THE ROVING EYE
That rocky road to Damascus
By Pepe Escobar
The trillion-dollar question in the "Arab Winter" is who will blink first in the West's screenplay of slouching towards Tehran via Damascus.
As they examine the regional chessboard and the formidable array of forces aligned against them, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the military dictatorship of the mullahtariat in Tehran must face, simultaneously, superpower Washington, bomb-happy North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members, nuclear power Israel, all Sunni Arab absolute monarchies, and even Sunni-majority, secular Turkey.
Meanwhile, on their side, the Islamic Republic can only count on Moscow. Not as bad a hand as it may seem.
Syria is Iran's undisputed key ally in the Arab world - while Russia, alongside China, are the key geopolitical allies. China, for the moment, is making it clear that any solution for Syria must be negotiated.
Russia's one and only naval base in the Mediterranean is at the Syrian port of Tartus. Not by accident, Russia has installed its S-300 air defense system - one of the best all-altitude surface-to-air missile systems in the world, comparable to the American Patriot - in Tartus. The update to the even more sophisticated S-400 system is imminent.
From Moscow's - as well as Tehran's - perspective, regime change in Damascus is a no-no. It will mean virtual expulsion of the Russian and Iranian navies from the Mediterranean.
Yet key lateral moves by the West are already on. Diplomats in Brussels confirmed to Asia Times Online that the former Libyan "rebels" - now trying to come up with a credible government - have already given the go-ahead for NATO to build a sprawling military base in Cyrenaica.
NATO has no final say in such matters. This is decided by the boss - the Pentagon - interested in emboldening Africom in coordination with NATO. As many as 20,000 boots are expected to be deployed on the ground in Libya - at least 12,000 of them Europeans. They will be responsible for Libya's "internal security", but also be on alert for possible, further military campaigns targeted at - who else - Syria and Iran.
Bring those Shi'ites down
As much as the latest "coalition of the willing" - which by the way repeats the Libya model - is against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, it also represents a Christian/Sunni war against Shi'ites, be they the Alawite minority in Syria or the Shi'ite majorities in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.
This is part and parcel of the "strategic opportunity" identified by the powerful Israel lobby in Washington; if we strike against the Damascus-Tehran link, we deal a mortal blow to Hezbollah in Lebanon. That, ideologues believe, can now be sold to world public opinion under the cover of the former Arab Spring - now "Arab Winter" after a metamorphosis, before "Arab Summer", into the Arab counter-revolution).
As Tehran sees it, what's really going on regarding Syria is a "humanitarian" cover for a complex anti-Shi'ite and anti-Iran operation.
The road map is already clear. A fractious, unrepresentative Syrian National Council - Libya-style - is already in place. Same for a heavily armed Sunni "insurgency" crisscrossing the borders in Lebanon and Turkey. Sanctions are already essentially hurting the Syrian middle class. A relentless, international campaign of vilification of the Assad regime has been deployed. And psy ops abound, with the aim of seducing sections of the Syrian army to defect (it's not working).
A report  by a Qatar-based researcher for the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) even comes close to admitting that the self-described "Free Syria Army" is basically a bunch of hardcore Islamists, plus a few genuine army defectors, but mostly radicalized Muslim Brotherhood bought, paid for and weaponized by the US, Israel, the Gulf monarchies and Turkey. There's nothing "pro-democracy" about this lot - as incessantly sold by Western corporate and Saudi-owned media.
As for the National Council, based in Washington and London and sprinkled with the usual dodgy exiles, its program calls for governing Syria alongside the same military that has been - a la the Egyptian military junta - shooting civilian protesters. Makes one think that the only sensible solution would be for the people in Syria to topple the police state Assad regime, while being vehemently against the dodgy Syrian National Council.
This year's model (dictator)
Then there's the usually misguided and misinformed West, which believes that the Arab League - now no more than a puppet of US foreign policy - is siding with the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people. Angry Arab blogger As'ad Abu Khalil is correct when he says that after the fall of president Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, "the League is now an extension of the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC]".
The GCC is in fact the Gulf Counter-revolution Club. Their favorite sport is to privilege "model" dictators - starting with themselves, but also including Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen and the little kings of Jordan and Morocco, who will be annexed to the GCC because they wish they were in the Persian Gulf (geography dictates they aren't). On the other hand, the GCC abhors "bad" dictators - the snuffed-out Muammar Gaddafi and Assad, who not by accident are from secular republics.
The House of Saud, Jordan and rising Qatar are more than comfortable doing the US's and Israel's bidding. The House of Saud - the GCC's top dog - invaded Bahrain with 1,500 troops to smash pro-democracy protests very much like the ones in Egypt and Syria. The House of Saud helped the ruling, Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty in 70% Shi'ite Bahrain to conduct widespread torture; Bahrainis confirm that everyone tortured was forced to confess direct links with "evil" Tehran.
In Egypt, the House of Saud supported Mubarak even after he was deposed. Now it supports - with over US$4 billion so far - a military junta that basically wants to keep power, unchecked, over a "democratic" facade.
The House of Saud couldn't possibly coexist with a successful, democratic Egypt. Anyone believing the House of Saud's claim to defend human rights and democracy in the Middle East should check into an asylum.
The Arab League - also a House of Saud extension - gave a green card to NATO to bomb a member state. It suspended Syria on November 12 - as it had done with Libya on February 22 - because, unlike in Libya, US and European designs in the United Nations Security Council were duly vetoed by Russia and China.
Welcome to a "new" Arab League where if you don't prostrate in front of the GCC altar, you're condemned to regime change.
Worshipping the GCC can't compare to worshipping the Pentagon and NATO. Jordan and Morocco are members of NATO's Mediterranean dialogue, and Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are members of NATO's Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. In addition, Jordan and the UAE are the only Arabic Troop Contributing Nations for NATO in Afghanistan.
Ivo Daalder, the Obama administration's ambassador to NATO, has already ordered Libya to enter the Mediterranean Dialogue, alongside Morocco, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania and Israel. And early this month he told the Atlantic Council what's needed for an attack on Syria; an "urgent necessity" (such as giving the impression Assad is going to raze Homs to the ground); "regional support" (that will come in a flash from the GCC/Arab League); and a UN mandate (it won't happen, as Russia and China had made it clear).
So one may expect exactly that from the "coalition of the willing"; some black ops blamed on the Assad regime; immediate support from GCC/Arab League; and probably unilateral action, because via the UN is a no-no.
The Greater Middle East dream
No wonder some sound minds in Damascus, watching the tea leaves, decided to take some action. Damascus did send secret couriers to sound out Washington's mood. The price to be left alone; to cut all ties with Tehran, for good. The Assad regime was left wondering what would they get in return.
The Alawites, roughly 12% of the population and members of the ruling elite, won't desert the Assad regime. Christians and Druze expect only the worst from a possible, hardcore, Muslim Brotherhood-dominated new order. Same for a crucial neighbor, the Nuri al-Maliki government in Baghdad.
Russia knows that if the current Libyan model is reproduced in Syria - and with Lebanon already under a de facto NATO blockade - the Mediterranean will indeed become that dream, a NATO lake, which is code for total US control.
Moscow also sees that in the US-conceived Greater Middle East - and talk about "great", spanning from Mauritania to Kazakhstan - the only countries that are not linked with NATO through myriad "partnerships" are, apart from Syria: Lebanon, Eritrea, Sudan and Iran.
As for the Pentagon, the name of the game is "repositioning". As in if you leave Iraq you go somewhere else in the "arc of instability", preferably the Gulf. There are 40,000 US troops already in the Gulf - 23,000 of them in Kuwait. A secret army for the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency is being trained by former Blackwater, "repositioned" as Xe, in the UAE. A NATO of the Gulf is being born. NATOGCC, anyone?
When the US neo-conservatives ruled the universe - that was only a few years ago - the motto was "Real men go to Tehran". An update is in order. Call it "Real men go to Tehran via Damascus only if they have the balls to stare down Moscow".
Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His new book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).
He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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