The Syrian uprising is turning out to be radically different from that in other Arab states, especially because of its frightening repercussions beyond its borders. Though Syria is neither rich nor powerful, yet it has been pivotal to the region’s peace and stability, thanks to the intelligence and ruthless resolve of its leaders, which led former US secretary of state, Dr Henry Kissinger to observe that while there could be no war in the Middle East without Egypt; there could be no peace in the region either without Syria.
Admittedly, none of the Arab states have ever been democracies; most being family-run enterprises, with either republican or monarchical trappings. Concepts such as human rights have been alien to the region. But Syria is even more peculiar, in that for the past four decades power has been wielded by one family belonging to a tiny sectarian minority. It was, therefore, inevitable that once stirrings of discontent began to germinate in neighbouring countries, it would also sprout phantoms of unrest in Syria’s soil, long fertilised by the blood of its martyrs.
Dislodging Bashar al-Assad through domestic unrest, as in Tunisia or Egypt is, however, unlikely which explains the desperation with which the West has been nurturing and now arming opponents of the regime. The effort is to ensure a replay of the Libyan game plan, viewed as the new template for regime change on the cheap, with the UN extending it legitimacy, the West providing military muscle and the Gulf States, the finances.
But the West failed to anticipate Russia’s and China’s firm resolve not to be taken in again by the West’s assurances — both having been burnt badly in approving UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which was used to intervene militarily in Libya. This so-called R2P concept is a nightmare for authoritarian regimes, but best to keep it directed at countries you don’t like. This explains why it should be the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, who have become such enthusiastic proponents of a regime change in Syria that they have consented to the creation of what is being called the Nato-GCC-Israel axis. So, we now have the GCC engaged in gifting parliamentary democracy not to their citizens, but to Arabs in neighbouring countries!
Russia and China’s use of the veto has been described by US Ambassador Susan Rice as “shameful” and “disgusting”. What chutzpah, for surely, she could not be unaware of how the world sees the scores of vetoes cast by the US to shield Israel from global censure for armed invasion of neighbouring countries and the brutal occupation of Palestinians.
With Obama having virtually abandoned the ‘reset’ with Russia, the latter sees no reason to be helpful. Moreover, Russia has geopolitical and strategic ties to Syria that go beyond nostalgic memories of the past. While it needs no oil from the region, Russia is wary of supporting a rebellion that could embolden Islamists in Dagestan, Ingushetia or Chechnya. No less important is Russia’s naval presence in the Syrian deep water port of Tartus, which provides valuable access to the high seas. Moreover, Russia suspects, and rightly so, that the West’s real reason for wanting to oust Assad is to deprive Iran of its most important ally in the region. As Efraim Halevy, a former Israeli national security advisor wrote last week in the New York Times: “Getting Iran booted out of Syria is essential for Israel’s security.”
China’s stakes in Syria are minimal; it values its relations with the GCC countries and Israel much more. But with the Obama administration blatantly striving to create a ‘cordon sanitaire’ around China, the latter was left with no option but to demonstrate its solidarity with its northern neighbour.
Syria’s critical role in the region makes it likely that neither side will give up soon, which means a long and bloody civil war, with its people a pawn on the checker board of great power politics.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 15th, 2012.
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