|Anger in the street, caution abroad: Syrians explode into protest (top) shocked by the images of a boy tortured to death by the government|
The release of a gruesome internet video of the tortured 13-year old Syrian boy, Hamza Ali al Khatib, has reinvigorated opposition to the Bashar al Assad regime. Thousands defy the regime to protest, and some demand referring Assad to the International Criminal Court. Despite the anger, the killing of more than 1,100 protesters and international condemnation, Syria's regime may escape the fate that befell those in Tunisia and Egypt. Syria’s strategic location in a neuralgic part of the Middle East makes all parties apprehensive of the prospect of chaos that would follow Assad’s downfall. Leaders who condemn Syria publicly seem to pray privately for the survival of the Assad regime for the sake of regional stability.
What favors the regime is Syria’s unique ethnic-religious composition. Unlike Egypt with its 93 percent Sunni Muslim citizenry, Syria’s 91 percent Muslim population is divided:Sunnis, 68 percent; Alawis, 13 percent; Druzes, 6 percent; and Ismailis, 2 percent. Non-Sunni Muslims as well as Christians, 9 percent, prefer secular rule of the Arab Socialist Baath Party, chiefly because it assures stability and security.
So far, among the Sunnis, the influential merchant class in two largest Syrian cities – Aleppo and Damascus – have avoided the protest movement. While not staunch supporters of the Assad regime, they are fearful of the sectarian violence erupting in the post-Assad era as it did in Iraq after President Saddam Hussein. By arming Alawi villagers around the port city of Latakia, the authorities have hinted strongly that bloodletting could occur between Alawis and Sunnis in the area in the wake of the fall of the Alawi-dominated regime.
Unlike Egypt with its
Top leadership of Syria’s military, police and intelligence services is far more cohesive than Egypt’s. Most army generals and high ranking officers of the other security forces and intelligence agencies belong to the Alawi sub-sect within Shia Islam – as does President Assad. Their minority status in Sunni-dominated Syria makes them hang together for fear of hanging separately. The chance of any split in Syria’s military high command, as happened in Egypt, can be virtually ruled out.
Another key to understanding the different fates of street protests in Syria and Egypt lies with the composition of their respective military high commands and advanced weapons supplied to them by major powers.
While credit for the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been given almost exclusively to the mammoth gathering in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, in reality a large measure belongs to the ongoing communications between US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Egyptian Defense Minister Field Marshall Muhammad Tantawi. For more than three decades the Pentagon and Egypt’s armed forces, the second largest recipient of Washington’s military aid, have had a patron-client relationship.
Since 1971, Syria has depended primarily on the Soviet Union/Russia for advanced weaponry.
Syria's situation is altogether different. Since the seizure of power by air force commander General Hafiz Assad in 1971 in the internal struggle in the eight-year old Baathist regime, Syria has depended primarily on the Soviet Union/Russia for advanced weaponry. So Washington and Brussels have no leverage over Syria’s military.
Little wonder that Assad’s lifting of the 48-year-old emergency laws on 21 April made no difference. Syria continues to use its repressive instruments to the fullest.
Major powers are divided on how to respond to the crackdown. Condemnation by US and European Union leaders is combined with travel and financial sanctions against Syria’s top officials, including President Assad. An attempt to include a reference to Syria in the final communiqué by the G8 summit in Deauville, France on 27 May failed. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev vetoed it.
Referring to the draft resolution by the US, Britain, France and Portugal at the UN Security Council, similar to the punitive document regarding Libya, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, said, “Russia will not even read the draft.” Arguing that the situation in Syria was “absolutely different” from the one in Libya, he added that Western diplomats often behaved as if they were “at a low-price clothing shop where one size fits all.” China, too, has opposed UN sanctions against Syria, warning they could destabilize the country.
A foothold in Syria means a lot to any major power. Syria shares borders with Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.
The Kremlin’s stance is rooted in its global security strategy. Buoyed by the rising prices of oil and gas, Russia has reinvigorated its navy and reestablished naval presence in open seas since 2007. Among other things, this has raised the significance of the Syrian port of Tartus.
Under the rule of President Hafiz Assad, Tartus became a supply and maintenance base for the Soviet Navy’s 5th Mediterranean Squadron in 1971. With the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991, leading to a steep decline in the Russian Navy, Tartus fell into disrepair. A reversal of fortunes came 17 years later. Damascus signed a deal to let Russia develop and enlarge the base, and allowed 10 Russian warships to dock in Tartus in September 2008.
Following Medvedev’s visit to Damascus in May 2010, there were reports of $1 billion worth sale of Russian warplanes, artillery and anti-aircraft missiles, to be financed by Iran, which signed a mutual defense pact with Syria in 2006.
In August 2010, Russian Navy chief Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky said that, with the completion of the first stage of modernization of Tartus in 2012, the base would accommodate heavy warships, including aircraft carriers.
A foothold in Syria means a lot to any major power. Syria shares borders with Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.Damascus is the headquarters of all the secular and radical Palestinian factions. While Hamas governs the Gaza Strip, its Politburo is based in the Syrian capital. Until Israel settles its dispute with Syria on the occupied Golan Heights, Arab-Israeli reconciliation will be incomplete.
Given near certainty
Though its troops departed from Lebanon six years ago, Syria remains the main player in that country. Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati has been in office since January, thanks to backing from Hezbollah, a close ally of Syria. Its leader Hassan Nasarallah has called for support to Assad. Even former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, leader of the anti-Syrian March 14 Alliance and son of the assassinated Rafiq Hariri, paid respects to Assad with a visit to Damascus.
By letting jihadists from other Arab countries infiltrate Iraq during the mid-2000s to create mayhem for the US troops there, Assad proved that Syria’s cooperation was essential to stabilize Iraq. This is even more so as the Pentagon prepares to end its role in Iraq.
Saudi Arabia, which openly contests Syrian influence in Lebanon, is backing Assad in the name of stability. Earlier Saudi King Abdullah had urged US President Barrack Obama to stand by Mubarak, and given refuge to the deposed Tunisian President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali.
Finally, Israeli leaders would prefer dealing with Assad, the known adversary, rather than risk dealing with a new regime led by majority Sunnis likely influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood repressed by Hafiz Assad in 1982.
Commenting on Assad’s amnesty offer for political prisoners, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded an end to unjust detentions along with allowing entry of human rights monitors into Syria. While suggesting that Washington’s patience with Assad was exhausted, she refrained from explicitly calling on him to step down.
Given near certainty of Russian and Chinese vetoes at the UN Security Council and the ambivalence of the leading Western nations, now embroiled in battle in Libya, the regime of Assad may yet survive the upheaval unleashed by the Arab Spring.
By RAY TAKEYH
WASHINGTON — Even as Washington struggles to come to terms with the Arab Spring, the Middle East is imperceptibly moving to a post-American era. Both allies and adversaries in the region are growing largely indifferent to America’s prohibitions. And as the Middle East’s shifts become more pronounced, it will become ever more difficult for the United States to pursue traditional security concerns such as disarming Iran or reinvigorating the Arab-Israeli peace process.
Let’s take a tour of the region:
On the surface, there is nothing particularly novel about Iranian or Syrian hostility to the United States. The theocratic Iranian state has long abjured America’s entreaties and seems determined to obtain a bomb at all cost. The Syrian regime has always been more ambivalent, but pledges of moderation made to successive U.S. administrations have somehow never materialized.
In any case, given the changes in the region, both of these states are now essentially beyond America’s diplomatic outreach. The clerical rulers of Iran, sensing an opportunity to project power in an unsettled region, will not allow themselves to be seen as conceding to American mandates. In Damascus, Bashar al-Assad’s brutal repression of his citizens has simply put him beyond the pale. Should he manage to survive, the so-called “Syria option” — whereby Israel and Syria trade land for peace — is all but dead.
For nearly 60 years, Saudi Arabia predicated its security on its American patron. The pledges of solidarity always concealed an incongruous relationship between a liberal democracy and a traditional monarchy. The oil-for-security compact, however, was underpinned by a more formidable alliance that worked effectively against common foes ranging from Soviet Communism to Saddam Hussein’s revisionism.
Today, Riyadh and Washington see the region in starkly different terms. The Arab Spring that has generated hopes in the West for responsive governance in the Middle East is seen in Saudi Arabia as an existential threat.
Riyadh is not just questioning the utility of its American alliance, but is moving beyond it. As the Saudi state rethinks its security, it is likely to conclude that it has to rely on its own resources as well as alliances with like-minded states rather than a United States that it increasingly views as unreliable. Alternative external patrons such as China, or a league of conservative Arab monarchies, or even an independent nuclear deterrent, are likely to be seriously contemplated in the House of Saud.
The Palestinian Authority’s decision to seek statehood at the United Nations has drawn much consternation in Washington. The Palestinians have lost the “armed struggle,” but the notion that American-led dialogue can relieve their burden has a diminishing audience among the Palestinians.
Nor is America likely to find much solace among emerging democracies such as Iraq and Egypt. The well-demonstrated nexus between nationalism and democracy makes it difficult for leaders whose position rests on serving their people’s interests to also embrace Washington’s priorities.
Such sentiments are becoming obvious in Iraq. At a time when public opinion in Iraq is averse to continued American presence, it is unlikely that politicians seeking votes in a competitive electoral environment will defy such nationalistic sentiments.
Similarly, the post-Tahrir Egypt is already defying the United States by forging diplomatic ties with Iran. The Egyptian hostility toward Iran was an indulgence of President Hosni Mubarak; the emerging Egyptian government sees little reason to sustain the fallen despot’s enmity toward a regime that enjoys popular acclaim on the Arab street.
All this is not to suggest that new democracies will rupture relations with the United States, but that in certain important respects their policies could challenge American parameters.
The trend away from American dominance predated the Obama administration, and its ramifications are likely to unfold long after it leaves office.
As America’s influence gradually recedes, and its alliance system deteriorates, the U.S. will find itself less capable of realizing some of its objectives. Washington may not have sufficient leverage to prevent the Syrian regime from abusing its citizens, compelling Iran to reverse its nuclear ambitions, or for that matter dissuade the Saudis from obtaining a bomb of their own.
The post-American Middle East may be more democratic in some of its corners, but it is also likely to be more turbulent and unstable.
The struggle of the Middle East during the past century was a determined quest to exempt itself from great-power rivalry and superpower dominance. This is a populace that eagerly participated in bloody anti-colonial struggles, lent its sympathies to those calling for neutralism from the Cold War power blocs, and expressed its solidarity with third-world revolutionary resistance.
The era of self-determination may have finally arrived. But, it is likely to be an era accompanied by its own set of challenges and perils.