Superpower rivalry benefiting Assad regime

Superpower rivalry benefiting Assad regime

Syria and Israel today rely on the superpowers they have always leaned on. For Israel this is the United States while, for Syria, it is Russia. The powerful Israeli lobby has always seen that there is no U.S. administration that can go against Israel, even if it is being castigated by the majority of the world for its policies on Palestine.

President Barack Obama got a bitter taste of this after he dared mentioned Israel’s 1967 borders. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received “multiple standing ovations” from the U.S. Congress with a “fire-and-brimstone speech” that left the U.S. President looking weak and insignificant.

Syria’s situation is very different. To start with, there is no powerful “Syrian lobby” anywhere, but this does not mean the Baathist regime lacks an advantage similar to the one Israel has.

Russia may not have a powerful Syrian lobby, yet Russians have an inbuilt anti-Americanism that is very apparent to anyone following the Russian media, especially the English language news channel “RT.” Russians have, therefore, generally gravitated toward the Arabs in the Middle East.

Neither has changed in essence, despite the massive migration from Russia to Israel by Jews since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moscow’s instincts have remained much the same as seen in the support it is giving Bashar al-Assad now. Whether Moscow can maintain this stance after the majority of Arab states have turned against Assad still remains to be seen.

Russia’s natural inclination to go the opposite way to the U.S. in the Middle East is apparent not just in Syria but also in its approach to Iran. Moscow has issued warnings to Tehran on the nuclear issue, of course, but this has not prevented it from helping that country’s “nuclear energy program” in one way or another.

Moscow’s position on the possibility of an Israel strike against Iran has also been made amply clear. Neither is Moscow prepared yet to give up the military facilities Syria is providing its fleet in the eastern Mediterranean, which is a continuation of the situation during the Cold War.

This all sits well with Assad. It is clear that in the unlikely event that the West manages to agree on military intervention against his country – something Israelis appear to desire – this will be blocked by Moscow at the Security Council. Neither is Russia the only superpower Assad can rely on in this respect.

There is also China, which has been developing its separate Middle East policy that does not quite tally with the West. It is not clear at this stage if Moscow and Beijing will even support sanctions against Damascus at the United Nations, even if the majority of Arab states are asking for these now.

It is obvious today that the Syrian government has as little respect for international public opinion as the Israel government has had to date. Israelis are aware that as long as they have U.S. backing they are alright. It seems Assad is now relying on Russian backing in the same way. He clearly believes he can also withstand unilateral sanction with such support.

It is becoming clearer, therefore, that there will not be a relatively quick Libya-like settlement in Syria. There is also little Turkey can do under these conditions except brace itself for the worst. In short, Assad seems to think he can get away with murder as long as the superpower rivalry in the Middle East continues.