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The U.S. Transformation of Syria from "Friend" to "Foe" By Joseph E. Fallon
In the aftermath of 9/11, Syria was initially treated as an "ally" by Washington in the war against al-Qaeda and a partner in US policy of rendition. But within months, Damascus was declared a "foe", a "rogue nation" that sponsors terrorism. In April 2002, President Bush stated that "Syria [had] to decide which side of the war against terror it is on." Relations between Washington and Damascus rapidly deteriorated as the U.S. viewed Syria as a "threat" to the region and imposed sanctions on Damascus. The official justifications for sanctions included:
• Syria had or was seeking to acquire "weapons of mass destruction"
• Syria's poor human rights record
• Presence of Syrian "peacekeeping" troops in Lebanon
• Syria enables Hezbollah to operate in Lebanon and attack Israel
• Syria provides safe haven to Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command
• Syria opposed the Second Iraq War
• Syria provides sanctuary to Saddam Hussein loyalists
• Syria provides support to the Iraqi insurgency
• Syria is linked to the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri
The real reasons for this change in U.S. policy, however, were: 1) to reduce Iranian influence in the Middle East by breaking the "Shia" Crescent", 2) in furtherance of that goal to prevent construction of the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline, dubbed the "Shia pipeline", and 3) by preventing construction of the that pipeline to contain China.
One of the most important reasons for the transformation of Syria from "friend" to "foe" was the refusal of Damascus to end its two decade old alliance with Iran, a country the U.S. seeks to contain and isolate. Syria signed a strategic cooperation agreement with Iran in 2004 instead. That breaking this alliance is important to Washington can be seen in the political discourse during and after the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War.
• In 2006, former Secretary of State James Baker stated "Syria sought to 'come back' to 'the United States and moderate Arab nations.'"
• In 2007, he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee "the U.S. had a 'tremendous opportunity here to perhaps move them [Syria] away from a marriage of convenience with Iran...'"
• Also in 2007, in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, Senator Joe Biden said "Syria was 'Iran's closest ally,' the U.S. 'should work to break up its marriage of convenience with Iran.'"
• In 2008, "Anthony Lake, a senior advisor to then-Senator Barack Obama, told the New York Sun that one advantage of engaging Syria was 'in part to break its unnatural alliance with Iran.'"
That did not occur. In 2006, Syria and Iran signed a mutual defense pact; and in 2007, an additional military cooperation agreement. These and other security links, which include intelligence cooperation, are reinforced by political, cultural, and economic ties. The reality is the alliance is not a "marriage of convenience". It endures because it helps insure survival of both regimes and territorial integrity of both states. It succeeds because it addresses the different, but complementary, geopolitical concerns of each - for Syria, the Levant; for Iran, the Persian Gulf.
The Syrian-Iranian alliance constitutes the core of the "Shia Crescent" linking Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq with Iran. The crescent reduces Tehran's political isolation and strategic vulnerability undermining the effectiveness of U.S. containment policy. Syria is the lynch pin. Regime change in Damascus, which Washington seeks to achieve by training and arming Syrian rebels, breaks the crescent reestablishing much of the containment of Iran lost after the political ascendancy of the Shia in Iraq in 2006.
1. Syria's Civil War as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran
"The Arab Spring" is the media name given to the series of popular movements against autocratic governments that swept the Middle East starting in Tunisia December 2010. In Syria, "the Arab Spring" became a sectarian war between Sunni and Shia. While Sunni are the majority population, Syria has been ruled by a minority group, Alawites since 1970. In a 1973 fatwa, Iranian-born, Lebanese Shia cleric, Musa Sadr, proclaimed Alawites Twelver Shias in communion with the Twelvers of Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon theologically establishing the "Shia Crescent".
Syria is a dictatorship ruled by the Ba'ath Party. But it is also a secular republic, which protects religious minorities in a country that is a mosaic of religious beliefs. Al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, and its rival ISIS are the most effective military forces among Syrian rebels. They seek to establish an Islamic state and to that end attack non-Sunni communities. Out of self-preservation, religious minorities support the regime. As do many secular Sunnis who do not want a "Talibanization" of Syria.
The Kurds in the northeast along the Turkish border are anti-government and anti-rebel, which bodes ill for the success of the latter. Kurds are denying rebels easy access to safe havens in Turkey and forcing them to fight a war on two fronts, one with the Syrian military, the other with the Kurdish Peshmerga.
The Syrian Civil War quickly evolved into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. While Iran seeks to safeguard the Syrian government and with it the "Shia Crescent", Saudi Arabia seeks the abolition of both. Riyadh's opposition to Damascus and Tehran is not simply political, it is religious.
Saudi Arabia embodies a fundamentalist Sunni Islam, which views Shiism as a heresy. "...inside the Kingdom, there is remarkable coherence and agreement amongst various groups that Shiites are and should be an object of contempt...In 1991,...a member of the Higher Council of Ulama, issued a fatwa designating Shiites as apostates and condoning their killing...In 2002, the powerful Jeddah-based International Islamic Relief Organisation (IIRO), a leading Saudi charity, disseminated a book in al-Hasa [where Shia live], One Hundred Questions and Answers on Charitable Work, which claimed it: was necessary for Sunni Muslims to hate (baghida) the people of heresy (ahl al-bid'a), to loath them and to scorn them as rafida, deniers of God, grave visitors [an act of heresy according to Wahhabis], and as apostates. It is incumbent on the Muslim according to his ability...to get rid of their evil."
For Saudi Arabia, the "evil" of Shiism is embodied in Iran. According to cables released by WikiLeaks and cited by Reuters, King Abdullah told U.S. counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan in 2009: "Iran's goal is to cause problems... there is no doubt something unstable about them...may God prevent us from falling victim to their evil." In another cable, the King, referring to Iran, said he wanted the U.S. to "cut off the head of the snake". The snake being Political Shiism.
The view of Shias as heretics and agents of Iran influences Saudi foreign and domestic policies. In 2011, the Shia majority in Bahrain protested against religious discrimination by the ruling Sunni minority. Saudi Arabia, responding to a request for assistance and fearful the Sunni might be overthrown, invaded the island and suppressed the Shia.
Since 2011, Saudi Arabia has been trying to suppress a domestic Shia rebellion in its Eastern Province. This strategically important province is home to most of Saudi Shia and most of Saudi oil. Despite reports condemning ongoing Saudi discrimination and repression of Shia by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Riyadh insists the Shia unrest is the work of Iran.
For Saudi Arabia, Iran is an existential threat. After overthrowing the Shah, Ayatollah Khomeini called on local Shia to overthrow the Sunni monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. In 1979, a Shia uprising in the Eastern Province did occur, but was quickly suppressed. Today, however, Riyadh finds its oil wealth, which insures not only the Sunni kingdom's global influence, but its very existence, encircled by Shia. To the north is Iraq, to the east is Iran, with Shia unrest in neighboring Bahrain and in its own oil-rich, Eastern Province.
The Syrian civil war provides Saudi Arabia the opportunity to eliminate this geopolitical peril by breaking the "Shia Crescent" and rolling back Iranian gains since 2003. Riyadh has four objectives:
• Finance a pro-Saudi, Sunni fundamentalist rebel army to seize power in Syria.
• From a Salafist Syria, suppress Shia Hezbollah in Lebanon.
• From a Salafist Syria, support a Sunni fundamentalist insurgency in Iraq.
• Support U.S. policy to ethnically fragment Iran. Riyadh is allegedly aiding Arab and Baluch secessionist movements. Le Figaro reported King Abdullah told the French Defense Minister in 2010: "There are two countries in the world that do not deserve to exist: Iran and Israel."
2. Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline as a factor in foreign intervention
In addition to the U.S., Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are principle supporters of the Syrian rebels. Contrary to Washington's official policy, Riyadh and Ankara are allegedly providing aid to Al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusrat. A key geopolitical objective for the four governments is to prevent a proposed Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline. Dubbed the "Shiite pipeline" by Sunnis, with a projected carrying capacity of 110 million cubic meters of gas per day, it will stretch 3,480 miles connecting Iran's South Pars gas field, the world's largest according to the International Energy Agency, to ports in Syria and Lebanon for export to Europe.
While "[i]t is not clear how such a project will be financed given that both Iran and Syria are subject to strict financial sanctions", Europe's need for alternative energy sources is growing. "The European Commission forecasts that the EU will import over 80% of its natural gas needs by 2030." This may require discontinuing sanctions on financing and importing Iranian gas into Europe.
For the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, if Damascus wins the Syrian Civil War, the Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline will likely become a reality. The "Shia Crescent" will not only have been preserved, but dramatically strengthened -- politically and economically, regionally and internationally – by the revenue and influence the pipeline generates supplying European demands for natural gas.
While sharing similar religious and strategic reasons as Saudi Arabia for supporting Syrian rebels, Qatar and Turkey also have important economic incentives for blocking the Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline:
• It could impair development of a planned Qatar-Turkey gas pipeline to Europe, depriving Ankara and Doha of increasing their revenues and regional influence.
• Unless Russia's proposed alternative to the South Stream pipeline, which would run through Turkey is constructed, an Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline effectively ends Ankara's quest to be the energy nexus for Middle East oil and gas to Europe.
• It leaves Turkey dependent on Russia as number one supplier of natural gas.
• It leaves Turkey dependent on Iran as number two supplier of natural gas.
3. An evaluation of U.S. policy in both the short-term and the long-term
To arm the Syrian rebels, whose dominant forces, al-Qaeda affiliates and Islamists, are attacking Christians and other religious minorities, the Administration had to wave "a provision of federal law designed to prevent the supply of arms to terrorist groups". Should the rebels win; it would likely be a victory of al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusrat and/or the more extremist, ISIS. Religious minorities would likely experience persecution, legal discrimination, and "ethnic" cleansing. The reverberations could politically destabilize Lebanon and further inflame Iraq. Since these rebels are hostile to America and American interests, U.S. policy is self-defeating.
Like Saudi Arabia, the long-term goal of U.S. policy toward Syria is to contain Iran by breaking the "Shia Crescent". The Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline, however, introduced additional reasons for Washington to support regime change in Damascus. If the pipeline materialized, it could undermine U.S. containment policy toward China.
Control of Eurasian pipelines has also been sought by Washington as means to contain China. Washington's containment policies for Iran and China failed to block construction on a 1,100 mile Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. It is to be extended into China and is expected to include an oil pipeline. Beijing would benefit from access to oil and gas reserves discovered off the coasts of Syria, Lebanon, and Israel estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey to contain "a mean of 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and a mean of 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas".
While these discoveries constitute "less than 1 percent of the world's total proven reserves of oil and natural gas", they could meet some of China's needs, while projecting Beijing's influence into the Eastern Mediterranean.
To prevent such empowerment of Iran and China, Washington is aiding Islamists, including an Al-Qaeda affiliate, to seize power in Syria. If successful, the U.S. may find its victory unleashes more instability in the region to the detriment of long-term American interests – witness Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and Libya. And Europe will be made to pay the price -- with hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to its shores