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Last Updated: 10/02/2012Syria, Iran, and Israel: tensions and potential consequences
Independent journalist Atkilt Geleta comments on the UNGA speeches made by Ahmadinejad and Netanyahu and offers some analytical insight on the worsening Syrian crisis and the complex geopolitical structure of alliances and interests that surround it.
Before Netanyahu’s speech was even done, the red line reverberated on social media and Twitter was rife with cracks about the acme-style visual aid. The now infamous red line was meant to clearly indicate, in case the repeated warnings had escaped the international community, that Iran is very close to a nuclear bomb.
According to Netanyahu, Iran could have enough enriched uranium for its first nuclear device by next summer, so a preemptive strike is not only warranted but imperative. Netanyahu described Iran as a suicidal regime that patronizes an international network of terrorists, and a permanent existential threat to Israel that needed to be immediately reigned in.
At the Non-Aligned Movement conference in Tehran last month Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei countered such allegations when he reiterated that Iran was within its rights to pursue a nuclear energy program, while explaining that nuclear arms are “un-Islamic”. Similarly, at his final speech to the General Assembly last week, Ahmadinejad chided the allegations and threats of military action by what he referred to as the "uncivilized Zionists".
An elementary fact check expectedly reveals some half truths and inconsistencies in Netanyahu’s speech. The war rhetoric and accusations have been flung for years with Iran steadfastly maintaining that its nuclear program is solely for energy purposes. While nuclear watchdog IAEA has reported that Iran has doubled enrichment in one of its underground facilities since May, there are no conclusive findings that indicate that Iran is indeed on the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon by 2013. However, the IAEA maintains constant pressure over disclosure and access to Iran’s facilities, while Tehran accuses the IAEA of being a Western tool undermining Iran’s sovereignty.
Most observers agree that despite Iran’s escalating enrichment of uranium, the assertions that it is close to a bomb are unfounded. Much of the high-grade uranium within its possession has been used for reactor fuel plates, which confirms that the nuclear program is indeed for energy. The claims about Iran’s intentions have been circulating for decades, with Netanyahu himself unwittingly acknowledging the inconclusive accusations by saying he’s been “speaking about the need to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons for over 15 years.”
The theatrics of the UNGA summit aside, observers expressed concern that Netanyahu’s speech was meant to familiarize the global public with the likelihood of a “surgical” pre-emptive Israeli air-strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, an act virtually all observers acknowledge would inevitably draw the U.S. The potential fallout, according to most scenario forecasts, would certainly spell regional disaster, and at the risk of hyperbolism, possible global war.
As a forerunner to the anticipated conflict with Iran, the war in Syria has global ramifications and can be better understood when contextualized as such.
What started as mass protests as part of last year’s Arab Spring quickly transformed into an armed conflict when Bashar al-Assad regime’s security forces cracked down on dissent. The disproportionate amount of force provoked an armed opposition to organize and demand regime change. As fighting escalated, Assad made overtures to the opposition with a call for sweeping reforms, a referendum on a new constitution and elections. All were rejected as shams by the opposition, and significantly, by the West.
The Syrian conflict has sectarian dimensions as al-Assad, whose father ruled before him, is Alawite - a minority branch of Shia - while three-quarters of Syria is Sunni. The government and opposition are divided along those lines. It is believed that despite losing legitimacy and eventual collapse looming, Assad’s government is determined to keep fighting out of fear of reprisals on the Alawite community and administration.
The opposition, branded the Free Syrian Army, is a loose and fragmented coalition of tens of brigades, consisting of genuine Syrian rebels and foreign Sunni Jihadist militants who, in perhaps a foreshadow of a post-Assad Syria, are at times in competition and confrontation with each other. While they are now working together to depose an increasingly weakening regime, there are fears of a complete collapse into protracted civil war should they succeed with the ouster of Assad.
In the meantime, there are reports that the CIA is supplying arms to the FSA with assistance from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the same FSA whose partners inside Syria include foreign extremists (i.e. terrorists).
There are also allegations that Shia militiamen from Iraq are entering the fray to support Assad’s forces, further compounding the armed groups and actors within the conflict.
Assad’s government has depicted itself as a protector of minorities in Syria, which includes Christians, Kurds, and Druze, against the majority Sunni uprising. Meanwhile, the Kurds have established autonomous zones in Syria’s north along the Turkish border, while it is expected that the Druze will seek autonomy in the south.
Evidently, Syrian society is fraught with cleavages – Alawite vs Sunni, Sunni vs Minorities, Arab vs Kurd, Secular vs Islamist, Rural vs Urban, as well as class divisions.
The conflict is already making a major regional impact, with hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Authorities in these respective countries are struggling to register refugees and build encampments. Meanwhile, on the Syria-Lebanon border last month sectarian kidnappings between the Syrian rebels and prominent Shia families sparked fears of reviving sectarian tensions inside Lebanon – an equally pluralistic and divided nation. In addition, tensions between the PKK, the Kurdish guerilla movement, and the Turkish government have escalated with skirmishes in Kurdish enclaves in Syria’s north-east.
The Assad regime continues to face high level defections and is expected to disintegrate. The question of when remains uncertain.
When we begin to shift the focus out of Syria itself, a highly complex, delicate and multi-dimensional structure reveals itself. Clearly, Syria is a territory where major geo-political interests are playing out; it is host to a diverse set of possibilities and is pregnant with a potential for wider global conflict. Its global significance takes shape in the varied interests of the actors who are funding, arming and advising the groups and helping orchestrate developments through their patronage.
The United States, through the CIA and its proxies in the region – the Sunni governments of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar – is funding and supplying the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups against the Shia government of Syria. For the west, Iran and Syria are seen as regional security threats and the impediments in corning global oil and energy markets. For the Gulf States, Iran is an unreliable Shia neighbor, ideological opponent, and economic competitor whose intentions for regional hegemony mean that they cannot be trusted. For all of them, helping overthrow Assad is part of a larger effort to weaken Iran’s position in the Middle East.
While the U.S., European allies, and the Gulf Sunni powers are behind the Free Syrian Army, Assad’s benefactors come in the form of Russia, China, and Iran. Russia’s strategic interests in the region are reliant on the Assad regime; its only naval facility in the region is located in Tartus, Syria’s second largest port. The Assad government had also been a long-time arms client of Russia’s, while China has invested heavily in Syria to further its trade interests in the Middle East.
Syria is Iran’s most crucial ally in the Middle East. Through Syria, Iran maintains its regional influence and stance. Without Assad, Iran would still have proxies with Hezbollah in Lebanon (a Shia party and sort of a state-within-a-state) and Palestinian Hamas in Gaza, who are both on Israel’s borders, but would be isolated among the Gulf States and a horde of U.S. bases in the Middle East. Much of Iran’s flexibility and resilience is contingent on maintaining a stable Syria under Assad as its partner. If Assad falls, Iran’s geopolitical leverage would be seriously undermined and Iran would be even more vulnerable to an Israeli/U.S. offensive.
Russia and China’s regional economic and geopolitical interests are also tied up in Iran. Russia and Iran are the second and fourth largest oil producers, and have the first and second largest natural gas reserves in the world. The two countries enjoy a strong economic partnership based on the refinement and export of oil and gas. Iran also supplies 15% of China’s industrial gas and oil needs. And despite obvious and long-standing differences, all three share similar concerns about balancing U.S. hegemony around the world.
“This is a bomb, this is a fuse”
Israel is adamant about Iran’s nuclear intentions, and by demarcating the “red line”, Netanyahu may have unwittingly revealed a time line around which Israel may be planning to launch attacks – summer 2013.
Contrary to the urgency depicted by Netanyahu, however, there is still time for a peaceful solution to the rising tensions around Iran. The U.S., for example, is so far resisting Israeli pressure to engage Iran in any sort of hostility, hoping instead that sanctions and diplomacy will resolve tensions and bring a solution to the nuclear issue.
While Obama has not indefinitely ruled out a military strike, talks over Iran’s nuclear program are expected to resume after the U.S. elections in November. Lack of U.S. involvement will curb any planned Israeli offensive, as Israel will not engage Iran without a coordinated joint U.S. operation. Finally, it is unlikely that even if Iran’s nuclear facilities were attacked, that its capacity to procure a nuclear warhead would be thwarted. Some observers state that it might actually hasten Iran’s efforts to procure a bomb.
In the meantime, there is no clear political solution to the crisis in Syria. UN and Arab League Special Envoy Kofi Annan abandoned his post in August, citing disunity within the Security Council. His replacement, Lahkdar Bahimi, is not optimistic, and recently reported that the situation is deteriorating with a deadlock between Assad and the opposition.
One Syrian opposition group, The National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria (NCB), recently called for the peaceful overthrow of Assad and obtained the support of Russia, China, and Iran. The summit, held in Damascus, was boycotted by the Free Syrian Army who rejected the proposal. The Syrian opposition remains divided among rebel fighters, local peaceful parties and exiled opposition organizations.
Meanwhile, dialogue around foreign intervention is circulating among Arab nations and the international community, though it is not yet agreed whether this intervention would be through military means or a regional peace framework.
With the aforementioned geopolitical alignments – the U.S., Israel, European allies, and Gulf States on one side and Iran, China, and Russia on the other – and their efforts to preserve their vital interests, escalation into a conflict with Iran is likely to pit power blocs against each-other in a confrontation reminiscent of 20th century war politics.
Back in New York, Bibi’s cartoonish bomb loses its humor and begins to take on its intended ominous significance, though not of Iran’s supposed nuclear intentions but of the current state of affairs as a whole.
Atkilt Geleta is a journalist and masters student in the Media, Peace and Conflict Studies program at the UN-mandated University for Peace.