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 Day 19

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Settling Scores and Balancing Accounts

The Conflict in Syria

by NASEER ARURI

On March 21, 2012, the fifteen-member UN Security Council voted unanimously, for the first time, to push the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, towards a diplomatic settlement, by ordering it to comply with the Six Point plan presented by Kofi Anan, the former UN Secretary-General. Assad, in fact, accepted the plan on March 27.

This diplomatic process was inscribed into a “Presidential Statement,” not a Council resolution. The difference between the two is that the former requires unanimous support from the Council, and it is also non-binding. The Statement threatened Syria with certain unspecified “further steps,” that do not necessarily include military action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, but that include tougher diplomatic and economic measures backed by Russia and China, which would harm and embarrass the Assad regime. Additionally, that would include sanctions against Syria’s First Lady, Asma, thus preventing her from traveling in the 27 nations that constitute the European Union.

The Presidential Statement expressed its “gravest concern at the deteriorating situation in Syria, which has resulted in a serious human rights crisis and a deplorable humanitarian situation.” The Statement, however, made concessions to Bashar al-Assad by not including “threats, ultimatums, and “unilateral demands.” It, moreover, appeased Assad by including a Russian proposal that condemned the mid-March bombing attacks on Syrian government installations in Damascus and Aleppo, describing them as acts of terrorism, rather than “resistance,” which the Syrian opposition claims.

This action by the UN Security Council, which was not vetoed this time by Russia and China, was meant to extract from Syria an agreement to endorse the Kofi Anan plan, which begins with a cease-fire, and culminates in a peace process demanding that all parties unite behind it, else those consequences, costs, penalties would be activated. Undoubtedly, the new attitude by Russia and China must have steered the Assad regime towards embracing the Anan Plan.

Such a plan, which has scrupulously avoided severe action against Syria, yet carefully avoided recriminations, seems to strike a balance between the intransigence of Bashar regime, heretofore backed by Russia and China, on the one hand, and the positions of the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and even Israel, on the other.

This type of conflict resolution is cumbersome and complex, combining the local with the regional, and the latter with the international. Although Libya has many attributes similar to those of the Syrian situation, the former is essentially a tribal society. Libya is no Syria. Libya has neither the middle class, nor the sophistication of Syrian society. Syria, on the other hand, is a modern state which plays a leading role in the Middle East and is considered a center of Arab nationalism. It has developed a network of crucial regional alliances including the Soviet Union and later Russia, China, Iran and Hezbollah.  Libya’s dictator for more than four decades, the late Moammar Qaddafi,  saw himself as a protégé of the Egyptian Leader, Gamal Abd al Nasser.

Not only is the Syrian conflict complex, but also regional and global, as well. Syria is the center of a cold war, not unlike that which prevailed during the second half of the past century. The Syrian faction consists of Iran, Hezbollah, some Lebanese elements, Russia, and China. Its opposite number includes The US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, and Jordan. Of course, these coalitions are not mutually exclusive nor are they permanent “alliances.” Shifting alignments, at the present, reflect shifting interests, and in fact, can be viewed as an attempt to settle ongoing competition for hegemony, domination, and super-ordination, if not re-colonization. Most probably, the latter applies to Libya, Syria, Bahrein, Yemen, and Iraq. The former US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, expressed her optimism when she made her famous statement about an emerging new Middle East, i.e. a subservient region defined by a US, Saudi, Israeli hegemony in which Syria will cease to be the address for Arab nationalism and anti-colonialism.

Thus, the ongoing crises in Syria,  designed to marginalize the Assad regime, under the pretext of human rights, would represent an attempt to settle previous accounts: Syria’s close ally, Hezbollah would not be allowed to get away with an apparent military victory over Israel in 2006; Syria would not go unpunished for its alleged role in the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, the late  Rafiq Hariri; nor will Syria’s “coalition” remain exempt from the consequences that usually come with the counter revolutionary restraint presumably inherent in Rice’s “new Middle East” formula,  particularly in the aftermath of the seemingly successful revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. These revolutions cannot run loose in a Middle East that is steadily becoming an American lake.

How long will the lake remain to serve the interests of colonial powers in an age of de-colonization will depend on the dwindling economies of the Anglo-Saxon world, which may face difficulties in trying to sustain a neo-colonialist order in the Middle East. It may also depend on the continuing readiness of NATO to support counter-revolutionary forces ala Libya, the enduring ability of America’s surrogates, such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, Qatar .etc to escape the revolutionary tide in the Arab world and the rising expectations of a new public whose willingness to sacrifice for a democratic polity has proven to be boundless. A western lake and an Arab spring simply cannot co-exist.

NASEER ARURI is Chancellor Professor (Emeritus) of Political Science at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. His latest book (with the late Samih Farsoun) is Palestine and the Palestinians: A Social and Political History.