June 24, 2011- In the wake of 26-year old Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia, a great many changes have swept the Arab world, most notably President Mubarak’s removal from office in Cairo and the flaring up of armed resistance against Colonel Gadhafi’s regime in Tripoli. In view of Libya’s armed insurrection, reports that Gadhafi’s forces were bombing civilian targets in Libya spread like wildfire on the world’s media by early March.
But, Russia’s military chiefs at the time were monitoring Libya from space – and their pictures told a different story. According to Al Jazeera and the BBC, on Feb. 22, the Libyan government inflicted airstrikes on Benghazi and on the capital Tripoli. However, the Russian military came out saying nothing of the sort was transpiring on the ground. In fact, the Russian military stated attacks on civilians reported by the global media never took place. Global attention particularly focused on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, which seemed to face imminent annihilation at the hands of Gadhafi’s troops.
United States President Obama duly went to the United Nations and subsequently the Security Council passed resolution 1973, authorizing its member states to implement a “no-fly zone . . . [and] to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” As a result of this “no-fly zone,” actually denoting a sustained air campaign and the recent deployment of armed helicopters, the civil war in Libya has now in fact become a U.N.-assisted rebellion against Gadhafi, an enemy of the West since President Reagan. Russia has vehemently opposed allied involvement.
And now that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad’s regime has implemented the violent repression of street protests, leading to an influx of Syrian refugees into the Turkish province of Hatay, again voices calling for an intervention are heard. British Foreign Secretary William Hague, for instance, unequivocally stated that “Assad is losing legitimacy and should reform or step aside.” Global public opinion has also been made keenly aware of the Syrian situation due to the Hollywood celebrity Angelina Jolie’s visit last Friday to Turkey’s border with Syria. But again, Russia is opposed to any kind of intervention in Syria.
The reasoning behind Russia’s firm stance can arguably be found in the fact that the Syrian port of Tartus, used by the Soviet Union since the late 60s, is now again being employed by the Russian navy. In fact, the bulk of the work of refurbishing a Russian navy base in Tartus was supposed to be finished this year. Last year, the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that “Russia did not exclude the possibility of building naval logistic facilities in Socotra Island, Yemen, as well as in Tripoli, Libya,” in addition to the facilities in Tartus, Syria. Russia has had designs on accessing the Mediterranean since the reign of Peter the Great in the 18th century. Russian bases in Syria, Libya, and Yemen would lend a logistical dimension to Moscow’s designs to oppose a tangible American presence in the Arab world. A NATO-victory over Gadhafi would obliterate Moscow’s planned naval designs in North Africa. Western intervention in Syria would equally jeopardize Russia’s investment there. At the same time, the CIA is now also building a secret air base in Yemen to serve as a launching pad for armed drone strikes.
Is the Arab Awakening turning into the beginning of a New Cold War between the U.S. and Russia? The conservative American writer Conor Friedersdorf reminds people of the high stakes: “If you’ve lost count, that’s Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya and Yemen where the Obama Administration will be warring.” Will these conflicts turn into proxy-wars fought between America and Russia, possibly aided by China?
*Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in Istanbul. His publications include the book ‘Ottomans Looking West?’