Syria, Iran & China – From internal crisis to regional conflict

In the last two weeks events in Syria have begun to escalate. Mainstream news here in the United States has given a bit of attention to reports coming out regarding sarin gas usage – a chemical weapon considered by some to be one of the most horrific devised and as such is expressly banned by warfare conventions. As President Obama and other Western talking heads appear on TV discussing the so-called “red line” – a premise whereupon an arbitrary threshold for atrocities committed by Assad’s forces would, if crossed, precipitate US/NATO/UN military action in Syria – Israel has proceeded with their own plans. Engaging in several airstrikes last week, Israel has made the first steps toward making the civil war-turned-proxy-war into an open regional conflict – which, in all likelihood, is one of the few paths, at this point, that, if followed, could be worse than the favored tactic so far, inaction.

What does a "red line" matter when people are dying? (Photo by Beshr O.)

What does a “red line” matter when people are dying? (Photo by Beshr O.)

Though the Israeli government has insisted, publicly, that their incursions into Syria are not meant to be the first moves of war – the two bombing raids leaving at least 18 members of Assad’s forces dead – their true aims seem difficult to assess. After immediate demands from the international community to clarify their intentions, Israel explained the attacks to simply be strikes against Hezbollah forces using Syrian chaos as a cover to transport weaponry into Lebanon, presumably to be aimed against Israel. As with everything Israel does militarily (at least if you go by the public statements) it is, of course, a convenient act of self-defense.

Perhaps in an attempt to underscore their claim that these actions are not part of a larger military move in Syria by Israel, their prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was in China until Friday as part of an unrelated diplomatic mission. With no apparent irony, China’s foreign ministry issued a mildly chastising public statement in response to the Israeli airstrikes in Syria, in which they insisted that they “oppose the use of military force and believe any country’s sovereignty should be respected.”

Obligatory map image. (Courtesy of Google Maps.)

Obligatory map image. (Courtesy of Google Maps.)

In this statement, China goes on to hint at their true concerns regarding the situation in Syria and the Middle East in general: “China also calls on all parties to protect regional peace and stability, maintain restraint and avoid taking any actions that would escalate tensions, and jointly safeguard regional peace and stability.” (Emphasis mine.) I’ve taken the liberty of emphasizing a particular phrase, but want to focus on one word: stability.

Over the course of the last two years as the Syrian crisis has continued to escalate (this recent March was the bloodiest month to date), China has, along with Russia, been stalwart opponents of proposed United Nations resolutions regarding Assad’s violent repression, blocking even basic embargo actions at every turn. Though stating noble reasons for this stance, including the assertion that Assad is defending the sovereignty of Syria (by slaughtering his population en masse, apparently), this critic finds such reasoning and motives worthy of extreme skepticism.

In reality, Syria has been a relatively insignificant Middle Eastern nation in terms of resources; possibly why this conflict and opportunity for UN or US involvement has been passed up thus far. It also has limited strategic value to Western interests, with no borders with perceived hostile nations (read: Iran) or important port access.

Israel, however, has come to see the Syrian crisis differently. Let’s go back almost 7 years, to 2006 and the Second Lebanon War which saw Israeli forces clash with Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon. The multi-week conflict, which began as an attempt by Hezbollah to force Israel to participate in a prisoner exchange by taking two Israeli soldiers captive, escalated into a 34-day event that claimed at least 1,500 lives and the deaths of the Israeli captives. While the incident was claimed as a victory for Hezbollah, neither parties came out of 2006 with a significant shift in either’s favor. And since then, both groups have been eager to weaken the other.

This is where the Syrian conflict comes in. It’s an open secret that Hezbollah is primarily supported by Iran, Israel’s primary military adversary in the region. Israel asserts that Syria is used as a supply route between Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and seeing an opportunity to curtail such activities, seized it. Whether this is accurate or not, Israel struck facilities controlled and manned by Assad’s forces, and this has some profound implications.

First, it suggests that Israel has conflated Assad’s regime with Hezbollah forces; the fact that Assad has, since the airstrikes, requested Hezbollah fighter assistance (which has almost certainly already been given) suggests Israel might not be wrong. Even though we’ve been reassured by Israel that this is not the beginning of an invasion – there’s no reason they won’t continue this line of reasoning into justifying just such an action later.

Second, it has provoked a telling reaction from Russia. Immediately upon hearing of the news of the airstrikes, Putin was publicly demanding explanations from Israel as well as threatening to supply Assad’s forces with air defense systems to dissuade further aerial incursions. If there was doubt that the Syrian conflict is no longer an internal affair and has become a proxy war with serious backers including Putin, that should now be gone.

Finally, China’s somewhat muted reaction to Israel’s actions might be hinting at a change of stance regarding Assad and possibly Russia as well. Rather than outright condemn the airstrikes, China issued an indirect public declaration of little substance – effectively enabling Israel while remaining hands-off and uncommitted on Syria directly.

This last observation is perhaps the most concerning. While Russia’s aggressive knee-jerk response is, without a doubt, quite alarming in its own right, at least it illuminates an almost World War One-like pattern of proxy nationalism and warfare that has come to characterize the Syrian conflict. China, on the other hand, seems to be playing a more subtle game. Earlier this month, shipments of Chinese weapons of state manufacture (including anti-aircraft weapons) were intercepted in an Iranian transport, further confirming fears that not only is Iran fueling proxy conflicts in the region but they are being aided by China.

Image by Beshr O.

War torn streets. (Image by Beshr O.)

It is becoming increasingly possible for the Syrian conflict to become a regional one. Several days ago several bombings occurred on the Turkey side of the Syrian border, killing at least 18 people. Convinced the Syrian government was likely responsible for the incident, Turkey’s leaders have made it clear that they will retaliate if they deem it a prudent course of action. In this regard, Assad’s forces have become increasingly audacious and seem unconcerned about provoking Turkey – they must be confident that Turkey will not wish to evoke the ire of Syria’s greater allies. Or, worse, Assad may find it favorable to expand the scope of the war and direct attention away from the horrific massacres being committed.

It is possible that China has found itself doing a balancing act on the Syrian issue – on the one side, having Russia and Iran as tenuous allies in the region, the latter of which, an important trade partner. On the other side, there is Assad and Hezbollah, the former of which may be carelessly working toward igniting regional conflict and the latter (supplied by Iran with, conceivably, the same weapons made in China) antagonizing and enticing Israel into action. Such a large scale conflict would destabilize the region to an even more unpredictable degree and could undoubtedly hinder trade expansion – highly undesirable for Chinese interests.

As it stands, China likely wishes to see Assad’s forces prevail in the Syrian conflict, but has begun to realize that this possibility may be quickly disappearing – the Western powers have increasingly made remarks indicating that the future of Syria has no place for Assad’s regime, the use of chemical weapons crossing the “red line.” Like the action in Iraq, the US could end up forming a non-UN “coalition of the willing;” in recent months other nations, like the United Kingdom and France, have made clear their discontent with the current state of inaction.

Could this mean there is some behind-the-scenes diplomatic conflict between Russia and China, or between China and Iran? They’ve never been especially chummy but have always been “outsiders” in the Western dominated world. While this domination is slipping daily – US news never seems to tire of pointing this out – China seems to be positioning themselves as usurpers rather than direct competitors. This has already happened in many ways within markets within the US itself. After tasting the decadence and power that corporate globalization garners, Chinese entrepreneurs are seeking more, wherever possible. So far Assad’s regime has failed to resolve their internal conflict and China may see this as a failure and a reason to lack confidence; especially in light of increasing possibilities for regional warfare.

As it stands there are over one million Syrian refugees, seeking to flee the vicious trauma and violence being exchanged in their home nation. Already many individuals have paid for this – it’s estimated that at least 70,000 have died in the last two years of conflict. But these facts are not of primary concern to any of the power players, it would seem – Assad seeks only to crush opposition and serve revenge upon them while his greater allies seem interested more in asserting their power over the West and keeping a good business partner. And in the West, our involvement seems to only extend to the Cold War-era tactic of giving the rebels just enough rope to hang themselves.

Though the solution to ending the bloodshed is not easy or obvious, I think it’s clear that the route being taken is not working – and the new moves from Israel and threats from Russia have only served to further destabilize the situation.