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Israel a bigger concern

While the Syrian crisis is a threat to Middle East security, Tel Aviv's posturing against Iran could precipitate a worse regional conflagration

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Demonstrators at a protest againsts President Bashar Al Assad in Hula near Homs on Monday. Syrian forces resumed their bombardment of Homs after Arab countries called for UN peacekeepers and pledged support for the opposition.
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The carnage under way in Syria, particularly in Homs, is reprehensible. The bloody conflict, which has so far cost the lives of some 7,000 people, threatens to precipitate a civil war in this key Arab state adjoining several other prominent countries in the Middle East.

What it will take to bring about a cessation of hostilities in Syria is the 64,000-dollar question, as Americans would say. Despite the pleas of besieged Syrians, all attempts to end the crackdown on protesters have failed.

What is gratifying is that so far, western powers, particularly the Obama administration, have refused to send a peace-keeping force to Syria. Their experience in Libya where the Nato military intervention ousted Muammar Gaddafi, but failed to stem the civil strife, has made them cautious. More to the point, the spill-over of the Syrian crisis into neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq is undoubtedly a hair-raising possibility.

In another threat to Middle East stability, Israel has sought to capitalise on the two bomb attacks, earlier this week, on Israeli diplomatic cars in India and Georgia by pinning the blame on Iran.

A high-ranking Iranian nuclear scientist, the fifth in recent months, was killed in similar fashion in Tehran recently, prompting the Iranian government to threaten a reprisal against Israel. This sparked fears that Israel, in turn, would launch an air raid this spring on the underground Iranian nuclear facility. On Tuesday, three more explosions followed in Bangkok. Israel immediately accused Iran and the Hezbollah of being behind these explosions, but Iran denied any involvement.

This atmosphere of unrest, charges and countercharges in the Middle East requires serious and immediate attention from the senior members of the United Nations. This week, Navi Pillay, the UN human rights commissioner, lambasted the Syrian government for the deaths of more than 7,000 Syrians since the start of the uprising almost a year ago.

Rights abuses

In a statement at the annual meeting of the 193-nation General Assembly devoted to the Syrian conflict, Pillay rebuked of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad saying, “The breadth and pattern of attacks by military and security forces on civilians and the widespread destruction of homes, hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure indicate approval or complicity by authorities at the highest level.
“The appalling brutality that we are witnessing in Homs is a grim harbinger of worse to come.”

Despite all this criticism by non-Arab groups, it is amazing that the Al Assad regime has managed to survive, probably thanks in part to Russian backing and support within the country which remains virtually out of bounds to the international media.
Dimitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, wrote that Syria’s importance to Russia is the fact that Syria “is positioned in the strategic heart of the Middle East, and that Moscow’s links to the Al Assad family go back four decades”.
He added: “None of this, however, should be exaggerated. Syria is not an ally; [Syria’s Mediterranean port] Tartus is a naval resupply facility rather than a naval base; and the total value of Russia’s arms trade with Syria during the previous decade amounted to around $1.5 billion, which makes Damascus Moscow’s seventh-largest client”.

The Russians, he opined, “suspect that the real reason for the West’s pressure on Damascus is to rob Tehran of its only ally in the region”.

Trenin continued, “Behind the activity of the Gulf states, particularly Qatar, in the Syrian issue, Moscow sees the rising regional influence of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s bitter rival in the region. Turkey’s ‘neo-Ottoman’ ambitions are also playing a role. What the Russians are most worried about, however, is that Israel may strike at Iran, dragging in the US and thus precipitating a major war with Iran sometime this year.”

Whatever one may conclude about the practices of the Syrian regime and its repressive policies, thanks to its “strong and professional armed forces”, the focus needs to be aimed at Israeli policies which, as enumerated here, may precipitate a serious conflagration in the region which will undoubtedly drag major powers as well.

George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at