Early February, the U.N. Security Council’s effort to stamp its approval on an Arab League peace plan for Syria foundered on the dual veto of Russia and China. Fears were freely expressed that Syria was sliding towards civil war. Using terms rarely heard in recent diplomatic exchanges, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. vented her “disgust” at the collusion in the Syrian bloodbath of two global powers. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced the stance of the two Security Council recalcitrants as a “travesty”. “Freedom-loving” people everywhere, she declared, should join the effort to sustain and arm the Syrian liberation struggle.
By the standards of the last two decades, this has been a rare moment of discord among the Security Council grandees. Yet, the breakdown of the oppressive consensus that allowed the U.S. and its allies to interpret every U.N. resolution in a manner of their convenience was long foretold.
Estimates of the number of casualties caused by the year-long turmoil in Syria, even as the U.N. Security Council broke up in acrimony, stood at between 6,000 and 7,500. Of these, between a quarter and a fifth were thought to have been from the ranks of the state security forces. It was disproportionate warfare, but not quite as bad as the U.S. war in Iraq, which has killed just under 5,000 U.S. servicemen, while claiming upwards of a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians, not to mention an untold number of those who could be classified as “insurgents”. Yet the grim statistics from Syria would establish that civil war is very much the accomplished reality there, not merely the potential outcome of a failure to intervene.
A Conflict Without Witness
Syria’s civil war is a conflict without witness. Information has been sporadic and images sparse, allowing no basis for a considered judgment. The global community sees images of a country in turmoil with ordinary people fearful for their lives and no longer sure of their daily routines. The dominant global narrative puts this down to the desperate effort by the Syrian regime to suppress a wholly legitimate upsurge of political protests. Harsh repression has turned a peaceful mass movement into an urban guerilla operation, with poorly organised but highly motivated groups of partisans seeking to bring to account the seemingly eternal dictatorship of the al-Assad dynasty.
Inured to a high degree of control over citizen loyalty and having for long trusted in repression as a fair alternative to widening the circle of consent, the al-Assad regime for its part has responded to the new realities by striking heavy hammer blows at civilian centres, often targeting entire urban populations for collective punishment, as in the city of Homs. The strategy has served the regime well at least once before in its tortured existence, when Hafez al-Assad – father of the current president -- suppressed a revolt by the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (or Muslim Brotherhood) in the city of Hama in 1982 by calling in the air-force and the artillery to reduce it to rubble.
President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime has in recent months responded to the new imperatives of openness, by taking out a few conducted tours for international journalists. These have been, unsurprisingly, tailored towards reinforcing the picture the regime has constructed, of a heroic homeland of Arab civilisational glory under siege from malevolent neighbours serving the agenda of a distant imperialist power. This account holds the attack on Syrian sovereignty as the desperate acts of isolated saboteurs who have infiltrated from hostile neighbouring states such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Those of infirm loyalty are wreaking their vengeance on Syria for its steadfast leadership of the “resistance front” which opposes a dishonourable Arab peace with Israel.
It would be reckless to deny the elements of truth in this story-line, though Syrian leadership of the “resistance front” has not been untainted by a number of sordid deals with Israel and the U.S. The incitement in Syria moreover, does not come from the near neighbourhood, since Jordan and Lebanon, strategically vulnerable and small, are merely staging posts for a wider game. Syria is now the cockpit of a large-scale collision of interests which obviously involves the U.S., because it is difficult for the global superpower to stay out of any intrigue in the Arab world. But with its capacity for direct intervention compromised since getting tangled up in a no-win situation in Iraq, the U.S. has to implement its diktat through proxies, with all the possible dilution in strategic intent that this involves. This accounts for the sudden metamorphosis of the Arab League – a decrepit body of squabbling potentates that has failed virtually every serious test of credibility in the recent and distant past – into a body that pretends to have the capacity to deal with the Syrian crisis.
A New Reactionary Blend
Behind the new and manifest sense of purpose of the Arab League is the growing insecurity of its richest regimes, which now find themselves strategically constricted, by the legacy of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the wave of popular rebellion sweeping the Arab world. The blend of military authoritarianism and Islamic orthodoxy, the ideological confection devised to stem the tide of rebellion, has proved of rather dubious efficacy. A whole year after the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship was toppled, with elections conducted and the Muslim Brotherhood securely entrenched as the most significant political force in the country, Egypt continues to be restive. Popular calls for overturning the military oligarchy and turning over real power to the people have been rebuffed by the Muslim Brotherhood, wedging further apart the diverse elements of the coalition that drove the Mubarak dictatorship out.
Unable to summon up sufficient resources of political legitimacy, the Egyptian military has conjured up an alliance with the Islamic parties, unleashing animosities along numerous other axes. Bitter street battles in October killed dozens among the country’s Christian minority as the state-owned media cheered the rioters on. And the football riots of early February furnish a sharper insight into the Egyptian army’s strategy of securing for itself a pivotal role by fomenting civil strife on a vast scale. As the first anniversary of the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt came around on February 14, a tense standoff was in evidence between the Islamic parties now in the ascendant and other parties that are insistent on an end to military tutelage over the political transition.
Neighbouring Libya, which has dropped out of the international headlines since the grisly lynching of longtime dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi and the public display of his decaying corpse, remains in a state of indecision and uncertainty. Squabbling tribal groupings have staked claims to sovereign enclaves and revenge attacks continue against those suspected of residual loyalty to the older regime.
For the many months in 2011 that the uprising against Muammar al-Gaddafi raged, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other allies among the cabal of oil-rich kingdoms, managed to keep their sponsorship of the rebellion a relatively well-guarded secret. The western powers soon stepped in, expansively interpreting a U.N. resolution as a mandate for offensive air sorties and political assassination. It was only after final victory was declared with Gaddafi’s murder that Qatar stepped up to claim responsibility in moral and material terms for sustaining the rebellion.
Democracy is a hazard that the oil sheikhs have taken ample precaution to safeguard themselves from. In March 2011, the movement for reforms in Bahrain was brutally crushed in a joint military operation directed by the reigning monarch and the Saudi Arabian dynasty. And the political reforms proposed by a subsequent inquiry into the unrest remain unimplemented for fear of the precedent that would create for the absolute power of sheikhs elsewhere. There was perhaps no inherent element of sectarianism in the Arab uprisings that began early in 2011. But the opportunism visible in abundant measure from the oil sheikhs has brought the sectarian element to the foreground, where it merges with a wider strategic rivalry between Shi’a Iran and the Gulf kingdoms. In turn, this factor compounds older sources of instability arising from the Palestinian issue and the implosion of Iraq as a state following the U.S. invasion of 2003.
Syria as Arab Recalcitrant
If Libya can be allowed to fester in anarchy and disorder, Egypt presents a very different picture, merely because it is the largest Arab country and borders Israel, the indispensable pivot of western strategy in the region. Syria is likewise of crucial strategic consequence as a frontline state with Israel, with a long unresolved territorial issue over the Golan heights, but also because it is a flank of the Arab world through which a deep fissure runs. That fissure in the Arab world could be papered over, even through years of Syrian support for Iran when it fought a brutal war with Iraq. But it has since the U.S. occupation of Iraq, acquired strategic dimensions that could spell potential danger for the entire Arab world’s sense of identity.
As he surveys the horizon from his besieged perch in Damascus, the Syrian President may find an element of comfort from the stated position of the Iraqi government that it will not be party to any manner of punitive actions against Syria. This is a significant change in strategic equations since Iraq and Syria could be counted on, all through the years that they were divided by the shared ideology of Ba’ath socialism, to oppose each other in every matter of consequence. Syria’s reward in 1991 for standing by and watching Iraq being pummelled into the stone age by the U.S. and its allies, was the tacit, though provisional recognition of Lebanon as its exclusive sphere of influence. It was a status that Syria had worked hard to win, beginning with its brutal suppression at U.S. and Israeli behest, of Palestinian freedom fighters based in Lebanon in 1976.
Syria has not in the eyes of the Palestinian liberation movement yet requited its guilt. Its patronage of the Hamas Islamic resistance, as against the Fatah movement favoured by the Gulf Arab states, has deepened the suspicion with which it is viewed in some circles. And in Lebanon, the growth of the Shi’a Hezbollah under its benign gaze has compounded its image as an Arab recalcitrant.
Matters may yet have settled into a permanent state of mutual suspicion had the turmoil in Iraq following the U.S. invasion, not led to a significant accretion to Iran’s strategic influence within the country. And when the new Iraqi constitution was promulgated in 2005, with its pronounced bias towards decentralisation and its provisions for sub-national regions to be constituted with a high degree of autonomy, there were serious worries in the Gulf states that the “Arab character” of the country was at stake, that indeed, Iraq could be taken permanently out of the Arab orbit.
Lebanon had meanwhile become another theatre of confrontation and the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 caused an upwelling of sentiment that compelled Syria to withdraw its forces from the country. But Syria has continued to wield enormous clout through the Hezbollah, which had gained sufficient military capability to compel Israel’s withdrawal from a self-proclaimed security zone in 2000 and to repulse a massive Israeli air and artillery attack in 2006.
The Gulf kingdoms are aware that they need to neutralise the appeal that Syria retains by virtue of its supposed monopoly over the spirit of resistance in the Arab world. Syria’s principal constituency among the Palestinians, the Hamas Islamic movement, recently concluded a treaty with the Fatah movement, actively brokered by Qatar. Considerably discomfited by the developments in Egypt, Israel denounced the new alignment as a fatal blow to the prospects of renewed peace negotiations. The top leadership of Hamas, despite their dependence on Syrian patronage, then undertook a tour of Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, all states seen to be ranged on the opposite side. But to ensure that it would not be accused of turning its back on more steadfast allies, the Hamas leader from Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh also visited Tehran and obtained an undertaking of continuing support from Iran.
The New Player: Turkey
This is just one among several rearrangements that have occurred on the Arab strategic chessboard in recent months. In Iraq, Vice-President Tareq al-Hashmi, leader of the Sunni bloc in the governing coalition in Baghdad, fled to the Kurdish region in the north of the country, after his arrest was ordered by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, on charges of running death squads that carried out a number of political assassinations. Al-Hashmi has lived ever since in the northern town of Sulaimaniyah, under the protection of the Kurdish regional government dominated by Massood Barzani and his allied clans. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s tribe – which competes with Barzani for influence in the Kurdish region -- has endorsed the charges made against al-Hashmi and ordered that he be handed over to the authorities in Baghdad for trial.
These developments are all deeply immersed in the regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And to complicate the scenario, a powerful third element has entered the picture in the shape of Turkey. Al-Hashmi has made it clear that he will seek refuge in Turkey if the Kurdish regional government in Iraq is compelled to withdraw the safe haven he now enjoys. This speaks of a new manner of relationship being forged within the region between Turkey and the sub-national Kurdish unit in Iraq, a strategic offset that Iraq’s Kurds are fashioning to growing Iranian influence over the Shi’a south.
For Turkey, which has for long fought an insurgency against its own Kurdish minority, this is a rather strange place to be in. Indeed, fearful of the consequences for its own internal stability, Turkey has for long bitterly opposed any hint of autonomy for Iraq’s Kurdish regions. But the shifting strategic alignments in the region now mean that it has to go beyond older formulae and seek advantage in an accommodation of convenience with the sub-national Kurdish unit in Iraq.
At least for the first six months of the uprising in Syria, Turkey was allied with the al-Assad regime, seeking stability on its eastern flank rather than an unending cycle of violence. But a flow of refugees into its territory may have set off calculations of strategic advantage, leading to a change of tone by about October 2011. Turkey then moved rapidly to garner the moral advantage of allying with the uprising in Syria, imposing unilateral sanctions on the regime and closing its territory for arms traffic into the country.
The two-way strategic contest between Iran and the Gulf states was in quick time transformed into a three-cornered competition, with the Kurdish region of Iraq, home to some of the country’s richest oilfields, a potential ally of Turkey. The Syrian regime has a comfort zone in the territorial continuum stretching through the Shi’a south of Iraq to Iran. It could also use its allies in Lebanon to send out a message to the Gulf states and the west. And any manner of activism by Hezbollah today would probably draw a response from Israel.
The atmosphere is not rendered any more congenial by the loud thinking currently underway in Israel about the most opportune time to mount an attack on Iran’s nuclear assets. While publicly distancing itself from the Israeli war talk, the U.S. has also been sending out a signal that it would be powerless to restrain Israel from unilateral action. The Gulf Arab states have stayed out of this conversation but Saudi Arabia was revealed in 2010, in leaked U.S. diplomatic cables exposed by the Wikileaks website, to have called for “smashing the head of the Iranian serpent” through a quick surgical strike against its nuclear facilities.
Iran for its part has responded to the rhetoric by vowing to hit at U.S. and Israeli interests at any place of its choice. With powerful and well-armed proxies in Iraq and Lebanon – not to mention Afghanistan – few would doubt Iran’s capacity to deliver on the promise. Clearly, the Syrian civil war is not merely about that country any more. If it continues for any further length of time, it could draw in virtually every country of consequence in the wider region. In this, it could well be the prelude to a civil war involving the entire Arab world. And that would be potentially, a fatal challenge to the key principles of western geopolitics in the region: to keep Iran out, Arab nationalism down and Israel on top.