, by SHAHEEN NAZAR
The development of the last 10 days or so is reminiscent of 1979 when Soviet forces had entered into Afghanistan igniting long-drawn proxy war between Soviet Union and the United States at the height of Cold War.
Once again the actors are the same old super powers but their roles have changed. The United States, backed by France and other European countries, are hell bent on intervening into strife-torn Syria while Russia, the inheritor of now defunct Soviet Union, has decided to come to the aid of its Arab ally. The news of Moscow’s decision to dispatch its warships in the Mediterranean Sea has come as a big relief to those feeling sick of Western hegemony in the Middle East.
Russia, according to reports, is sending a flotilla of warships to its naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus in a show of force which suggests that Moscow is willing to defend its interests in the country hounded by unkind neighbours.
The Russian news came shortly after the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush anchored off Syria, along with additional naval vessels. The US battle group is to remain in the Mediterranean, reportedly to conduct maritime security operations and support missions as part of Operations Enduring Freedom and New Dawn. The US 6th Fleet is also patrolling the area, says another report.
Amid these developments have come yet another report from Cairo where Arab leaders, along with those from Turkey, met under the banner of Arab League and took an unprecedented decision of imposing economic sanctions on Syria even as France proposed the establishment of humanitarian zones in its former colony. All these developments have increased international pressure on President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime which is facing revolt for the last nine months.
Military officials in Moscow have claimed that the move of deploying warships has no connection with the ongoing crisis in the region. According to Izvestia newspaper, it was planned a year ago. But the same newspaper has also quoted Russia’s former chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Viktor Kravchenko, as saying that the presence of a military force other than NATO’s is very useful for this region, because “it will prevent the outbreak of an armed conflict.”
The Russian battle group will consist of three vessels led by the heavy aircraft-carrying missile cruiser, “Admiral Kuznetsov”. It will be carrying eight Sukhoi Su-33 all-weather fighters, two Kamov Ka-27 anti-submarine helicopters and several brand new Mig-29K fighters. The Mig fighters were built for India’s Air Force and are supposed to be “tested” during their first assignment.
“Of course, the Russian naval forces in the Mediterranean will be incommensurate with those of the US 6th Fleet, which includes one or two aircraft carriers and several escort ships,” Admiral Kravchenko explained. “But today, no one talks about possible military clashes, since an attack on any Russian ship would be regarded as a declaration of war with all the consequences.”
The message is clear. Russia is not going to allow a repeat of Libya in Syria. Russia, a veto-wielding permanent member of the UN Security Council, abstained from voting on a resolution that paved the way for Western military intervention in Libya. Later, Moscow regretted its decision and complained that NATO overstepped its mandate and interfered in a civil war that culminated in the brutal end of Col. Muammar Qaddafi and his regime.
The development not only dented Russia’s clout in the Middle East, it also hurt it financially as Moscow lost tens of billions of dollars in potential arms deals with Qaddafi’s fall. Syria is an old Russian-ally and buyer of Russian arms. According to Moscow-based defence think-tank CAST, Syria accounted for seven percent of Russia’s total of $10 billion in arms deliveries abroad in 2010. Reuters has quoted Yegor Engelhart, an analyst with CAST, as saying that Moscow did not want its position to be ignored while the Assad regime was under pressure. “At the very least Moscow wants to show that it is willing to defend its interests in Syria,” he said.
The Syrian regime is facing internal revolt following Arab Spring which saw toppling of long time rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and more recently in Libya besides upheaval in a number of countries. Most of the Middle East rulers are American stooges with leaders in Syria and Iran an exception. While America is doing everything possible to prolong the rule of its favourites in the countries like Yemen and Bahrain, it has mounted pressure on Syria and Iran in an attempt to get rid of foes. No doubt Syria is under autocratic rule for the last three decades. There is a genuine desire for reform that is being expressed in the form of widespread agitation. But to suggest that the whole country is burning and a situation of civil war exists is a bit exaggeration.
A group of Indian journalists recently visited Syria. And if their reports are to be believed, the situation there is not as worse as the Western media are making us believe. The fact, according to them, is that the opposition is getting outside help and resorting to violence and provoking the government forces to retaliate. The killings, 3,500 according to UN estimates, have mostly been caused by the opponents of the ruling Baathist Party.
Columnist Neelabh Mishra, writing in Outlook magazine, observes: “The so-called uprising in Syria lies largely along an arc of towns near the borders – with Lebanon, Iraq or Turkey – indicating a degree of backing from across the borders.” This tells a lot about the foreign interference into the affairs of Syria.
The Arab League, which generally plays a passive role in international politics, has suddenly become active. Meeting on November 27, the Cairo-based grouping of 22 Arab countries imposed economic sanctions on Syria that includes halting of trade and discontinuation of flights from Arab countries. It is no secret that the measure has been taken at the behest of Western powers who never fail to exert pressure on the Arab rulers even if it goes against the popular sentiments.
The League resolution was passed following Syria’s failure to meet the deadline for agreeing to allow human rights monitors into the country and withdrawal of tanks from the streets. Syria has termed the sanctions as “declaration of economic war”.
“Sanctions are a two-way street. I am not warning here, but we will defend the interests of our people ... We have to defend the interests of our people,” Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem said in response to the Arab League action.
US attempt to get the UN Security Council pass a resolution against Syria was defeated as Russia and China vetoed it while India, Brazil, South Africa and Lebanon abstained from voting. India’s decision has been well received by the Syrian public. To quote Seema Mustafa, one of the visiting Indian journalists, “Chants of ‘Allah, Syria, Assad’ by enthusiastic crowds in Syria change to ‘Allah, Syria, Hind’ as soon as they realise that you are from India. India’s popularity in Syria is at its peak as the vote of abstention has been widely reported in the country as a vote in support.”
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was vehemently opposed by the Muslim world. Then the communist regime was considered the villain of the piece while the United States had emerged as hero by supporting the Afghan Mujahideen against foreign occupation. But time has proved that the hero has in fact brought misery to Muslim countries starting from Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya, besides supervising the continued maiming of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Now it is taking attempts at Syria. Ironically Russia, the villain of yesteryears, has taken up the role of defender of a Muslim country, though for its own reasons.