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  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
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Update No: 101 - (26/06/12)

The International Phantom Interference
The Syrian revolt deteriorated to a civil war long ago; however, perhaps in a way not before seen since the 1970’s and 80’s Lebanon, or even the Spain of the 1930’s, the ‘civil’ component is being exacerbated by excessive international interference. The much publicized government repression in the world’s media – spearheaded by al-Jazeera, betraying not a little partisanship from its owners, the government of Qatar – is being overshadowed by the growing internationalization of the problem, which risks fueling the violence across Syrian borders to spread throughout the region. The downing of a Turkish Air Force Phantom fighter jet off the coast of Latakia by Syrian air defenses, serves as one of the most flagrant recent examples of international meddling. The incident has drawn Turkish and predictable NATO attention. The Phantom was shot down as it was re-entering international air space “testing its radar” (in a war zone, no less) we are told, after veering off, ‘accidentally’ to be sure, towards Syrian territory.

The incident was almost made to measure for the Syrians, occurring as it did, just a few days after the Syrian Air Force suffered an embarrassment after one of its pilots defected, and asked for asylum, flying a Syrian MiG 21 to Jordan. Considering the downing of the Phantom in isolation, Turkey’s reaction and pretention of innocence is highly dubious. While cold and merciless, should the downing of the Turkish Phantom be seen as anything more than standard procedure? Were a Mexican fighter jet, or any other, to veer off international air space to end up flying over US territory, it too would trigger air defences to shoot it down, although possibly there might (or might not), first be a warning? There is nothing unusual about Syria’s reaction to the intruding warplane in a war zone. Moreover, after the defection of the MiG 21, Syria must have been eager to send international signals that its defense systems were working properly and that the Air Force (and the military as a whole for that matter), remains well in the government’s grasp - and that those rumors of defections across the ranks, are just that: rumors.

Turkey has been playing the Phantom incident to full effect, trying to present it as a deliberate hostile action in order to engage NATO, which, as demanded by an appropriate protocol (which happily was not invoked) would be forced to intervene on Ankara’s behalf. The fact that Iskanderun on the Turkish side of the Syrian-Turkish border has been serving as a major base from which various international agents are smuggling weapons to the rebel Free Syrian Army and other militias has been conveniently ignored in Turkey’s citations of international law violations by Syria. NATO, however, has not been impressed. Rather it will have noted that the successful downing of the Israeli- modified Phantom, featuring advanced avionics and electronic deterrence systems mean that the Syria’s Russian made anti-aircraft equipment is effective. Inadvertently, Turkey’s intruder mission in Syria, said to be a training exercise, has actually deterred NATO from adopting a Libya-style military mandate against Damascus even more than could have been expected. A NATO air campaign to control the skies of Syria ‘Libyan Style’ would evidently not be a walk in the park; it would actually involve pilots having to evade effective missile defense systems.

There is another ‘phantom’ in the background of the Syrian civil war, of course, and this one is not of the McDonnell Douglas F4 variety, rather it is an Iranian ghost that has been hovering over this conflict since its inception in March 2011. Syria is caught in the wider USA-Israel-GCC Sunni vs. Iran quarrel. Russian President Putin’s visit to Israel, while officially prompted by the inauguration of a tribute to the Red Army monument, evidently served as an opportunity for Russia to uphold its position vis-à-vis Syria and the Iranian nuclear program with Bibi Netanyahu. There has been some minor progress in the so called P5+1 low-level group talks over Iranian nuclear enrichment (UK, China, France, Russia and the United States plus Germany), which has agreed to another round of low level talks in Istanbul on July 3. The choice of venue may not be purely coincidental, given Turkey’s deeper entrenchment in the Syrian quagmire.

The opportunity to lift Iranian influence away from Syria would mean isolating Hezbollah on one side and Iran on the other, allowing for greater American involvement in the region. So far, the United States and the West have already attempted the use of a series of diplomatic tools to help bring down the Syrian regime, using sanctions and international isolation and arming the Syrian opposition, in order to overthrow the Baathists. The next step would have been to facilitate that goal through the aforementioned Libyan style campaign, for which there may be even less appetite than before.

Russia, meanwhile, has intensified its opposition to foreign intervention in Syria, unequivocally warning that it would not agree to any Libyan ‘scenario’ for Syria. Russia also dismissed Western demands for President Asad to resign, noting that he still enjoys the support of 50% of the population. Russia, among the major powers, is also the only one using the term ‘civil war’ to describe the situation in Syria; Russia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Igor Morgulov, was quoted as saying “We have no doubt that the imposition of any kind of regime change in Damascus from outside, and the one-sided support of the opposition, is a straight path to plunge the country into an abyss of full civil war." Russia’s attitude toward Western ambitions in Syria, was no doubt hardened by the British decision to force a Russian ship transporting repaired Syrian helicopters to divert its course back to its home port.. The episode was manipulated mostly by Washington, which presented it as a case of Syria acquiring fresh armaments for the regime.

On the other side of the international match for Syria is Damascus itself. The Syrian government has been the least belligerent in this context, offering to help Turkey with the identification of the Phantom wreckage and of any crew members. Syria explained that its air defense system reacted automatically to what it perceived as a foreign military aircraft violating its airspace; the fact that it was Turkish had no influence on forcing it down. Tensions between Syria and Turkey however will remain high. Yet the Turkish opposition, rather than blaming Syria, has suggested that Premier Erdogan is gambling dangerously with Syria, worsening relations. In case of an actual conflict, Syria could also muster support from the Kurdish separatist PKK party, which has connections in Syria. While Turkey has been playing up the Phantom incident, there is still no NATO appetite for war in Syria. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been all too happy to facilitate the arming of the Syrian opposition, but they are not in the least interested in sending their ground or air forces to challenge the Syrian regime, leaving Turkey to deal with Syria alone, if ‘ it wishes to escalate the matter beyond diplomatic means’, as Von Clausewitz would remark. Turkey will be forced to swallow its Phantom humiliation, but the civil war goes on.

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