Dark clouds of war shrouding Syria

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By Li Hongmei

BEIJING, Nov. 28 (Xinhuanet) — In response to the incumbent president Bashar al-Assad’s failure to halt a violent crackdown on eight-months of unrest against his rule, and in an unprecedented move against an Arab nation, the Arab League has voted to impose economic sanctions on Syria.

On Sunday, Damascus slammed the sanctions as a betrayal of Arab solidarity and insisted a foreign conspiracy was behind the revolt, all but alluding to more bloodshed could follow.

This has not only sent thousands of pro-government Syrians to street rallying against the sanctions which are interpreted as the clearest sign to leave Syria in the cold and more vulnerable to the outside assault, but has raised fears of civil war — a worst-case scenario in a country that is a geographical and political keystone in the heart of the Middle East.

Syria borders five countries with whom it shares religious and ethnic minorities. And its web of allegiances extends to Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran’s Shiite theocracy. Chaos in Syria could send unsettling ripples across the region.

As a latest sign of Western intervention, the nuclear aircraft-carrier USS George HW Bush has reportedly anchored off Syria. The ship is capable of carrying up to 70 aircraft, including 48 attack jets. The aircraft-carrier is escorted by a group of vessels which contains a destroyer.

As the deadline set by Arab league to allow observers into the country meets with no response from Damascus, the possibility of a direct military intervention in Syria seems to be augmented.

In this connection, experts are giving both a pessimistic and comparatively moderate prospect of the latest developments near the Syrian sea border. Many believe the U.S. redeployment of its carrier from the Persian Gulf to the Syrian shores is part of preparations for a military operation against Syria.

After all, these activities are reminiscent of a similar initiative when a group of NATO vessels were concentrated near Libya. Washington wants to collect a maximum dividend from the series of revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa. With this aim in mind, Washington is likely to start a military intervention even without UN approval.

But some observers also pointed out the reinforcement of the US aircraft-carrier fleet in the Mediterranean is more likely to be a bluff. Washington is building up muscle in the region, which is something of a strong political intimidation, but far from signaling an imminent military pressure, as the moderate observers analyzed.

Meanwhile, whipping-up tension around Syria is taking place along different lines as well. The day before The George Bush was redeployed near the Syrian coastline, the Al-Arabiya Saudi TV channel reported that three Russian Navy ships entered Syrian territorial waters, although the information is as yet to be confirmed by the Russian Defense Ministry.

However, Russia has voiced its opposition to any move to target Syria as the next Libya, say, foreign military interventions into the country, with whom Russia would consistently kept arms deals with. There is a Russian naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, which is the only Russian military base abroad at present.

It is also reported that, due to increasing tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, Russia has sent its “Admiral Kuznetsov”, the only aircraft carrier on active duty, and it is now on the way to the burning ocean zone off Syria. This also gives rise to some speculations that the possible encounter between USS George HW Bush and Russia’s Admiral Kuznetsov off the Syrian shores could finally ignite the tinderbox, threatening the already brittle tranquility in the region.

It is still a mooted point whether Russia could look back from the plow and come to a halt at the critical juncture.

America and Turkey are urging their citizens to leave Syria. The US released a statement last week urging its citizens to “depart immediately while commercial transportation is available.”

France is urging the creation of a secure zone to protect civilians “that would allow aid groups and observers into Syria” and it is seeking support from the US, UN and the Arab League. The imposition of a no-fly zone over Syria by the Arab League with US logistical support, is also being discussed, according to the Jordan-based Al Bawaba news website. A strong sense of déjà vu prevails, with the specter of a Libyan scenario repeating itself.

Rumors about the no-fly zone over Syria came in the wake of the UN resolution last Tuesday which condemned human rights abuses by the Syrian regime.

The Sarkozy administration, having reaped a string of “firsts” in Libya attack, has once again become the first Western nation to suggest an international intervention on the ground in Syria with its calls for a “secured zone to protect civilians”, and first to endorse the exiled opposition Syrian National Council.

With Libya now in the rearview mirror, Syria appears to be the next stop. There is already criticism saying the “secure zone” proposal is a French fig leaf, and it could be a pretext for intervention, in an echo of the NATO bombing campaign in Libya. It is might as well taken as an attempt by France to regain some prestige on the international arena.

On this analysis, things would possibly turn out to be that: Bashar al-Assad is irreversibly to go, and a tacit agreement involving all the concerned parties will be finally clinched on the verge of bloodshed or, if al-Assad would never yield to the mounting pressure to step down, Western allies would replicate what they did in Libya, and Russia then would make an about-face from its current standpoint, Syria would be grilled over flames of war, with its people more suffering.

What’s more, once the Syrian regime is overthrown, a Pandora’s box might be opened.

While one is always happy to see the end of a “brutal dictatorship,” how to end the regime should come from the people themselves. Being forced upon a speeded-up solution from outside is by no means welcome by Syrians as a good omen for a “civilian” Syria.

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