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Next stop: Syria or Iran?
April 23, 2003
The action in Iraq is over bar the shouting. Despite a few hiccups at the start, the coalition forces have been able to overcome all the resistance in about three weeks. Most of the aims of the war have been achieved. Saddam Hussein has been ousted and the Iraqi people 'liberated.' The coalition forces have taken over the oil fields and Bechtel and Haliburton have been awarded their multi-billion dollar contracts. The United States has effectively taken charge of Iraq and a military governor has been appointed.
The usual clichés about how the Iraqis will themselves govern Iraq and how the United Nations will play a role in the reconstruction of the country, have been said. Even countries like France, Germany and Russia are making conciliatory statements and are hoping for some crumbs from the cake.
There are, no doubt, a few matters to be sorted out. The liberated population is not too happy playing their given roles. They have welcomed the coalition forces with a little less enthusiasm than was expected. There was no dancing in the streets and it is reported that the American forces had to stage manage the toppling of the Saddam statue. There is also the little but not-forgotten matter of weapons of mass destruction. None have been found so far. Allowing the population to indulge in an orgy of looting has also backfired.
Law and order will return to the streets in due course and some sort of a government will soon begin to function. Attention must now turn to the next move by the United States and possibly its allies. After all, action against Iraq was only the first move in the new programme of 'active idealism' chalked out by the hawks in the Bush government. Many tyrants have still to be brought to book. Many democracies have yet to be installed and many people require to be 'liberated.' Here are the likely candidates for the future.
Reasons for change: Syria has many things going against it. It is the staging post for a number of militant and terrorist organisations, such as Hizbollah and Hamas, which operate against Israel. It is at present Israel's enemy number one and the present regime, which is controlled by a sister branch of the Ba'ath party, is not too friendly with the US. The Syrian Army also controls Lebanon and is sitting on top of the Golan Heights overlooking Israel. Although Syria did not figure in the Axis of Evil trio named by George Bush it is quite likely to make the grade in the future. The US will love to replace the present regime, headed by long time ruler Hafiz Assad's son, by a more friendly and malleable regime. In fact the initial moves to that effect have already started even before peace and stability has been restored in Iraq.
Reasons against change: Syria, fortunately for it, lacks the one thing the Americans would love to lay their hands on, Oil. Furthermore, as far as is known, Syria also does not have either a stockpile or a programme for producing weapons of mass destruction. Syria's involvement in Lebanon has in fact helped to bring a semblance of normality and stability to that country which is slowly regaining its position as the financial centre of the Middle East. Attacking Syria at this stage will unite the entire Arab world against the US. A regime change will not be worth it if it means total loss of goodwill in the area. Although the war of words will continue, actual military action a la Iraq is not likely.
Reasons for change: Iran is the second country in the axis of evil set up. The United States is still smarting from the humiliation it received from the present regime when the Shah was overthrown and the embarrassing siege to the US embassy in 1981. Iran is also the fountainhead of Islamic fundamentalism. It all started here and spread from here to many Islamic nations from Algeria to Pakistan.
The US firmly believes that like Iraq the population of Iran is ripe to be liberated from the regime of the mullahs. Furthermore, after the fall of Iraq, Iran is the final bastion in the Gulf where the oil is not under US control, as it once was.
The US will no doubt love to get control of Iranian oil which will see the entire Gulf oil under American control. Although it is still a long way from producing them, Iran has ambitions to possess nuclear weapons and may already be halfway there. Iran is also believed to be supporting some militant organisation like Hamas operating against Israel.
Iran is the strongest military power in the region posing a threat to some of the countries in the Gulf friendly to the US. Strategically, by occupying the Tumb islands, Iran controls the approaches to the Gulf, a fact not to the liking of other states in the Gulf.
Reasons against change: Militarily, Iran will not be a walkover as was shown during the 10 year Iran-Iraq war. Iran also has a common border with some of the countries of the erstwhile Soviet Union which are hardly likely to welcome a US military presence in their neighbourhood. Unlike some countries like Iraq, Libya or even Syria, Iran has so far desisted from actively carrying out any terrorist activities against the US. In fact the present Iranian regime has shown a willingness to cooperate with the US despite being called an 'evil regime.' Again, except for a verbal war, it is unlikely that the US will seek a military adventure against Iran, at least for the present.
Reasons for change: North Korea is the third country in the axis of evil trio. In the recent past it has accelerated its nuclear programme and is headed towards the development of weapons of mass destruction. For the US it is and has always been a rogue and dangerous State and a threat to its ally, South Korea. North Korea has a totalitarian and despotic ruler and is freely exporting some of its lethal missile know-how and technology to countries like Pakistan.
Reasons against change: Communist regimes are not all that easy to topple by external intervention. After all, the US has been trying to oust Cuba's Fidel Castro for over forty years. Castro has not only survived but grown stronger. Militarily, the US has no base from which to launch an attack. South Korea which was overrun in 1950 was the staging point in the Korean War. Today, ironically, South Korea is against any military action. China is no longer a strong friend of the North, but it will still oppose any military adventure against its ally, North Korea. The US realising that North Korea will be a strong nut to crack is inclined more towards a negotiated settlement than a regime change.
Reasons for change: As Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha rightly said all the reasons for action against Iraq apply in even greater measure to Pakistan. Pakistan, like India, has weapons of mass destruction as well as credible delivery systems but in both cases the West is now resigned to this. It is ruled by a military dictatorship supported by the army. It supports or at best tolerates terrorism across the borders and is also believed to have given safe haven to Taliban refugees and even Osama bin Laden.
Reasons against change: Militarily it will be practically impossible to dislodge the present regime. Pakistan came out on the side of the US in the fight against terrorism and in the past few months has helped in the arrest of many Al Qaeda leaders and handed them over to the US. The main factor in favour of the present regime is the TINA factor. There is no better alternative. Despite fervent Indian wishes therefore, the US is unlikely to disturb the present modus vivendi, especially as India is unlikely to put any real pressure.
To sum up, Syria or Iran appear to be the most likely candidates for the next exercise in regime change. Even here, the US and her allies are likely to resort to political and economic pressure rather than any military action. The latter is more likely to end in the military forces getting bogged down in the area and resulting in the ultimate regime change at home in November 2004.
Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)