Meanwhile, the Israeli military is acting to put a brake on Tehran’s stepped-up arming of Hezbollah, an Islamist organization with direct ties to the Iranian government and allied with the Assad regime. While backing Tel Aviv’s military moves, the Barack Obama administration continues to focus on avoiding U.S. military involvement, rejecting both direct arming and training of opposition groups or the imposition of a no-fly zone.
In a country of some 22 million people, more than 70,000 have been killed since the Syrian civil war began in March 2011. Several million people have been displaced, with thousands more fleeing the conflict each week by crossing into the neighboring countries of Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq.
According to U.N. figures, at least 1 million Syrians have entered Lebanon, a small country of 4 million people on Syria’s southwestern border. Some 10,000 Syrian Kurds are living in camps provided in northern Iraq by the Kurdish Regional Government, which heads the autonomous Kurdish region of that country.
In early May Israeli jets carried out airstrikes in southern Syria to destroy missile shipments in transit from Iran to Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon and against a military research complex reportedly linked to Syria’s chemical and biological weapons program.
Tel Aviv’s policy in relation to the Syrian civil war is guided by its view of Iran as its foremost enemy state in the region, not because it is bent on overthrowing Assad.
The Israeli rulers have always viewed Iranian influence in Syria through its Hezbollah proxy as a major problem. At the same time Tel Aviv has for decades been able to count on a relatively stable Assad regime to maintain the status quo in the region by playing a treacherous role against the Palestinian struggle for liberation and helping ensure Israel’s quietest and most secure border, buffered by the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.
Syrian and Israeli forces exchanged fire across the Golan Heights border May 21 for the first time since the war started, prompting warnings from Tel Aviv, which is concerned with preventing the conflict from spilling over its borders and, above all, with preventing Assad’s chemical weapons and other arms from falling into either the hands of his Hezbollah allies or other anti-Israeli enemies.
Obama’s ‘red-line’ bluffsStatements and actions on Syria by the Obama administration have to date been marked by its overriding goal of avoiding or extracting itself from any substantial, direct military engagement — as it has done from Afghanistan and Iraq to Libya.
The U.S. president has stated on several occasions that use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be a “game changer” and a “red line” that would trigger a response by Washington. The “red line” threshold proved to be a bluff, however, after it was widely reported that people in an area near Damascus were sickened and some killed by a release of deadly sarin gas in late April. Obama’s response was that the attack would have to be confirmed by a U.N. investigation.
In this context, Israeli strikes both serve to weaken a common foe and take some of the internal and external bourgeois pressure off Washington to get more involved. Nevertheless the debate over administration policy continues to heat up.
U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona and others in Congress are calling on Obama to do more to train opposition forces and to use “precision strike capabilities” to target Assad’s aircraft and missiles on the ground. Senate Democrats Robert Menendez, Robert Casey and others are also challenging White House policy.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has joined calls for a U.S.-enforced “no-fly zone” in Syria as thousands of Syrian refugees pour into Turkey and the conflict spills across its borders. On May 11, nearly 50 people were killed by two car bombs in Reyhanli, Turkey, near the border with Syria. The following day nine Turkish citizens said to be supporters of Assad were arrested in the attacks.
Secretary of State John Kerry reported in early May that Russia had agreed to hold an international conference involving both sides in the Syrian conflict to take place in June in Geneva — a move that suggests both Moscow and the Obama administration see advantages in further stalling for now.
The civil war grew out of bloody repression against spreading anti-government protests that began in early 2011, following popular movements for democratic rights in the region from Tunisia to Egypt.
Opposition forces — which increasingly include Islamist al-Qaedist groups — have made substantial gains since the war began and won control of major areas in the north and east of the country.
The Free Syrian Army, the military wing of the main opposition coalition fighting to bring down Assad, gets arms from the regimes in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, with some aid from Washington. “By overseeing the arming of the rebels, the United States … hopes to strengthen the more nationalist secular groups to counterbalance the growth of extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra,” according to an April 19 article on Stratfor’s website. Jabhat al-Nusra, formed in early 2012, is an Islamist militia that recently declared its allegiance to al-Qaeda and is reportedly the fastest growing opposition group in Syria.
The oppressed Kurdish population, concentrated in Syria’s northeast along the border with Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, has been making gains of its own, with Kurdish militias in control of some areas and concessions from the Assad government that include language rights.
The Assad regime is based on a narrow layer of capitalist families, most from the Alawite Muslim minority, a branch of Shia Islam representing about 12 percent of the population. However weakened and isolated, the heavily armed Assad government is not defeated and in recent weeks has made gains in attempting to retake a few areas. On May 19, government forces, using airstrikes and artillery, were reported to have made progress in retaking the city of Qusayr, near the Lebanon border, with the help of Hezbollah fighters.
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