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Syria. Why no intervention by NATO?

It’s all the fault of the former colonial power ( for once not the UK)

Why is Turkey getting involved in all this?
You can understand Russia’s position, but the Chinese stance?
Before a taking a look at what’s behind the current mess in Syria, take a quick look at these links. Confused by conflicting advice on salt intake? If you aren’t then maybe you should be.

You’ve all heard of the Muslim Brotherhood, now read about them.

This from the GLORIA Centre

The Alawites rule Syria. Who are they exactly?

Officially, the Alawite sect is Shia Muslim, well sort of. Oh dear, getting complicated already. Shia and Sunni Islam parted ways over who was to succeed Muhammad as the leading figure in Islam. The Alawites take the Shia view on this, which naturally makes them unpopular in certain quarters, particularly the seventy-four percent of the Syrian population who are in fact Sunnis. Now don’t run away with the idea that this means the Alawites make up some twenty-six percent of the Syrian population. Estimates vary slightly, but it’s probably safe to say that thirteen to fifteen percent of the Syrian population is Shia, most of whom are Alawite. So let’s pull a figure out of thin air, because everybody else seems to, and state categorically that maybe twelve to fourteen percent of the Syrian population are Alawite. ‘Maybe’ is being categorical? As good as you’re going to get here, or anywhere else come to that. Even that font of knowledge, the CIA World Handbook isn’t too sure about it.

Allow me to put this in some sort of perspective. Syria is a sort of secular-Muslim country, ruled over by a sect that constitutes perhaps twelve percent of the population. Ten percent of the population of Syria are Christians of one sort or another, so perhaps it’s only an accident that Syria isn’t a Secular- Muslim country ruled by Christians. Now that would have upset several apple-carts, wouldn’t it. The ultimate victory of Richard Coeur de Lion, and Salah ad-Din (Saladin) spinning in his grave.

Before moving on, let me just say that the Alawites have other differences from the Shia branch of Islam. They believe that Ali, Mohamed’s son in law was a divine figure, which puts them totally beyond the pale as far as the Sunni are concerned and a bit suspect in Shia eyes. They also embrace the Seven Pillars of Islam. All the rest make do with Five Pillars. Alawites also celebrate some Christian and Zoroastrian festivals, include Socrates and Plato amongst their list of prophets and believe in transmigration of souls. Naughty people come back as dogs or pigs, but righteous people return with ‘more perfect bodies’. Interesting thought, maybe if I’m good I could come back as Bo Derek and I’d never have to worry about having a date on Saturday nights again.

So moving on, how come the Alawites rule Syria? It’s all the fault of the former colonial power you see. France. This as I said makes a change from it being the fault of the British. After the First World War, in an attempt at exporting Equalité, possibly Fraternité but not Liberté, the French authorities decided that the minorities in Syrian society should be encouraged to enter some form of Government Service. The Alawites came from a mainly rural background, so they were deemed suitable canon fodder and rather than having to educate them and put them in the civil service, the Alawites were encouraged to join the army. Go forward to the revolution in the seventies when Bashar’s Dad Hafez seized power and most of the army were Alawite. Today, those who aren’t Alawite are so closely identified with the Assad regime that they might as well be, they’ll probably all be swinging from adjacent lampposts in the near future. Or will they?

Why does Russia support the Assad Regime?

Good question. On the face of it, you’d have to say they were backing a losing horse. They did of course support Pa Hafez, but the Russians aren’t known for their sentimentality in foreign policy.

Russian exports to Syria were worth $1.1 billion in 2010 and its investments in the country were valued at $19.4 billion in 2009 according to The Moscow Times.

Since the start of the so-called Arab Spring Russia has been losing client states and old friends at an alarming rate, but there is more to it than bidding a tearful farewell to aging dictators. The first question of course is how is Syria paying for Russian weaponry and whatever else the Russians succeed in flogging them?

Well here’s a clue. You see, at the collapse of the Soviet Union, Syria owed the unlamented communist state some US$13.4 billion. If they thought that they were off the hook because the Soviet Union no longer existed, the ‘new’ Russian regime soon disabused them of that foolish notion. They generously ‘retired’ US$9.8 billion of the Syrian debt, provided Syria agreed to buy it’s arms from them. Not a difficult decision, everybody else had the quaint notion that you actually sold arms. Sold as in received payment in return. The Russians were playing a longer game, as so frequently is the case.

The French might have given ‘easy terms’, but as the former colonial power, they were a bit out of favour and in any case, Syrian relations with the West have always been a bit problematic. Following Syrian support for the Americans in Gulf-War One, it would be reasonable to assume that the Americans would have ‘sold’ them arms. There was a problem of course. Syria was (and is) still ‘officially’ at war with Israel, so any American arms sales would have been counter to Israeli interests. I’m sure the idea was floated that if Syria agreed a peace deal with Israel then the weapons would have been forthcoming. At that time, Israel might have been amenable to doing a deal over the Golan Heights so perhaps you are wondering why it never happened. Well, wonder no more. The majority of Syrians are Sunnis. The majority of the Palestinians are Sunnis. Old man Hafez Assad was an Alawite who in the nineteen eighties massacred some tens of thousand of Sunni Syrians. Nah, he wanted arms with no strings attached. He didn’t get that of course, at least not as it turned out. Additionally, America can turn a bit sensitive if it’s military hardware is used against civilians. Unless it’s them using it against terrorists and their associates, in which case it’s OK. Provided nobody knows much about it.

Tartus. A Syrian port on the Mediterranean which since the early nineteen seventies has been a Soviet, now Russian, naval base. Recent talks between Syria and Russia have centred on expanding Tartus so that it can now take the largest Russian navy ships. In fact, Assad Junior agreed to Tartus becoming a permanent base for Russian nuclear-armed ships. Handy if you are a bit miffed at the American ICBM shield in Europe and want to make a point. The point being that you’ve got a credible naval presence in the Mediterranean, which might come in useful in all sorts of scenarios, including one where the Americans redeploy most of their ships from the Atlantic to the Pacific to counter, or not of course, a growing Chinese naval presence.

It’s worth noting that in the seventies, arms exports to Syria accounted for ninety percent of Soviet military-related exports. Fairly recently, Russia lost out to the tune of US$4 billion in arms exports to Gaddafi. Currently, existing contracts with Syria are worth US$1.5 billion, or around ten percent of their annual exports, so one can understand why Russia is not keen to support any UN-inspired arms embargo on Syria. Of course, if Assad falls there is no guarantee that the new regime would continue to buy arms from Russia or allow them access to Tartus. More on that shortly.

I haven’t mentioned oil. Syria has some of course, but not all that much, so there is still a question of how they are paying for all the Russian equipment. A warm-water seaport has been a Russian dream of several centuries and in Tartus, on paper at least, they’ve hit the jackpot. I wonder what that’s worth?

Chinese Involvement

There is trade between China and Syria. China exports US$2.2 billions worth of goods and chattels to Syria and Syria exports US$5.6 millions worth of something to China. Yes, you did read that correctly, US$5.6 MILLION, or a bit less than one percent of the entire trade between the two countries. China is of course interested in what oil Syria has and is involved in developing new fields and extending the life of old ones. Why are they doing this? Well China feels the need to safeguard the supply of oil as much as it can and from wherever it can. The Chinese economy has to keep expanding at about ten percent per year to keep up with population growth and to avoid ‘trouble at mill’, as they say in Yorkshire. The Chinese economy is contracting of course, or at least not expanding at the required rate so there already is ‘trouble at mill’. Not to forget that there is still not a lot of love lost between China and Russia, so if Assad falls China may be well placed to step into the breach when the new Syrian regime slings the Russians out. It could also be that China just wants to give America ‘the bird’, and by not supporting UN resolutions aimed at the Assad regime, they can do this, causing the maximum annoyance with the minimum of effort. There might also be an element of one repressive regime supporting another.

Where angels fear to tread?

So why isn’t America taking a stronger line? Is it merely wanting to get a UN resolution first and get Russia and China ‘on board’, or is there something else.

Much has been made of this being an election year in the States and as I pointed out in a previous article a second Obama term is not a given. Is this a case of wanting to ‘pussy-foot’ around until after the November election, or is it a case of keeping your powder dry for a confrontation with Iran. Certainly with economic conditions looking a bit ‘iffy’ on the home front, Obama might well be tempted to put on his sincerest face, look straight into the camera and announce that with a heavy heart America must once again take up arms in the altruistic pursuit of others freedom. This would boost the American economy and possibly make everybody feel a bit easier about re-electing him. With World opinion, with the exception of China and Russia, demanding that ‘something be done’ about Syria, this might appear to be a popular option on all fronts. So, why hasn’t it been done? After all, Russia has begun to make noises about relations between countries surviving a change in leadership, which if you were Assad might worry you somewhat. It hasn’t been done because it’s of what might come after the fall of Assad, and I don’t mean the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood and yet another Islamist Government. America might well think that Sunni Islamists would have nothing to do with Shia Iran, and they could well be correct so the fall of Assad could be a poke in the eye for Iran, which might calm them down a bit. No, the clue comes in what happened when a Kurdish delegation went to Washington.

The Syrian Kurds didn’t get the reception they were hoping for. The US State department met them, but they were told to seek an understanding with the ‘Official Syrian opposition’. Shades of the French there, eh? We must be inclusive. America would not support a purely Kurdish opposition to Assad, but they would be sympathetic to Kurdish aspirations if they threw in their lot with the rest of the opposition. In other words, America wouldn’t entertain any sort of autonomous Kurdish region in Syria. Possibly because they have an idea what Assad’s fallback position might be. Possibly they don’t, that might not be unusual, but it is becoming if not clearer then at least a little less obscured.

Assad’s Game

Why does it appear as though Syrian government forces are trying to cleanse a coastal strip from the Turkish to the Lebanese border? Cleanse of non-Alawites that is. The fact that it’s going on not immediately obvious given the general mayhem in Syria right now, and I’m indebted to a Turkish journalist, Abdullah Bozkurt, who wrote a column in ‘Todays Zaman’, presenting a Turkish view of the situation. He raises some interesting points, some of which tie in with my previous comments concerning a Kurdish State.

You’re just going to have to wait a couple of days for me to join up a few of the dots. Sorry and all that.


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