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    Middle East
     Jun 6, 2012

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Syria: America versus Israel
By Giorgio Cafiero

The "Arab Spring" reached Syria in March 2011 when Syrian intellectuals, students, and union leaders appeared on the streets to demand greater transparency, political liberalization, and economic reforms. Although they did not participate in the initial series of demonstrations, Syrian Islamists joined the opposition after the regime responded with force to the public display of dissent.

As the violence has escalated and taken more than 9,000 lives, foreign powers have exploited the carnage to advance their geopolitical interests. The United States and other powers have used the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as a proxy to topple the


Syrian Ba'athist regime, which has governed for almost half a century.

Washington's two primary interests in Syria are to strengthen the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC - namely Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) vis-a-vis Iran and to undermine Russia's power and influence in the Middle East and Mediterranean. Israel shares the US interest in cutting off Iran and Russia's reach into the Levant.

However, security considerations surrounding the unknown variables of a post-Bashar al-Assad Syria appear to have created a divide between US and Israeli strategies, as the Benjamin Netanyahu government has not followed US President Barack Obama's course on Syria. The Israeli concerns surrounding the collapse of Syria's Ba'athist party are legitimate. Washington should also consider the security consequences of Assad's ouster and avoid intervention in Syria.

US intentions in Syria
Following Syria's independence from French colonial rule, relations with the United States have been largely defined by mistrust and conflict of interest. Beginning in 1956, in coordination with Saudi Arabia, the Dwight D Eisenhower administration sought covertly to overthrow Syria's left-wing nationalist government. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, through Jordan and Israel, Washington backed the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's armed uprising against the regime of Hafez Assad.

Since 1982, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has been in exile (primarily in Spain and Switzerland). However, according to The Washington Post, "after three decades of persecution that virtually eradicated its presence, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has resurrected itself to become the dominant group in the fragmented opposition movement pursuing a 14-month uprising against Assad."

The US alliance with an Islamist organization that espouses anti-Western views may appear strange. However, this relationship is far from unprecedented. Syria is only one country where Washington supported Islamists to undermine nationalist and leftist forces.

This alliance between the United States and Islamist organizations was widespread throughout the Muslim world during the Cold War, as Washington deemed such forces - Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan, the Mujahideen of Afghanistan, Abu Qurah in Jordan, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt - to be reliable partners in the effort to undermine Communism and Arab nationalism. After the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the United States continued to foster alliances with Islamist groups to undermine governments that did not cooperate with the "New World Order".

During the 1990s, Washington covertly provided Iraqi Islamist parties, including the Islamic Call (Al-Dawa) and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, with millions of dollars to strengthen Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein. Today, militant Islamist organizations such as Jundullah and Mujahadeen e-Kalk target Iran. Both organizations, though officially labeled as "terrorist" organizations by the US State Department, receive direct aid from Washington. In other words, Syria is not the only country where militant Islamists have received support from the United States in their campaign to topple a regime opposed to US hegemony.

Present US support for Syrian Islamists is part of a larger proxy war. The United States, Turkey, and the GCC are pushing for Assad's demise, while Russia, China, Iran, and Hezbollah seek to ensure Assad's survival. US interest in Assad's downfall relates to its overall position vis-a-vis Iran and Russia, and by extension China.

Washington is skeptical about launching a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. However, by toppling Iran's closest regional ally, the United States believes that it can undermine the Islamic Republic's regional influence by striking a blow to the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Hezbollah axis of power from Iran to the Mediterranean, which Jordan's King Abdullah nervously identified as the "Shia crescent."

Washington is assuming that the Muslim Brotherhood, the most influential party within the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council, would end the Iran-Syria alliance if it came to power. The organization's deputy secretary, Mohammed Faruk Tayfur, told The Washington Times on January 18 that the Muslim Brotherhood rejects Iran's offers to mediate talks between the Assad regime and the opposition.

The deputy secretary defined his ideology and vision for Syria by comparing Turkey and Iran's versions of political Islam. "Islamic culturally and secular politically, [Turkey] is the model for the Islamic movement ... the Iranian, on the other hand, is the worst."

Then there's the religious dimension. The Assad regime is mainly composed of Syrian Alawites, who adhere to a form of Islam derived from the Shiism practiced in Iran. Many orthodox Sunni, who form the majority in Syria, do not consider Alawites to be legitimate Muslims. The Islamic Republic's attempts to expand Shiism throughout the Arab world, especially in Syria, have fostered intense hatred for Iran within certain conservative Sunni circles that would likely influence the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's foreign policy vis-a-vis Iran and Hezbollah.

The collapse of the Assad regime would almost inevitably decrease Russian power in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Syria has hosted Russia's naval base in Tartus for several decades and, since 1971, Syria has been Moscow's closest Arab ally. Syria is the largest Arab purchaser of Russian weapons and is seen by Moscow as Russia's doorstep into the Middle East and Mediterranean.

The Muslim Brotherhood has condemned Russia and China for providing Assad with weapons and diplomatic support throughout 2011 and 2012. On February 6, 2012 the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's spokesman, Zouheir Salem, stated that his organization "consider[s] Russia, China and Iran as direct accomplices to the horrible massacre being carried out against our people." By supplying the Syrian government with weapons and/or diplomatic backing, the three countries were "directly participating in the massacre of [Syria's] defenseless people".

If the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood removed Syria from Moscow and Tehran's spheres of influence and aligned Damascus with Washington, Ankara, Riyadh, and Doha, the regional balance of power would shift in favor of the United States.

Israel's interests
Israel would welcome the decline of Iranian influence in the Levant, as Iran is Israel's gravest threat, according to Israeli leaders. However, Israel is not proactively seeking to weaken Iran by supporting Assad's opposition. Alia Brahimi and George Joffe summarize Israel's Syria dilemma:
The one state that is directly implicated by the events in Syria, but which still has taken no public position, is Israel. This is almost certainly because the Israeli Prime Minister would, on balance, prefer the Assad regime to continue; it is a known quantity and any new regime could severely destabilize the effective balance-of-power between two uneasy neighbors ... The hawks in Israel will see the need to determine which poses more of a threat: the "Islamic fundamentalist" Shia state, or the "Islamic fundamentalist" Sunni groups who are sure to gain a foothold in Syria if Assad's regime suddenly caves in.
Whether Israel would be in a stronger position with Assad or Sunni Islamists in power is the center of debate amongst geopolitical analysts. Nonetheless, Israel's reluctance to support Syria's opposition likely indicates its calculation that Assad's survival is in Israel's interest, at least for now. 

Continued 1 2  

Coded messages for Iran (May 31, '12)

Syria and Lebanon stare into the abyss (May 24, '12)



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