Battle over Syria (III)

BERLIN/DAMASCUS | | syrien

BERLIN/DAMASCUS (Own report) - In the Syrian war, Berlin und Brussels are supporting Turkey's call for a "safe zone" on Syrian territory. "Zones should be defined," where "the civilian population" could be "safe," urged Chancellor Merkel on behalf of the EU. However, this demand is aimed at preventing Syrian government forces from retaking key positions in northern Syria under Salafist militias' control. Ankara has been calling for this since some time and is now intensifying its efforts, openly threatening the intervention of its ground troops in Syria - a step that could lead to war between the NATO-member, Turkey and Russia. Dramatic consequences are also looming, if Saudi Arabia - Berlin's second close ally in the Middle East - carries out its threat and supplies the insurgent militias with surface-to-air missiles. Faced with this possible aggravation of the situation, concerned voices are being raised in sectors of the western establishment. For example, a US journal with a wide circulation warned that one should not fight Russia in the Middle East at any cost. Regime change policy, which Moscow is trying to prevent in Syria, has already destroyed Afghanistan and Iraq. This should not be repeated a third time.

On Ankara's Side

On Germany's initiative, the EU is backing Turkey's primary demand in the Syrian war and promoting the establishment of a so-called safe zone on Syrian territory. Last Monday, making a clear departure from Berlin's previous policies, Chancellor Angela Merkel backed, for the first time, Turkey's long-standing demand. Following the EU summit on Friday, she declared, "we mutually agree that through negotiations we should define zones, in which the civilian population can feel safe."[1] This German concession to the Turkish government is obviously motivated by Turkish concessions regarding the warding off of refugees.[2] The demand, however, aims at providing Salafist, and even some Jihadist insurgent militias a safe haven in northern Syria, where they can be out of reach of Syrian government forces. Merkel explicitly named the town Azaz, a Jihadist stronghold. If Berlin and Brussels stick to this course at Ankara's side - which in not unlikely in view of their dependence on Turkey for the planned closure of the Greek-Turkish border - it could have grave consequences.

NATO's Mutual Assistance Guarantee

Over the past few days, Turkey, in fact, has escalated the war by firing artillery - in violation of international law - into northern Syria and by smuggling hundreds of Islamist militia directly into the combat zone. Now, it is even threatening to invade with ground troops. This would be the "ultimate disaster," according to former Bundeswehr Inspector General, Harald Kujat.[3] Should Turkish ground troops invade Syria and should they come into confrontation with Russian troops, an open Russian-Turkish war can no longer be ruled out. In fact, Ankara has already shot down a Russian fighter jet last fall and a similar incident would easily be possible in simultaneous military engagements on opposing sides of the front in the same combat zone. Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn has already warned that NATO's Mutual Assistance Guarantee "is only valid when a member state is clearly attacked."[4] Therefore, Ankara cannot automatically count on NATO's assistance, should it attack Syria and subsequently become entangled in a war. Nevertheless, the danger of a war between the major powers is dramatically growing.

Surface-to-Air-Missiles

While Berlin and Brussels are ostentatiously taking Ankara's side, another one of Germany's main Middle East allies, Saudi Arabia, announced late last week that it was expanding its already intensive support for rebel militias in Syria. As the Saudi Foreign Minister, Abel al Jubeir declared, Riyadh will furnish surface-to-air-missiles to the militias, so that they can "take out government helicopters and planes."[5] It is unclear, whether Saudi Arabia can fall back on arms, it has imported from the Federal Republic of Germany. In early 2015, the German government had licensed the export of surface-to-air-missile technology to the Saudi Armed Forces, which were already replete with German war material. As was made known at the end of last week, in 2015, the German government had approved exports of military hardware to Saudi Arabia, valued at 270 million Euros. Thereby this feudal dictatorship ranks fifth among Germany's largest customers for military goods.[6]

As in Afghanistan

The Saudi Foreign Minister's announcement is also significant, because Syrian rebel militias fighting with surface-to-air-missiles would be also able to shoot down Russian planes, thereby provoking a further escalation of the war. That Riyadh is certainly considering such a scenario can be surmised from Minister Al Jubeir's explanation that the surface-to-air-missiles should "alter the balance of power in Syria, just as they had done in Afghanistan,"[7] where the Mujahidin, in the early 80s inflicted heavy losses on the Soviet troops with US-made stinger rockets, which facilitated shooting down Soviet helicopters. This was a primary cause of the Soviet withdrawal from the Hindu Kush. Thereafter, the Mujahidin basically destroyed Afghanistan, from which it has still not recovered. However, Moscow's influence was successfully eliminated from the country.

"The Least Bad Option"

Given the dramatic deterioration of the situation, criticism of the West's policy toward Syria has begun to be raised in sectors of the western establishment. Just recently Germany's former Inspector General of the Bundeswehr, Harald Kujat, declared that without Moscow's intervention "Syria would have collapsed and the IS would have taken control of the country." Russia has actually enabled the "peace process" with its intervention.[8] The US journalist, Stephen Kinzer, who teaches at the renowned Brown University, expressed a similar view in the high-circulation "Boston Globe," which has won several Pulitzer Prizes. Kinzer finds "Russia's strategy - fight ISIS and al Qaeda, defend Assad, and seek a cease-fire that preserves his regime in some form - is the least bad option." By immediately adopting the hardest possible - "Assad must go" - line we removed "any incentive" for opposition groups "to negotiate for peaceful change," which was a grave mistake.[9]

They were Right, We were Wrong

Kinzer points out that the West's "Assad must go" policy was not the first time it stood in clear contradiction to the Russian approach. The government Moscow supported in Afghanistan, run by Mohammad Najibullah from 1987-92, was "more honest and progressive" than any that has ruled Afghanistan since American-backed forces deposed Najibullah, writes Kinzer.[10] In 2003, Moscow urged Washington "not to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein," according to Kinzer's article in the "Boston Globe". "They were right both times, and we were wrong." In Syria, Russia is right for a third time. The alternative to keeping Assad in power could be "an ISIS 'caliphate' stretching from the Mediterranean to the Tigris River," which is no objective to be sought. Kinzer calls on the West to end its "Assad must go" regime change policy, before worst comes to worst.

More on this topic in: Battle over Syria (II).

[1] EU fordert Schutzzonen in Syrien. www.tagesschau.de 20.02.2016.
[2] See Die Ära der Mauern.
[3] Arno Frank: "Hat die EU nicht mehr als Appelle?" www.spiegel.de 15.02.2016.
[4] Warnung aus der Nato an die Türkei. www.spiegel.de 19.02.2016.
[5] Saudi-Arabien will Rebellen mit Boden-Luft-Raketen ausstatten. www.spiegel.de 19.02.2016.
[6] Antwort des Bundeswirtschaftsministeriums auf schriftliche Anfragen des Abgeordneten Jan van Aken (Die Linke). Berlin, 19.02.2016.
[7] Saudi-Arabien will Rebellen mit Boden-Luft-Raketen ausstatten. www.spiegel.de 19.02.2016.
[8] Ex-Bundeswehrgeneral lobt Russlands Rolle in Syrien. www.spiegel.de 12.02.2016. See Battle over Syria (II).
[9], [10] Stephen Kinzer: On Syria: Thank you, Russia! www.bostonglobe.com 13.02.2016.