Monday, February 20, 2012

The Syrian Uprising: No foreign intervention when you've got no oil?

    Things are about to get really ugly in Syria.

    Uprisings in the Middle East sure were ugly last year but if we're talking Syria, I prefer to use the term civil war. Especially after I watched video coming out of the Syrian city of Homs last week where a father was carrying his dead baby down the street and trying to push brain back into the infant's skull. That's when I knew it was time to turn off the TV and go have a shower or something. Shelling civilians in dense urban areas is pretty much as dirty as war gets these days outside of someone busting out a nuke. The Syrian Army have surrounded the city with heavy armor and are shelling the metropolitan area indiscriminately with the usual array of Soviet era artillery, rockets and air burst mortars. Homs is no minor town either like say, Dera'a, that small provincial southern outpost where this whole Syrian mass protest movement got started back in March last year. No, Homs is a major industrial center and Syria's third largest city with a population of 800,000. It's now considered the capital of the insurrection and mixed up with all those civilians are some elements of the Free Syrian Army (more on them later) holed up in scattered houses with a bunch of sniper rifles and RPGs.

    The fun question is whether NATO or the Russians or even the Arab League will get involved to stop the shooting? And the short answer is no. For lots of reasons, not all of which are predicated on the fact that, unlike say Libya, Syria has no oil so there's nothing obvious for anyone to grab. That doesn't mean that Syria doesn't figure in to our global proxy resource war future. It's geography is pretty critical in Middle East strategic terms and that makes it important enough that Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Israel and the US all have a stake in how this mess plays out. That, paradoxically, means it's probably too risky for any foreign player to allow a rival power to get directly involved. That's really bad news if you're a Syrian protester dodging artillery fire. This war has long drawn out stalemate written all over it.

    Dictators shelling their own cities is a pretty good indicator that they are not going to go away nicely with a Learjet full of cash to some beachfront condo in Saudi Arabia like Yemen's Salah or Tunisia's Abidine Ben Ali did last year. Syria's dictator, Bashar Al-Assad, is different. He is one of those other kinds of dictators like Kim-Jong-Il; which is to say he's the son of a more famous and hardcore dictator who ran the country for decades, died and passed on dad's pocket police state to their dip shit "Participation Award" winning son. By shelling Homs and massacring thousands, Assad Junior is trying to prove he can be just as ruthless as his asshole father who leveled the Syrian city of Hama back in 1982 when the Muslim Brotherhood tried an uprising against Alawite power. That resulted in a scorched earth policy by the Syrian Army and at least 20,000 deaths; most of them civilians. Right now, it looks like Bashar al-Assad is trying to beat his dad's high score.

    Who knew that some humble fruit seller who torched himself in a market square in Tunisia last year could kick start an Arab Spring and shake up the entire Middle East where the citizens of six Arab countries could trade-in their ruthless dictators and exchange them for a whole new variety of oppressive bastards? Especially considering the strategic and resource rich nature of the real estate those demonstrators happen to be living on. The problem for the West right now is that the entire power structure of the Middle East has changed in the last year and, especially when you consider Egypt, none of those changes are in the West's favor. Having dictators on pay roll was a nice deal and made Egypt a client state costing a mere $2 billion a year to buy off Mubarak who kept Suez running smoothly and promised not to mess with Israel. That's all gone now. Libya is a mess right now too but at least the oil is trickling out. You could view these protest movements, initially at least, as organic uprisings against repressive regimes but considering we're dealing with the Middle East here, selective foreign intervention from the West was inevitable.

    However, the Syrian rebels can expect no intervention from the West this time around. Sure, on the surface you might say that's because Syria has no significant oil worth declaring a no fly zone over. But the reason why there will be no NATO 'no fly zone' over Syria is more complex and plays into the wider global proxy resource wars that will characterize the 21st century. If we really want to know what's going on in Syria, we have to go all the way back to the Cold War. Sure, that's only two decades ago but that's practically ancient history in today's techno sci fi dystopia.

    Syria signed a pact with the Soviet Union in 1956 after the Suez crisis when Egypt decided that they might actually own their own canal so the French, British and the Israelis invaded to tell them they didn't. They were all forced to withdraw however after the US and Russia got pissed at the strategic land grab by the former old world powers and decided to remind those old farts who the new and real superpowers on the planet were. Syria, under martial law at the time and terrified of an Israeli invasion, signed a pact with the Soviet Union. This was a nice deal for both parties. The commies got a foothold in the Levant, a base on the Syrian coast in the Mediterranean and the Syrians got some cool new Warsaw Pact tanks and artillery. Thing is, Syria, like a lot of Arab states is strongman country which means right up until 1970, every guy with an AK tried a power grab and successive mini coups meant the Syrian government kept changing every year.

    It was in this environment that Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970 and organized Syria into a lock down security state mainly to make sure no more strongmen could come along to challenge his rule. Syria today has 57 different varieties of internal security forces making them the Heinz ketchup of desert police states. Like I mentioned earlier, the only serious challenge to his rule was from a bunch of Muslim Brotherhood who considered Assad and the Alawite sect he came from heretical to Islam. Assad surrounded the city of Hama and massacred everyone, to this day considered "the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East".

    Hafez al Assad died in 2000 after 30 years of strongman rule and the Syrian 'parliament' quickly rewrote the rule book so his 34 year old son could take over (previously you had to be 40 to become el presidente). Junior pulled one of those Saddam Hussein type Baath Party elections where no one runs against you and you amazingly wind up with 97.89% of the vote and call it unanimous victory. Which is democracy by desert standards I suppose. With a new guy in charge, a lot of Syrians were hoping for reform and an end to the "state of emergency" that had been in place since 1963. A bunch of small movements and political forums got started in private homes floating the idea of democratic elections. Bashar al-Assad thought about it for about a minute and then decided against it and instead went ahead with locking up everybody who dared voice a contrary opinion; a new desert strongman had arrived.

    Then came the Arab Spring last year and suddenly throwing out asshole dictators became fashionable in the Middle East. The protests started out as teenage graffiti on a wall in the southern farm town of Dera'a and as usual, just like Mubarak and Gaddafi in Egypt and Libya, the dictator gene kicked in and Assad sent in the army. That resulted in dead people which instead of serving as a warning like it might have done 20 years ago, this time it pissed off people right across the political and economic spectrum. The protests grew in size and quickly spread to other cities.

    And right now this fight is entering civil war territory which means it will get even more ugly. We're talking here Lebanon Civil War style ugly. All the ingredients are there especially when you consider the hodge podge ethnic make up of the country. Though 74% Sunni Arab, there a whole bunch of Alawites, Druze, Kurds, Armenians and Turks who could settle old scores if the traditional power structure falls apart. Even then, they'll probably be left to their own devices and no referee will come and break it all up. There are too many conflicting foreign parties involved for any of them to allow the other to scoop up the prize that is Damascus; the heart of pan Arab prestige and the oldest continuously inhabited city on the planet.

    Let's take a look at the complex web of foreign players with a stake in this mess.


    The Russians have a naval base in Syria. A pretty important foreign base for them on the Mediterranean. With ties going back to the Cold War, Russia cannot allow their old ally to fall into the hands of the Western oligarchy. Down and out since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is a wounded superpower with designs on regaining her stature. Watching the US run riot across the planet for the last two decades, gobbling up desert real estate wholesale sure has pissed them off. But there is a silver lining. Russia has all that resource rich land mass and with oil only going to increase in price, they're well positioned for the proxy resource war future.

    It sure made me laugh when the Russians vetoed the Syrian resolution at the UN a couple of weeks back. The US media were so shocked while leaving out the fact that the US has vetoed every UN resolution aimed at Israel for the past thirty years. Protecting your client states via UN votes is par for the course in proxy warfare. What's really happening here is that we are entering Cold War Part II. As Russia's oil and gas reserves become more and more valuable, strategic containment of the West is key. Syria and Georgia are just the opening salvos.


    Iran is a growing regional power and the West seeks to contain it. With Syria being it's main ally, destabilization in Syria is in the West's interest. A main conduit of Iranian arms to Shia proxy armies (Hizbollah, al-Qassam) in Southern Lebanon, Syria is the gateway for arms shipments to these groups. For this reason, Iran would like to keep Syria open for business and the current regime in power.


    Along with Russia, they used their UN Security Council vote just to hamper the West's designs on the Middle East oilfields. In many ways, they did it for the lulz.


     Obviously, Israel would like Syria destabilized but this is a risky game even for them. When Mubarak fell in Egypt, they lost a compliant dictator on their southern border. It remains to be seen if a new regime in Damascus would be compliant enough to settle the Golan Heights dispute. Strangely, you can throw Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Sunni Arab US allies in the region in with Israel as they all fear the growing power of Iran. A weakened Syria plays to this interest.

    The U.S.

    The US would like to see Assad fall because it would push Russia out of the Levant and make it easy to consolidate all their gains in the Mesopotamian oil fields. Syria as a compliant democracy would be vastly weakened insofar as its ability to resist Western encroachment. It would also have the side benefits of knocking out an Iranian ally and cutting arms shipments to Hizbollah in Southern Lebanon.  All in all, a win win on the global chess board. Sure, the country might be left a mess and fall into faction on faction religious warfare but even that kind of chaos is preferable to a hardcore dictator who hates your guts and refuses to play ball. With Syria gone, the only domino left to fall will be Iran for total control of Middle East energy.

    So how does all this play out?

    Most likely it will come down to the Syrians themselves. It is certainly true that foreign special forces have been running around inside Syria, fomenting this along. It is also true that Assad's regime has received weapons shipments from Russia and Chinese 'moral support. Ultimately though, this whole war comes down to whether or not the Syrians can do this for themselves. And as usual, when the shooting starts (as it has) you can brush away that quaint idea that nonviolent protest ever changed any power structure in human history. No need to quote me Gandhi or MLK either. Those peaceful movements only worked because there were far more violent guys waiting in the wings if the peace and love fest didn't work out. So apart from suicidal protesters getting gunned down by the Syrian army, does this protest movement have a little more bite?

The Free Syrian Army and their wide variety of small arms.

    It does and it's called the Free Syrian Army. This army is composed mainly of defecting Syrian Army troops and is under the command of a Syrian air force colonel, Riad Mousa al-Asaad. They claim to be 40,000 strong but this figure is most likely inflated and more realistically in the 15,000 range. Composed mainly of conscript soldiers who either didn't show up for duty or refused to shoot at protesters (risky considering Bashar al-Assad is executing men who fail to pull the trigger on unarmed civilians), they are lightly armed with AKs and RPGs. Most of their operations have been interdiction strikes on Syrian Army supply trucks, hit and run stuff which is the best you can do when you've got no air support or heavy weapons. Only time will tell if the defections continue or if the Syrian Army itself, at least the hardcore element, sees Assad as the lesser of two evils; the other evil being total chaos like in Egypt after Mubarak fell.

   Either way, The Syrian Civil War stays ugly for some time and how it plays out will tell us a lot about the future of the Middle East. And the world.



  1. Excellent, ive been waiting on another Syria post :)

  2. Very well written! I, like China in many ways, read it for the lulz.

  3. Please update again soon. I greatly enjoy reading your perspective on things..

  4. Hi, I stumbled across your blog while doing some researching Caesar's actions in Gaul. Since then, I've read everything on here, some twice, and wanted to tell you that I've thoroughly enjoyed every article. I hope you'll keep them coming.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Great article War Tard. If Syria falls, I think Iran will be attacked but if not, I do not think an attack is viable. Also, I would of liked to see you address the fact that there are still millions of Assad supporters in Syria, from some article I have read,the majority of the country still supports him but I did read today that there was a massive demonstration in Damascus. I don't know what will happen in Syria but it will be a game changer for the Mid East if the regime falls.

  7. You completely missed Israel's biggest incentive here. There is a major gas pipeline that runs through Syria, including Homs, that is a direct competitor to Israeli gas shipments. They are probably the ones blowing up the pipeline in Homs and blaming it on the government. This war is a corporate/US/Israel partnership to control resources.

  8. Fantastic strategic analysis as per usual.

  9. How about the Turks? Dont they have a bigger role in this than say China, seeing as they border Syria, are setting up refugee camps and will use force if necessary on the borders, they recently iced their good relations with Syria and they are looking for a larger leadership role in the region.

  10. No mention of any possible AQ connections within the Syrian opposition? They already have the full backing of AQ, and the Sinjar records provide some good insight as to the movement of many of it's fighters in the region.

  11. It's simple. Russia won't let it happen. Libya wasn't really important to them, but Iran and Syria are. Just like the US wouldn't allow Russia to "liberate" Saudi-Arabia or Kuwait.

    Syria, on the other hand, isn't that much of an issue for the US either. Iran's the last regional power capable to oppose us, the one thing that stops us from gaining complete control over the region. Everything that has happened so far was merely a show of force, an attempt to enforce submission or at least cooperation. It didn't work, so there's always the option of more drastic it really worth it?

  12. GOOOOOO PETRODOLLAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  13. In a nutshell, rhe vacuum of American power gives birth to chaos; and it is only the beginning.

  14. I don't think China voted with Russia just for the lulz. They did it so NATO doesn't set further precedents for the United Nation's 'Responsibility to protect' (R2P) initiative to include using military force in a sovereign nation. If Xinjiang and Tibet devolve into civil war zones, would China want NATO to step in?

  15. Poor article.

    Not 1 mention of Turkey, and totally failing and dodging the China veto.

    Turkey is hugely important in this esp. in backchannel developments.

    And China vetoed most likely on Russia's insistence to shield themselves from scrutiny as blame would be shared and thus not singly directed, also to keep solidarty as in the future China will require Russia support on UNSC, it was far more than just the lulz.

    As always Western media is smitten or being controlled with its mindless war mongering.
    Assad is whats keeping Syria as we know it together, no Assad no Syria but many more smaller countries.

  16. Great post man, as always your perspective is very informative.

  17. I agree with Varun - a pretty shallow CNNlike analysis. There is no uprising in a classic way - it's a covert war - with all the military HW from drones to C4I NATO equipment and men (mercenaries) on the "rebel" side. Just like in Libya.

  18. I enjoyed reading I believe Damascus will become a heap of ruins .

  19. War Tard...This is a covert war not an "uprising". Next up are Iran and Lebanon.

  20. Nice article, but I agree with some comments made here. China isn't just doing it for the lulz, I personally think it's got something to do with something the US did to piss them off or something along the lines of defending it's own shit with Tibet in the event that turns ugly for them.

    As for missing out Turkey.. I think they have a game in this, their own agenda, but I'm not quite sure. Similar to China, I think. They want their region to be stable, so they can continue to grow, so I think that's their main goal.

    I think now that Turkey sided with the free army, then assad is pissed and i think the west are satisfied that if assad stays, then the region is in a brawl, which is their interests. So Assad might stay after-all. If you did believe in this "special forces/covert war/artificial civil war" thing.

  21. Brilliantly written. Made me laugh and cry

  22. very well written!

  23. Reds under the beds!

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