Blitzkrieg on Syria: buying time for Israel?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The expected US air attack on Syria appears to address the increased Israeli need for more security in a changed Muslim-Arab neighbourhood. But once it is there militarily, the US will not be able to withdraw soon, writes Stefan Sorin Mure?an.

Stefan Sorin Mure?an is a business developer and lecturer of economic diplomacy at the University of Applied Science Würzburg. He has parliamentary and diplomatic backgrounds.

The initially loud drums of a war on Syria have paused. Last week the British Parliament blocked the UK government´s attempt to follow the US Administration in attacking Syria. Later, the US Administration also backed down from the proposed “Blitzkrieg” and authorization for an attack was requested from Congress. The Administration expects Congress to authorize strikes. France, initial holder of the mandate over that part of the former Ottoman territory, which became Syria with the Versailles Treaty in 1920, lowered its voice, signalling it would do no more than follow suit with the US. Whatever the cause for first drumming loud and then backing down, this is a loss of face.

Why were the winners of the Great War: USA, UK and France, shapers of the Versailles treaty, not able to implement what was initially stated? A possible answer is declining US credibility. The lessons learned in 2003 by the international community are a landmark towards declining credibility.  At that time, the US Administration bluffed in the UN Security Council by asserting the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which were never found after the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Lately, the Assange, Manning, and Snowden leaks have bruised public confidence in “free democracy” and in abidance by the law of Western security services. These have led to a situation in which most in the international community seem to doubt the US Administration`s reasons invoked for a military intervention in Syria: that of punishing it for alleged use of chemical weapons and stopping Assad from using them in the future.

It stands to reason that the use of chemical weapons against Syrians and any civilians anywhere is catastrophic, unacceptable and deserves punishment. But whether the use was by Assad forces or by others (e.g. foreign special commandos or the rebels themselves) cannot be proven. Governments and populations of major Western countries are not as willing as they were ten years ago, to easily rally to a US strike; and especially not again in the Middle-East. Still, the US plan to attack Syria either with limited military support from very few allies such as Australia, France, Turkey and with financial support from some Gulf states, or even alone.

What and whose interests are at stake in Syria anyway? Although the humanitarian catastrophy and the destruction of the infrastructure in the country have been running now for more than two and a half years, during the later months it was Egypt which was on the media headlines. Why did Syria, having four times less population, suddenly move into the top headlines?

Some argue that the reasons for attacking are primarily economic (e.g. building an oil-pipeline from the Gulf via Kuwait and Iraq to the Mediterranean, to provide an alternative to the Suez canal oil transportation route – over which in future a possibly chaotic Egypt might lose control). The economic component of the type “who is paying for the ride?” weighs decisively in any military action: this has to be economically self-sustainable or the costs have to be recoverable at some point by securing public procurement, licences, exports, etc.

Others believe there is more to it. Degrading Syria`s capability to manufacture, hold and use in the future its large stockpile of chemical weapons, as well as its other military capabilities are some aspects.  Eliminating it as the Mediterranean ally of Iran and opening a ground corridor for US/ Western / NATO troops to be able to reach Teheran after a Mediterranean D-Day, is another aspect. This security interest is more stringent than a pipeline, but degrading the military capabilities of an Israel-hostile Syria is only part of a possibly wider Middle East strategy.

This strategy appears to address the increased Israeli need for more security in a changed Muslim / Arab neighbourhood, in a globalized world, as compared to the circumstances at independence in 1948. Changed threats to Israel from before the “Arab spring” (catalyzed or hi-jacked by whomsoever) developed from doubled populations, access to modern technology, growing economies, and the rise of terrorist groups in Israel`s neighbours, from Algeria to Pakistan. These changes began ca. 30 years ago, becoming especially visible after the end of the Cold War and 9/11. Weakened neighbours, by “Arab springs”, civil wars, unrest or foreign military intervention, will increase relative Israeli capability in the regional balance of power. Thus, the promise given almost 100 years ago with the Balfour Declaration, enshrined in the Versailles and San Remo Treaties (i.e. acknowledging the legitimacy – on historical grounds – of the claims of the Jewish people to the lands of Palestine (Judaea and Samaria), to allow and support building a Jewish homeland as an Israeli state in “Palestine” could be more easily implemented.

Is this true? Are the expected results of such a strategy realistic? Does a status-quo with not-so-well functioning neighbouring states constitute a lesser threat to Israel than authoritarian, corrupt but somewhat predictable regimes, be they of Saddam Hussein, Ben-Ali, Gaddafi, Mubarak, Assad? Will a “limited” intervention, with “no boots on the ground”, make Israel safer in the long-term? Or would it rather trigger more hatred, more explosions and more indiscriminate missile attacks on civilians by irate terrorists once the US will have withdrawn? Does it suffice to have high-tech drones  to guard against international terrorists hiding in failed states? Did the strategists think of the suffering of Christians (60 Churches destroyed in Egypt only in the last weeks) and of pro-Western groups in an increasing anti-Israeli, anti-Western, anti-European, anti-Christian atmosphere there? Will the rising floods of desperate refugees crossing the Mediterranean into Spain, Italy and Greece benefit European demographic challenges to the labour market or rather burden budgets and diminish national social consensus?

Looking at the wider historical perspective shows that Muslim statehood, driven by Arab roots, began around the time of capture of Judaea and Yerushalaim in 638 AD by Islamic militias.  It continued with carving up the Byzantine empire and expanded westwards (by the 9th century over Northern Africa, Spain, North-Western France) and eastwards (as far as Pakistan). It is now shaken. There is long-term unrest in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. The “Arab spring” becoming “Arabellion”, brought more or less chaotic transition processes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mali. Syria fell into a catastrophic civil war and its break-up seems inevitable. Signs of unrest were also seen in the Gulf states and in Turkey. Only Iran seems comparatively stable, but it is proceeding to increase its nuclear capabilities.

The very carefully worded statement by the Council of EU foreign ministers in Vilnius on 7 September is an attempt to heed to US lobbying for supporting U.S. and French military action, but it does not support it. In spite of spill-over risks, of loud opposition from US public opinion, of polite indirect Chinese opposition and loud opposition from Russia before the recent G20 summit, it is likely that the US Congress will approve the strikes. Its Senate Foreign Affairs Committee has already approved it. Beware, once militarily involved there, the US will not be able to soon withdraw.

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