Showdown in Syria

Al Qaeda-linked rebels salivate as world powers contemplate drastic measures.

putin-obama-420x0A war of words and threats is shaping up over the Syrian issue. On one side stands Russia, the embattled Assad regime’s main backer along with Iran. On the other—not necessarily acting in any sort of unison—stand the United States, Europe, and Israel.

The Daily Beast reports that the Obama administration “has asked the Pentagon to draw up plans for a no-fly zone inside Syria that would be enforced by the U.S. and other countries such as France and Great Britain.”

That report prompted this probably deliberately ambiguous response from Pentagon spokesman Dave Lapan, who told the Daily Beast: “There is no new planning effort underway. The Joint Staff, along with the relevant combatant commanders, continue to conduct prudent planning for a range of possible military options.”

Meanwhile Israel’s leading daily Israel Hayom reports that the leak to the Daily Beast about planning for a no-fly zone came in response to Russia’s stated intention to provide Syria with the game-changing S-300 anti-aircraft system. The S-300 has a range of about 150 miles and would both endanger Israel’s own airspace and constrict its air force’s—or other Western air forces’—ability to operate over Syria and Lebanon.

Although the Russian-Syrian deal for the S-300 was inked in 2010, Russia had postponed delivery at Israel’s request. Reportedly, Israel’s (according to foreign reports) air strikes on Damascus targets earlier this month enraged Moscow and made it change its mind.

On Tuesday Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Rybakov said sending the S-300 to Syria might “help restrain some hotheads considering a scenario to give an international dimension to this conflict.” Officials in Jerusalem interpreted “hotheads” to mean Israel.

That same day, though, Israeli defense minister Moshe Yaalon said the S-300 deliveries “have not taken place—I can attest to this—and I hope they do not. But if, by some misfortune, they arrive in Syria, we will know what to do.”

While the S-300 standoff is at this moment the main arena in the war of words and threats, there’s been further activity on the sidelines.

Earlier this week Sen. John McCain slipped into Syria from Turkey and met with members of the Free Syrian Army rebel group, who asked him for U.S. heavy weapons, a no-fly zone, and airstrikes on regime and Hizballah targets.

McCain, a harsh critic of the Obama administration’s reluctance to get militarily involved in the mayhem, seems oblivious to the fact that by this time the Free Syrian Army largely consists of Muslim Brotherhood supporters while the Syrian rebels in general are now dominated by Al Qaeda-linked and other radical Sunni elements.

That didn’t stop the European Union, for its part, from getting into the act by agreeing on Monday to end its arms embargo on the rebels. Here too, though, words—for now—appear to prevail over actions, with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton saying there are no actual plans to send any actual weapons to the rebels at this point.

Meanwhile, on the diplomatic front, the U.S. and Russia have agreed to try and patch up the Syrian imbroglio in a Geneva peace conference sometime in June—a notion that appears detached from the Syrian reality as the two implacably opposed sides fight viciously to the death.

Possibly in a more realistic vein, 15,000 soldiers from Western and mostly-Sunni countries are reportedly set to carry out war games in Jordan next week, and to remain on the ground “in case the need arises to intervene in Syria.” According to some reports U.S. soldiers will be taking part.

In sum, the situation is fluid, complex, and unpredictable. Much depends on whether Russia is just saber-rattling about the S-300 or really intends to dispatch it and create a strategic escalation.

Jerusalem and Washington appear to share the perception that, while neither side in the conflict is attractive, certain contingencies—like game-changing weapons transfers, or mass-destruction weapons falling into terrorist hands—call for military action. So far, though, it is Israel alone that (according to foreign reports) has shown itself prepared to act.

That Iran, as the battles in Syria rage, keeps quietly building its nuclear capability in the background, while also increasingly sending forces to Syria, puts the situation in a grim light. Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu calls it a regional deterioration. Whether Israel has an ally in Washington that is prepared to do anything about it remains to be seen.

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