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    Middle East
     Sep 18, '13

Israel, eying Iran, comes off Syria fence
By Victor Kotsev

That Israel has chosen to publicly come out against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad just when he and his Russian and Iranian allies seemed to have scored a major victory suggests that there is a lot more to the drama than meets the eye.

Whether a new grand initiative, perhaps on Iran, is in the making, or the Syrian crisis is nearing another major unexpected twist, is hard to tell, but the recent interview of the Israeli Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, in the Jerusalem Post brought up both of these possibilities.

"We always wanted Bashar [al-]Assad to go, we always preferred

the bad guys who weren't backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran," Oren told the Post.

There are several odd things in this statement: it came after many months of silence from the Israeli government, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reprimanding on occasion ministers who would break rank and speak out against Assad. It came from a diplomat rather than a politician - albeit a diplomat who is believed to be very close to the prime minister. And most importantly, it came at a time when Assad is widely perceived to be making progress in the bloody civil war.

That the Russian-American agreement preventing a US military attack in exchange for a somewhat unrealistic commitment from Syria to give up its chemical weapons has bolstered Assad in the short term is evident from the fact that the Syrian army resumed with full force its conventional offensive against rebel positions near Damascus the moment the threat of Tomahawk missiles flying in had dissipated.

Amid a heavy fog of war, some versions of the story go as far as to claim that a military operation had been nipped in the bud by the Syrians and the Russians. Various unconfirmed speculations suggest that cruise missiles or even American aircraft had been shot down near Syria's borders, while more credible reports claim that a significant foreign-sponsored rebel offensive launched from Jordan turned into a disaster and was beaten back with heavy losses.

"This was a well-trained and equipped force meant to eventually reach Damascus and overthrow the regime," a Western diplomatic source told the World Tribune earlier this month (bits and pieces about the rebel debacle came out in regional media as well).

"Instead, the rebels crossed the Jordanian border and within hours were on the run." [1]

In other words, all of a sudden Israel appeared to throw its weight behind the losing side in the Syrian civil war. On the other hand, I have written previously in these pages (see Syria attack stuck in fog-shrouded limbo , Asia Times Online, September 11, 2013) that the US-Russian agreement could increase the chance of a Western military intervention in Syria down the road, and the Israeli government usually has advance notice on such developments.

Alternatively, there are some indications of a grand bargain shaping up between the US and Iran, and Israel may be trying to present itself as a victim of American timidity in Syria in order to force the hand of US President Barack Obama to come down harder on the Islamic Republic. Reports that the new Iranian president, Hassan Rohani, may be willing to shut down the heavily fortified uranium enrichment site at Fordow [2] back this hypothesis.

In fact, the prevailing wisdom among analysts is that the Syrian civil war and the Iranian nuclear program would be closely linked in any US-Iranian negotiations. Israel is well aware of this linkage, and may be trying to use it to its advantage.

According to Israeli analyst Avi Shilon,
The strategic objective is ... to carry out in Iran what will happen in Syria. Because it's clear to everyone that Iran's nuclear program, like the chemical weapons in Syria, cannot be destroyed completely in a military attack. The disarmament agreement in Syria produces a result more effective than any bomb - even if it is not implemented in its entirety. Netanyahu is now at the peak of implementing his strategy - precisely because of the reasons that ostensibly prove that it is weakening. [3]
There are certainly significant risks for both Israelis and Americans in this strategy, not least because Iran may choose to heat the situation in Syria up in order to drive a harder bargain over its nuclear program.

It doesn't help that, according to some analysts such as the US-based firm Stratfor, a US military intervention in Syria (likely to turn into another quagmire) may in fact serve Iran's longer-term interests:
Unlike Syria's Arab neighbors, which want stability in the region, Iran welcomes disruption. It is reasonably secure internally, and it knows its spheres of influence may weaken but ultimately will not dissolve. Strategists also believe that having lived under sanctions for decades, Iran has grown accustomed to suffering. So while chaos in Syria would threaten inherently weak Arab states, it would not affect Iran quite as much. Tehran could then exploit Arab chaos to its advantage. [4]
But for now, amid continued bickering at the United Nations Security Council about who is responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria and what threats to include in the upcoming resolution addressing the crisis, diplomacy is the order of the day.

The long-expected report by the UN chemical weapons experts, which was finally released on Monday, confirmed that sarin had been used in the August 21 attack on Damascus suburbs, but omitted a few important details, and included a few important disclaimers. It did not, for example, explicitly blame the government for the gas attack.

Dr David Caldicott, a senior lecturer at the Australian National University, confirmed that some of the substances that the scientists stated they found on the scene, such as sarin itself and "the main breakdown product of sarin", isopropyl methylphosphonic acid, proved beyond reasonable doubt that sarin had indeed been used.

"What I'm not seeing is any explicit technical description of what biological analyses were performed...," he said in an email. "The report has also been very careful not to attribute origin - I've seen no commentary on the Cyrillic lettering found on one of the shells...!"

The fine print of the methodology descriptions also raises some eyebrows. What comes out is that the inspectors were under tremendous time pressure and had to rely on the rebels for interview subjects and access to sites. "During the time spent at these locations, individuals arrived carrying other suspected munitions indicating that such potential evidence is being moved and possibly manipulated," the report clearly states.

Thus, the debate between Russia and France about whether the sarin used in Syria is of higher quality than the gas Saddam Hussein used indiscriminately against civilians some 30 years ago, and whether the missile design suggested that that the projectiles were homemade, is likely to drag on.

Surprises, either on the military field or in the secret fields of diplomacy, are possible and even likely. But regardless, the only thing that seems all but guaranteed to remain constant is the bloodletting, which has killed more than 110,000 people in two and a half years and has left millions wounded, traumatized or driven from their homes.

1. Syrian Army crushes US.-backed rebel assault from Jordan , World Tribune, September 3, 2013.
Intelligence Sources: Rohani Prepared to Shut Down Nuclear Site , Der Spiegel, September 16, 2013.
3. Netanyahu's deceptive tactics obscure strategic success, Ha'aretz, September 18, 2013.
4. Iran: Managing US. Military Action in Syria, Stratfor, September 4, 2013.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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