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Why Syria?

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The Department of History, United States Military Academy.

In 333 B.C., Alexander the Great laid siege to the Mediterranean port of Tyre. It was early in the young Macedonian king’s campaign in Asia, and besieging an island fortress for several months wasn’t in the playbook. But Tyre simply couldn’t be ignored. It was the last Persian port in the Mediterranean—and leaving a Persian navy in the Mediterranean was not an option (as the Peloponnesian War demonstrated).

Which is why he sacrificed time, troops, and manpower building a kilometer-long stone causeway to the walls of the city, complete with siege towers and naval support. After more setbacks than he could have anticipated, Alexander breached the walls and concluded the siege, ending Tyre’s service as a Persian port and securing the Mediterranean from Persian naval power.

A few hundred miles up the coast and a couple thousand years later, the Syrian port city of Latakia faces a similar predicament—sans siege towers and brilliant generals. Latakia is the new Persian Empire’s (Iran’s) attempt at a naval base on the Mediterranean, and while it may not be as well-established, defensible, or suitable for a large naval presence (yet), it’s a port. Much to Israel’s chagrin, as you can see. Take away Iran’s Syrian port at Latakia and the new Persian Empire will have a hard time projecting power in the Mediterranean. Cue an unstable Syria.

But first, there’s more:

The Russians are willing to contribute towards the Iranian port’s defenses and looking forward to cooperation between the Russian, Iranian and Syrian fleets in the eastern Mediterranean opposite the US Sixth Fleet’s regular beat.

Tyre, Lebanon (A); Latakia, Syria (B); Tartus, Syria (C)

If anyone knows the value of a Mediterranean port, it’s Russia. Historically denied access to warm-water ports, Russia has never been granted legroom in the world’s oceans. Even now, Russia’s shipping industry relies on Turkish cooperation in the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. But what Russia does have is a Mediterranean naval port. It’s in Tartus, Syria—just south of Latakia. Considerably better developed and defended (complete with Russian surface-to-air missile system), Russia’s port in Tartus will not be given up easily—at least that’s what Admiral Kuznetsov says.

So, what this all adds up to is two NATO antagonists with ports in one unstable country. If the Syrian regime falls, it’s a probable BOGO for NATO and anyone who wants unilateral security (in the form of U.S. Nimitz-class supercarriers) in and around the Med. If Bashar stays, the George H.W. Bush might have to do more than “experience the rich history and culture of France”  the next time it’s in the 6th Fleet AOR.

But it isn’t just naval geopolitics driving foreign pressure against the Syrian regime, either. This is, after all, the Middle East, and no story would be complete without a sprinkling of sectarianism. Or, in this case, several helpings.

From the U.S. Department of State’s Jeffrey D. Feltman (here):

Iran continues to be complicit in the violence in Syria, providing material support to the regime’s brutal campaign against the Syrian people. Cynically capitalizing on the Syrian government’s growing alienation from its Arab neighbors, Iran is seeking to increase its influence in Syria and help Assad remain in power as a vital conduit to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The problem is that, with the recent U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Iran will be filling in the political and military void. And if Iran retains al-Assad’s Syria as a close ally—well—look at the map.

This map.

The only thing stopping the new Persian Empire from expanding its Shia-powered influence—continuously—from Iran to the Mediterranean (and to Israel’s doorstep), is a new, unfriendly Sunni government in Syria. All of the relevant actors know this. And if you ask Bashar al-Assad, they’re all doing their best to bring about that Sunni government as quickly as possible.

Which leads us to the next question: If sanctions, attempts to undermine the Syrian army, and foreign assistance (training and weapons) for the Free Syrian Army don’t weaken the Iran-friendly regime (or empower the resistance) enough, who will be the first to step in? Turkey certainly stands out for being the loudest, but if it is as the Turks say, havlayan köpek ısırmaz (a barking dog doesn’t bite).

So we wait.

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Written by M. James

December 14, 2011 at 6:11 pm

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