The flare-up in Syria has multiple aims

M.K. Bhadrakumar April 26, 2015 4:33 AM (UTC+8)
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A loose alliance under the rubric “Army of Conquest”, comprising extremist Islamist groups operating in Syria, has captured the northern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughour. The Army of Conquest is an improbable coalition of Islamist groups variously linked to the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel (as well as the al-Qaeda) that came together with multiple aims.

Jisr al-Shughour is a highly strategic town that controls the supply lines to the few remaining strongholds of the Syrian regime in the northern region. Only a month ago, the opposition forces had captured nearby Idlib city. Assad’s grip on northwestern Syria is weakening and the Alawaite-dominated western coastal regions have become vulnerable.

Interestingly, Israel also seized the moment to launch an air attack on the regime’s military bases in the western region in what appears to be a synchronized move. The extent of synchronization, if any, will be difficult to gauge, because Israel routinely brags about its dealings with Saudi Arabia and puts on a swagger, whereas Riyadh simply cannot afford to acknowledge its covert links with Israel, lest the reputation of the Saudi regime got sullied on the so-called “Arab Street”.

At the very minimum, the developments in northern Syria can be related to the commencement of the intra-Syrian talks that the UN is scheduling on May 4. The opposition groups are under pressure to appear as a credible force. On the diplomatic plane, the UN’s invitation (for the first time) to Iran to attend the forthcoming parleys is a setback for Saudi Arabia.

Most certainly, Saudi Arabia and Israel keep one eye on the US-Iranian nuclear talks and would feel rattled that the talks appear to be going rather well. In the limited time available between now and July 1, they will pull all stops to derail the US-Iranian talks or at least mar the bonhomie that is steadily appearing in the cogitations between the American and Iranian “nuclear negotiators”.

But then, Saudi Arabia and Israel also have their own respective interests to pursue. For the Saudis, it is critical that they get the Iranians off their back in Yemen. The Saudi calculation could be that the Iranians cannot afford to neglect the Syrian front, and may now have to choose between Syria and Yemen.

For Israel, this juncture is useful to clip the wings of the Hezbollah while at the same time weakening the Syrian government’s capacity to counter the expected onslaught by the al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Nusra Front, which has enjoyed covert support from the Israeli military on account of its visceral hatred toward Iran and the Hezbollah.

The big question is where the U.S. stands exactly on the latest developments in northern Syria. The contradictions are far too acute.

No doubt, it will be difficult for the U.S. to openly gloat over the victory of extremist Islamist groups — some of whom are al-Qaeda affiliates too — but then, these groups enjoy the support of the U.S’ closest allies in the Middle East and the battle for Jisr al-Shughour couldn’t have come as a total surprise to the CIA, which is also training some of these groups to fight the Syrian regime.

Washington won’t mind if the Saudis and Israelis bring down by a few notches the anticipated Iranian “surge” in the region in the downstream of the nuclear deal.

However, what is of the deepest interest to the U.S. would be the Russian reaction to the military defeat suffered by the Syrian regime and the looming threat to Assad’s power base in the western region.

Russia of course has its hands full in Ukraine but it cannot ignore the weakening of Assad’s grip in northwestern Syria. The capture of Jisr al-Shughour town by the rebels opens a pathway for them into Assad’s strongholds on the Mediterranean Sea where Russia also maintains a military base (Tartus) to provide back-up for its Black Sea Fleet (which is a crucial arm of the Russian military if the push comes to shove in Ukraine.)

Suffice it to say, it is highly improbable that the Saudis would have let loose their proxy group Jayash al-Islam to link up with the al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra to capture Jisr al-Shughour – or the Turks would have provided such open logistics and intelligence back-up for the Al-Nusra operation – without the tacit concurrence of Washington.

McClatchy has a brilliant dispatch from Istanbul exposing the direct U.S. involvement in the operations to capture Jisr al-Shughour. To be sure, there is much food for thought here for the Iranian duo of President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif — as to the Great Satan’s double game of consorting with them and back backstabbing the Ayatollah at the same time. But the Great Satan can never take the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei by surprise.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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