Monday, March 18, 2013

On the Brink: Syria chaos looms large over Obama's Israel trip

Baz Ratner / Reuters
A United Nations peacekeeper stands on an observation tower at the Kuneitra border crossing between Israel and Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on March 8.

In the second part of our "On the Brink" series previewing President Barack Obama’s trip to the Middle East, NBC News correspondent Martin Fletcher -- who has reported from the region for three decades -- examines the threat of renewed conflict on the Syria-Israel border.

News analysis

United Nations peacekeepers have monitored a buffer zone between Israel and Syria for nearly four decades, following Israeli forces’ capture of the Golan Heights in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

But Israeli officials now fear the 1,000-strong force could disintegrate after mounting threats against them and the kidnapping of 21 Filipino observers by a Syrian Islamist militia, though they were later released. Croatia has already pulled out its 100 soldiers.

Israel’s concern, shared by the United States, is that al Qaeda elements will establish themselves in the buffer zone and threaten Israel with chemical weapons and long-range rockets captured from the Syrian army.

The world has been focusing on the idea that Israel will attack Iran, but military action is perhaps more likely in the Golan – a strategically important area roughly the size of Queens in New York, whose heights dominate northern Israel and the Sea of Galilee.

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President Obama makes his first trip to Israel where he will meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

When President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet Wednesday, the idea of military cooperation between Washington and Jerusalem in that eventuality -- especially in intelligence and air support -- will doubtless be discussed.

Other issues include future control of the Syrian government’s large supplies of non-conventional weapons and its modern military, and how to further weaken Syria’s puppet in Lebanon: Hezbollah.

Regional conflict?
It is in everyone’s interest to maintain the quiet that has reigned along the Syria-Israel border almost undisturbed since a 1974 armistice agreement, which ended the months-long attritional conflict that followed the Yom Kippur War.

But as the Syrian army and the Syrian Free Army, backed by numerous militias, batter each other, the struggle threatens to spill over into Syria’s neighbors, further destabilizing an already roiling region.

A million refugees have fled Syria and there are conservative estimates that another million people have been forced to flee their homes and seek shelter inside the country.

And the rate is shooting up. The U.N. says 400,000 have fled Syria since Jan. 1. Projections say that by 2014 there could be 3 million refugees outside the country -- 15 percent of the population.

Also in this series: Israel to grill Obama over possible military strike on Iran

Most at risk are Jordan and Turkey, two stable countries that have been beacons of calm in the turbulent Middle East.

Jordan has taken in close to half a million Syrians and Turkey, with more than 200,000, refuses to take any more.

The challenge facing the United States and Israel, as well as the rest of the concerned world, is how to end a conflict when neither combatant shows the slightest inclination to stop fighting.

Slideshow: Syria uprising

A look back at the conflict that has overtaken the country.
Launch slideshow

The Free Syrian Army says there is only one way: Give it the weapons it needs to finish off President Bashar Assad's regime. Israel is strongly against a new French and British move to arm the rebels with serious offensive weapons. Israel’s fear is that they will fall into the hands of Islamist groups that will then turn them against Israel.

Backed by Russia, Iran and an increasingly unenthusiastic China, Assad warns he will fight till the end.

The end result could well be the breakup of Syria into Sunni, Shiite, Druze, Alawite and Christian fiefdoms, or combinations thereof, turning the country into a Levantine Somalia.

The fallout from such chaos on the doorstep of Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq doesn’t bear thinking about.

So how to prevent this nightmare scenario? It would seem that one way or another, a clear winner would be the preferred solution, or a compromise between the warring parties.

This is a pressing issue, but there is another that is even closer to home for Israel: the decades-long conflict with the Palestinians.

On Tuesday, Martin Fletcher examines the prospects for a lasting peace deal and Palestinian state in the final installment of his series of articles ahead of Obama's visit to the Mideast.

Martin Fletcher is the author of “Walking Israel.”

Slideshow: Behind Syrian rebel lines

Machine guns operated by motorcycle brakes? Get a glimpse at the rebels fighting against Assad's forces in Syria's mountainous Jabal al-Zawiya area.


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