Gamesmanship in Syria

With the USS Eisenhower moving closer to the Syrian coast, the whiff of an international military intervention in the Syrian civil war seems a possibility, though still a distant one.

The Eisenhower battle group, according to recent reports, has some 8,000 US military personnel ready to do combat with the Syrian Army, and by extension, any Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Basij paramilitary ‘volunteers’ in-country giving succour to Assad’s forces.

Some 8 carrier-based fighter squadrons – easily enough to deal with the entire Syrian Air Force which has up till now operated against Syrian rebels with impunity, also stand ready to carry out air-to-surface strikes on Syrian Army positions as well as intercepting Syrian fighter planes. With NATO approving the deployment of Patriot surface-to-air missiles to the Turkish-Syrian border, the stage is being set for something. What that something is, may not be clear for a while yet. The deployment of foreign forces does not necessarily mean that they will be used. It does mean, however, that international forces are seeking to influence those within Assad’s inner circle to come to a negotiated settlement. This could mean any number of things. Assad being ‘convinced’ to take the option of exile; an Alawite coup against Assad, with Assad being offered up to the international community to stand trial for war crimes, or being killed outright; Assad being ‘taken out’ by his inner circle so that those involved can retire to the Alawite homeland of Latakia province and declare their independence, or, reach a political settlement with the largely Sunni anti-government resistance. The latter possibility seems the least likely, considering that too much blood has been spilled on both sides.

Regardless of how Assad’s downfall is being hatched in the halls of power, either in the West or on the fields of battle within Syria itself, two things are likely to emerge. Iran’s strategic footprint will be rolled back from the Levant – something that will be welcomed by Sunni Arab interests, both within Syria and throughout the Arab world. This can only intensify the confrontation between the West, Israel and the Gulf Arab states on the one hand, and Iran on the other. There is also the possibility of a Sunni-led genocide against Alawites and their Christian and Druze collaborators who helped keep the ‘republican dynastic’ Assad family in power for 41 years. This latter possibility is likely to destabilise Syria, with the international community turning against any Sunni Syrian leadership that enables such a scenario. Will Israel be a beneficiary of this new strategic situation? Perhaps. But only if Syria quickly reverts to the ‘pragmatic stability’ that characterised the Assad years. Should Syria fragment into a genocidal mess with jihadists in control of Damascus and bent on revenge against survivors of the former regime, then Israel’s security profile along its northern borders will look less certain.

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