Can Netanyahu ‘Let go’ the Syrian punchbag at a time of domestic crisis?

By Alastair Crooke for Al Mayadeen

Has Syria truly entered the endgame? Certainly. The question, however, is, will Syria progress through the snakes and ladders of the endgame incrementally, or will Syria become again the theatre of conflict as ‘incidents’ flare, with “Israel” mounting repeated air attacks? 

Alastair Crooke

It is perhaps fitting that in the bloody tangle of US policy triggered by Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, and the elevation of Benjamin Netanyahu to the premiership in its wake, Syria was first and foremost the ‘head’ to this vicious conflict, and now fittingly, seems destined to be its final ‘bookend’ too – as the Russia–China nexus unravels the ‘divide and rule’ strategy pursued during the era of American hegemony.

The Region’s catastrophe began when a group of American neo-cons — who would later hold high office in the Bush Administration — wrote in 1996, a policy document entitled A Clean Break, to guide the incoming hard-line government of Netanyahu in “Israel”.

The Clean Break, as Dan Sanchez has written, “was to Israel (and ultimately to the US) what Otto von Bismarck’s 1862 Blood and Iron speech was to Germany – as he set the German Empire on a warpath that would ultimately set Europe ablaze. [What] is often forgotten is that the document posited regime change in Iraq, primarily as a ‘means’ to “weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria.”  In other words, Syria was always a prime target.

And, overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq, in other words, was merely a stepping stone to ‘getting’ Syria. As Pat Buchanan put it: “In the Perle-Feith-Wurmser strategy, Israel’s enemy remains Syria, but the road to Damascus runs through Baghdad”.

The Clean Break essentially advocated that the US should regime-change the secular socialist regional Ba’athist states (viewed by the document’s authors as Russian proxies), and that the US ally itself with Islamism and the ‘Monarchs and Emirs’. 

Well, now the ‘Monarchs and Emirs’ have shifted to having a foot firmly planted in the ascendent Eurasian axis; And the emerging new security architecture, around whose pivot much else rotates, is the Chinese mediated Saudi–Iran Accord. 

The simple logic to a Saudi-Iran rapprochement plainly leaves redundant the extant Syrian battlespace, defined for a decade as one of radical Sunni forces versus a Syrian Shi’a, allies of Iran. This no longer makes sense in the wake of the Saudi-Iran accord.

Gulf States — including Saudi Arabia — therefore are moving rapidly to restore relations with Damascus. And Turkey, which is also distancing itself from Washington, is too seeking a formula through which it can pull out of Syria. To complete the deal, President Erdogan wants an early face-to-face meeting with President Assad (ahead of May’s Turkish Elections) — and under Moscow’s auspices. Damascus, on the other hand, prefers to wait to see the hard ‘receipts’ emerge from the Turkish election, before launching any direct reconciliation with Erdogan. For now, Turkish withdrawal is on ice.

In a paradoxical twist to affairs, President Assad has today become something of an icon for a newly assertive Arab policy: GCC states are promoting themselves as a latent world ‘power hub’ about to become the transactional network stitching together the Eurasian transit framework; the North-South corridor to the Gulf and to Asia, and to the African high-speed rail network.

The Road and Belt corridor, of course, passes: smack through Syria. (And it transits Iran too, with additionally, the North-South corridor bisecting Iran vertically). This is the logic behind the emerging GCC ‘power hub’ networking vision.

So, has Syria truly entered the endgame? Certainly. The question however, is will Syria progress through the snakes and ladders of the endgame incrementally, or will Syria become again the theatre of conflict as ‘incidents’ flare — with “Israel” mounting repeated air attacks on (claimed) Iranian infrastructure? 

Iran vigorously has warned the US against attacking bases in Syria set up “at the invitation” of Damascus, after a US F-15 retaliatory attack on militia bases killed nineteen last week. This latter came in response to rockets targeting the Al-Omar oil field’s American base in Deir Ezzor. For the first time, the militia attacks led to the death of one American ‘contractor’ and the injuring of five American soldiers, according to official American figures. 

The real number of victims may well be higher, as the US says a number of its servicemen are said to have suffered mental health problems as a result of the rocket attacks. Perhaps the more salient point, however, was that Iranian drones succeeded in penetrating the air defence systems surrounding the American bases.

Predictably, just as Assad is being gradually welcomed back into the Arab fold, a group of nearly 40 American Syria ‘experts’ and former US officials rose up in ‘high dudgeon’ to call on the Biden administration to forcefully push back against Syrian normalisation by Arab states. The letter argues that the US should maintain its military footprint in northeast Syria, in partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

But, simply put, the militia attack on al-Omar base was no ‘bolt out from the blue’ — but has apparently resulted from an informal Russian-Iranian coordination aimed at expelling entirely the American presence from Syria. One senior Iranian foreign policy commentator noted on Twitter: “The US regime should think very carefully about its next move. Miscalculating the resolve of the resistance against the illegal US occupation will be extremely costly”.

Whilst the Russians, on one hand, signal their discontent at the US occupation in Al-Tanf (through regular Russian aerospace fighter overflights), the Iranian side seems to have charge of pressuring the American presence in the two governorates of Al-Hasakah and Deir Ezzor in north-eastern Syria. 

Biden has signaled that the US does not want war with Iran. And “Israel” does not have the capacity to wage war on Iran — absent full US support. However, Netanyahu, in midst of a major crisis at home, might welcome a ‘below the radar’ low intensity, tit-for-tat undeclared ‘war’ with Iran to distract from those difficulties. Team Biden will watch with concern. 


Alastair Crooke – Director of Conflicts Forum; Former Senior British Diplomat; Author.

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