Syria: New Cold War turning hot

Tariq Niaz Bhatti

THE 2003 US invasion of Iraq shattered the delicate sectarian balance in the valley of two rivers. US sponsored Iraq liberation formula failed and paved the way for a sectarian war which continues to this day. Sensing the gravity of situation King Abdullah of Jordan warned of rise of Iranian influence in the Middle East. In 2004 he argued “There was a Shia crescent that went from Damascus to Tehran, passing through Baghdad, where a Shia-dominated government had taken power and was dictating a sectarian brand of politics that was radiating outwards from Iraq across the whole region”. The ensuing chaos saw political realignments and spread of militant sectarian organization in the entire region. As of today, the super powers of cold war era are back in business in a new cold war in the ME.
Recent withdrawal of US from the Iran Nuclear Deal seems outcome of a carefully thought out US strategy to stem the rising tide of Iran’s regional influence. US action has a destabilizing effect in the regional geopolitics as it has added belligerency amongst regional contenders. Iran, after dominating Iraq, wants to increase its economic, military and political influence in Syria. Towards this it asked the Assad regime to lease land for constructing a port near Tartus on Mediterranean Sea. Though Syria has officially denied permission under intense Russian pressure but Iran is seeking the same through unconnected private parties. Iranian companies have also been investing in Syrian telecom and mining sectors thus indirectly enhancing its economic footprint in battle ravaged Syria.
Presence of strong Al-Quds brigades and increased flow of Iranian weapons is strengthening IRGC role and permanent presence of Iranian military in Syria. Hezbollah gains in the Lebanese Parliamentary elections will help bolster its resistance against Israel specially in the vicinity of occupied Golan heights. For KSA, Assad’s regime survival, Hezbollah’s election performance and unending civil war in Yemen are indicators of its decreasing influence in the region. KSA-Israel rapprochement, formation of KSA led Islamic coalition of forces and US withdrawal from JCPOA are three main efforts intended to exert a pull on rising Iranian economic political and military influence in the region.
Netanyahu, Israeli icon of belligerency, showing no faith in political settlement of Palestinian issue has resorted to more provocation as part of Israel proactive strategy. Viewing Iran’s increasing military presence close to Golan heights as violation of its red line, Israel has struck Iranian military facilities in Syria thrice in the past one month. Israel considers game changing Iranian weaponry in Syria like Fatah-110 missile or Iranian attack drones flying along Golan heights as existential threat. Furthermore, Israel had been extra sensitive to presence of Shiite Hezbollah militia or Iranian air force close to its border with Syria. Latest Israeli preemptive strikes to thwart Iranian retaliatory attacks vindicate the assertion. On Thursday 10 May, Israel claimed to have destroyed nearly all Iranian military installations and facilities close to Israel- Syria border in mid-night raids in response to the alleged Iranian rocket attacks. So far Iran has shown marked patience to Israeli provocations but mounting Iranian losses may not hold its resolve for very long.
Iran is stressing the P5-1 to provide guarantees for their continued support to the nuclear deal even after imposition of US sanctions. That means Iran is keeping its option like nixing NPT and reverting back to Uranium enrichment, open. It depends how long the resolve of P5-1 in support of Iran nuclear deal can hold against US pressure. Meanwhile new political alignments are complicating the matters in the ME and may turn the cold war hot in the near future. In view of Israeli provocations Iran will further strengthen its military presence in Syria and may push in game changing weapons there. On the other hand, Israel with its sophisticated weapons and intelligence gathering tools will continue with its surgical strikes to spoil rebuilding of Iranian military in Syria beyond a specified level. Belligerents who are settling scores through air raids and rocket fires at present may, in second stage, resort to open confrontation if the situation is not defused in time. Widening sectarian divide under the shadows of ongoing cold war in the ME is detrimental to the safety and security of Gulf Arab states and Muslim countries in South and Central Asia. Most of the Muslim countries face insurgencies due to rise of radicalism and sectarianism in their societies. Any further flaring up of Iran-Israel conflict in Syria will raise the dangerous question of siding with opposing camps led by either Iran or KSA that will surely disturb the sectarian harmony in most of Islamic countries.
— The writer is freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

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