What do the Syrian Civil War, Russia’s military presence in the Middle East, and Bible prophecy have in common?
To understand the current conflict in Syria – and its wider global implications – we need to rewind to a foggy morning, and a high-speed car crash.
In the early morning hours of 21 January 1994, a Mercedes was being driven at high speed towards Damascus International Airport. It was foggy. The driver of the vehicle was Bassel al-Assad, eldest son and heir-apparent of the Syrian President, Hafez. He wasn’t wearing a seat-belt. In his haste to get to the airport to catch a flight to Germany, he collided with a motorway roundabout, and died instantly. Until his death, Bassel was being groomed as the future president. That foggy morning car crash changed everything.
In London, a politically unambitious eye-doctor received a call to tell him his elder brother had died. He was to return to Syria immediately and join the army. Over the next six years, President Hafez al-Assad went through the necessary motions to prepare his second son, Bashar, for presidency. Bashar assumed the role in an uncontested ballot following his father’s death in office in 2000. The country had high hopes for their young leader, given their long history of aged dictators; the Syrian parliament had voted to lower the minimum age for presidential candidates from 40 to 34 so that he was eligible to enter office. Said to be influenced by his western education, many hoped he could transition from his father’s iron-fist rule into a true democracy. In his early days he stated that democracy was “a tool to a better life”, and he promised to reform corruption within the government and move Syria technologically into the 21st century. Despite these hopes, the promised economic reforms never arrived, and on the international stage the youthful president faced many complex challenges with his immediate neighbours. There was the volatile history with Israel (concerning the disputed Golan Heights), Syria’s military involvement in Lebanon, and a strained relationship with Turkey (over the construction of 22 dams on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers which would severely reduce Syrian water resources). Not only did the economic and political reforms fail to materialise, but despite promising early signs (many thousands of political prisoners were released) the government repression of dissent grew. In the face of mounting troubles, including the ‘Damascus Spring’ that arose immediately after his initial appointment, and isolation from surrounding nations, Bashar al-Assad turned to an old and loyal partner: Russia.
Russian-Syrian relations date back to July 1944 when diplomatic ties were first forged. They were strengthened in February 1946 when Soviet support for Syrian independence was inked. In 1971, the Soviet Union opened a military naval base in Syria at Tartus, thanks to Bashar’s father Hafez. It remains open to this day and is Russia’s only Mediterranean port, sparing its warships the long journey back through Turkish-controlled straits to their usual Black Sea bases. In the mid-1950’s, Syria received almost $300m from the Soviet Union in military and economic support. In October 1980 both nations signed a ‘Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation’, which remains in force to the present day. From 1971 to 2000 during Hafez’s rule, thousands of Syrian military officers and professionals studied in Russia. In 2005, Russia wrote off around 70% of Syria’s debt. In 2009 the Moscow Times estimated that Russian investments in Syria totaled almost $20 billion, and by 2010 Russian exports to Syria were just over $1 billion. In short, Russian involvement and interest in Syria is nothing new. This is a long and historic relationship.
Now this is where things get interesting. And troubling.
In 2010, together with Iran and Iraq, Syria revealed plans to build a $10 billion, 3,450-mile pipeline to transport oil and gas directly to Europe, scheduled to open in 2016. It was given its blessing by Russia, the key supplier of gas to Europe. The source? The world’s largest natural gas field, located in the Persian Gulf. However, this gas field straddles Iranian and Qatari territorial waters; it is divided into ‘North’ and ‘South’ divisions, and each country has their own rights to develop and produce from their respective fields. Naturally, Qatar and her allies (particularly Saudi Arabia and the US) had their own plans to get their oil and gas into Europe, plans dating back as early as 2000. The problem? Both planned pipeline routes depend on Syria.
It gets deeper.
A year prior, in 2009, Assad had refused to sign an agreement with Qatar to run their pipeline through Syria. The reasons given by analysts? “To protect the interests of [his] Russian ally, which is Europe’s top supplier of natural gas”. Assad was loyal to Russia, as his father had been, not a US or Saudi-backed Qatar. The following year, Assad instead began plans to build the alternative pipeline mentioned above. It was described as “a slap in the face” to Qatar and the US/Saudi alliance. The troubles soon began. The Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan attempted to bribe Russia to swap sides, and went so far as to threaten Russia that the next regime in Syria would be in Saudi hands. It was now or never, at least in bin Sultan’s view, to join the winning side (he must have hugely underestimated a certain Vladimir Putin). Nevertheless, now Assad had revealed his hand, the movement to overthrow him began in earnest. There were billions of dollars of energy revenue at risk. But there was more to this than just oil money: economic control of Europe was also at stake.
Russia was and is the majority supplier of gas to Europe, supplying 30% of all their gas (which in turn makes up around 70% of Russia’s gas exports). This dependency on Russia is a big problem for Europe, one that was forcibly illustrated in 2009 when Putin allegedly ‘turned off the tap’ for 13 days over a dispute with Ukraine. Around 40% of Russian gas is transported through Ukraine, meaning that the Russian-Ukrainian dispute had major impacts for European nations as well. When Russia punished Ukraine, Europe suffered. Bulgaria was one case in point, as they had minimal storage and little means of getting gas from any other source. They shivered for 13 days, and officials even considered starting up an unused nuclear power plant to compensate. Europe simply cannot be so reliant on a single producer with the power to turn off the tap – they need alternate sources. Russia, clearly, want the status quo to remain. Now you will understand why Mr Assad, as a blockade of non-Russian oil and gas into Europe, is a valuable ally. Russia cannot and will not let him fall.
With that brief – and overly simplified – background (which doesn’t even take into account the complex Shia–Sunni regional and religious divide), the Syrian uprisings of 2011 now take on a much deeper meaning.
According to critics of Bashar al-Assad, he had been running a police state, repressing civilians and ruling with an iron fist for over a decade, as did his father for the best part of three decades. Why then did the people only substantially rise up as late as 2011? Were they simply inspired by the ‘Arab Spring’ seen in countries elsewhere, or were there more sinister forces at play? Conspiracy theories aside, it is troubling enough to consider that Saudi Arabia at least had already made it known they intended to overthrow Assad. Even after the civil war began they were pushing this agenda, as Robert F. Kennedy Jnr (more on him in a moment) writes: “On September 4, 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry told a congressional hearing that the Sunni kingdoms had offered to foot the bill for a U.S. invasion of Syria to oust Bashar Assad. “In fact, some of them have said that if the United States is prepared to go do the whole thing, the way we’ve done it previously in other places [Iraq], they’ll carry the cost.” Another excellent piece by investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh demonstrated the CIA’s plans to overthrow Assad well before the popular uprisings actually began. When researching this essay, I read cables between the US and Saudi Arabia of their movements to remove Assad, beginning as early as 2006. These and many others can be found in ‘The WikiLeaks Files’, published by Verso in August 2015, and they make fascinating and, frankly, quite disturbing reading.
Put simply: Assad had to go. He was stubbornly standing in the way of too much US/Saudi/Qatari oil revenue. Worse, he was pals with Russia (and Iran), a growing superpower that US foreign policy dictates had to be weakened – as we’ll see in a moment. Of course, this is not the story that the western media typically present to us. We are generally told that Assad is a repressive dictator who murders his own people and must be removed for his human rights abuses. This is in all likelihood completely true. But it is simply not the whole story.
Writing in an eye-opening piece for Politico.eu, the author of the quote above, Robert F. Kennedy Jnr (son of Bobby, nephew of the famous JFK) explains the US Government’s long history of meddling in Syria. Syria is often called ‘the gateway to the Middle East’ and US interference there is nothing new; in fact, it dates right back to 1949. The article can be found in the ‘Further Reading’ section below, and is essential reading for anyone who still believes the US is the ‘World’s Peacekeeper’ or that Mr Obama is the ‘Leader of the Free World’. The US have their own selfish interests at heart, and always will. Anyone in doubt of this should read what is known as ‘The Wolfowitz Doctrine’. This document, first leaked in 1992, explains how the “first objective” of American foreign and military policy is “to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union. [It] requires that we endeavour to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.” In simpler terms, the US superpower’s stated aim is to avoid any other nation rising to such an extent of influence. Russia is one such threat.
But let’s get back to Syria.
In short, the US want Assad removed because, along with Iran, he is Russia’s key ally in the Middle East. They want him removed because he is obstructing a critical oil and gas pipeline into Europe, and thus protecting Russia’s economic position, through their state vehicle Gazprom. They and their allies (particularly the Saudis) have gone to extraordinary lengths to achieve this, including flooding the global market with oil in an attempt to drop the price and derail Russia’s energy-dependent economy. They are effectively trying to blackmail Russia. What many non-analysts (i.e. you and me) seem to have missed is the fact that oil prices dropping is exactly the opposite to what we’d normally expect. In fact, it is almost absurd. Middle East conflicts create uncertainty and drive oil prices up. Why is that not the case this time? (Just put on a Russian accent and give the Saudis a call; they will happily explain.)
If all of this seems like crackpot conspiracy theory to you, you need to read Mr Kennedy who is, after all, part of the US political fraternity (whether they like it or not). He writes: “In 2009, according to WikiLeaks, soon after Bashar Assad rejected the Qatar pipeline, the CIA began funding opposition groups in Syria. It is important to note that this was well before the Arab Spring-engendered uprising against Assad.” But it wasn’t just the CIA. The British Government are in on this too. (If you want further proof, simply Google the name ‘Bherlin Gildo’. You will find a Guardian report of a Swedish national that the British Government were accusing of terrorist activities in Syria – until the moment they realised he had been fighting on the same side as the rebels they were financially supporting. The prosecution couldn’t drop the case quickly enough. It would be laughable, if it wasn’t so morally repulsive.)
As mentioned earlier, in today’s western media the primary reason given for Mr Assad’s removal is his abuse of human rights (which are, of course, horrifying). But this simply cannot be the US’s only motivation to intervene. In my personal view, the most glaring rebuttal of this can be found in a simple question the size of a continent. If the US are in fact the world’s peacekeeper, why have they never directly and militarily intervened in the same measures to halt widespread human rights catastrophes in Africa? That question remains unanswered to this day.
So: what is actually happening in Syria?
The current conflict cannot be easily summarised, but if it could, it would come down to two opposing forces: those who want Assad to remain (i.e. Russia and Iran) and those who need him removed (i.e. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the US). To many people this view may seem absurd. After all, isn’t the whole conflict centred around the so-called Islamic State (IS)? To believe this is to miss two important points: firstly, the conflict pre-dates the rise of IS as it is known today (although there is evidence to surmise they are in fact a US creation – see ‘Further Reading’ below for more on this), and secondly, little appears to actually be happening to IS, despite all this media and military attention.
Kennedy Jnr explains more: “Saudi intelligence documents, published by WikiLeaks, show that by 2012, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were arming, training and funding radical jihadist Sunni fighters from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere to overthrow the Assad’s Shiite-allied regime. Qatar, which had the most to gain, invested $3 billion in building the insurgency and invited the Pentagon to train insurgents at U.S. bases in Qatar. According to an April 2014 article by Seymour Hersh, the CIA weapons ratlines were financed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.”
So are the US and her allies fighting IS, their lapdog-turned-Pitbull, or is this really about getting rid of Assad?
A lot can be deduced by a closer look at Russia’s involvement in Syria.
To all outward appearances, Russia has intervened in Syria to combat the rising global threat of IS and their associated terrorist acts (Putin is, by the way, under no illusions as to who created IS – though these comments are not found in mainstream media and largely appear only on ‘conspiracy websites’; former US presidential candidate Rick Santorum holds views that agree with Putin – again, see ‘Further Reading’ below). Russia launched its first attacks on IS in September 2015, and by February was conducting 60 airstrikes daily. The American-led coalition only averaged around seven airstrikes per day, which itself should merit a lot of hard questions. By the time Putin withdrew the large part of his forces in March 2016, Russia had undertaken over 9,000 airstrikes, which in turn helped the Syrian army capture 10,000 square kilometres of territory. IS was clearly not defeated, yet Putin’s forces withdrew. We must ask the age-old investigative question: who benefits? The answer is clear: Bashar al-Assad and his regime forces.
The US led the cries that Russia had not, in fact, been targeting IS, but had largely been hitting Syrian rebels (those opposed to Assad). A Reuters-led analysis concluded that 80% of Russian airstrikes had not targeted IS. Putin said otherwise, but few believed him. As has been previously mentioned, the US and her allies had good reason to be concerned about this: after all, they were paying the bills for the very rebels Russia was bombing! I personally believe that if Putin’s main aim was to destroy IS, he could and probably would achieve this. But it wasn’t his intention. Any reader of a reputable Putin biography will know he has a track record of suppressing Islamic extremism; it was his brutally decisive actions in Chechnya and Dagestan that preceded his rise to the Russian presidency – although it began a lengthy and costly battle in those regions. So for all the fanfare of ‘the might of Russia crushing terrorists’, IS remain a force in the region. Yet so does Assad: his position is now stronger than before. Putin watches from afar, satisfied.
By now (if you’ve made it this far – well done) you have probably deduced my overt cynicism. I don’t believe for a single moment that the US is a global force for good. I certainly don’t believe that Russia is either, for that matter. They are all aggressively pursuing their own agendas, to the detriment of the many millions of innocent civilians caught in the middle. This has ever been the case, since the great world empires of the past: Babylon, Assyria, Medo-Persia, Rome… the list goes on. There is no doubt that the Syrian Civil War has triggered massive displacement and the ensuing migrant crisis in Europe. This alone is an enormous human tragedy that no one – no one – has the resources or willpower to solve. By now, however, you might be starting to understand that the blame cannot be squarely laid on just Bashar al-Assad, Iran or Russia. There are much bigger forces at play here, like human greed, and US foreign policy. As one commentator wrote of Iran in 2014: “The last time Iran invaded another nation was in 1738. Since independence in 1776, the U.S. has been engaged in over 53 military invasions and expeditions. Despite what the western media’s war cries would have you believe, Iran is clearly not the threat to regional security, Washington is.”
Finally, onto the big question: why do I think it’s important you understand all this?
The simple answer: Bible prophecy. But let’s be clear. Nothing about the Syrian Civil War as I’ve described it above has been directly prophesied in the Bible (unless you consider Isaiah 17:1 which says “Damascus will become a heap of ruins”). But something intrinsically related has been: the rise of Russia as a military superpower, and her eventual invasion of the Middle East. This is largely taken from Bible prophecies found in Ezekiel chapter 38 and Daniel chapter 11, which were discussed in a previous note titled “Brexit, the Bible, and the only plausible solution”. Rather than make you read that, I will briefly quote the relevant points here:
- The Bible predicts the rise of a huge, militarily powerful nation “from the uttermost parts of the north” – a power which in Ezekiel’s time (c.600 BC) was labelled “Rosh”. It speaks of a time when this nation will move out of its northern lands and come down to invade Egypt and the land of Israel, looking for a spoil. This again is a topic in its own right, but for the sake of brevity: I – and most other Christadelphians – believe a Russian-European alliance fits this description; certainly in the last decade Russia has been growing in military strength and casting hungry eyes down towards Israel and even as far as Egypt (more on this in a moment).
- Ezekiel 38 goes on to say that “in the latter years” – just before the physical, actual return of Jesus Christ to the earth – this massive power will move south towards Israel and Egypt, “like a storm” with “a mighty army”. BUT: they will meet an obstacle. A group that the Bible labels as “Sheba, and Dedan, and the merchants of Tarshish, and the young lions thereof” appear to stand up to this mighty army. They aren’t successful – only Jesus Christ can be – but they attempt to stem the tide. But who are these mysterious parties, prophesied thousands and thousands of years ago? The territories of Sheba and Dedan we can look up – they equate to the geographical land of modern-day Saudi Arabia. But who is Tarshish? And what does this have to do with ‘Brexit’?
To answer that last question, you’ll have to read the ‘Brexit’ article: that isn’t the purpose of this essay. The point that must be made is this: Russia has long held an interest in the Middle East, for political, economic and military reasons, many of which have been touched on above. Her eventual invasion of Israel and Egypt is prophesied in quite astonishing detail in the aforementioned Bible chapters, as is Russia’s eventual alliance with Europe and the revival of the Roman Catholic Empire (but that’s a whole other story!)
For many casual observers, this latest Middle Eastern crisis involving Russia may be another surprising, bewildering event in a confusing and uncertain world. For the careful reader of the Bible, it is none of these things: it is expected. For now, at least, Putin appears to have packed up his military party and headed home (or so he wants you to think). But don’t expect it to last. This region is too important to him and his rising Russian superpower. Ultimately, he – or his eventual successor – will crack. The line will have been crossed too many times, and he will come down “like a storm” with “a mighty army” and “many ships”, just as Ezekiel 38 and Daniel 11 have foretold. But why Israel and Egypt particularly? Ezekiel gives a simple explanation: “to take a spoil”. One can’t be dogmatic about exactly what this means, but given the weight of the evidence above, would it be all that unusual if gas was involved? It is, after all, the economic lifeblood of Putin’s Russia. That much is clear.
I want to leave you with two closing thoughts.
Firstly: in January 2009, the Mediterranean’s largest natural gas field was discovered off the coast of Haifa, in Israeli waters. It was said to contain 200 billion cubic metres of gas. This was called the ‘Tamar’ gas field. It remained the Mediterranean’s largest natural gas field until December 2010, when a second field was discovered, again off the coast of Haifa in Israeli controlled waters. It was aptly named ‘Leviathan’. Experts said that the discovery of these two fields were seen as an opportunity for Israel to become “a major energy player in the Middle East”. ‘Leviathan’ is estimated to contain 450 billion cubic metres of gas, or double that of the ‘Tamar’ field. However, in August 2015 both those finds were dwarfed when an Italian company discovered the new largest-ever natural gas field in Egyptian-controlled Mediterranean waters. This was called the ‘Zohr’ field, and is said to contain 850 billion cubic metres of gas – over four times the size of the ‘Tamar’ field, and just under double the size of the ‘Leviathan’. Now remember: Russia controls gas supply into Europe. In fact, Russia almost controls gas, period. Of the top ten largest natural gas fields, Russia controls five. Their economy depends on gas exports. And yet now we have two new potential gas superpowers in the region, with their own massive reserves. Right beside Europe, a key customer for Russia – one they have already shown they will go to war to defend. And these two new gas ‘powers’ just happen to be called Israel and Egypt. Coincidence? I’ll leave that with you, but I wonder what the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel would think.
Secondly: what does all this mean for you, the reader?
It means you should keep watching the news. But not just the ‘mainstream’ news, unless you’re happy being spoon fed what is largely western propaganda. You should pay close attention to Russia. More importantly, don’t let yourself become bored by the ‘current events’ that are happening in Syria, Turkey, Israel, Russia and other parts of Europe. They are all signs of a much bigger play, one that none of these world superpowers would have predicted. Obama, Putin, Erdoğan, Assad: all of them (or their successors) will be surprised, in a way they never anticipated and cannot possibly plan for.
Jesus Christ is coming to reign on the earth, and the Bible has been telling us about that – and the movements of these nations – for longer than most care to listen.
The question is, will we listen now?
“The days are quickly flying, and Christ will come again!”
References / Further Reading:
Sources are listed here.
Biblical references to the return of the Lord Jesus Christ to the earth to establish God’s kingdom:
- Ezekiel 38:1-23
- Daniel 11:40-15; 12:1-3
- Matthew 24:36-39
- John 5:25-29 and 14:1-3
- Acts 1:9-11
- 1 Corinthians 15:52-57
- 1 Thessalonians 4:16 and 5:2
- Revelation 1:7