Syria and the Arab Spring – one year later

Arab Spring blew away the long overdue dictatorial regimes of Ben Ali, Husni Mubarak, Ali Abdallah Saleh and Muamar Ghadafi leaving behind ashes of their brutal legacies. After tasting victory the winds of change sadly failed to remove a trained doctor and the current president of secular socialist (Baathist) Syria Bashar Al Assad. A man whose regime is credited with killing over 31,000 till date since the uprising began in 2011.

Syria is more complicated than Tunisia, Libya, Egypt or Yemen in all aspects. It is the central point of that complex political web from where the regional balance of power is anchored in the middle-east. This fact was best known to former empires, Umayads, Abbasids, Ottomans, French and the Soviet Union, all of whom controlled their middle-eastern holdings from Damascus.

Turkish retaliation against Syrian forces recently in the southern border area is a grave danger to the entire region which stands to drag international powers in a direct confrontation risking further divisions in the volatile geography. Turkey also understands any unilateral full scale war would mean playing right into the hands of separatist Kurdish groups’ desire for carving out an independent territory called Kurdistan out of southern Turkey. Opening two war fronts is surely not in Turkey’s best interest. Better not to make the same mistake made by Saddam Hussein who supposedly attacked Iran on others’ behalf only to bleed in a devastating 8 year war.

Iran has been a supporter of the Syrian Baathist regime since the Islamic revolution overthrew the Shah in 1979. These two countries, Iran and Syria, are the alleged financiers and friends of Hamas, Hizbullah and Islamic Jihad, all of whom call for an armed struggle against Israel. Through its ally in Damascus and the loyalty of paramilitary groups based there Teheran keeps its levers on the wheels of power and influence in middle-eastern politics.

Arab kingdoms are eager to see the back of president Bashar Al Assad and with that an end to the Iran-Syria backed threat of domestic revolt against their monarchies. Assad’s departure they hope will change the direction in the sphere of influence away from a pro Russian-Iran camp to a pro US-Gulf camp which should be friendly to Arab monarchs. The reward for making this strategic shift could be billions of dollars in aid packages for reconstruction and development work.

Russia and China have taken a strong position against any NATO intervention in Syria. For international powers Damascus is the central point for projecting their superpower ambitions. Syrian port city Tartous hosts the Russian naval fleet in the middle-east from the Soviet era and Putin will put every pressure to protect his only regional base in the Mediterranean. China is also not ready to lose its strategic future in the region through another regime change. With two permanent UNSC members against military action NATO will most likely back off from immediate armed confrontation.

The country which should benefit the most from regime change in Syria is its arch rival Israel. Syria with a sizable army of its own has a long list of die hard paramilitary groups experienced in combating Israeli defense forces. A pro US-Gulf regime in Damascus should make the situation more favorable to Israel’s long term objectives in the Arab world.

Syria today looks like former Baathist Iraq wherein a sunni minority controlled a shiite majority population until their leader Saddam Hussein was caught and hanged after Gulf War II. End of Saddam also spelled the end of the Baath rule in Baghdad. The Baathists of Damascus know that their survival too depends directly on Bashar al Asad’s survival and Bashar’s regime in turn depends on the minority Alawites’ majority control of the armed forces. The shite Alawites and secular Baathist control of Damascus are inter-connected which means the conflict against the secular Baathist regime ironically and sadly holds a certain religious element to it.

In this situation should the international community support war in Syria or should they accept the oppressive regime of Bashar Al Assad?

What do the Alawites believe?

The major divide in Islam is between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, who initially split over who was supposed to succeed the prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Alawites identify as Shiite Muslims, but the sect carried over older beliefs that predate Islam. For instance, Alawites celebrate some Christian and Zoroastrian holidays.

There are a few other things that distinguish Alawites. Although most Muslims have five pillars of faith, the Alawites have seven. They believe in the divinity of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad (pbuh); other Shiites revere Ali but do not believe he was divine.

Like Jews, Alawites also are seen sometimes as more of a cultural group than a strictly religious one. “Many Alawites nowadays consider themselves outright atheists but are still within the cultural sphere of Alawis and are accepted into the sect and treated like any other (myself, included),” wrote Yazan Badran, a Syrian blogger in Japan who comes from an Alawite family.

 

How do the Alawites fit into Syria?

In Syria, most of the population is Sunni. Alawites are a minority, believed to make up 12% to 15% of the population. The Assad family, which has ruled Syria for more than 40 years, is Alawite. The religious group also dominates the Syrian security forces.

If the Alawites are such a small sect, how did they come to dominate the Syrian military?

It might seem logical that the Assads put them there, but it was actually the other way around. After World War I, French colonial officials tried to make Syria more inclusive by encouraging minorities to fill government positions. The Alawites ended up finding their place in the military.

As Alawites were recruited to the military, wealthier Sunni urbanites often shunned the military as a career path for their children. “Nobody else would go,” said Camille Otrakji, a Syrian analyst now living in Canada. “The rich in Damascus weren’t interested.”

That led to the military becoming heavily Alawite. Ultimately, the Syrian military was the springboard from which Alawite air force officer Hafez Assad staged his 1970 coup, beginning the Assad regime.

 

Why does it matter that the Assads are Alawites?

Alawites have been persecuted throughout their history, perhaps because their religious identity is confusing to the authorities. The Assad regime has played on Alawite fears to help it stay in power.

When Syrians began to protest against Assad, Alawites were fearful that “the fall of the regime would bring disaster for their community,” wrote a Middle East researcher in New Zealand. Some Alawites fear that other Syrians might want to take revenge against them for the 1982 massacre in Hama, where human rights activists say thousands of Sunnis were slain — and a big statue of Hafez Assad was erected as an unsubtle message.

But Assad is not guaranteed Alawite support. Some do not see Assad as truly Alawite, considering he married a Sunni woman and grew up in Damascus, not the rural areas other Alawites come from. The Assad family has also repressed dissent from Alawites just as it has other Syrians.

Alawites and the uprising

After the 1963 coup that brought the Baath Party to power, Alawites began consolidating their presence in the government and armed forces. When Hafez Assad took power in a 1970 coup, he stacked key military posts with Alawites, ensuring army loyalty.

Bottom of Form

His son Bashar, who succeeded him in 2000, continued the policy. A U.N. report estimated last year that Alawites make up the majority of the officer corps of the armed forces, the Republican Guard and the feared 4th Division, commanded by Assad’s brother Maher.

This disproportionate power has bred resentment among Sunnis, who make up most of Syria’s 22 million people and are the base of the opposition. Some Alawites have joined the revolt against Assad. But like other Syrian minorities, they have stood largely by him for fear of what might befall them in case a hardline Sunni regime takes over. It is understood that the shite Alawite regime keeps a close relationship with shite Iran whereas the sunni majority have theirs with neighboring Turkish sunni muslims dating back to Ottoman era.

Ottoman-Safavid historic connection with Syria

(Jamal Pasha, Ottoman Governor of Syria inspecting his troops left. Pasha with sheriff Ali Hayder)

Turkey for 5 centuries was the center of sunni muslims’ political and military supremacy. Teheran on the other hand became the shiite capital after the 1979 revolution which brought the shite vilayete faqih (rule of the jurists) to power. The Grand Ayatollah of the Islamic Republic is considered as the global religious leader of shite muslims. Former sultans in the Ottoman empire enjoyed that same status in the sunni world before the abolishment of the caliphate in 1924.

In the age of empires Turkish Ottomans and Persian Safavids rivalry for supremacy continued in the larger Islamic empire that stretched from Morocco to Indonesia. Their last war was the Ottoman–Safavid War of 1623–1639 as the last of a series of conflicts over control of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and Syria). After initial Persian success in capturing Baghdad and most of modern Iraq, the war became a stalemate, as the Persians were unable to press further into the Ottoman Empire, and the Ottomans themselves were distracted by wars in Europe and weakened by internal turmoil. Eventually, the Ottomans were able to recover Baghdad, and the signing of the Treaty of Zuhab ended the war in an Ottoman victory, with Mesopotamia remaining thenceforth in Ottoman hands, until lost in the aftermath of World War I.

Syria-Turkey relations

9 people have so far been killed in clashes in southeast Turkey. Syrian rockets fired into Turkish territory killing 4 people triggering a volley of Turkish wrath as a result. Fighting remained limited on both sides though  knowing that an all out war would be suicidal and war with Syria is considered as a “worst case scenario” by the Turkish government. Damascus-Istanbul relationship go back in history as the Turkish Ottoman provincial capital was located in Damascus which they lost in large part due to the Arab revolt in WWI.

The Arab Revolt

Until the end of WWI Syria, Iraq, Hejaz (Saudi Arabia), Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and most of North Africa were under the Ottoman rule. The Arab revolt which started in the Hejaz went against time honored Islamic tradition as muslim Arabs joined hands with non muslim Allied forces to fight against their co-religionists the Ottoman of Turkey. On the night of September 30, 1918 Allied forces led by General Edmund Allenby marched into Damascus as Turkish authorities abandoned the city.

(General Allenby and King Feisal I)

That night, Turkish authorities fled the city in anticipation of the Allied occupation, ending hundreds of years of Ottoman rule in Damascus. Allenby’s forces were aided in their campaign in Syria by a force of Arab nationalists, led by Faisal, the son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca. Since 1916, Hussein and his sons, encouraged by British contacts such as T.E. Lawrence—the famous “Lawrence of Arabia”—had given their support to the Allies backstabbing their co-religionists. When the Allies occupied Damascus, Arab riflemen fired their guns in the air to celebrate the fall of the Turks in that city. Barely a month later, Turkey sued for peace, signing an armistice with the Allies on October 30, 1918. Turkey without its caliphate could be compared to a Great Britain without its monarchy.

(General Allenby entering Jerusalem on foot)

 

Modern Turkish Model

Dictators who took over from former colonial governors were experts at suppressing the thoughts, emotions and opinions of their citizens. Use of secret police (mukhabarat) for spying on opposition, rights activists and free thinking writers marked the high points of their tyrannical career. Freedom and liberty of people were crushed in exchange for financial aid which mostly ended up in the elites’ pockets suggests the Arab revolutionaries.

Turkey on the other hand has built a pluralistic republic without totally abandoning its Islamic history, culture and civilization. It is more open to criticism, modern ideas, science, technology and progress in general. There may be issues concerning governance or economic development from time to time as is the case with any administration anywhere in the world but the Turkish system stands out shining in a region where the dark forces reigned in Stalinist police state models.

Arab youths want a better future for themselves, they deserve a better future, like their Turkish brothers and sisters. They would like to see an open, pluralistic, democratic and liberal society built on the principles of Justice and Freedom. This is the model AKP ruling party of Turkey has been advocating for its people which Arabs want so badly. And hence the “Turkish model” has become their spiritual inspiration silently shaping the youths’ mindset in North Africa and the Levant, former Turkish ottoman provinces.

Revolutionaries during the height of protests at Tahrir Square very clearly expressed their dreams to fashion their society along the favored Turkish model. One Egyptian newspaper ran a headline “lend us Erdogan for a month” echoing the Turkish spirit solemnly whispering amongst the people at that time. In 2011 Arabs revolted against hoping to bring in the Turkish Model in Arab lands. Successive elections point towards that cherished goal as parties thought to be related to the Muslim Brotherhood adopted the Turkish principles in their election motto.

Turkey wants to avoid war

Syrian forces shelled its northern border area where the rebel fighters are said to be headquartered. Fighters are apparently receiving ammo from there and naturally Syrian forces pounded those sites in order to cut off the vital link for the arms supply. However, shelling the rebels also meant firing on Turkish lands. Turkey responded in kind but stopped short of a full blown ground assault.

Bashar Al Assad has his hands full fighting a civil war, and Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan would presumably like to avoid war. His administration suggested this weekend that Syria’s vice president would be acceptable as the leader of a transitional government. It’s a frantic effort to avoid war which may not be avoidable in the future.

But wars are often fought by countries whose leaders didn’t really want them. (See World War I.) A common reason is that neither regime feels it can afford to be seen by its people as backing down. But perhaps more important are some other dynamics pushing these countries toward war:

[1] Turkey could decide before long that war is preferable to the alternatives. Many of Syria’s Kurds hope to use the civil war as an opportunity to carve out an autonomous or even sovereign Kurdish region in Syria, and Turkey fears that this could prove contagious, emboldening Kurdish separatists in Turkey and energizing longstanding dreams of a new Kurdish nation that comprises parts of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran.

[2] NATO: The fact that a Turkish-Syrian war could draw America into the conflict will make such a war more attractive to some backers of American intervention. That includes presumably leaders of some Arab states.

[3] The Syrian regime is fighting for its life, and along the Turkish-Syrian border lies the lifeline of its enemy. The rebels are being supplied with weapons via Turkey and are seizing control of border crossings inside Syria, and their goal is to build, from there, an expanding zone of control. It would be in the loyalists’ best interest to keep control of border crossings and disrupt the rebels’ supply of arms and ammunition near the point of origin. It means shelling along the border will not stop any time soon.

“Those who attempt to test Turkey’s deterrence, its decisiveness, its capacity, I say here, they are making a fatal mistake,” Mr Erdogan said. “We are not interested in war, but we’re not far from war either. This nation is where it is today having gone through inter-continental wars.”

By going to war Turkey could risk its own trajectory of power and supremacy in world politics risking many of the economic and social achievements it has worked so hard for. Turkey cant fall into another fatal war where its territorial unity could come under the scanner. But can Turkey back down from its superior moral position as the leading muslim state in the world having the ability to save the Syrian people from Bashar Al Assad?

 

Syria-Iran connection

Iran did not export the Islamic revolution to Syria and neither did the Baathists export aetheism to Iran and yet they look like they are joined in the hip. Something other than religion has brought these two dissimilar countries together. A brief about Iran-Syria relations:

Since 1979, the alliance between Syria and Iran has had significant impact in both shaping Middle East politics.

Syria and Iran are the two parties most responsible according to US analysts for spoiling U.S.-backed peace efforts between the Arabs and Israel in order to promote their own Arab and Islamic interests. For the United States, they were also the most troublesome countries during the U.S. intervention in Iraq because they aided, abetted or armed insurgents.

The two regimes share common traits. They are both defiantly independent, even at a political or economic cost. Iran is predominantly Shiite. Although Syria is predominantly Sunni Muslim, its ruling family is Alawite, a Shiite sect.

Syria’s Baa’thist ideology is strictly secular and socialist. Iran’s ideology is rigidly religious and, in principle, opposed to atheist communism and its offshoots. Yet their common strategic goals have held the alliance together for three decades, despite repeated attempts to rend them apart.

Overview

 

The Iran-Syria alliance grew out of common cause—and common enemies. Since Iran’s 1979 revolution, these two countries combined their will and intelligence to build a network of surrogate militias and frustrate the plans of opponents. Together they ensured Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which bordered both countries, would not become the predominant regional power. They forced U.S. peacekeepers out of Lebanon in 1984, and thwarted Israel’s effort to bring Lebanon into its orbit during an 18-year occupation that finally ended in Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in 2000.

Together they also stand a better chance of achieving their long-term goals. Syria wants to regain the strategic Golan Heights, lost to Israel in the 1967 War, and keep its veto power over Lebanese politics. Iran wants to be the preeminent regional player in the Persian Gulf and ensure its allies rule in Iraq.

The height of Syrian-Iranian power    1982-1985

After Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and rout of Syrian forces there, Syrian President Hafez Assad enlisted Iran’s influence among the Lebanese Shiites to wage a campaign of attacks against their mutual opponents in Lebanon.

Common enemy Saddam Hussein’s Iraq        1988-1991

Cooperation focused on checking Iraqi power and crushing President Michel Aoun’s anti-Syrian revolt in Lebanon in 1988-1989. During the 1990-1991 Gulf War against Iraq, Syria contributed troops to the U.S.-led coalition and Iran remained neutral.

Alliance cooperation in the post-Cold War period   1991-2003

As the Cold War ended and the United States became the world’s dominant power, Tehran and Damascus grew increasingly important to each other. They collaborated in arming and abetting Hezbollah and Hamas to pressure Israel, as well as to influence events in Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority. Their aid was instrumental in enabling Hezbollah to wage a guerrilla campaign throughout the 1990s against Israel, which withdrew in 2000.

 Alliance after the 2003 Iraq war

Cooperation between Iran and Syria increased markedly after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Both countries welcomed the ouster of Saddam Hussein, their mutual foe. But the speed of the U.S. military victory also initially raised fears that either Iran or Syria might be the next target in the Bush administration’s “War on Terror.”

An enduring alliance

The Syria-Iran alliance has survived in part because it has been primarily defensive in nature. For three decades, it has been aimed largely at neutralizing Iraqi and Israeli capabilities and preventing American encroachment in the Middle East. Defensive alliances which have fixed and limited objectives are often more durable.

Their distinctive ideological differences, ironically, have also helped the relationship endure. Syria and Iraq were intense political rivals, and often came close to military blows, because they shared the same Baa’thist ideology. The political elites in Tehran and Damascus were never competing.

Iran has vied for leadership of the Islamist bloc in the Middle East and beyond, a role in which secular Syria has no interest. Syria has long sought to be “the beating heart of Arabism,” a role in which Iran, a non-Arab country, has no interest. Except for a brief period of rival ambitions in Lebanon, the two countries have never been in competition—ideologically, economically or militarily. Neither has tried to upstage the other.

 

Syria, Egypt Israel and the Middle-East

Syria’s importance in Middle East politics sky rocketed after the peace treaty was signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979 which neutralized the most militarily powerful Arab country Egypt against Israel.

(Sadat, carter and Begin at Camp David after signing the peace treaty)

Anwar Sadat was more pragmatic than his predecessor. He used Egypt’s advances in the Yom Kippur war to negotiate land for peace. He recovered Egypt’s lost territory from Israel in an attack that surprised the entire world. After that came the ground breaking treaty and his fatal visit to Israel as a state guest. The Arabs were shocked at what they termed betrayal of the Palestinian and Arab cause. Anwar Sadat was branded as a traitor by islamist groups who on the 8th anniversary of the Yom Kippur war assassinated him at a parade.

(Sadat’s assassination on the 8th anniversary of Yom Kippur war)

Following the peace treaty Egypt was dismembered from the Arab League which was created by mostly Egyptian diplomacy and headquartered in Cairo. Syria ended up assuming Egypt’s place as the last Arab country to oppose Israel militarily. As such countries not belonging to the pro US-Gulf block would be naturally inclined towards the Syrian regime.

(Husni Mubarak next to Anwar Sadat)

 

 

 

Balance of Power

In the age of republics Turkey and Iran have transformed their old political structures bringing in a new dimension for acquiring greater influence in the muslim world. The race now is between two republics instead of two empires.

The difference between the two republics is that while Turkey is secular and democratic with a soft Islam approach Iran claims it is Islamic and democratic leaning towards hardliners. It is also observed that Turkey is the only muslim member state of NATO and is generally not considered to be anti US whilst Iran is pro Russia and has no diplomatic relations with the US.

The ruling elite and the common people don’t always share the same vision for allies and friends. For eg, Baathist rulers of Damascus are closer to the Islamic republic more than they ever were with Iraqi Baathists in Baghdad. During the US war in Iraq refugees flooded Iraq’s western border where they were quite well received by Syrians. Again, as the civil war currently rages refugees from Syria are flooding the Turkish and Iraqi borders. Syrians commonly will be more comfortable in Turkish or Iraqi lands rather than of Iran.

Between the people of contiguous countries there exists a logical cultural, religious and linguistic sharing which would be the natural basis for state relationships. Middle-eastern countries’ policies however are often questioned whether they truly reflect the peoples’ collective desire for bonding or are they acting as proxies for foreign powers. It is often the case that a country in the US camp is generally not hostile towards Israel and vice versa. A regime change carries the hope that Syria would move away from the Russian camp and into the US camp making Israel more secure.

In the Arab Spring 2011 the Al-Khalifah family, Bahraini ruling dynasty, was nearly overthrown by an uprising had it not been for Saudi forces which came to rescue the royalty from its citizens. The massacres in Bahrain were no different from the one in Syria today except that the international community had sided with the ruling dynasty instead of the people. Bahrain has also been a naval base for the US Navy’s 5th fleet.

The fact that the revolution in Bahrain failed does not, and should not, imply that Bahrainis have forgotten the bloodshed and are now happy to be once again under the old royals. The horror of massacres lives in a nation’s memory for generations as repeatedly seen in the history of nations.

The burning issue for Gulf Arabs is the possibility of uprisings and revolts against the ruling dynasties. The possibility of monarchs’ fall raises the prospect of a radically anti western government taking over and fundamentally altering the balance of power in the region. That should also be Israel’s biggest concern also.

The promoter of change in the current balance of power is Iran the shite choice of majority population in many Arab countries. Iran and its partner Syria are obvious targets for the current power holding monarchs who wish to avoid a fate similar to Libya’s Ghaddafi.

The only muslim country and NATO member with a powerful army which can set things right for the continuation of the existing balance of power is Turkey. Military intervention in Syria will most probably drag in Iran, Russia, NATO and possibly Israel and China into the conflict and therefore makes Turkish entry in such a war more and more unlikely.

The balance of power in the region can’t change unless the Iran-Russia alliance shifts away from Syria, or vice versa. That will not be expected unless the top brass of the Baathist regime in Syria have been replaced by a popular government relying on the peoples’ desire to be liberated.

Justice and Freedom

In the Persian Gulf it looks like the fear of another country falling into the Iranian camp is more dangerous than supporting a popular struggle for freedom and justice. On that premise there are three broad groups with regard to the Syrian uprising.

Firstly, there is the pro interventionist group which are clustered close to each other in the Persian Gulf. Their worst nightmare is the rising power of Iranian ideology amongst their shite citizens which can one day dislodge them from power. These states are against any change in their own societies whilst they advocate for external intervention to change Syria. Interestingly, these states do not move when Palestinian blood is shed but are deeply touched by the cleansing in Syria. They are also important US-NATO partners in the regional strategy.

Then there is the pro Assad group all of whom have fixed their regional ambitions in Syria the heart of Arab modernism. They don’t want regime change and will oppose any western intention to intervene militarily. These countries are also non NATO countries.

The third group comes from the Arab street. They don’t want war and they definitely don’t have any sympathy for dictators like Assad. War, they say, will probably split the country into 2 or 3 separate independent states which will be a permanent source for future conflicts.

Alawite, Sunni and Kurdish Syrias would be catastrophic in terms of unity and strength for the most strategic Arab country. Earlier, Iraq was practically divided into 2 states, a shjite-sunni Iraq and a semi autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan following Gulf War I and II. The victor in these divisions is often the evil concept of sectarianism and racism.

Arabs were not destined to be ruled by iron fists. Their culture tells any reader of history how fiercely independent they always have been. Arabs now believe they can make a change and they need every help they can get for liberating their societies.

People don’t want war politicians do, goes the saying. In case of war the greatest casualty will be the loss of innocent lives which had nothing to do with any of this regional strategic game. But freedom and liberty comes at a price. Are the Syrians collectively prepared to pay that price?

However the only way for changing Syria is by prevailing the collective will of the people over dictatorships. The armed struggle, may be argued, came too early too fast in Damascus. The revolution has to be fully home grown and non militant if it wants victory.

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