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Russia Is Bargaining With The GCC On The Syrian Front & Over The Iran-Led Axis.

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BEIRUT - Russia has thrust itself into a conflict on the Syrian front between Iran and the six-state Arab Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) and the West. Alawite/Ba'thist President Bashar al-Assad, forced to turn Syria into a bazaar, says the only option he has is to continue his two-pronged effort: an Iran-backed crack-down on his internal opponents and offering those reforms which he can afford in order to remain in power.

1. The Syrian bazaar has nine players of consequence to the Greater Middle East (GME). But Assad is not one of them. They include Israel, Russia, the GCC-led Arab League, and Iran - in that order (as explained in news10LebSyrMar5-12).

2. At the White House on March 5, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu told President Barack Obama the Jewish state was opposed to see Assad's regime fall before its "northern security" (the annexed Golan Heights) was guaranteed. That implied Israel vetoed any US military intervention against Assad's regime; Israel's was in line with the Russian position. Obama did not agree to that - though he ruled out a unilateral US military attack in Syria - and said of Assad: "Ultimately this dictator will fall".

3. Moscow needs assurances its political influence in Syria will be maintained. This is not a problem from the stand-point of the GCC-led Arab League - whose foreign ministers were meeting their Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Cairo on March 10 - and the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC). The cash-rich GCC states are offering Moscow big business, including investment in Russia and a boost in trade. In return, Russia is expected to translate into deeds what newly-elected President Vladimir Putin recently said: Moscow "had no special relationship" with Assad's regime and he could not tell for how long Assad would survive.

4. Georgy Petrov, deputy president of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, recently said this body was suspending business in Syria until "the situation normalised". Russia by then had suspended co-operation with Syria in tourism because of worsening security conditions.

5. Syrian-Russian trade in 2011 was said to amount to $2bn, including military supplies to Assad's regime. Russian investments in Syria in 2009 stood at $19.4bn; but in 2011, they were worth less than $14bn. It is said the more Moscow distances itself economically from Damascus, the more this will damage Syria's economy. The Syrian lira stands at a record high of over 100 to the US dollar, threatening the economy with bankruptcy.

6. Washington, however, has turned down Moscow's demand for the US defence shield in Europe to be cancelled and for NATO to abandon Georgia in return for Russian co-operation against Assad's regime and Iran's nuclear programme. Iran's issue is put off until June.

Yet US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman recently told the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee that Russia's position on Syria "is a key element in how this [crisis over Assad] goes forward". He stressed that Russia could use its influence "to be part of the solution in Syria". He said that, during a visit to Moscow, he sensed "a lot discomfort" with Russia's international isolation due to its vetoes at the UNSC and that he did not see a fundamental difference between the US and Russia over Syria as both wanted to end the violence. Ex-peace envoy Dennis Ross wrote in USA Today of Feb. 29: Moscow wanted to "be able to take credit" for producing regime change in Syria and seal the deal just like the GCC signed off on Yemen.

7. The White House, on the other hand, is taking up Israel's argument that Assad's Syrian opponents remain deeply divided and that the SNC still is far from being a viable alternative to his regime. To prove itself viable, the SNC must present a united Syrian front and that will be difficult. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) remains a key component of the SNC and is still not willing to cede what the other major opposition groups want for the sake of national unity.

8. Iran's Shi'ite theocracy, leading an axis of GME forces, heavily depends on Assad's regime and has links with SNC's main rival, the Syrian National Co-ordination Committee (SNCC) led by Haitham al-Mana'. The SNCC is opposed to militarisation of the revolution and SNC's fighting arm, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which is mostly made up of defectors from Assad forces and MB volunteers. Iran is giving Assad's regime big financial aid, well-trained fighters, weapons, special Hizbullah commandos and intelligence assistance. Iran has given Assad's regime $12bn to cope with sanctions.

Assistant Petroleum & Mineral Resources Minister Abdo Hussamuddin on March 8 said he had defected from Assad's regime and the ruling Ba'th Party and "joined the revolution". He condemned Assad as a "butcher, killing the Syrian people" and said he knew the regime would burn his house and harm his family but stressed: "Assad is sinking". London-based Alawite opposition spokesman Wahid Saqr then told the Saudi-owned pan-Arab TV al-Arabiya his family had just managed to flee Syria with the help of Sunni friends which, he said, "proved the revolution was not sectarian as the murderous Assad regime claims" and predicted that the latter's fall was inevitable. On March 5, the FSA said it had formed its first Alawite battalion against Assad's regime. Assad keeps saying his war is only against "foreign backed terrorists" (see rim3IrqQaedaMar12-12).
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Title Annotation:Gulf Cooperation Council
Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Mar 12, 2012
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