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  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
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Millions of US $ 21,517 21,900  19,500 67
         
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 US $ 1,160 1,130     1,040 130
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Update No: 108 - (26/02/13)

The Mali Factor
Summary: Asad’s opponents are neither united nor do they represent the ideals of western democratic thought and libertarian ideals. Yet, total inaction is not plausible; key Middle Eastern powers on both sides of the Syrian war will be keen to see a resolution that restores regional stability while keeping Syria intact.

That great challenge might best be achieved on the sidelines and will, or should, necessarily include Iran which is heading toward a very interesting electoral period. Improving relations between Iran and the West should be a priority despite the many forces that have been compromising this process whether they are in Washington, Jerusalem or Riyadh. Iran has been pushed into an existential war in the past decade; it is the key element in the Neo-cons Axis of Evil and it is holding on to Syria by the teeth’. Once the Hezbollah-Alawite-Iranian axis is loosened, the Asad regime will be forced to reach a compromise within Syria with the more reasonable opposition forces.

For the West to continue to demonize Iran while pushing for democratic change in Syria is only going to perpetuate the conflict one way or the other.

On February 18, the United Kingdom appealed to members of the European Union to support the armed revolt in Syria and to help arm the rebels, essentially challenging the current policy, launched in 2011, of imposing an arms embargo blocking weapon supplies to both the government and the rebels. The deadline to renew the embargo is March 1 and the UK saw this date as the opportunity to respond to arms requests from the rebels. Gulf backers of the Syrian rebels, Qatar ‘in primis’, have been urging for the lifting of the embargo but there appears to be less support for this policy now than there was, even just months ago. France has appeared a lot cooler over the proposal after initially adopting an enthusiastic pro-rebel stance – perhaps in view of its involvement in fighting Islamists in Mali (in which it has started to incur battlefield casualties).

The loss of French support has left the UK alone to face opposition from Germany, Sweden and even the EU's foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton. Indeed, there is strong evidence to suggest that the mistakes of Libya and their direct impact on the rise of militant Islam in the Sahel has been directly responsible for the perpetuation of the European arms embargo (the Mali factor). The introduction of more lethal weapons in Syria, where there is already an ample supply, would in no way help to promote the end of the conflict. Many governments, in fact, fear that Syria will end up like Libya, where weapons used by the rebels have remained in the hands of those same rebels who are now organized in various regional and urban militias, destabilizing the central authority’s efforts to establish legitimacy and control. These concerns are then amplified by considerations related to the Islamists now fighting in Mali.

Islamic extremists have been shown to be an important and growing part of the rebel groups fighting the al-Asad regime, often targeting ordinary citizens and important minorities that have fared well under Syria’s staunchly secular model of State. For its part, Washington has come no closer to releasing the arsenal doors and supplying the rebellion with heavy weapons and it took an unusual period of time before recognizing the latest incarnation of the opposition leadership. The Syrian civil war will be two years old in March; 70,000 people have been killed displacing some 700,000 people. No one side can claim moral superiority. The Asad regime has perpetrated atrocities, but they do not pale in comparison to the violent ‘handiwork’ of the rebels.

The rebellion itself would no doubt have welcomed more weapons as would Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which have supplied money and weapons to the anti-Assad forces; the EU and USA have been putting more pressure on these Gulf States to ease the military backing of the rebels because of concerns that the weapons might end up in the hands of Jihadists beyond the reach of the weaker ‘official’ opposition known as the Syrian National Coalition. The Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former chief of the Saudi Mukhabarat (secret police) urged the West to arm the rebels with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, the very same that the US agreed to supply to the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan in the 1980’s when Soviets were the target. If the opposition may be suffering from some tactical issues related to the lack of adequate weapons, Israel may have inadvertently contributed to generate, or consolidate, more support for the Asad regime, reinforcing the government’s narrative that Syria has fallen prey to a foreign-hatched plot. In late January, Israel launched an aerial attack against a Syrian’ ‘military research facility’ and arms convoy.

On February 21, Israel granted an American oil company the rights to explore for oil in the occupied Golan Heights, placing the Netanyahu government clearly on the side of the rebels. However, these steps have more risk of backfiring than achieving anything worthwhile for the rebellion. Since the very beginning of the civil war, in March 2011, the Asad government has accused foreign meddling as being responsible for the crisis. The Israeli attack and the oil concession in the Golan can only lead more Syrians to conclude that the Government is right after all, associating these episodes to the terrorists and foreign fighters with Israel, the bête-noire of Syrian foreign relations.

In other words, many more Syrians will now believe that Syria is at the heart of an attack from the outside in which the Salafis and Wahhabis are mere tools. Some sectors of Syrian society – and there must be many as the opposition fails to displace the Baath’s hegemony in various areas - will be even more resolute in a struggle to suppress the actions of terrorists and return the country to normality.

The fact remains that nobody has the power or the will to intervene in Syria; it was and remains too risky and Asad knows this. The regime was given up for dead in the last months of 2012 and many analysts, this one included, were however reluctantly considering the possibility that Syria would break up into various sections with the Alawite minority and the Asad loyalists forming a separate state entity around the bastion of Latakia. Just as at the start of the crisis, two years ago, outside powers are averse to intervention. It is easy for the Saudis and Qataris to throw money at the rebels urging others to take care of the ‘details’ on the ground, but not the Americans, not the French, not the British, not the rest of the EU or the world wants to get involved in Syria. In this they are exercising unusual wisdom, although the experience of the two fairly disastrous military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, must have weighed heavily . It may be remembered that the Russians advised the western powers not to get involved,(as they did in Afghanistan), but then so did Henry Kissinger, who early on identified this as the latest battle in the more than a thousand year religious war, between the Sunni and the Shia.

Syria is too complicated. It’s constitution guarantees freedom of worship, which would hardly survive a Sunni victory. It has too many ethnic and religious groups and too many delicate relationships to neighbouring countries and to regional powers such as Iran. Direct, or indirect, military engagement in Syria is in equal ways a direct path to the swamp in which thrive Islamists and in which lie the roots of the breakup of the state and the destabilization of the whole Middle East. Many of the originally more enthusiastic supporters, including France, therefore, have been reaching the conclusion that the best outcome for now is to let the conflict continue and to interfere as little as possible, offering only words of condemnation for the regime. This is not an easy decision; inaction doesn’t come cheap. More than 70,000 are said to have died and tens of thousands more have fled and filled refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and even Iraq – where just a few years before the flow of refugees was in the opposite direction.

The major fear is that intervention would consolidate the ethno-religious differences, inevitably provoking it to spread to Lebanon and then, as happened in 1978 and 1982, Israel. In that scenario, it will be difficult to keep Iran away; as it is a major player in the quagmire. Unlike, 1982, Iran is not busy fighting a war with a formidable enemy as Iraq was in the 1980’s. Then again, as noted on many occasions in Newnations, the world’s reluctance to engage more directly with the opposition is understandable even beyond the ‘regional quagmire risk’ argument. Asad’s opponents are neither united, nor do they at all represent the ideals of western democratic thought and libertarian ideals. Yet, total inaction is not plausible; key Middle Eastern powers on both sides of the Syrian war will be keen to see a resolution that restores regional stability while keeping Syria intact.

That great challenge might best be achieved on the sidelines and will, or should, necessarily include Iran – which is heading toward a very ‘interesting’ electoral period. Improving relations between Iran and the West should be a priority despite the many forces that have been compromising this process whether they are in Washington, Jerusalem or Riyadh. Iran has been pushed into an existential war in the past decade; it is the key element in the Neo-cons’ ‘Axis of Evil’ and it is holding on to Syria by the teeth. Once the Hezbollah-Alawite-Iranian axis is loosened, the Asad regime will be forced to reach a compromise within Syria with the more reasonable opposition forces. For the West to continue to demonize Iran while pushing for democratic change in Syria is only going to perpetuate the conflict one way or the other.

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