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Syria: about to explode, not implode?

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Robin Lustig | 12:14 UK time, Friday, 27 July 2012

The Battle of Aleppo seems to be shaping up into one of those key moments that could determine the outcome of what we can probably now call the Syrian civil war.

It is Syria's second largest city and its commercial hub, classified by UNESCO as a world heritage site because of its priceless cultural and architectural treasures. Until relatively recently, it had been able to stand aside from the turmoil that was tearing the rest of the country apart.

Not any more. A week after battles raged in parts of the capital, Damascus, now it's Aleppo's turn, as the rebels ratchet up the pressure in the apparent belief that their moment has come.

So where does that leave Syria's neighbours, and where does it leave the rest of the world? I was struck by a line in an impressively dispassionate report published by the defence policy think-tank the Royal United Services Institute: " ... the question of some sort of Western intervention in Syria has shifted from a predilection to stay out of the conflict in any physical sense to an awareness that intervention is looking increasingly likely. We are not moving towards intervention but intervention is certainly moving towards us."

The argument goes like this: increasingly foreign governments are worrying about what's likely to happen when (not if) Bashar al-Assad is forced out. In the words of RUSI's director, Professor Michael Clarke: "... the regional implications of this dynamic of violence are more a driver of international diplomacy than the human misery inside Syria itself."

Syria's neighbour Lebanon is a tinderbox where just one spark can ignite a conflagration; and Iraq and Iran, with their Shia majorities, are lined up against Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with their Sunni majorities. Professor Clarke talks of an "arc of proxy confrontation" between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which could lead to all kinds of trouble.

Perhaps the question should be not "Will outside powers intervene in Syria?", but "Will they intervene more than they are already?"

As the RUSI report points out: " Already, it is believed that western intelligence and special force operations are actively underway ... Western countries have backed the growing supply of arms, via Arab sources, to rebel forces for some months now ... Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with US and Turkish facilitation, have been arming and funding the opposition; and this covert support has been substantially responsible for the progress opposition forces have made in recent weeks."

On the government side, the report says: "Several Russian ships carrying a range of military equipment for the Assad regime are already at sea ..." And the Iranians are unlikely to stand idly by if they see their strategic interests put at risk: in order to preserve their influence with Shia groups in Lebanon, for example: "the Iranians would provide weapons, materiel and probably elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to support Assad, as they did successfully with the Shia militias in Iraq."

No one is suggesting that the West is likely to mount an Iraq-style international ground invasion, nor even a Libya-style air campaign. But RUSI's Jonathan Eyal has this stark warning: "Western governments which have long worked for Assad's departure should now begin to fear what may lie in store. For, instead of imploding as other Arab countries did when they were gripped by revolutions, Syria will explode, disgorging its troubles across the entire Middle East, with potentially catastrophic consequences which will need to be managed, since they look unlikely to be avoided."

And he makes this additional point: "President Assad was [note the past tense] the region's last secular strongman, the last of the Arab leaders who repressed religious and ethnic differences in the name of a higher pan-Arab ideology. His method of government is now as defunct as that of the Soviet Union or communist Eastern Europe, on which it was based."

Until recently, the conventional wisdom was that international intervention in Syria simply wasn't on the cards. If the RUSI report is right, it may be time to rethink some of those assumptions: just watch the price of oil if tensions rise and Western governments start to panic at the thought of further price pressures as they struggle to save their faltering economies.


  • Comment number 1.

    Better (almost 3 days) late than never!


  • Comment number 2.

    Frankly, I don't know hat is going to happen in Syria and surrounding area, but a read a confirmation yesterday that US-NATO supported "Free Syrian Army" was defeated in Damascus. Govt is in full control of the nation's capital and has declared this victory.

    In Aleppo, Govt forces have regained control of most of the city with pockets of rebel fighters still active in the S.W. Aleppo District of Salaheddine.

    Bashar al-Assad"s Govt declared victory on Sunday in a hard-fought battle for Syria's capital Damascus, & subsequently, pounded rebels who control parts of its largest city Aleppo... Helicopter gunships hovered over the city shortly after dawn &f artillery boomed across neighborhoods. Syrian state television said soldiers were repelling "terrorists" in Salaheddine and had captured several of their leaders."

    Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem stated during a visit to Tehran: "Today I tell you, Syria is stronger… In less than one week the Opposition Forces were defeated in Damascus; they failed. They moved on to Aleppo and "I assure you, their plots will fail in Aleppo too."

  • Comment number 3.

    We can thank WWl for this mess.

    --will the culprits please stand up and be counted.

    "In the midst of World War I two Allied diplomats (Frenchman François Georges-Picot and Briton Mark Sykes) secretly agreed on the post war division of the Ottoman Empire into respective zones of influence. The end of the war and defeat of the Central Powers, of which the Ottoman Empire was one, allowed the victorious Entente powers of Britain and France to realise its provisions."

    -- I never did believe a merry-go-round could implode.

  • Comment number 4.

    Systematic dismantling of Syria has more to do with western media lies & geopolitics than "revolution. US media cheers; politicians win points.

    The rebel attacks on the cities of Damascus and Aleppo were intended to convince the west media rebels were near victory; in reality, attacks in Damascus were instantly crushed by the Syrian Govt, while US media predicted "victory just around the corner" for opposition forces.

    Republicans accuse Obama of "outsourcing" the Syrian conflict, refusing to be involved when the rebels deserve extra support. Obama is the principal cause of Syrian humanitarian catastrophe.

    While Qatar & Saudi Arabia arm rebels of Syria...Washington mutters not a word of criticism against them. President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, say they want "democracy" in Syria. Isn't Qatar an autocracy? Isn't Saudi Arabia among a pernicious caliphate dictatorship? But, they are also American puppets.

    Syria is unfortunately surrounded by US allies; therefore, guns & foreign fighters pour into Syria. Yet rebel-held areas of Syria exist only on rural borders of Turkey, Jordan, & Northern Lebanon - areas aligned to US.

  • Comment number 5.

    Sure the so-called Free Syrian Army includes defectors from Syrian military. Frightened persons do frightening things. These defectors may be betting that, in the long term, US will overthrow Syrian Govt.

    Pivotal Q. Do Syrians want their country destroyed? There are numerous indications to the contrary. Even NY Times has been forced to admit on SEVERAL OCCASIONS there have been massive PRO-GOVT RALLIES in Syria's only two large cities: The turnout in Sabaa Bahrat Square in Damascus, again demonstrated the people support the Syrian Govt.

    This was further confirmed by a poll funded by the anti-Syrian Qatar Foundation, performed by the Doha Debates: According to the latest opinion poll commissioned by The Doha Debates, Syrians are more supportive of their president with 55% not wanting him to resign." (January 2, 2012).

    US is using a strategy in Syria that has been perfected over the years, starting with Afghanistan (1980's) Yugoslavia, & most recently in Libya: arming small paramilitary groups loyal to US interests that attack Govt; when Govt defends US cries "genocide", "mass murder,” and calls for foreign military intervention.
    In each instance the targeted society is dismembered;refugee crises occur which inevitably leads to cross border destabilization.

    What is happening in Syria are war crimes; the benefit the elite ready to privatize the invaded country’s economy, especially the oil. The people in Syria are being used as cannon fodder so that US can have a steppingstone towards destroying Iran (Syria is Iran's close ally). But Russia and China are acting more boldly against this genocidal behavior, and may act with more vigor in defending their allies, a dynamic that could easily lead to WW III.

  • Comment number 6.

    The shelved Report: leaked Arab League Observer Mission Report: which had initially been commissioned by the Arab League at Washington's behest:
    In Homs, Idlib & Hama, the Observer Mission witnessed acts of violence being committed against Govt forces & civilians. E.g. bombing of a civilian bus, killing 8 persons and injuring others, including women and children. ... Such incidents include the bombing of buildings, trains carrying fuel, vehicles carrying diesel oil & explosions targeting the police, members of the media & fuel pipelines. Some of those attacks have been carried out by the Free Syrian Army and some by other armed opposition groups." (League of Arab States Observer Mission to Syria for the period from 24 December 2011 to 18 January 2012).
    The Arab League Observer mission report was subsequently shelved because it revealed the awful truth, namely that the US/NATO sponsored "rebels" rather than the govt were behind the massacres.

    A second report - Der Spiegel (March 29, 2012) entitled "An Executioner for Syria's Rebels Tells His Story".
    This story confirms an organized process of mass-murder & extra-judicial killing of civilians conducted by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This single "burial brigade", according to the executioner's testimony, was responsible for the arbitrary execution of 350-400 people including "prisoners" & "traitors". The "traitors" are Sunni civilians within the occupied areas, who express their opposition to the rule of terror of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Executed since last summer: @ 150 men, which represents about 20% of prisoners. But the executioners of Homs have been busier with traitors within their own ranks than with prisoners of war. If they catch a Sunni spying, or if a citizen betrays the revolution, they make a deadly end to it. (Der Spiegel, March 29, 2012)

  • Comment number 7.

    quietoaktree wrote:
    We can thank WWl for this mess.
    I agree, but not just for the disorganized split of the Ottoman Empire.
    Also for the harsh conditions imposed on Germany, which indirectly and over time led to the rise of Hitler and WW2.
    Also for the artificial split of Europe, which indirectly led to internal conflicts, like Bosnia.
    The victors went slash/cut crazy - never studying the nationalities being artificially dumped into unworkable borders, never looking forward to the nationalism that would inevitably result in future conflict.

  • Comment number 8.

    This is an interesting piece. But, perhaps, the most interesting observation in it is the ironic (or disgraceful, for that matter) fact that Professor Michael Clarke is noticing, when saying "... the regional implications of this dynamic of violence are more a driver of international diplomacy than the human misery inside Syria itself."

    Isn't it about time we looked at our humanity more transparently in this world? Isn't it outrageous to observe that humanity and human misery have become of lower grade compared to our international diplomacy and interests? What may seem or feel like a game of chess to some parties is certainly a game of abuse, torture and dismembering to many innocent lives (slaughtered infants, children, women, men, and even cattle - and destroyed world heritage)... Could a man walking in London talk of or honestly enjoy civility and modern high-culture when he knows that some miles away from where his stands massacres are being committed with full impunity, and full awareness by the world? How does it feel to belong to the same human race there? Does it ring any bells or raise any eyebrows?

    The citizens of the world need to beware of their responsibility in observing humanity not only upon their narrower apertures of interests in their local countries, but also across the wider world, where weaker and less-empowered civilians see nothing of their taken-for-granted access to human rights and dignity. If people don't put pressure on their governments and politicians, politics will always be what it has always been: a cold game of cold interests, stepping above any human aspect.

    I invite you to read the following blog, where some local Syrian academics, witnessing first-hand suffering on the ground in Syrian, from their positions amid young students and unfolding troubles on Syria' streets, have posted a new article on the following log:


    It increases awareness of the daily inhumanity experiences by locals, to the international readership. Many observe that the Syrian suffering is slipping too easily (disgracefully) from the minds of their fellow citizens of the world. News cover latest developments, but such experiences and logs are mind-openers, at the personal readership level, to how it is like to live in Syria today.
    The academics contributing had to keep their full IDs anonymous for the safety of their relatives in Syria (the regime has been known for abusing or even killing people who may have a dissident cousin!)

  • Comment number 9.

    #7 BB

    I think of Hitler as a ´Snake Oil salesman´-- with the product in 50% alcohol. He offered an instant cure --but it was methanol and not ethanol. However that did not bother those Industrialists and Bankers who bought into the ´frachise´

    The end of WWl brought the news of the ´usual suspects´´ involvement -- Industrialists and Bankers (and often Monarchs). Unfortunately for them also the founding of the Communist Russia.-- that by itself gave the remaining ´cannon fodder´pause for thought --not only in Germany, but also in far off places such as the UK.

    True, the WWl reparations was an extra problem for Germany --and the depression tended to equalize some of the pain caused by the´usual suspects´
    The dangerous cry of ´workers unite´ swept through Europe (and to a lesser extent North America).

    -- I, like you, do not see a straight line between the reparations and WWll and have long considered the argument as only a decoy-- away from a more sinister reality and truer history.


    -- One thing is clear, the Colonialists have left one heck of a mess in the region and now have the audacity to threaten-- if they reap what they have sown.

    #8 anSyriaBlogging


  • Comment number 10.

    Does anyone know the ethnic and/or religious make up of the many refugees who are reported as leaving Syria? Some have fled across the border into Turkey. Others are just getting out of Aleppo. It would be interesting to know which groups feel so threatened that they have fled.

  • Comment number 11.

    THis may be of interest.

    On a lighter note, after reading the article check out the cartoons!

  • Comment number 12.

    Just an aside:

    The news is yet again featuring the split between describing aerial bombardment as 'bombing' or 'surgical strikes'. If 'we' do it, as in Libya, it is 'surgical strikes' if 'they' do it it is bombing!

    Apparently the people are regarded as being so stupid not to understand that both kill and both are bad.

  • Comment number 13.


    Chemical weapons.


    #12 J_f_H

    -- back from your skirmishes (surgical strikes) ?

  • Comment number 14.

    Lustig's article talks about intervening in the future. Can he, honestly, be unaware of the present massive intevention of the West, and, most specificially, the UK? Do we need to cite chapter and verse and name the UK contractors, the sources of the advanced weapons, etc.?

    Bluesberry's #4, #5 and #6 are spot on. Surely, there must be some souls within the BBC who are bright and honest enough to report the details!

    The planned aggression of the USA was documented in 2001. Hillary and her gang are destroying another, secular, country causing the deaths of thousands. The evil has produced negative results for all but Israel. Many should call for war crimes trials- unfortunately, the USA refused to join the International Criminal Court and the US Congress has passed legislation authorizing the military rescue of any US officials captured by the ICC.

    What is the status of the UK concerning the ICC?

  • Comment number 15.



    Mubarak and Assad, while not pleasant, were at least predictable to a degree.

    One would hope that in the long term the Arab Spring will turn out to have been a good thing.

    Short term, it suits some folk but not the Israelis.

  • Comment number 16.

  • Comment number 17.

  • Comment number 18.

    There is a myth that intervention makes this better.

    Generally it does not. Like intervening in a violent row between husband and wife - the result is not always beneficial.

    Nations swagger around and expend their materiel and often they just achieve nothing but sometime, more often than not, they makes things worse. (see Vietnam etc etc etc.) But still the next braggart in change wants to wage war as a continuation of politics by other means.

    Remember the Delphic oracle predicting that if you go to war a great empire will be defeated - often that empire lost is yours and not your enemy's!

  • Comment number 19.

    Distinguish the aggression against Syria from the "Arab Spring". See Gen. Wesley Clark's "Winning Modern Wars" pg 130 et passim for the seven lands targeted, including Syria. This plan was introduced by Israeli-inspired Neocons and adopted by the Pentagon.

    The results of the US aggressions have been generally negative so far. Israel has benefitted by the fragmentation of Iraq's strength, feels that Assad cannot do anything at the moment and thus leaves Hezbollah unprotected, weakinging Lebanon for another Israeli aggression.

    Conventional wisdom has it that Syria must be neutralized before attacking Iran. In these ways, Israel thinks it benefits from the plan outlined by Gen. Clark.

  • Comment number 20.



    "Distinguish the aggression against Syria from the "Arab Spring". "

    No, I don't believe I will. What do you suppose the Pentagon intends to do with these seven conquered lands? Colonise them? The recent turmoil in North Africa gives the lie to the notion that the State of Israel is the source of all the Arab countries' problems. This evident truth, however, will not prevent Al-Qaeda and/or the Muslim Brotherhood singing the same old song once they achieve power, courtesy of the West.

    One man. One vote. One time.

  • Comment number 21.

  • Comment number 22.

    The BBC has published, today, that Obama has authorized interventions in Syria. It appears that he signed the orders SIX MONTHS AGO. https://www.rt.com/news/us-support-syrian-rebels-obama-650/

    How can BBC management think its participation in the false reporting and military campaign against Syria will not entail a day of review and reckoning?

  • Comment number 23.

    Let us step back to the explosive events of 2011 when the "Arab Spring" was in its full blossoming mode. The events beginning in Tunisia with the Jasmine revolution followed by the Benghazi uprising in Libya and of course the anti-Mubarak youth uprising in Egypt in January of 2011. The Libyan overthrow of Khaddafy was facilitated only with the military assistance of NATO's NFZ intervention which then morphed into a full scale air support of the Benghazi rebels exceeding the mandate of UN resolution 1973. In Egypt, the youth rebellion in January 2011, believed to be a purely indigenous movement, succeeded in a remarkable three week period in peacefully overthrowing Mubarak. By staying out of active defence of Mubarak, the military (SCAF) may have provided the means by which the rebellion succeeded. One of the best discussions of these explosive movements of the Arab spring that I have seen is the Youtube discussion (Webster Tarpley in Press TV debate with Libyan Rebel Supporters) held by pressTV.ir, held on April 6, 2011 with a youth panel in Beirut and experts in Philadelphia, London, and Washington. Journalist Webster Griffin Tarpley advanced the theory that much of the Arab spring movements were planned and executed behind the scenes from Washington except possibly for the purely indigenous uprising in Tunisia. This theory opposed by the other experts, claims that the Egyptian uprising was orchestrated by a group called Otpor responsible for the Serbian overthrow of Slobodan Milosevich and for the many "colored" revolutions in Eastern Europe that followed. The fact that social media (Facebook) played such an important role in organizing the interaction between Egyptian youth groups such as Kefaya and April 5th tends to reinforce Tarpley's conspiracy theories. Now in the current Syrian insurgency which is much more complex than the previous uprisings we need to step back also and try todisentangle some of the threads of the current upsurge in fighting between the Assad government and the rebels. There is evidence that the boldly successful assasination of Assad's inner circle of security and military leaders was plotted and carried out by Saudi intelligence services under the direction of their newly appointed head Prince Bandar bin Sultan. It is unlikely that the intricate operation could have been planned or carried out by the Syrian rebels who lack the sophisticated ability to penetrate the Syrian high command structure. The little reported assasination of the deputy Saudi intelligence chief in Riyadh and the still possibility of the mortal wounding of Prince Bandar himself was carried out in retaliation by the Syrians has been unconfirmed thus far. Of course, despite the widely believed reports in Western media that the Assad government was in full retreat and facing disintegration in Damascus as a result of the wiping out of the security high command has since proven to be wildly premature as the Syrians were able to wipe out much of the resistance in Damascus in recent weeks. The uprising in Aleppo itself though still strong also shows signs of weakening as the Syrian military pounds their strongholds with artillery and helicopter gunships. The inability of the expat anti-Assad movement to coalesce around a common agenda for proceeding with the overthrow of Assad frustrates the outside powers who have organized numerous get togethers (Tunis, Istanbul, Paris). The presidential re-election campaign in full swing in the US which has an inhibiting effect on western intervention at this crucial time frustrates hawks such as former head of the State Department Policy Planning Office, AnneMarie Slaughter, who wrote a scathing, "we will pay a high price if we do not arm Syria's rebels", in August 1st edition of the Financial Times.

  • Comment number 24.

    #23 is accurate and to the point.

    Put more bluntly:
    The USA has been plotting to overthrow Syria since 2001. The campaign reached a frenzied tempo about 16 months ago. The UK government, as obedient poodle, has copied the US, even to the wording of policies and announcements.

    It has been bitterly disappointing that BBC management has, for due consideration received, filtered and biased the news to present a false story of events in Syria. Even the BBC Trust has been given funds by the US State Department.

    The British public deserves a chance to know the truth. At the moment, this can best be approached through the Facebook Group "The Syrian Revolution, the Untold Story".

  • Comment number 25.

    In addition to the Syrian crisis, there are growing problems in Egypt and its fledgling democratic government of president Mohammad Morsi. There is unrest in the Sinai desert where extreme poverty and a growing Islamic extremist movement prompted a military invasion this week. The Sinai is important also of course because of its proximity to Israel which invaded the Sinai during the 1973 war. Morsi faces problems with consolidating his tenuous grip on Egyptian internal affairs with his uncertain relations with the military who resent any attempts to loosen their still strong grip over civil and economic control. Relations between the newly dominant position of the MB over Egyptian politics and the minority communities especially the Coptic Christians is also a potential threat to peace within Egypt. It for this reason that I would advise President Obama not to get more deeply embroiled in the domestic affairs of Syria through deeper military involvement in their civil war. He needs to stay flexible and retain the capability to influence events in the region by avoiding entanglements which jeopardize his future influence in the region after his re-election in November.


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