What with the Fiscal Cliff, Sandy Hook and the turning page of the calendar, Americans are paying scant attention to the Middle East save for the right-wing political attacks on the President and Susan Rice over the Benghazi, Libya U.S.Consulate attack. If you’re the persnickety type, you’ll tell me Libya is in North Africa. It is, but it is considered to be Middle Eastern. In fact, the term ‘Middle East’ didn’t come into official government usage until 1957 under the “Eisenhower Doctrine.” Thereafter, Libya was defined by the State Department as part of the Middle East, as was its African neighbor, Egypt.
The Middle East may be about to command dinner table conversation once more. The crumbling Syrian regime of 47-year-old Bashar al-Assad is front and center geopolitically as an area of great concern to the U.S. entering the new year. Syria’s circle of neighbors includes Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian Territories and Lebanon, some a little powder-keggy in their own right, especially in light of the recent history of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. Much like errant fireworks, some Lebanese residents near Syria’s northern border are feeling the effects of shrapnel and bomb craters from next-door ordinance and last I heard, Israel had been drawn into the conflict on a limited basis firing warning shots and a missile into Syria after repeated and far from errant Syrian mortar shelling across the Golan Heights..
Syria has an eclectic and sometime violent history beginning with the Ottoman Empire, transitioning through a quarter of a century of French involvement, leading to the founding of the Baath Party, a brief political fling and subsequent breakup with Egypt and the United Arab Republic after which the Assad name surfaced. In 1970, Hafez al-Assad overthrew the sitting President and got himself elected to the highest office a year later, serving unbroken a succession of 7-year terms until his death in 2000.
The post was immediately filled by his son Bashar. Reminiscent of the old Soviet Union Premier votes, Bashar won reelection with 97.6% of the ballots cast last time around. Syria is ostensibly a Republic, but has been run as an Assad Dictatorship for the last 42 years. Like his father before him, Bashar appoints his sycophants to any office that matters and maintains total control over everything, until recent events that is.
The BBC has tracked Syria’s complex path to the contemporary civil war that threatens to break out into a broader regional (or worse) conflagration if things continue as they are today. Remember, back in ’07, Israel bombed what it claimed was a covert nuclear reactor under construction in Syria. The Bush administration rejected the idea that Syria was nuclear weapons bound, but a subsequent inspection by the IAEA a year later, resulted in a report that all signs pointed to a nuclear reactor as a final goal. Whether that program has continued on any level is open to conjecture. Assad has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, something I would set as my first priority if I were in the process of secretly developing nuclear weapons.
The current mess began with demands that the Assad government release political prisoners. The response was to kill a number of protesters in the city of Deraa. Things escalated from there. As the BBC pointed out, when Assad found his military getting a beatdown from time to time, he attempt to mediate what was now a full-blown civil war by releasing dozens of political prisoners, dismissing the government and ending a long-standing state of emergency.
He still felt the need to show his people that he was the real boss in dispatching tanks into a number of Syrian towns. He also accused the protesters of being Israeli agents. Assad continued to send conflicting signals. Shortly after his Hungary-like tank power play, he granted amnesty for all political prisoners.
Things continued to go from bad to worse to better, then back to bad to worse again, over the next months. The opposition organized and became much more difficult to beat back. Obama started talking tough over chemical weapons and hinted at intervention. High-ranking office-holders defected. An official National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition forces was formed. The President, Britain, France and area allies give the group the thumbs up.
As has been rumored for many months, boatloads of Russian marines are headed for Syria at this very moment. The official Moscow line for the purpose of their presence is to “protect Russian citizens.” That’s pretty believable given the fact that the estimated death count is nearly 40,000. That’s a big number and there are 20,000 Russian women married to Syrian men not counting other Russian émigrés .
Russia, still an ally, is pressing for negotiations. Naval Today.com, a global business consultancy, reports that two Russian vessels are steaming toward the Mediterranean port city of Tartus, Syria. The landing ships are Azrov and Nikolai Filchenkov. The ships will be escorted to the port by a Black Sea Fleet missile cruiser and a destroyer. Both the Azrov and Nikolai have armaments including anti-aircraft guns aboard the Nikolai.
The Black Sea Fleet is an arm of the Russian Navy that has been operating in the Black Sea and Mediterranean forever. Will the two ‘escorting’ vessels stick around? We’ll see. A sub-text has been making the rounds that the U.S. might be in cahoots with the Russians in forcing a settlement of the Syrian crisis. Spokespeople on both sides are denying that such a cooperative effort is taking place.
It’s interesting that multi-nationals know a hell of a lot more about what’s going on in the world than the average citizen and even some politicians and major media. Seasoned world travelers have long known that a call to Uncle Sam will alert them to the real trouble spots overseas.
Both the Assad forces and the opposition “Free Syrian Army” continue to exchange charges of chemical weaponry. A group out of Montreal calling themselves The Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG) writes on their Global Research Website that Syrian opposition forces are using chemical weapons. CRG labels the United States, France and the UK as terrorist supporters and Pariah States.
The site goes on to report an alleged opposition chemical weapons attack on Syrian military personnel in the city of Daraya, killing seven, supposedly by a chemical similar to concentrated tear gas. At about the same time, a like number of people were killed by
government forces in a Homs’ neighborhood. Al Jazeera quoted a local activist as describing the chemical as closely resembling Sarin gas. Considering, the government has already announced its intentions to use chemical and biological weapons, I would tend to believe they’re used chemical and biological weapons
We don’t really know the whole truth of the matter any more than we know where the Obama administration is positioned on this issue. Once the Russians land, all may become clear.
Don’t be surprised if 2013 starts out with a bang.