by Dr. Mordechai Kedar
Whatever lies ahead of us in the new year is determined during the period of the High Holydays, when the Book of Life – and that of Death - are opened in the Heavens. The Book of Death does not only name those who will die but by what means each will meet his end: by the sword, by falling prey to wild beasts, from hunger, pestilence or other horrors that the fruitful mind of the human beast has managed to invent.
Do we hear the drums of the apocalyptic war of Gog and Magog?
Apparently there are cultures whose main occupation is self destruction and the destruction of others, to whom the quality of life and the business of living are uninteresting at best. What counts in these cultures is honor, the ruler, power and the state – even when it is an artificial one – and these are much more important that the lives of a peaceful and quiet population that wants only to survive.
The state of Syria is taking its last gasping breaths, but there are those in Russia and Syria who feel that since some of the anti-Assad rebels have chosen the eastern sectors of Aleppo as their headquarters, the city's close to a quarter of a million men, women and children do not deserve to live. Putin and Assad believe that the lives of 250,000 citizens are less important than the elimination of a few hundred rebels, and much less important than the rule of Assad in Aleppo.
If Russia really wanted to end the crisis, its leaders would allow the artificial state known as Syria to fall and be remembered in the history books after its demise, as are the USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and prior to that, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, each of them a combination of ethnic and religious groups who never managed to become a united nation. This was the basic problem of the Arab States as well, and once the day of reckoning came, they failed to function.
If the leaders of Russia really wanted to solve Syria's problems they would sit down with the Americans and others who support those rebelling against Allawite butcher Assad, discuss ways to save civilian lives, leave the cities as viable entities and reach the only possible conclusion: that no Allawite, considered a heretic by the Muslims who make up the majority of the area's inhabitants, can rule for long in the Middle East. This and nothing else, is Syria's basic problem and it did not start today. This is what lay behind the 1976-1982 Muslim Brotherhood rebellion against Bashar Assad's father Hafez, that left 50,000 dead. Today's rebellion began in 2010, has already left ten times that number dead - half a million people - and threatens to continue.
Russia is investing all its conventional (so far) military power to breathe life into the Assad regime although his regime has no hope of continuing on its own in a country where most of the people do not ever want to see him again. Russia has raised the level of its participation over the last two weeks and is systematically bombing – along with Assad's air force – the eastern sectors of Aleppo and particularly the hospitals, whose dwindling medical staff and untreated wounded have been turned into live shields by the rebels. Are the rebels acting according to accepted rules of war? Of course not, but that can in no way excuse Russia and Syria's horrific response.
The situation in Aleppo, where hundreds of thousands of people are dying from hunger, disease and the bombings, has at last even elicited a response from the government of the United States of America, which witnessed the last five and a half years of genocide with complete equanimity.
The US halted the talks with Russia on the future of Syria which had absolutely no effect on the situation anyway, except for one week during the holiday of Id al Fitr, and in reality gave Russia a modicum of cover for escalating its military involvement against Aleppo's civilians. The US also threatened to increase its support for the rebels if Russia continues to bomb Aleppo.
The Russians reacted by transferring the S-300 long range surface to air anti-missile system to Tartus, claiming that it is only going to protect the Tartus military port. Protect from whom, exactly? The rebels have no air force. The range of these missiles is 200 kilometers and clearly placing them in Tartus is meant to cover the entire air space of northwestern Syria, including Aleppo and Latakia, in case western aircraft are deployed against Assad's bombers – or heaven forfend, Putin's.
Another step Russia has taken is stopping the talks with the US on limiting both nations' supply of plutonium. Plutonium has no uses other than military ones, so that limiting the amount held by each country should reduce the danger of nuclear war between the two superpowers. The cessation of talks is a significant sign that Russia really intends to flex its muscles vis a vis the US, which, for its part, is raising economic sanctions against Russia by a notch. These were instated a few years ago when Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed the Crimean Peninsula. The US suspects Russia of being involved in North Korea's nuclear project, in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.
Russia is involved in the Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile industry, left for Iran to decide on independently in last year's Nuclear Agreement.
All this makes it seem that the Aleppo bombings are the straw that broke the American camel's back, one step too many for Russia, one that Americans cannot take lying down as Obama's presidency draws to a close for two main reasons: One, that Obama refuses to let his watch end with the American flag taken down in the Middle East and the area turning into a Russian sphere of influence. This would make America seem like a loser banished from the region with its tail between its legs. The Americans may not want to fight, but they also know what it means to be humiliated and want to avoid that with all their might.
The second reason is the coming elections: Obama and Clinton realize that an American defeat in the Middle East will put the Democratic administration, Obama's today and Clinton's if she is elected, in a terrible position when facing voters, who also do not want to engage in war but do not agree to be humiliatingly removed from another region - in addition to Ukraine, where Putin simply took over. An obvious humiliation might even lead to a Republican victory.
This presents a difficult dilemma for the current administration: How can the destruction of Aleppo and the rule of mass-murderer Assad be brought to an end without the US being drawn into the fray and without giving in to Putin's dictates over who will govern Syria in the future, when the Syrian issue is held in the vise that holds Ukraine, North Korea, Iran, plutonium stores and economic sanctions?
The circle is too solid to square through diplomatic means, especially since one side is doing everything to avoid using its strength while the other is actively using massive power to affect facts on the ground.
The history of international relations has no record of a similar situation among world powers; the Cold War between the USA and the USSR was based on a real mutual threat of equal magnitude that could have led to total world destruction, at a time when US presidents spoke and acted resolutely and employed determined military action (e.g. the Korean and Vietnamese wars). Today the faceoff is between a global power that uses its strength unrestrainedly to aid its allies and advance its own interests and another power that has decided not to employ its strength and even to abandon some of its allies.
American leaders see the destruction in Syria and know exactly who will be expected to finance its recovery. They have more than enough internal economic problems and have no desire to take part in rebuilding Syria just because they helped the rebels. That, however, is in the future, and what is important now is that a quarter of a million civilians in Aleppo want to survive. Russia, sure of itself and the justice of its cause, is destroying Syria without the blink of an eyelid and Washington is paralyzed.
This unbalanced situation is not like anything in the past, and that is why I do not agree with those analysts who believe the Cold War is about to return. The situation today is totally different, one that cannot be explained using terms from the international political lexicon of the Cold War.
Do we hear the drums of the apocalyptic war of Gog and Magog? I do not know, not being a prophet or the son of one. However, the situation is worrisome, because here in Israel we live in a fragile, crisis-filled region which once solved its own problems but is now becoming the playing field for the conflict between one international power with aspirations for global hegemony and another that is searching for a way out with minimum damage to itself and the region. It is practically impossible to bridge the gap between these two radically different thought patterns. And the lack of a bridge may cause the region to degenerate into a situation where everyone will lose.
Translated by Rochel Sylvetsky
Dr. Mordechai Kedar is a senior lecturer in the Department of Arabic at Bar-Ilan University. He served in IDF Military Intelligence for 25 years, specializing in Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and the Syrian domestic arena. Thoroughly familiar with Arab media in real time, he is frequently interviewed on the various news programs in Israel.
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