Friday, 13 May 2011

The Genie Is Out Of The Bottle

It now looks that barring any unlikely external intervention the brutal regime in Syria will be able to stay in power for now by maintaining its stranglehold on the people struggling for a more open, democratic society. Unlike their Libyan counterparts, the Syrian protestors don’t have any weapons to fight back and don’t enjoy NATO airpower to keep the government troops at bay.

But, as Rainer Hermann, the very experienced and perceptive Arabic-speaking journalist for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, put it, “Even assuming the regime survives for the time being, the end of the game has begun.”

“The Syrian people have seen what happened as autocratic governments were overthrown in other Middle Eastern countries. The genie is out of the bottle, and it is only a matter of time before the regime crumbles from within or is toppled from the outside.”

Right now the regime is supported by a diverse cast of characters that are afraid of what might follow Basher Assad and his henchmen. “Iran, Saudi Arabia and even Israel would be reluctant to see this regime disappear. The Iranians would lose their influence in this part of the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia and Israel are both afraid of what might follow,” Hermann said in a recent telephone call. Iran has been a strong supporter of Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, and without Syrian assistance this support becomes much more difficult. Israel and Saudi Arabia may not like the Syrian regime, but they dislike the prospect of unpredictable change even more. Better the devil you know than take a chance on unruly protestors.

Hermann noted that one of his high level contacts in the Gulf summed up the dilemma very neatly. “We are very afraid of regime change in Syria. Then everything will change in the Middle East, and we don’t want that.”

He was recently in Yemen and mentioned a conversation with an economist there that highlighted the extent of the underlying problems throughout the region. “If Yemen falls apart what happens to 23 million people? The situation is already desperate where 200,000 young people enter the work force every year and only 10% of them have a hope of finding a job. In 1999 40% of the people existed on less than $2 per day. Today that number has risen to 48% living on less than $2 per day.” With an economic profile like that the only mystery is why the protests took so long to develop.

The Iranians, meanwhile, are going through their own internal conflicts. Unlike the loud protests that followed the last dubious election, this conflict is within the regime and pits the religious leadership against the very hard core military wing of the pasarn and the Revolutionary Guards. Hermann, who travels frequently to Iran, believes that the military wing strong supports President Ahmedi-Nejad and is challenging the legitimacy of the religious leadership.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran is much more of a military dictatorship than an Islamic republic under control of the clergy. They could be even more hard line,” Hermann noted.

The good news is that he believes Iran’s regional influence is diminishing as a result of the Arab Spring. “The protestors who toppled Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, and are threatening Gaddafi in Libya are not impressed by an Iran that suppresses its own people and supports an autocratic regime in Syria,” he added.

As if the Arabs didn’t have enough problems of their own a Turkish Islamic charity organization, which some allege acts more like a terrorist organization than a charity, is planning another flotilla of ‘aid’ to Gaza. The trip a year ago ended in a disaster when Israeli commandos boarded the ship and a number of people were killed in the ensuing fire fight. This time around the Turkish group, IHH, has rounded up support from some quarters in Europe and is planning to send several ships. In their zeal to embarrass Israel the organizers of this fiasco seem oblivious to the fact that such a direct provocation will only result in increasing tensions in an already volatile region. The organizers seem to forget that Israel is not easily embarrassed and takes its security very, very seriously.

Evangelos Areteos, a Brussels-based journalist with the Cypriot newspaper Politis, has been following this flotilla issue closely and told me the timing is extremely dangerous. “The organizers of this flotilla combine dangerous naivety and political manipulation.” The IHH has close links to the ruling AKP party in Turkey, and it is no coincidence that this trip comes just before June 12 national elections in Turkey. There would be nothing like a major confrontation with Israel to rouse the faithful and increase AKP’s share of the vote. If they were genuinely interested in helping the people of Gaza they would use the route through Egypt that is now open. But that would deprive them of the all important pre-election political gain back in Turkey if they confront Israel directly.

The situation has dramatically changed since last year with the Arab uprisings and a surprise reconciliation of two contending Palestinian groups Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. Egypt has now opened the border with Gaza that had been closed at the time of last year’s trip. Also, just when it is trying to convince the world that it is a reasonable, trustworthy political organization and not a terrorist group Hamas may not consider this the best time to manufacture a major conflict with Israel.

There are some signs that IHH is reconsidering the destination of the flotilla. Instead of heading directly for Gaza, which the Israelis would block, one early ship sent ahead will avoid confrontation with the Israeli navy and head for the Egyptian port of El Arish from which the goods will be sent overland into Gaza. This single trip was reported in a strongly pro-AKP publication in Turkey, but Areteos says the European organizers remain unaware of any such potential change. The Turkish government, ignoring the close ties between itself and the organizers, says weakly that it has no control over the IHH because it is a non-governmental organization. Right. But maybe, just maybe common sense will prevail and they will find a way to reap the political benefit without needless and dangerous provocation.

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