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Whither Syria and the US's unintended consequences

By Andrew Farran - posted Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Calls for President Al-Assad to stop the violence and step down are, in themselves, little better than baying to the moon (see Julie Bishop's Blog, 17th Feb). In the case of Libya, resort to the UN's Responsibilty to Protect principle (R2P), was misconceived and misapplied (see my article in the ILA Vic Newsletter No 2 Sept, 2011). Although it toppled Gaddafi it left in its wake escalating violence and further political instability. Russia and China will not allow R2P again, certainly not in such a politically charged region as the Levant. Peacekeeping forces can only be introduced if there is a peace to keep. Sanctions may cripple the Syrian economy but they alone are unlikely to bring down the regime.

While the Sunni/Sh'te divide is not the whole consideration, the regional influence of Iran is. It is an unfortunate fact that US policy over the past decade or so has inadvertently increased rather than contained Iranian influence. The one step that would secure the US objective in that regard would be the demise of Al-Assad and his Alawite-led government. But Syria is not Iraq or Afghanistan and US options there are now severely circumscribed.

But there is an even larger picture here and it goes back to Pakistan and the Afghan border, from which point US efforts to contain Iran have long been eroding. A step by step analysis would show why and, furthermore, suggest that Australian policy from hereon merits substantive revision.


The analysis:

  1. The US's major concern in the West Asia region is Sh’te Iran, and developing measures to contain its influence.
  2. The objective in Iraq, whatever the pretext for the intervention, was or should have been to instal or preserve a Sunni dominated regime to help contain Iran. However after unwisely defanging the Ba'athists what they achieved was a Shi'te dominated regime subject to Iranian influence.
  3. The US went into Afghanistan to stop al-Qaeda from using it as a base for international terrorism. Prior to that they didn't mind co-existing with the Taliban and the other 'tribes'. al-Qaeda is now pretty much reduced and Afghanistan is no more a base for international terrorism than anywhere else in Muslim terrain. The Taliban are proving impossible to dislodge or overcome - and are now just waiting for the US/NATO/Australia, etc. to depart (confirmed by comments of the former British Ambassador to Kabul on the recent ACC/BBC TV program :“Secret Pakistan”).
  4. The more the West tries to 'defeat' the Taliban (and supplies armaments and other lethal equipment within that country - as the US did when the Soviets were in occupation, which boomeranged on them later), the more upset the Pakistanis become because of their concern that Indian influence in Afghanistan will grow. The Pakistanis see themselves being squeezed by India on two fronts. They believe they can contain (handle) the Taliban within Afghanistan (a previous sphere of influence) and at the same time assist in containing Iranian influence in the region - as Pakistan is predominantly Sunni. as are Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Pakistan's friends to the west of Iran.
  5. Instead the contradictory pressures being felt in and over Afghanistan are in fact destabilizing Pakistan politically and threaten the security of its nuclear installations (including its nuclear arsenal) - which is clearly in no one's interests (other than the insurgents). Although it will never 'equate' with India, Pakistan does see itself as a major regional power, if not the major power, in West and Central Asia. It now sees the US as undermining its position in that regard and endangering the very interests the US continues to assert as being mutual and paramount.
  6. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan are now very unstable with worse to come. Afghanistan is less than a nation, more an aggregation of confederated, autocratic tribes. The hope nonetheless is that as the major urban conurbations grow, they may become more cosmopolitan in outlook, which in time will spread to the regions.
  7. As a regional power Pakistan's relationship with China is highly strategic. US policy has been forcing Pakistan to get closer to China than might otherwise be the case, another unintended consequence. Both China and Pakistan have, of course, their respective antipathies vis a vis India - a further complication in US strategy towards Iran. For all one knows, China may have adopted a ‘protective’ stance towards Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
  8. What then of Iran's own nuclear aspirations? Apart from the US itself and Israel, other external powers have manifested a remarkable degree of ambivalence. They are evidently concerned but not confrontational, presumably because there would seem to be a tacit understanding that nuclear status short of having a bomb in readiness is something that cannot be denied to significant 2nd rank countries capable of achieving it. That is, it depends where they stand in the overall global political firmament. There is possibly a basis here for a strategic modus vivendi that might extend beyond the nuclear issue and provide a measure of stability eventually in Central Asia.
  9. Meanwhile in Syria the power play between Sunnis (the disempowered majority) and the Shi’a will be intensifying, a set of factors about as complex and complicated as any political situation could be. However with Russian and Chinese support, and while significant minorities are more fearful of a breakdown in civil order with possible jihadi consequences, the Al-Assad regime cannot be written off. Nor will continued Iranian influence be curtailed while the regime prevails. Ironically, this is one theatre where the US has no clear cut objective or a cohesive opposition group to work with in furthering its containment of Iran.

While the 'Arab Spring' is breaking down governing structures throughout much of the Middle East the political outcomes are far from known. There is more fear than hope at this stage. The Islamist element will be more evident than previously. Australia should be clear-headed as to its interests in this regional power play. They may not be identical to those of the US. We must avoid being suborned into some new Syrian campaign, let alone offensive military measures against Iran.

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About the Author

Andrew Farran, is a former diplomat (Australian) and academic (Monash University Law School). Diplomatic postings included Pakistan (incl 2 visits to Afghanistan), Indonesia, and the UN General Assembly. He was an adviser to the Australian Government during the GATT/WTO Uruguay Round and a former vice-president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, a member of the Royal Institute of International Affairs and the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London. He is also a publicist and company director (Australia and UK).

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