proof, in a letter to the UN, France and UK have now asserted that Syria has indeed used chemicals on a number of occasions since December. On the other hand, in a recent interview to BBC, Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed it was ready to take action to prevent these weapons from getting in the hands of extremists, an outcome that would produce unprecedented consequences for Israel.
The Extremist Influence And Afghanistan Style Boomerang
The second concern is in regards to the growing influence of Al Qaeda (AQ) linked extremists in Syria. According to recent media reports, the strategic zone between Jordan, Israel and Syria that is located east of Golan, was taken over by the Syrian AQ linked group, Jabhat al-Nusra. Subsequently, AQ in Iraq claimed that Jabhat al-Nusra was now merged with it, and together they will be called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. While the association was long suspected, there is a danger that secular and nationalist opposition forces to Assad may be taken over by the extremists, posing negative repercussions for the Gulf, Israeli and Western interests.
This prospect is validating a scenario that PoliTact had pointed out to; a new Afghanistan like situation is brewing right in the heart of the Middle East, and with active support of Turkey, the West, including the Gulf heavy weights of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE. If indeed the extremists begin to take the upper hand, as seems to be happening, military interference of one sorts or the other will be required.
US Joint Chiefs Chairman General Dempsey himself raised this possibility recently. He commented that US could send troops to Syria if the regime there appears to be falling to rebels, and its chemical weapons are in danger. In March Senator McCain had stated: “The President must state unequivocally that under no circumstances will Assad be allowed to finish what he has started, that there is no future in which Assad and his lieutenants will remain in control of Syria, and that the United States is prepared to use the full weight of our airpower to make it so.”
Early signs indicate the Gulf Region is also now is preparing for the inevitable overflow of the conflict in Syria and tensions with Iran. UAE and Saudi Arabia are both cracking down on illegal immigrants and have clamped down on Al Qaeda and Iran linked cells. In March Saudi Arabia claimed to have arrested 18 spies, some of them linked with Iran.
US-Russia Counter-Terror Cooperation
While the intervention in Syrian appears imminent, opposition from Russian and China has continued. In this context the Boston marathon incident may play an important role in soothing the ties between Russia and US. President Obama thanked Putin on Friday for unspecified support provided by Russia for the resolution of the matter. Will this lead to smoothening of US-Russia anti-terror cooperation, which could also speed up the regime change in Syria, is yet to be seen. However, it is interesting to see such linkages are already appearing in several prominent media outlets.
There are many Chechens that are fighting in Syria in cohorts with AQ, just as they have in the AfPak region. Russian assistance in stopping the flow of jihadist could prove to be instrumental. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to meet his Russian counter part, Sergei Lavrov, in Brussels next week. He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week:
“Right now, he (Bashar al-Assad) is sitting there (in Syria) with support from Iran, with support from Hezbollah, with support from Russia, with artillery and an army, and believing that he can continue to fight it out using his air power, his Scuds, his artillery and his tanks. So that equation somehow has to change, and we all understand that.”
At the weekend meeting of the foreign ministers of Friends of Syria group that was held in Turkey, US decided to double its non-lethal assistance and humanitarian aid. According to reports, the equipment to be provided will now include armored vehicles, night vision goggles and sophisticated communications equipment. On the other hand, the Free Syrian Army has continued to complain they have not been provided enough support to decisively settle the matter, which only increases their dependence on the Islamist groups.
The Friends of Syria group is concerned that arms being supplied to the opposition forces may ultimately end up with the extremist groups, and that would only complicate the post Assad scenario. For their part, the opposition forces have assured the military equipment will not fall in the wrong hands. However, if the extremist groups continue to outperform the opposition forces supported by Friends of Syria in toppling the Assad regime, military intervention is all but likely.