Patrick Seale’s 1965 classic, The Struggle for Syria, describes the battle for control of that country after the second world war (1). It was played out against the background of the cold war, but also within the context of the struggle for hegemony over the Arab world, which pitted Nasser’s Egypt against Saudi Arabia, and extended as far as the Yemeni mountains where Egyptian troops supported the young republic against royalist forces armed and financed by Saudi Arabia. From the 1950s to the 1967 war (2), Syria was the point of balance (or imbalance) in a region marked by coups and military juntas.
Syria was also one of the centres of the social and political ferment of the 1950s and 1960s, when Arab nationalists, socialists and Marxists strove for independence, economic development and a more just and egalitarian society.
But after the Arab defeat in the 1967 war, the Middle East entered a period of stagnation which lasted four decades. Its regimes — whether republics or monarchies — gave up any attempt at reform. They were characterised by authoritarianism, the concentration of wealth in a clique close to the leadership, and endemic corruption. While there were sporadic and spontaneous outbursts of popular discontent, the desire for social change was ignored and governments focused on geopolitical issues, clashing with each other over their policies towards the US and Israel.
Alliances fluctuated. At the time of the first Gulf war in 1990-91, Hafez al-Assad’s Syria was allied to Washington, while Jordan under King Hussein supported Saddam Hussein. Before the 2011 uprisings, the region was divided between the pro-US camp, principally Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the “axis of resistance”: Iran, Syria, Hamas in Palestine and Hizbullah in Lebanon.
The Iranian card
Syria has a privileged position thanks to its relationship with Iran which has endured for 30 years despite their differing views on peace with Israel: Tehran rejects Israel in principle, while Damascus would accept it on condition the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967, were restored to Syria.
After the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri on 14 February 2005, and the hasty withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, Syria’s Ba’athist regime went through a period of isolation that Bashar al-Assad finally managed to end. By withstanding pressure from the US administration (which wanted to remove him), supporting Hizbullah during Israel’s war against Lebanon in 2006, and supporting Hamas in the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008-09, he bolstered his regime’s image as a centre of resistance. Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, impressed by his firm stance, even suspended their opposition, temporarily.
The Ba’athist regime believed Syria’s position within the axis of resistance meant it was safe from the revolutionary movement that engulfed the region in 2011. But that was to reduce the conflict over Syria to its geopolitical dimension, as a confrontation between the imperialist and anti-imperialist camps, and to underestimate the changes brought about by the Arab revolutions and the aspirations of the Syrians. The regime miscalculated, because Syria has the same flaws as others in the region: an authoritarian and arbitrary government, a greedy elite, neoliberal policies that impoverish its people and an inability to respond to the aspirations of the young, who are more numerous and better educated than their elders. The government’s refusal to listen to their demands and the extraordinary brutality of the repression has caused the violence to escalate, and encouraged some protestors to take up arms, even though the majority support non-violence (silmiyya), as in Egypt. The risk of the uprising taking a sectarian turn has increased — something the regime has exploited to frighten the Christians and Alawites (3).
A changing opposition
Syria’s opposition — or parts of it — are incapable of offering any serious guarantees for the future. Some of their earlier supporters have even turned away from the opposition. The Kurds, who were among the first to protest (to get national identity cards, which they had been denied), are now keeping their distance, shocked by the refusal of the Syrian National Council (SNC) to recognise their rights (4). The government has re-launched the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), which it had already used in its military confrontations with Turkey in the 1990s and which remains popular among Syria’s Kurds.
There is a new split at the heart of the SNC, led by people such as Haytham al-Maleh and Kamal al-Labwani, former political prisoners who reject the SNC’s foreign alignment. Ammar Qurabi, the former head of Syria’s National Organisation for Human Rights and leader of the National Current for Change, has accused the SNC of marginalising Alawite and Turkmen activists (5). Syrian Christians, who have watched many Christians flee Iraq, are worried by the rise of the jihadists and the anti-Christian and anti-Alawite slogans chanted by protestors.
The SNC has many opponents, including the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, which rejects foreign military intervention. It has gone through a series of internal splits, and is now dominated by the Islamists, though it is fronted by a few liberal figures. Its dependence on western countries and Gulf monarchies has gone down badly.
The result is total deadlock. The opposition cannot bring down the government, and the government cannot put down an uprising that has a surprising determination and courage. It would be impossible to return to the status quo ante: the government could never maintain the control it used to have over a nation that has been politicised over the last few months. The government’s reforms (a new constitution, successive amnesties) are meaningless since the secret services and the army have a free hand to bomb, torture and kill opponents.
There is a real risk of civil war, which could spill into Lebanon and Iraq. Foreign military intervention would intensify sectarian fighting and make the gun the only arbiter of religious divisions. It could destroy hopes of democracy in the region.
Assessing the options
Should we do nothing? There are other options than military intervention. Economic pressure on Syria has already made some middle-class government supporters reconsider, and this could be increased, as long as it targeted the leaders and not the population. The first Arab League observer missions had difficulties but managed to limit the violence. (Saudi Arabia had them withdrawn and buried their report because it did not correspond to the simplistic media coverage.) It would be a positive development if the observers were to return, and extend their mission. We should involve Russia and China in negotiations with a transitional government. Some commentators question the idea of negotiation with such a murderous regime, but in Latin America transition to democracy was achieved by granting soldiers amnesty, even if it is a matter of regret that they exploited this for 30 years.
This is not the path favoured by most foreign players, who reduce the situation to a clash between dictatorship and democracy. Does Saudi Arabia want democracy in Syria, when it has no elected assembly itself? Its interior minister has described Shia protests in the east of Saudi Arabia as “a new form of terrorism” (6). At the beginning of March its forces violently crushed a demonstration by female students in Abha (capital of Asir province and majority Sunni) protesting against the poor level of teaching at the university. The protests spread, ignored by the media.
Concerned at the US’s diminishing influence in the region and the growing power of the Shia in Iraq, Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront of the Arab counter-revolution. It has tried to crush the rebellion in Bahrain, and has armed Syrian rebels, raising the spectre of Shia domination, in order to get the Sunni majority on its side, banking on a double hostility towards the Shia and Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s attempt to revive “Sunni solidarity” hopes to make use of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, and perhaps soon in Libya, even though relations between the Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia have been poor over the last decade. But the Brotherhood is divided on what choices it should make, as demonstrated by the Tunisian government’s opposition to foreign intervention in Syria or the struggle within Hamas, which has abandoned its headquarters in Damascus. A member of its political wing, Salah al-Bardawil, said that Hamas would not intervene in the event of a war between Iran and Israel, though that was refuted by another leading member, Mahmoud al-Zahar (7). The concept of a grand Sunni alliance against Iran and Syria founders, once again, on the Palestinian problem, for who could replace them in resisting Israel’s policies?
The US hopes to knock down one of the pillars of the “axis of evil”, as well as Iran, which Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu would love to bomb. Having made an inglorious exit from Iraq, and soon to be driven out of Afghanistan where they are hated by the Taliban and a population exasperated by blunders, the Americans are reluctant to embark on a new military adventure in Syria, even though Assad’s fall would give them the chance to regain ground in the region. No one knows if they will support military intervention in the name of protecting civilians as they did in Libya. Would they risk destabilising a country to which jihadists and al-Qaida fighters are already flocking?
The former head of Mossad and ex-national security adviser Efraim Halevy has said that overthrowing the regime in Damascus would weaken Tehran, ending the need to bomb Iran (8). Could he have been expressing the position of the Israeli government? As Israel knows, making such a position public would only backfire on the Syrian opposition. Some commentators in Israel fear that a civil war in Syria could end the peace that has existed on their common border.
Russia and China are wary of the rising power of the Islamists, and of European and US unilateralism. That is why they have so far vetoed UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, saying they prefer a negotiated solution.
Instability leads to uprisings
All this is happening in a region already deeply destabilised by wars led by the US (in Iraq and Afghanistan) and by Israel (in Lebanon and Palestine). These have led to weakened governments, to an increase in militias (in Iraq, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine and now Syria), often armed with powerful conventional weapons such as missiles, and to sectarian tensions that threaten minorities.
It was in the context of this instability that the Arab uprisings broke out, with demands for freedom, dignity (karama), democracy and social justice. Even though these overthrew the presidents of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, there is a sense of disappointment among western commentators and the media. As Peter Harling, the International Crisis Group’s project director for Egypt, Syria and Lebanon says: “It is not surprising that the initial spark of revolution in Tunisia and Egypt should give way to confusion. Throughout the Arab world, the social contract is being renegotiated, in an ambitious and violent way. Each case has its own complexities but there are strong connections between them, and the Tunisian model is being discussed in the remote Syrian countryside” (9).
Are we heading for an Islamist winter, sectarian clashes, or the crushing of the protest movements in Syria and Egypt? We cannot discount any of these hypotheses, but they all underestimate the power of the protests, the commitment to holding democratic elections and the extraordinary resilience of the people in Syria, as in Bahrain. They are reviving social and democratic struggles largely dormant since 1967, while maintaining their support for the Palestinian cause, which has never gone away. In this context, further foreign intervention would risk stirring up divisions, as it did in Iraq and Libya, and risk transforming a democratic struggle into a sectarian one, primarily between Shia and Sunnis.
Alain Gresh is vice president of Le Monde diplomatique
(1) Patrick Seale, The Struggle for Syria, Oxford University Press, 1965; reprinted by IB Tauris, London, 1986.
(2) The 1967 war ended in defeat for Egypt, Syria and Jordan, and Israeli occupation of the Sinai Peninsula (given back in 1979), the Golan Heights, the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
(3) A Muslim minority, linked to Shia Islam, to which the Assad family and other Syrian leaders belong.
(6) “State has full right to check rioting, Interior Ministry says”, Arab News, 11 March 2012.
(7) The first quote is from The Guardian, London, 6 March 2012; the second from The Jerusalem Post, 8 January 2012.
This article appears in the July edition of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.