A game of regional chess over Syrian tragedy
ON FEBRUARY 17, I wrote: ‘The Syrians are keeping their eyes on the “clock” and hastening slowly towards tightening the cordon on Baba Amro in Homs.’
The ‘clock’ is important because after their recent visit to Damascus Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, and senior intelligence officials in his entourage, had given the Syrian leadership a fortnight in which to clean up areas of the country where ‘foreigners’ were helping local protesters with military advisers and arms, sophisticated enough to blow up tanks. Baba Amro became something of a headquarters for this rebel activity, because cunning underground passages have been dug from across the border in Lebanon.
By a coincidence, just when the Baba Amro operation was underway, ‘Friends of Syria’ met in Tunis to plot Bashar al Assad’s overthrow. A graphic account of the messy conference is available in Time Magazine.
What is not available is the exact reason why Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal walked out of the conference after his meeting with the French foreign minister Alain Juppe.
The Saudis, playing for very high stakes in Syria, were keen to obtain European recognition for the fragmented Syrian National Council. This, according to them, would function as the Syrian government in exile.
Juppe was in a bind. If France recognises the government in exile, diplomatic relations with Damascus would automatically snap. Who then does Juppe turn to for release of the French military advisers held in Syrian custody? If France does not recognise the SNC and the United States and Britain do, the increasingly messy Syrian affair will begin to acquire the potential of fracturing the Western alliance. In fact, just as the British closed their Damascus embassy for security reasons, the French ambassador returned to the city.
A mischievous idea making the rounds is that Assad invite French President Nicolas Sarkozy on a goodwill visit and deliver the French prisoners to him gift wrapped.
If this story is just a joke then it is a bad joke on poor Sarkozy, in the midst of an election.
Should the story of the French in Syrian custody become public in France, the voters will ask: did the government sanction illegal entry of our soldiers into foreign countries? Or, does the government not know that its military was involved in overseas adventures? Is the Syrian rebellion an imported rebellion?
Ever since Qatar joined forces with the Saudis to protect kingdoms and sheikhdoms from the Arab winds of change, their joint capacity to pick up massive bills, like the cost of NATO action in Libya, has increased astronomically.
Rent a NATO, therefore, may well have been on their minds when they sought secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s help in giving thought to the proposition that NATO be brought into play over Syria.
Clinton has to clear up other mess, as in Afghanistan, where inadvertent Qur’an burning — some inadvertence — has led to a spree of killing of Americans and their supporters. The situation threatens to derail the NATO Plus conference on Afghanistan President Obama has carefully arranged to be held in Chicago in May as a build-up to his election campaign. No surprise, therefore, that Clinton was able to give no joy to Saud al-Faisal in Tunis. This may be billed as the second reason for his walkout.
In response to GCC and Western persistence on Syria, the Russian ambassador in Lebanon has told Al Jazeera that the people of Bahrain needed help against their king.
If Russians are going to play games, say diplomatic sources in New Delhi, there are games the west can play against them too.
Russians have a great affinity with their brother Slavs in Serbia. It hit them where it hurts when the Americans carved out an independent Republic of Kosovo after the 72 days of bombing which pulverised Slobodan Milosevic.
The emergence of Kosovo was the realisation of ancient Turkish aspirations too. There is now some talk of Turks being lured into replicating a Kosovo-like enclave in Syria. If true, this move could be a trap for Turkey and a provocation for Russia. You will notice the Turks are already backtracking on cross border help for the Syrian opposition.
They are proposing the Cypriot route for funnelling arms. Once this is legitimised, the world will be very close to recognising the part of Cyprus which the Turks occupy. The Syrian tragedy is yielding to a delightful game of regional chess.
Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist and distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.
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