Thursday, 28 April 2011

Syria Is The Main Event

In many ways the uprisings this year throughout the Arab world can be considered mere warm-ups to what is now happening in Syria. The rebellions in places like Tunisia and Libya are powerful and exciting, but they have relatively limited regional geopolitical consequences compared with Syria. Even the sweeping changes in Egypt so far have not spilled over into major regional re-alignments.

Rami Khouri, a columnist with The Daily Star in Beirut, is one of the most astute observers and commentators on the Middle East. In a recent column he highlighted the major impact of a regime change in Syria.

“. . . any changes in regime incumbency or policies in Syria will have enormous impact across the entire region and beyond, given Syria’s structural links and ongoing political ties with every major conflict and actor in the region, especially Lebanon and Hizbullah, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Palestine and Hamas, the U.S., and Saudi Arabia. Regime overthrow in Syria will trigger significant, cumulative and long-lasting repercussions in the realms of Arab-Israeli, Arab-Iranian, inter-Arab and Arab-Western relations, with winners and losers all around.

“For some, this makes the Assad regime the Middle Eastern equivalent of the banks that were too big to allow to collapse during the American economic crisis three years ago, because the spill-over effect would be too horrible to contemplate. The specter of sectarian-based chaos within a post-Assad Syria that could spread to other parts of the Middle East is frightening to many people. Yet many, perhaps most, Syrians indicate with their growing public protests that they see their current reality as more more frightening . . .”

The demographic mix of Syria gives some idea of the problem. Syria is country of about 22 million with 74% of the population Sunni Moslems, 12% Alawite (distantly related to the Shiite faith in Iran), 10% Christian (mostly Orthodox), and the rest a mixture of Turks, Kurds and Armenians. The minority Alawite group has dominated the Syrian regime, and all the associated military and security apparatus, for more than 40 years. From time to time it has resorted to brutal measures to maintain that control. In 1982, for example, the regime massacred about 20,000 people in the city of Hama as it crushed an uprising by the Sunni majority. It is highly unlikely that there will be any defections or wavering of the Syrian security forces similar to what we saw Egypt or Tunisia. The Syrian security forces know all too well what defeat would mean for them. There are too many scores to settle to let them go gently into the night.

For years Syria was a client state of the Soviet Union, and most recently it has been closely associated with Iranian efforts to support radical groups like Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. While Jordan and Egypt have signed peace treaties with Israel, Syria remains a steadfast opponent of reconciliation with Israel. If the dominos start tumbling Syria no one is really sure just how they would be re-set or how long this process would take. This is one of the reasons outsiders are treading with great caution. This is not Libya where outsiders can intervene with impunity and even be considered the Good Guys. Gaddafi has very few friends and is generally viewed with distaste throughout the region. Different situation in Syria.

One of the immediate victims of the Syrian turmoil is the Turkish effort to play an increasing role in the Middle East. The Turkish government has worked hard to inject itself into Middle Eastern affairs, and has loudly trumpeted its renewed interest in its Moslem neighbors. It has encouraged increased trade and has removed visa restrictions from a number of countries including Syria. As Turkish columnist Semih Idiz points out these initiatives are now falling to pieces and Turkey’s credibility is disappearing fast. Suddenly its new-best friends Syria and Libya are imploding. Turkey sends feeble notes encouraging Gaddafi in Libya and Assad Syria to stop killing its own people and institute reforms. Events on the ground have rapidly overtaken Turkey’s ‘Zero Problem’ policy with its neighbors, and now it is desperately trying to catch up to the changing realities.

All this confusion and bloody suppression in many Arab countries (which has very little to do with Israel at this point) has not stopped the self-styled Turkish group IHH from staging another attempt to embarrass Israel by sending ships allegedly carrying humanitarian supplies to people in Gaza. The attempt to send one ship a year ago ended in disaster as Israeli commandos boarded the ship and got into a firefight with some people on the Mavi Marmara. This time, the IHH – which has close ties to Turkey’s ruling party – says it will send several ships. This is at best a na├»ve attempt to help the people of Gaza (many of whom suffer as much from the Hamas leaders as from the Israelis) and at worst a cynical vote-getting ploy by Prime Minister Erdogan’s ruling AKP party just before Turkish national elections early in June. Scenes of heavily armed Israeli commandos turning away this ‘aid’ flotilla would play very well on Turkish television stirring up a religious and nationalistic fervor that would, in theory, aid Erdogan’s campaign.

Kadri Gursel, a columnist in the Turkish daily Milliyet, says that if this aid flotilla was serious it would make stops in Syria to help the oppressed people there before heading on to Gazza. But the organizers are so obsessed with Israeli actions that they do not want to see the even more brutal reality closer to home. If the Turkish government were genuinely serious about helping control chaos in the Middle East it would act to delay this group of ships rather than pour additional fuel on the regional fires. Some people in the Turkish government may agree that sending a group of ships to Gaza right now is unhelpful in the extreme, but the prospects of winning a few more votes keeps those doubts suppressed.

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