Thursday, April 12, 2012

Syria’s border blackmail may backfire

Pity Ali Shaaban for the hypocrisy that surrounded the reactions to his death. From Hezbollah we heard that the cameraman’s killers had to be punished, even though the party has no intention of seeing its Syrian allies disciplined. But Shaaban was a Shiite, so something had to be said. Then there were the reactions from March 14. The coalition exploited the fact that a Shiite had been gunned down by Syrians to drive a wedge between Hezbollah and its own community. This was blatant and indecent, but there you have Lebanese politics today.

The regime of Bashar Assad is anxious about its borders. Shaaban’s killing came on the same day that Syrian soldiers were ordered to fire into Turkey. The aim is to blackmail, to warn that if the Syrian conflict becomes a proxy war, it may spread to Syria’s neighbors.

But there are proxy wars and proxy wars. The Assads have been readily accepting military instruction and assistance from Iran and Russia. For instance, a leaked video broadcast on the Al-Arabiya channel last week showed a Syrian Republican Guard general reassuring officers that additional soldiers were being trained inside Syria and outside. That could mean only one thing: that they were being prepared for action in Iran or areas controlled by Iranian allies.

The international community is sticking with the plan of Kofi Annan, the United Nations-Arab League envoy. There is much hypocrisy in that acceptance, too. Annan has just visited Iran, after Russia and China, because he feels that Assad’s benefactors might persuade him to discontinue massacring his population. They might, once they are assured that the Syrian regime has regained the upper hand and can manipulate Annan’s scheme to break the opposition’s back.

The Annan plan is a mishmash of incompatible ideas, which all sides have interpreted as they wish. Russia, Iran and China view it as an instrument to neutralize the armed struggle and consolidate Assad rule. The Syrian National Council doesn’t care for the plan and expects it to collapse, but has embraced it to avert diplomatic isolation. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been equally mistrustful, and are preparing to increase their assistance to the opposition once the plan fails. Turkey has a more urgent concern, namely managing the rising number of Syrian refugees entering the country. That’s why Ankara would welcome an international green light, and the legitimacy that would accompany this, to carve out a buffer zone inside Syria. And the United States, while it has endorsed Annan’s mission, has also approved non-lethal aid to the opposition, betraying its doubts as to the mission’s success.

Annan has expressed surprise that the criminally long deadline he approved for implementation of his plan had led to more violence. Who was he kidding? That he afforded Syria’s security forces valuable time to carry out more murder discredited his efforts. Annan seems oblivious to the dynamics of the situation. The Syrian regime is pursuing a strategy of absolute eradication, and will only go along with his proposals if they advance such a strategy.

There are those who suggest that Annan is well aware that his initiative will go nowhere, but needs to prove this before moving to stronger medicine. Perhaps, but that means that every new victim of the carnage in Syria must be put at the envoy’s door. After all, his approach is merely a reheated version of an Arab League plan from last November that the Syrian regime undermined time an again.

By ordering its troops to fire across two international borders, the Syrian leadership has only reconfirmed that it is looking to crush the rebellion. You don’t seal your borders unless your intention is to ensure that you can regain the upper hand militarily, while denying that capacity to your enemies. And if Annan is going to provide cover for Assad to continue along this path, then the envoy must end his mediation right away, or seriously overhaul it. Going hat in hand to Moscow, Beijing and Tehran only strengthens Syria’s leadership.

Assad’s problem is that Syria’s borders will remain vulnerable to outside infiltration. As the Annan project is gradually emptied of all meaning, the logic of a proxy war in Syria will come back with a vengeance. You can fire at the Lebanese, but the Lebanon border will stay porous. Because of national cleavages over Syria, the Lebanese Army’s hands are tied when policing the area, not least when this is done upon the instructions of Syria’s ambassador.

Geographically, the Turkish border with Syria is far more difficult to cut off. Quite foolishly, the Syrian regime has recently granted wide latitude to the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, to operate in northern districts against Turkey. This Ankara cannot long tolerate, and Assad’s short-term gain may bring him a lasting headache if the Turks decide to move their army into Syrian territory. Until now they have not done so to avoid a confrontation with the Kurds and Iran. However, by playing the Kurdish card, Assad is hitting against a vital national interest of his northern neighbor, which may leave Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government with no choice.

The borders with Iraq and Jordan are also wide open, even if the governments in both countries remain wary of backing the Syrian uprising. However, if there is no political solution and the Syrian regime persists in its policy of obliteration, then arms and funding will flow across as all parties prepare for their stake in a post-Assad Syria. Ali Shaaban was an unfortunate victim of these perilous border games. Don’t be surprised if there are more to come.

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