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Syria's Civil War and the Future of the Middle East!

Interesting Article: "Syrian forces stretched, spy chief 4th bomb victim" by Oliver Holmes / Beirut published Friday, July 20th, 2012

An interesting article mentioned that a fourth member of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle died on Friday from wounds sustained in a bomb attack this week as his forces fought to recapture border posts and parts of Damascus from rebels targeting the heart of his power. Syrian state television said a funeral ceremony for the defense minister, his deputy - Assad's brother-in-law - and a senior general was held on Friday in Damascus, without mentioning whether Assad attended. Would you like to know more?

Syria's intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar had died of wounds from the attack on Assad's close-knit six-man "crisis unit", in charge of suppressing the 16-month uprising threatening four decades of Assad's Alawite family rule. In the latest violence in Damascus, rebels set fire to a military barracks which opposition sources said was used as a training ground for shabbiha militiamen loyal to Assad after a two-day siege, a witness said. The conflict has changed from an uprising in poor towns and villages to a civil war that has reached the capital.

In terms of the bombing, the suicide bomber, who is said to have been a bodyguard of a senior official in the Assad regime, detonated his explosive vest during a high-level meeting at the National Security building in the Syrian capital.

This has become a proxy conflict pitting Russia and Shi'ite Muslim Iran, which back Assad, against Sunni Muslim powerhouse Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, which are arming and funding the Sunni rebels. The rebels include the Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors joined by Sunni youths, as well as al-Qaeda style Jihadists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and local pro-democracy Sunni liberals.

Clashes raged in Damascus in a sixth day in the ancient city and at least three people were killed when Syrian army helicopters fired rockets at the southeastern neighborhood of Saida Zeinab, opposition activists said.

Rebels from elsewhere in Syria have poured into the capital for what they called "Damascus Volcano and Syrian Earthquake" saying this would be the final battle for the city. The Syrian government also said that this would be the last battle.

After pressing for 16 months for a change in government in Syria, the Obama administration is scrambling to prevent growing bloodshed and the apparent unraveling of President Bashar Assad's hold on power from paving the way to regional calamity. With a diplomatic solution now considered all but impossible, U.S. officials and their allies reached out to opposition leaders to seek a peaceful transition to a new government in the event Assad is toppled. U.S. officials also conferred with Israeli leaders and urged them not to use military force to try to secure Syria's stockpiles of chemical weaponry, arguing that such an intervention would probably rally support for Assad at home and in the Arab world. Divisions among world powers were painfully evident as Russia and China again vetoed a Western-supported United Nations Security Council resolution on Thursday that would have imposed economic sanctions if Assad's military refused to observe a cease-fire and remove heavy weapons from populated areas.

U.S. officials worry now that a victory over Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, by Sunni Muslim insurgents could spark a sectarian bloodbath. Another risk comes from Islamist militants, including some from Al Qaeda, who have begun to assert themselves amid the country's chaos. Some U.S. officials and diplomats said Assad could still hold on for some time, and that the outcome was far from clear. They said that if insurgents continue to gain ground, Assad and his aides may abandon Damascus for the coastal province of Latakia, a stronghold for Alawites, whose sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. On Thursday, some media and opposition reports placed Assad in Latakia. While arguing that the ongoing battles in the streets of Damascus will hasten Assad's fall, opposition activists sought to allay concerns that Syria could descend into an Iraq-style abyss of chaos and sectarian killings should rebels capture the capital.

The most immediate concern may be the chemical weapons. A U.S. military official said that Syria has shifted some of its chemical agents from storage bunkers in recent weeks, but he said it's unclear whether they were moved to prevent them from falling to the rebels, in preparation for use or some other reason. Israeli officials have hinted for months that they would launch airstrikes to destroy the stockpiles, if necessary, to keep them out of the hands of Islamist extremists. But some experts have warned that airstrikes might release the poisons into the atmosphere. Israeli authorities on Thursday canceled weekend leaves for soldiers. The defense force began shoring up defense and emergency response teams deployed along the Golan Heights border with Syria, officials said.

Russian and China vetoed a UN resolution this week as well. But Alexander Orlov, Russia's ambassador to Paris, told France's RFI radio the Syrian leader had nominated a representative to lead negotiations with rebels over forming a transition government. "That means he accepted to leave, but in a civilized manner," he said. Mr Orlov added that, in his personal opinion, Mr Assad would be forced to go. "I think it will be difficult for him to stay after everything that has happened," he said. "But essentially, he has accepted that he will have to leave." The comments caused a flurry of speculation that the Kremlin was loosening its support for Mr Assad's regime, a day after it joined China to block a UN Security Council resolution that would have endorsed the use of sanctions against Damascus.

In terms of Israel, the devolution in Syria, while welcome, presents a series of intensifying problems for Israel, its neighbor to the south. Israel’s leaders are growing concerned about Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons falling into the hands of rogue groups equally opposed to Israel; about the prospect of throngs of refugees appearing at the border; and about the Golan itself “turning into a lawless area where terror elements might also operate,” as Mr. Barak put it. There is concern that the collapse of the Syrian government could lead to a civil war in Lebanon.

Beyond that, the escalation in Syria, with the killing of several members of Mr. Assad’s inner circle, coming hours before a suicide attack on an Israeli tour bus in Bulgaria, only underscored how the Arab uprisings over the past 18 months have upended Israel’s strategic assessments about a neighborhood that it has traditionally viewed as hostile but stable. No longer preoccupied with the Palestinians, Israel has now been confronted with a series of complex calculations. Should it strike Syria’s chemical weapons storehouses, as it did a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, or would that strengthen Mr. Assad’s hand by uniting the Arabs? Should it act alone against the Iranian nuclear program it sees as an existential threat, or let the United States plow ahead with diplomacy and sanctions? Should it act more aggressively against the military group Hezbollah in Lebanon? How should it navigate the shifting landscape in Egypt, where the new president hails from the Muslim Brotherhood?  Israel will not sit idle,” said Danny Yatom, a former chief of the Mossad intelligence agency. “If we will have information that chemical agents or biological agents are about to fall into the hands of the Hezbollah, we will not spare any effort to stop it.”

The Golan, a strategic plateau of about 450 square miles, is home to about 39,000 Israelis, and Mr. Barak warned on Thursday that the longer fighting continued in Syria, “the risk grows that the bloody residue left over between the sides” could turn it “into a lawless area where terrorists might operate.” Still, several leading government officials and analysts here said Israel hardly seemed on a war footing, using the same words to describe its posture: “watching from the outside.” While the threat of a chaotic Syria — or, for that matter, a nuclear Iran or a desperate Hezbollah with dangerous weaponry — may seem most acute here, they said, Israel continues to count on international intervention.

Syria's implosion does worry some of their other neighbors. Strategically, Iran and Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah group - whose leader Hassan Nasrallah publicly mourned the slain Syrian officials as "comrades-in-arms" - have the most to lose, and their regional foe Saudi Arabia the most to gain. Turkey, a friend of Assad until it fell out with him last year for rejecting its advice to defuse the uprising with real reform, will be happy to see him go, but is nervous about the uncertainties of any future struggle for power in Syria. Any slide into sectarian warfare in Syria, which also has Druze and Christian minorities as well as ethnic Kurds, risks knock-on effects in neighbors such as Iraq and Lebanon with their own delicate and sometimes explosive communal mix. Such a conflict could spill over Syria's borders or suck in neighbors trying to defend their interests or co-religionists. Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon are jittery about refugees who might flood across their frontiers and the potential rise of radical Sunni Islamists in Syria, which Assad has long warned could become "another Afghanistan" without him. Syria's neighbors are all concerned about stability, but seem to lack any decisive influence on events in a country whose turmoil major world nations have also proved powerless to check.

Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a Middle East analyst based in Tehran said that the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran was once a model for the region, but the Arab world’s revolutionaries now look to Egypt, he said, with its experiment in democratizing an Islamic society. “Instead of gaining influence, we are witnessing the emergence of new powerful countries that in the future could pose a challenge to us,” Mr. Shamsolvaezin said.

A year ago, Hossein Alaei, a former admiral in the Revolutionary Guards, predicted on the Web site Irandiplomacy that “ideally” Mr. Assad would survive. “But this ideal might not be fulfilled,” Mr. Alaei wrote. “We should think of other ways to protect our national security.”

Israel will be delighted at the damage Assad's fall would do to Iran and Hezbollah, but must reckon that any future Syrian government will be just as attached to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, captured in the 1967 Middle East war. The "loss" of Syria, following Hamas's defection, would also represent an ideological blow to Tehran's "axis of resistance" to U.S.-Israeli designs stretching from Iran to Lebanon, as well as to Iran's own image as standard-bearer of Islamic revolution. Syria, so long a formidable player in regional power games, now finds itself an arena for wider conflicts: Saudi-Iranian rivalry, Sunni-Shi'ite tension and a contest pitting the West against Russia and China that has paralyzed the United Nations.

Perhaps it's too late to ask the question, how did we get here? Whatever the case, the struggle for political power in Syria is probably something that will be decided by guns, not diplomats. I don't know if odds-makers in Las Vegas are taking bets on it, but I'd say that the chance that President Assad is still in power one year from now have dropped to about 10–20 percent; far more likely, at some point in the next few months, the Syrian government and its armed forces will disintegrate. And then what? Well, that's anyone's guess.

According to some reports, Assad is already fleeing the capital, Damascus, for Latakia, a port city in the northwest, though Syrian media have shown images of Assad. Lots of questions revolve around whether or not the Syrian military will hold together. It might already be the beginning of the end. There are widespread reports of fighting in Damascus, and as Syria pulls troops back from the Golan Heights and other far-flung areas, the rebels are seizing border posts near Iraq and Turkey.

No one outside Syria knows who the rebels are. The outside groups, such as the Syrian National Council and other self-styled spokesmen, have unclear ties to the forces on the ground. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is a major player, both inside and out. And the Muslim Brotherhood has been battling Assad at least since the 1970s, when it carried out a series of assassinations and bombings against the government of Hafez Assad, Bashar Assad's late father. Many quick-study Syria experts point to the brutal put-down of the Brotherhood-led rebellion in Hama in 1982. But the Muslim Brotherhood's war against Assad had long been raging even before that, including a horrific incident in June 1979, when the Muslim Brotherhood gang attacked a military school in Aleppo, Syria, and butchered eighty-three cadets, In November 1981, a massive car bomb linked to Islamist rebels killed 200 people in Damascus. During this period, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria had covert support from Israel and from Israel's agents in Lebanon, including the infamous Major Saad Haddad, a Lebanese military officer recruited as an Israeli pawn in south Lebanon.

I have found that for 17 months, the Assad regime has been fighting not only against the Free Syrian Army and but also Islamist terror groups such as the Al Nusrah Front, the Al Baraa Ibn Malik Martyrdom Brigade, and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. Al Nusrah has claimed credit for several suicide attacks and complex assaults against Syrian security forces since the group announced its existence at the beginning of the year.

There's a long, sordid history on both sides of this conflict, and now it's coming to a head.
Gone is the talk that last year’s Arab Spring was a gift from God. Now some in Iran are even starting to worry about how much might be at stake if President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, long a client state of Iran’s, collapses — which after a fifth day on Thursday of heavy street fighting in Damascus no longer sounds inconceivable. 

The fall of the Assad government would remove Shiite Iran’s last and most valued foothold in the Arab world, and its opening to the Mediterranean. It would give Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states their long-sought goal of countering Iranian influence in the region, finally splitting the alliance between Tehran and Damascus that has lasted for decades. And it would further erode Iran’s role as a patron of the Middle East’s revolutionaries, a goal that moderate Arabs and the United States have long sought.

More than 17,000 Syrians are reported to have been killed since the rebellion began early last year.

We are now watching the final effort from both sides. Let us hope this ends fast. 



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