Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March-April 2012, Pages 20-22

Two Views

The Crisis in Syria

The Syrian Crisis and the New Cold War

By Patrick Seale

altA Syrian supporter of President Bashar al-Assad wears a Christian rosary, Sunni praying beads and a Shi’i Imam Ali sword around his neck at a Jan. 9 rally in front of a Greek Orthdox church in Damascus in memory of two victims of recent fighting in the country: Saria Hassoun, the son of Syria’s grand mufti, who was killed in October in Homs, and a 10-year-old Christian boy, killed recently in the central flashpoint city as he ventured out to buy cookies. The opposition accused President Assad’s troops of killing the boy, but his mother appeared on official Syrian television to say “armed gangs” were behind the murder. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

The Syrian crisis is no longer a purely Syrian affair. Its wider dimension was highlighted on Feb. 4, when Russia and China cast their veto at the U.N. Security Council, thereby aborting a Western-backed Arab Resolution, which had called on President Bashar al-Assad to step down. At a stroke, the debate was no longer simply about Syria's internal power struggle. Instead, with their vetoes, Moscow and Beijing were saying that they, too, had interests in the Middle East, which they were determined to protect. The region was no longer an exclusive Western preserve under the hegemony of the United States and its allies.

Russia has decades-old interests in the Middle East, in Syria in particular. As a major customer of Iranian oil, China does not approve of Western sanctions against Tehran. Nor does it take kindly to U.S. attempts to contain its influence in the Asia-Pacific region. There is a hint in the air of a revived Cold War.

The Syrian crisis has, in fact, been a two-stage affair from the very beginning—internal as well as international. On the internal level, the uprising has aimed to topple the regime on the model of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. In this increasingly ugly struggle, both sides—government and opposition—have made serious mistakes. The government's mistake was to use live fire against street protesters who were—at first at least—demonstrating peacefully. The crisis could perhaps have been defused with the implementation of immediate reforms. Instead, mounting casualties have created enormous bitterness among the population, reducing the chance of a negotiated settlement.

The opposition's mistake has been to resort to arms—to become militarized—largely in the form of the Free Syrian Army, a motley force of defectors from the armed services, as well as free-lance fighters and hard-line Islamists. It has been conducting hit-and-run attacks on regime targets and regime loyalists. The exiled opposition leadership is composed of a number of disparate, often squabbling, groupings—of which the best known is the Syrian National Council. Inside the SNC, the Muslim Brotherhood is the best organized and funded element of the opposition. Outlawed since its terrorist campaign in 1977-1982 to overthrow the regime of Hafez al-Assad—an attempt crushed in blood at Hama—it is driven by a thirst for revenge.

No regime, whatever its political coloring, can tolerate an armed uprising without responding with full force. Indeed, the rise of an armed opposition has provided the Syrian regime with the justification it needed to seek to crush it with ever bloodier repression.

Casualties over the last 11 months have been heavy—estimated at some 5,000 to 6,000 members of the opposition, both armed and unarmed, and perhaps 1,500 members of the army and security forces. There is necessarily an element of guesswork in these figures. As in all wars, the manipulation of information has been much in evidence.

Inside Syria, therefore, the situation is today one of increased violence by both sides, of sectarian polarization, and of a dangerous stalemate, slipping each day closer to a full-blown sectarian civil war.

The second level of the contest is being played out in the international arena, where Russia and China, with some support from other emerging powers such as India and Brazil, are challenging America's supremacy in the Middle East. Washington's outrage at the challenge was evident when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton angrily dismissed the Russian and Chinese veto as a "travesty." Escalating the crisis, she called for an international coalition to support the Syrian opposition against what she described as the "brutal regime" in Damascus. She has encouraged the creation of a "Friends of Syria" group, with the apparent aim of channelling funds and weapons to Bashar al-Assad's enemies.

At the heart of the international struggle is a concerted attempt by the United States and its allies to bring down the ruling regimes in both Iran and Syria. Iran's "crime" has been to refuse to submit to American hegemony in the oil-rich Gulf region and to appear to pose a challenge, with its nuclear program, to Israel's regional nuclear monopoly. At the same time, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah—partners for the past three decades—have managed to make a dent in Israel's military supremacy. They have in recent years been the main obstacle to U.S.-Israeli regional dominance.

Israel has for years demonized Iran's nuclear program as an "existential" threat to itself and a danger to the entire world, and has repeatedly threatened to attack it. Its fevered gesticulations have pressured—some might say blackmailed—the United States and the European Union into imposing crippling sanctions on Iran's oil exports and its Central Bank.

The real issue, however, is one of regional dominance. Iran's nuclear program poses no particular danger to Israel. With its large nuclear arsenal, Israel has ample means to deter any would be aggressor. Nor would Iran willingly risk annihilation in a nuclear exchange. However, a nuclear-capable Iran—even if it never actually built a bomb—would limit Israel's freedom of action, notably its freedom to strike its neighbors at will.

Israel is at pains to restore its regional dominance, which has recently been somewhat curtailed. Its invasion of Lebanon in 2006 failed to destroy Hezbollah. Its 2008-9 assault on Gaza failed to destroy Hamas. Worse still from Israel's point of view, the war attracted international opprobrium and damaged Israel's relations with Turkey. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has put at risk the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty which, by removing the strongest country from the Arab line-up, guaranteed Israeli dominance for 30 years.

Israel's current strategy has been to get the United States to cripple Iran on its behalf—in much the same way as America's pro-Israeli neocons pushed the United States into war against Iraq, a country which Israel had then considered threatening.

The United States has also suffered grave setbacks in the region: its catastrophic war in Iraq; its unfinished conflict in Afghanistan; the violent hostility it has aroused in the Muslim world, particularly in Pakistan, Yemen and the Horn of Africa. It, too, is striving to retain its pre-eminence over the oil-rich Gulf States. Some Washington hawks may think that the overthrow of the mullahs in Tehran would put the United States and its Israeli ally back on top.

Because of their own apprehension of Iran, the Arab states of the Gulf have allowed themselves to be drawn into the conflict. They seem to fear that Iran may endanger the existing political order by stirring up local Shi'i communities. With Qatar in the lead, they joined the United States and Israel in their assault against Damascus and Tehran. Perhaps belatedly aware that a regional war could be catastrophic for them, there are signs that they are having second thoughts.

At February's Munich Security Conference, Qatar's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Khalid al-Attiyeh, declared that an attack on Iran "is not a solution, and tightening the embargo will make the scenario worse. I believe we should have dialogue." That is the voice of reason. 


Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press). Copyright © 2012 Patrick Seale. Distributed by Agence Global. 


 

The Syrian Impasse

By Immanuel Wallerstein

Bashar al-Assad has risen to the heights of being one of the least popular men in the world. He is denounced as a tyrant, indeed a very bloody tyrant, by almost everyone. Even those governments that refuse to denounce him seem to be counseling him to curb his repressive ways and to make some sort of political concessions to his internal opponents.

So, how is it that he ignores all this advice and proceeds to continue to use maximum force to continue political control of Syria? Why is there no outside intervention to force his removal from office? To answer these questions, let us start with assessing his strengths. First, he has a reasonably strong army, and up to now, with a few exceptions, the army and other structures of force in the country have stayed loyal to the regime. Secondly, he still seems to command the support of at least half of the population in what is increasingly being described as a civil war.

The key government posts and the officer corps are in the hands of the Alawi, a branch of Shi'i Islam. The Alawi are a minority of the population and certainly fear what would happen to them if the opposition forces, largely Sunni, were to come to power. In addition, the other significant minority forces—the Christians, the Druze, and the Kurds—seem to be equally wary of a Sunni government. Finally, the large merchant bourgeoisie have yet to turn against Assad and the Ba'ath regime.

But is this really enough? If this were all, I doubt that Assad could really hold out much longer. The regime is being squeezed economically. The opposition Free Syrian Army is being fed arms by Iraqi Sunnis and probably Qatar. And the chorus of denunciations in the world press and by politicians of all stripes grows louder by the day.

Yet, I don't think that, a year or two from now, we will find that Assad is gone or the regime basically changed. The reason is that those who are denouncing him the loudest do not really want him to go. Let us take them one by one.

Saudi Arabia: The foreign minister told The New York Times that "violence had to be stopped and the Syrian government not given any more chances." This sounds really strong until you notice that he added that "international intervention had to be ruled out." The fact is that Saudi Arabia wants the credit of opposing Assad but is very afraid of a successor government. It knows that in a post-Assad (probably fairly anarchic) Syria, al-Qaeda would find a base. And the Saudis know that al-Qaeda's number one objective is to overthrow the Saudi regime. Ergo, "no international intervention."

Israel: Yes, the Israelis continue to obsess about Iran. And yes, Ba'athist Syria continues to be an Iran-friendly power. But when all is said and done, Syria has been a relatively quiet Arab neighbor, an island of stability for the Israelis. Yes, the Syrians aid Hezbollah, but Hezbollah, too, has been relatively quiet. Why would the Israelis really want to take the risk of a turbulent post-Ba'athist Syria? Who would then wield power, and might they not have to improve their credentials by expanding jihad against Israel? And wouldn't the fall of Assad lead to upsetting the relative quiet and stability that Lebanon now seems to enjoy, and might this not end up with the further strengthening and renewed radicalism of Hezbollah? Israel has a lot to lose, and not too much to gain if Assad falls.

The United States: The U.S. government talks a good line. But have you noticed how wary it is in practice? The Washington Post headlined an article on Feb. 11, "As carnage builds, U.S. sees 'no good options' on Syria." The story points out that the U.S. government has "no appetite for a military intervention." No appetite, despite the pressure of neocon intellectuals like Charles Krauthammer who is honest enough to admit "it's not just about freedom." It's really, he says, about undoing the regime in Iran.

But isn't that exactly why Obama and his advisers see no good options? They were pressured into the Libyan operation. The U.S. didn't lose many lives, but did they really gain geopolitical advantage as a result? Is the new Libyan regime, if one can say there is a new Libyan regime, something better? Or is this the beginning of a long internal instability, as Iraq has turned out to be?

So, when Russia vetoed the U.N. resolution on Syria, I can imagine a sigh of relief in Washington. The pressure to up the ante and begin a Libyan-style intervention was lifted. Obama was protected against Republican harassment on Syria by the Russian veto. And Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, could shift all blame to the Russians. They were "disgusting," she said, oh so diplomatically.

France: Always nostalgic for their once-dominant role in Syria, Foreign Minister Alain Juppé shouts and denounces. But troops? You've got to be kidding. There's an election coming up, and sending troops would not be at all popular, especially since this would be no piece of cake, as was Libya.

Turkey: Turkey has improved its relations with the Arab world incredibly in the last decade. It's definitely unhappy about the civil war on its borders. It would love to see some kind of political compromise. But Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is quoted as guaranteeing that "Turkey is not providing arms or support to army defectors." Turkey wants essentially to be friends to all sides. And besides, Turkey has its own Kurdish question, and Syria might offer active support, which hitherto it has refrained from doing.

So, who wants to intervene in Syria? Perhaps Qatar. But Qatar, however wealthy it is, is scarcely a major military power. The bottom line is that, however loud the rhetoric and however ugly the civil war, no one really, really wants Assad to go. So, in all probability, he will stay. 


Immanuel Wallerstein, senior research scholar at Yale University, is the author of The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (New Press). Copyright ©2012 Immanuel Wallerstein. Distributed by Agence Global.

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