As Putin recognizes Crimea, his other Client, Syria, Goes on the Offensive

(By Juan Cole)

Russian President Vladimir Putin is on a geopolitical roll these days, despite US and EU sanctions against some of his closest associates. On Monday he recognized Crimea in the wake of its referendum on secession from the Ukraine, despite Western warnings not to do so, and despite severe questions about the accuracy of the statistics put out by Crimea’s rump authorities concerning the alleged turnout and supposed overwhelming vote in favor of seceding.

Less noticed was the advance on Sunday of Hizbullah fighters and Syrian troops into Yabroud, the last territory that had been held by rebel forces on the Lebanon border. The rebels in that part of Syria have now been cut off from supply lines in Lebanon, a major victory for the regime. From Yabroud, fighters had been able to infiltrate Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, but that tactic has now been forestalled. Increasingly also in control of Homs, the Syrian army appears to be gradually extending its control north toward Hama and then Aleppo. There is no early prospect of victory by the regime, which is stretched thin, but it has inflicted a series of heavy blows on rebel forces in the past 8 months. Some of the comeback of the Bashar al-Assad regime, which seemed doomed only a year ago, derives from money and weapons supplied by Putin.

In the current Sunni-Shiite struggles in the east of the Arab world, Putin has in essence made Russia a patron of the Shiites just as it is a patron of the Eastern Orthodox Christians.

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The fall of Yabroud led many of the rebels based there to flee to the Sunni town of Arsal over the border in Lebanon, which is surrounded by Shiites in the Bikaa valley. The last of the rebels standing in Yabroud had been the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which has been kicked out of al-Qaeda for being too violent toward other extremist Sunnis. In fact, rivalry between the two and consequent lack of coordination is being blamed by some of the fighters on their loss to Hizbullah at Yabroud.

Having any significant number of these elements take refuge in Lebanon itself is dangerous for that country, since they deploy car bombs and other devastating violence against their enemies. In fact, the Nusra Front blew up a carbomb on the Lebanese side of the border in the Bikaa just yesterday. Likewise, it is possible that rebel forces now in Arsal were responsible for firing rockets at other Lebanese towns.

Lebanon is finding it increasingly difficult to avoid being swept up in the Syria war. At the same time, some sections of its political class are growing closer to Russia via their Iran connection. Iran on the 12th of March held a triumphant congress of the “Friends of Syria,” attended by parliamentary delegations from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Russia, Algeria, Venezuela and Cuba. The Lebanese delegation was from the March 8 coalition of Hizbullah and its Christian allies. Sunni Lebanese of the “March 14 coalition” criticized these parliamentarians for violating the general pledge of “self-restraint,” taken by Lebanese political forces in a bid to keep the tensions over Syria from plunging their country once again into civil war.


Related video:

Reuters: “Syrian forces retake Yabroud”

7 Responses

  1. I wonder why the Greeks were not at the “Friends of Syria” congress , since they are mostly Eastern Orthodox, and Russia’s aim in Syria is partly to help Assad protect. Christians.
    Ukraine has more Eastern Orthodox than any country besides Russia, and they are divided about Russia. The Ukraine crisis may cause a split in the Russian Church.
    There are Eastern Orthodox all over the world, and I. don’t think most of them favor Putin.

  2. Patrick Cockburn recounts the tragedy of a massive US Saudi mistake, that people are trying to undo. Returning Government of Syria to control of its territory is the least bad option after all. Wikileaks points the finger squarely at the instigators of the tragedy.

    One hopes that like after the fiasco of Gallipoli, that an enlightened rule will emerge from the chaos and destruction to manage reconstruction and development.

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  3. I can’t quit understand why a prominent academic like yourself is pushing the House of Saud agenda.

    To quote, the Syrian government exists of:

    President – Allawite
    First lady – Sunni
    Prime minister – Sunni
    Defense minister – Sunni
    Foreign minister – Sunni

    And so… The government of Syria has lot’s of Sunni members itself, and in the inner circle of the President there are many Sunnis, too, including his wife …

  4. :When the insurrection against the regime began it was possible to envision an overthrow of the Assad regime and an end to the slaughter. Am I wrong in thinking that the option is no longer there? :Am I wrong in thinking that the only way to end the apparently endless slaughter is for the Asssad regime to re-establish control over the country? Am I missing something that the cheerleaders for the insurrection understand? I have an open mind on this. What is the path to (relative) peace?

    • I don’t know but it seemed to me that the Syrian protests began as non-violently as the other Arab Spring protests. They Assad came down heavy. Right away, the US and other countries called for Assad to step down and/or funded favorite fations of rebels. My question is what would have called for Assad’s departure. Even after the killing started, the rebels seemed open to discussion to end the fighting. At that point, the US worked with Russia in the Security Council. I don’t think the demonstrators foresaw getting into a military situation and/or were prepared to and/or thought they could beat the regime in such a case. Russia insisted that no SC resolution call for Assad’s departure. The US refused. IF the goal was to stop the killing, why didn’t the US call Russia’s bluff at the SC and ‘force’ it to rein in Assad? Shortly after, foreign $$, statements and false offers of support came in and acted as gasoline igniting embers. It is disgusting. Why interventionism is so cynical and dangerous. It distorts the immediate balance of power and ability to know when to fold your cards, retreat and come back later.

      • Why interventionism is so cynical and dangerous. It distorts the immediate balance of power and ability to know when to fold your cards, retreat and come back later
        Calling Pootin’s ‘bluff’ would be intervention.

  5. Of course, Vlad doesn’t care about Shiite vs Sunni, though they have historically supported Shiites as the disadvantaged rebels easier to supply with insurgent training and use as terrorist agents. And the Sunnis have been pretty anti-Communist. Ok- Vlad is patron saint of Shiites, but you could say US was too- in Iraq, except for…. ah…. the 400,000 killed

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