The heated debate within the American administration and in those Western capitals that are keeping a close eye on the Syrian crisis reflects confusion and an inability to either find a solution or intervene militarily. This is especially so following the Russian and Chinese vetoes at the UN Security Council, and given the geopolitical dangers surrounding the situation in Syria.
The declared Western strategy is to shun any military option and to refrain from arming the opposition for now. However, the pertinent question remains: How will Assad be shifted from power, especially given that the "Russian Initiative" and the visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Russian Intelligence Chief to Damascus on February 7 did not bring anything new to the table for the nations allied against the regime?
The West is seeking to cooperate with Turkey in order to circumvent the Russian-Chinese veto and break into the Syrian crisis, so as to meddle in Syrian affairs under the pretext of "humanitarian corridors," which apparently Washington and Ankara have come up with as a replacement for a buffer zone on the Syrian border. This was one of the main topics of the "Friends of Syria" meeting hosted in Tunisia on February 24. However, participants were unable to find clear and tangible solucions on which all parties could agree.
Why did the US change its position and move away from a diplomatic solution toward military or humanitarian intervention? The answer to this question lies in the US Defense Department’s plans for intervention in Syria, including military action, as mentioned by The Guardian newspaper on February 8. These plans are part of the Obama administration’s discussions aimed at finding a solution to the Syrian crisis, and putting an end to the Assad regime after 40 years in power.
According to The Guardian, the Pentagon has for several weeks been planning a series of US actions in response to the humanitarian situation in Syria — to provide food and medical relief to the Syrians and deal with the flood of refugees along the country’s northern and southern borders. These actions also include planning a military intervention coordinated with Turkey and other countries in NATO.
Although the internal review of the US military’s capabilities in the region was conducted on the initiative of the Pentagon and not the White House, these developments indicate that the Obama administration is “not taking anything off the table,” including military intervention, according to White House officials and the US Department of State.
Furthermore, certain parties within the Syrian opposition have been calling for military intervention and the establishment of safe corridors, but these remain under discussion. According to European officials, Turkey is the only nation in a position to assume such a role, although some other parties believe that the conflict between the government and the army could hinder any move in this regard. Nevertheless, new initiatives will be taken by Ankara, as announced to the Turkish parliament by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to media sources, Turkey is a strong ally that the US can work with. Apparently, efforts are moving in this direction, as Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, has announced the establishment of the “Friends of Syria” group following the Russian-Chinese veto at the UN Security Council.
While Russia is being accused of providing the Syrian regime with weapons — operating as its protector, allowing it to carry on with its violence — Moscow’s current position toward Syria suggests that neither Russia and China nor Turkey and Saudi Arabia are tipping the balance, whether in favor or against the Syrian regime. It is rather Iran that remains the only force fighting to protect Assad’s regime by providing the Syrian government with logistical support, sending its Revolutionary Guards and technicians to Syria.
According to analyst Simon Tisdall in The Guardian, Iran remains Assad’s main political and diplomatic backer, as it provides him with cheap oil, and may be its nuclear-weapons collaborator. His analysis is based on the statements of the US Secretary of State and her British and French counterparts, and an anonymous Israeli-security source, who all believe that Iran is the Syrian president’s main arms supplier and financier.
Efraim Halevy, former head of Mossad, believes that Syria is Iran's Achilles’ heel. In addition to providing Syria with arms, Iran is also sending intelligence officers to Damascus to collect information, as was the case in Iraq, although the Iranian role in Syria is not comparable to its role in Iraq. Assad’s regime is the key to Iran’s influence in the region. Syria is a part of Iran’s ideological battle with America and Israel and is also the barrier against the Arab nations’ support for American policy in the region.
Hence, Iran plays a vital role in terms of protection, security and finance. The Iranians are bending over backward to maintain the situation in the face of the intifada. According to Halevy, Iran is making every effort to preserve its influence in the country, regardless of what happens to Assad; that is why it has poured so many of its resources into the country to protect the regime. As for Israel, who is keeping a watchful eye on the Syrian situation, Halevy believes that the crucial question is whether the Iranian presence will live on in Syria after the fall of Assad. In this context, the Syrian opposition is fighting not only Assad but the Iranians as well. For Israel, the Syrian uprising might be the golden opportunity to defeat Iran and clip its wings.