t the outset of his term, the new president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, will confront a thicket of national and international challenges.
Rouhani’s presidential term starts at a particularly challenging time; the Islamic Republic of Iran is facing an unprecedented level of regional and international isolation. One of the most crucial foreign policy objectives which will take precedence in Rouhani’s agenda is the Syrian conflict, which has now entered its third year.
The election result raises vital questions regarding whether Iran’s foreign policy towards Assad’s sect-based and police regime will be altered or whether Iranian-Syrian alliance will evolve into a new phase. Will the presidency of the centrist Rouhani influence Iran’s diplomatic ties with Damascus and its unconditional support for Assad? Will Tehran change its political, military, intelligence and advisory assistance to Syria’s state apparatuses, army, security forces, and Mukhabart?
The Obama administration, hoping that the conflict in Syria has reached a turning point, is considering deeper intervention to help push President Bashar al-Assad from power, according to government officials involved in the discussions.
While no decisions have been made, the administration is considering several alternatives, including directly providing arms to some opposition fighters.
The most urgent decision, likely to come next week, is whether NATO should deploy surface-to-air missiles in Turkey, ostensibly to protect that country from Syrian missiles that could carry chemical weapons. The State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said Wednesday that the Patriot missile system would not be “for use beyond the Turkish border.”
But some strategists and administration officials believe that Syrian Air Force pilots might fear how else the missile batteries could be used. If so, they could be intimidated from bombing the northern Syrian border towns where the rebels control considerable territory. A NATO survey team is in Turkey, examining possible sites for the batteries.
Other, more distant options include directly providing arms to opposition fighters rather than only continuing to use other countries, especially Qatar, to do so. A riskier course would be to insert C.I.A. officers or allied intelligence services on the ground in Syria, to work more closely with opposition fighters in areas that they now largely control.
In addition to Israel absorbing scores of missiles fired from the Gaza Strip — proof if ever the UN needed it that the PA is ready for an elevation of its status in the august body — Syrian mortar shells have repeatedly hit (whether or not intentionally is not yet known) the Golan Heights during the past few days. The MSM’s coverage of Israel’s inevitable, albeit restrained, response, provide yet another window into the insidious way in which anti-Israel bias in the media plays out.
Compare, if you will, the following Associated Press headline currently appearing courtesy of Yahoo!:
Israel strikes Syria armor, hiking spillover fears
At first blush, the headline is not particularly outlandish. After all, given the time-honored tradition among despots in the Arab world of seeking to deflect their population’s anger by directing it at the Jewish State, the possibility of the civil war in Syria drawing in Israel is a real concern.
However, followers of how the media covers Israel will note the familiar ring by which “concerns” about “spillover” or “escalation” are only highlighted by the media when Israel responds, even if only in a limited fashion, to violent or military attacks on its territory or population.
For example, by contrast to the Associated Press’ “concern” over spillover following Israel’s response to Syrian shelling, here is how the very same wire service, only a few weeks ago, reported following several days of artillery fire by Turkey responding to similarly “errant” mortar shells from Syria:
Turkey strikes back against Syria shelling
Beirut — The Turkish military retaliated with artillery fire fora sixth straight day Monday after a Syrian shell hit its territory, and Turkey’s president warned that “the worst-case scenario we have all been dreading” is unfolding in Syria and along its borders.
Got that? Turkey, the government of which has been open and aggressive in opposing the al-Assad regime and assisting the groups seeking its overthrow, responds to a single shell with six days of shelling, and the headlines dispassionately report the fact that Turkey struck back against Syrian shelling. They do not scream with “concern” over the risk of spillover or escalation.
Likewise, here is Reuters’ reporting today (as carried in Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News) on what is potentially a more ominous harbinger of escalation and widening of the Syrian conflict:
NATO chief says alliance will defend Turkey over Syria
NATO will defend alliance member Turkey, which struck back after mortar rounds fired from Syria landed inside its border, the alliance’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at a meeting in Prague today.
“NATO as an organisation will do what it takes to protect and defend Turkey, our ally. We have more plans in place to make sure that we can protect and defend Turkey and hopefully that way also deter so that attacks on Turkey will not take place,” he said.
As with the reporting of Turkey’s response to shelling from Syria a few weeks ago, the media’s coverage of this important statement by NATO’s Secretary General shows no concern about possible “spillover” or “escalation”.
That treatment is reserved for Israel, when, despite publicly and otherwise having given every indication of a desire to stay out of the strife in Syria, it responds to multiple shells over several days with a limited response directed at the battery from which the shells were fired. Suddenly now, the AP and its ilk are “concerned”.
Is it any wonder, then, that many of those who rely on the MSM for news coverage of the region, have a distorted view of Middle Eastern affairs?
Turkey is struggling to find its role in the Middle East. The past two years have upset plans for regional dominance
Turkey is struggling to find its role in the Middle East. The past two years have thrown a wrench into Erdogan’s plans for regional dominance.
When Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance aircraft in June, observers in Israel noted that Ankara might have actually enjoyed the conflict: Turkey seemed to be looking for a justification to intervene militarily in Syria, and the aircraft incident seemed to fit the bill. But just in case it wasn’t sufficient, additional motivation was provided by another tragedy a few days ago: mortar shells were fired from inside Syria on the Turkish border city Akçakale, killing five civilians, including three children. Syria’s democratically elected dictator Bashar al-Assad promptly delivered his apologies through the UN, claiming that the shelling had been an accident. Yet the political damage was too severe to be patched up with a few diplomatic words. The Turkish parliament in Ankara quickly approved “defensive” military intervention.
Turkey wants to play a bigger role in the Syrian conflict, escalating from diplomacy to armed intervention. This is a pivotal decision, as it signals another step in a strategic shift of Turkey’s presence and goals in the Middle East. In recent years, the country has been on the rise with its “neo-Ottomanist” strategy promoted by the popular prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and orchestrated by foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
Turkey’s international approach was supposed to develop in two parallel directions: commerce and politics. As for commerce, strong pressure had been put on intensifying trade with countries from the region. Until the outbreak of chaos in Syria, the Turkish saw the country as “Turkey as it used to be some thirty years ago,” full of potential to be explored and exploited. Politically, Turkey was eager to showcase itself as an islamist-democratic alternative to Iran. Hence initiatives such as the “flotilla” to the Gaza strip: it was intended by Turkey as a humanitarian support initiative to help Palestinians, but a secondary goal was the discrediting of Israel and the collection of diplomatic street cred in the Muslim countries of the region. Turkey also hoped to strengthen its ties with Russia: besides energy connections - an area where Turkey’s geographic location has proven pivotal - the country had been dreaming of closer political cooperation, notwithstanding the considerable amounts of wars that the countries have started in the last century.
Yet all these efforts have brought few results. Neo-Ottomanism has failed. Politically, it has become clear that the “Arab Spring” was not much of a “spring,” and that it has been “Islamist” rather than Arab in many instances. The Islamism that has emerged isn’t predicated on a pan-congregational alliance of Muslims in the pursuit of peace and love, but often focuses on local dynamics, almost at the tribal level.
Turkey fired artillery into Syria for a fourth consecutive day on Saturday after another Syrian mortar shell landed on the Turkish side of the increasingly tense border.
The exchanges — and Turkey’s recent warnings to Syria that it would defend itself — have raised fears of regional conflict. While stray shells and bullets from the Syrian conflict have often landed in Lebanon and Turkey, for the first time a Syrian shell killed five Turkish civilians on Wednesday, prompting Turkey’s response.
Both Syria and Turkey on Saturday denied that Syria had pulled its forces back six miles from the border to avoid provoking Turkey, as Turkish news media had reported on Friday. A Turkish government official dismissed the reports as unreliable.
Democratic uprisings across the Arab world and the Palestinians’ bid for U.N. membership sparked excitement and hope at last year’s meeting of world leaders. But with war raging in Syria, the Palestinian application sidelined, and deadly protests generated by an anti-Islamic video, the mood as this year’s U.N. gathering begins is one of disappointment and frustration.
More than 120 presidents, prime ministers and monarchs meeting this week under heavy security at the U.N. General Assembly and in sideline events will also be preoccupied by rising tension over Iran’s nuclear program and the possibility of an Israeli strike against Tehran’s nuclear facilities, al-Qaida’s inroads in the Sahel region of west Africa, especially in Mali, and the first decline in years in international aid to help developing countries combat poverty.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon predicted that the ministerial session, which begins Tuesday, will be among the busiest ever, reflecting “the tumultuous time in which we live — a time of turmoil and transition.” It is also taking place “against a backdrop of widespread violence linked to intolerance,” he said.
Ahead of the opening ministerial session, which President Barack Obama will address, the U.N. chief has invited leaders to the first high-level meeting on the rule of law on Monday, hoping they “will send a strong signal to the world’s people that they are serious about establishing well-functioning institutions and delivering justice.”
Diplomats aren’t expecting any breakthroughs on the deadlock over Syria, which Ban said “will be foremost in our minds,” despite a number of sideline meetings starting Monday when the new U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi briefs the U.N. Security Council behind closed doors on his recent talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad and other leaders in the region.
The Syrian conflict has bitterly divided the most powerful members of the Security Council, paralyzing the only U.N. body that can impose global sanctions and authorize military action. Russia, Syria’s key protector, and China, have vetoed three Western-backed resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad to stop the violence and start political talks with opponents of his family’s 40-year dictatorship who began demonstrating against his regime 18 months ago.
The United Nations reported an alarming acceleration in refugee flow from Syria on Friday, shattering previous estimates and reinforcing fears that the Syrian conflict could create a humanitarian crisis drawing in the country’s immediate neighbors.
The new data on refugees came as antigovernment activists reported that the Syrian military pounded suspected insurgent enclaves in Homs, Deir al-Zour, and Damascus with artillery and airstrikes, and as fighting raged in Aleppo.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said that more than 200,000 refugees had registered in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, with 30,000 new arrivals tallied the past week. The agency had previously anticipated a total of 185,000 registered refugees by the end of this year.
”We’re already past where we were in terms of planning,” Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the refugee agency, said in a phone interview from its headquarters in Geneva. ”We’re going to have to revise upward the planning figures.”
Fighting broke out between Jordanian and Syrian forces in a border region between the two countries overnight, but a Jordanian source said on Saturday no one on Jordan’s side appeared to have been killed.
A Syrian opposition activist who witnessed the fighting said armored vehicles were involved in the clash in the Tel Shihab-Turra area, about 80 km (50 miles) north of the Jordanian capital Amman, that occurred after Syrian refugees tried to cross into Jordan.
“The Syrian side fired across the border and fighting ensued. Initial reports indicate that there has been no one killed from the Jordanian side,” said the Jordanian source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Jordanian troops have fired near the border in the past to stop Syrians from shooting at fleeing refugees.
Western nations and regional powers fear the Syrian conflict could spill into neighboring countries. The 17-month uprising has turned into a civil war with a sectarian angle that has the West lining up with Sunni Muslim nations behind the mainly Sunni rebels and against President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
Alawistan: Assad may be gearing up to create an Alawite state along Syria’s coastal mountains. And he has the means to do it
How long will President Bashar al-Assad remain in Damascus? His regime appears to be reeling: A bombing last week claimed the lives of his brother-in-law and three other senior figures of his regime, military defections continue, and rebel forces have arrived in the country’s largest cities. The prevalent view in Washington and many other foreign capitals is that the question is not if Assad will lose the capital, but when.
Assad has no intention of abandoning Damascus without a fight. Since last week’s bombing, the Syrian Army’s Fourth Division — led by Assad’s brother Maher — has launched an intense campaign to retake control of the capital’s neighborhoods from the rebels. To secure Damascus, the regime has redeployed troops from the Golan and eastern Syria. Control of the capital is critical to Assad for maintaining the pretense that he is not merely an Alawite warlord, but the embodiment of the state.
The Syrian despot, however, is fighting a losing battle. As heavy fighting rages on in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, the regime is losing control over the Syrian interior and the Kurdish northeast. The predominantly Sunni areas of Syria are falling from Assad’s grasp, and there is no realistic way for him to reassert his authority there.
But Assad has one card left to play: The Syrian regime has been setting the stage for a retreat to Syria’s coastal mountains, the traditional homeland of the Assads’ Alawite sect, for months now. It is now clear that this is where the Syrian conflict is headed. Sooner or later, Assad will abandon Damascus.
Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, is in the grip of the country’s civil war. Government attack helicopters and fighter jets circle the city’s skies as rebel factions entrench themselves in Aleppo’s old town and sections of the city’s suburbs. The regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has dispatched armored columns to flush out insurgents, not unlike its recent crackdown on rebel fighters in pockets of the capital Damascus. One rebel commander in Aleppo told the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph that the fight for Syria’s commercial capital, a city of 2.5 million people, would last months. Rebels are stockpiling medical supplies and munitions, while the U.S. State Department warned of a potential massacre. A pro-government newspaper promised the “mother of all battles.”
(MORE: As Aleppo braces for a bloodbath, Syrian regime digs in.)
Until recently, Aleppo was not one of the major theaters of the Syrian conflict. But it is no stranger to war. With a history as ancient as Damascus — considered to be one of the longest, continuously inhabited cities in the world — Aleppo has been won and lost by a succession of empires, sacked by myriad invaders and reduced to rubble by epic earthquakes. That it still stands, and is, indeed, with its thousands of old limestone houses and winding old streets, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, is testament to the richness of its past and the resilience of its people.
From its early origins, Aleppo was a place where people grew wealthy. Cuneiform tablets from roughly four thousand years ago tell of a settlement called ‘Halabu’ — eventually Aleppo — that was even then a center for the manufacture of garments and cloth. Located not far from the Mediterranean Sea on one side and the river valley of the mighty Tigris and Euphrates on the other, the city found itself in the middle of ancient Egyptian and Hittite trade routes. The Seleucids, a Greek dynasty descended from one of the lieutenants of Alexander the Great, developed the area further, while certain colonnaded avenues and courtyard homes in Aleppo today bear the tell-tale signs of Roman craftsmanship and Hellenistic urban planning.