Next March will mark the fifth anniversary of what started as another chapter in the so-called “Arab Spring” morphed into a civil war, degenerated into a humanitarian catastrophe and, finally, led to the systemic collapse of Syria as a nation-state.
That sequence of events has had a profound impact on virtually the whole of the region known as the Greater Middle East, affecting many aspects of its component nations ranging from demography, ethno-sectarian composition and security. Since the purpose of this presentation is not to offer an historic account of the events, a brief reminder of some key aspects would suffice.
Five years ago, when the first demonstration took place in Deraa, in southern Syria, much of the so-called “Arab World” was in a state of high expectations in the wake of uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya that seemed to have ended decades of despotic rule by military-security organs of the state. Despite important differences, the Syrian state at the time fitted the description of the typical model of the Arab state as developed after the Second World War.
It was, therefore, not fanciful to think that it might respond to the first signs of popular discontent in the same ways as similar states had done elsewhere in the Arab World. One important difference was that at the time the uprising started, the Syrian state, arguably the most repressive in the modern Arab World, apart from Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, had embarked on a program of timid reform and liberalization. The new dictator, Bashar al-Assad, had tried to portray himself as a Western-educated reformer attracted to aspects of pluralism and a market economy. He had allowed the emergence of the first privately owned banks and privatized a number of state-owned companies. He had also allowed the private sector to take the lead in a number of new sectors, notably mobile phones and the Internet. To be sure, the new banks, the privatized companies and the new technology companies were almost all owned by members of the Assad clan and associates with the military-security apparatus keeping a close watch on all activities. Nevertheless, there was some consensus among Syria-watchers in the West that the young Assad was taking the first steps necessary towards reform. This impression was reinforced by the fact that the regime allowed the emergence of a number of Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) active on a range of issues, including human rights, albeit with security services keeping a close watch.
The West does not seem to appreciate the intensity of Iran’s commitment to its Shi’ite cousins in Syria. The West also seems not to comprehend the depth of Iran’s spiritual ties to its centuries-old role as the champion of Shi’a Islam.
Much Western journalistic commentary addresses Iran’s commitment to the Assad regime in Damascus. Left underreported is the profound sense of shared religious identity between the Shia of Iran and the Shi’a Alawi minority of Syria. Iran’s determination to maintain Alawi supremacy in Syria transcends any personal attachment to the Assad administration.
In light of this month’s execution of a leading Shi’ite preacher Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia and the consequent heightened tension between Tehran and Riyadh, it might help policymakers to understand that the religious divide between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims as an inveterate and unbridgeable chasm as that between ISIS and the United States.
This week’s G8 Summit in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, got off to the worst possible start as talks between the two leaders immediately stalled.
Mr Putin refused to stop providing arms to Bashar al-Assad and rebuked Mr Cameron and President Barack Obama for aiding the rebels fighting the Syrian leader.
The Prime Minister admitted that he and Mr Putin “don’t see eye-to-eye on everything” and had a “serious and honest discussion” over Syria.
However, a spokesman for Mr Putin later said that the two leaders have “lots of very serious differences” over the situation in Syria.
Mr Putin attacked Mr Cameron’s continued support for the rebels after he was asked whether he has “the blood of Syrian children on his hands” – a reference to comments previously made by the Prime Minister.
Israel has warned Damascus that if President Assad chooses to hit back at Israel for any further Israeli military strikes, Israel will bring down his regime.
An Israeli official confirmed Wednesday night that a dramatic and unprecedented message to this effect had been conveyed to Damascus, Channel 2 news reported.
The report said that Israel’s position to this effect also came up during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s emergency meeting in Russia on Tuesday with President Vladimir Putin, during which Netanyahu also told Putin of Israel’s profound opposition to Russia’s sale of sophisticated S-300 missile defense batteries to Assad.
NEW YORK – On a visit to the Pakistani capital Islamabad in 2006, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, then a Republican senator from Nebraska, warned that “a military strike against Iran, a military option, is not a viable, feasible, responsible option.”
Hagel reiterated that view in November 2007 in a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “The answer to dealing with Iran will not be found in a military operation,” he cautioned.
And it isn’t just then-senator Hagel.
“We’ve thought about military options against Iran off and on for the last 20 years,” former top White House counterterrorism official Richard Clarke admitted that same year, “and they’re just not good, because you don’t know what the endgame is. You know what the first move of the game is, but you don’t know what
Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad warned Sunday that recent Israeli airstrikes on facilities near Damascus constituted an Israeli “declaration of war.”
Mekdad’s comments prompted concern in Israel about a possible escalation of hostilities between Israel and Syria, and Israel was said to be braced for all possibilities. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was still intending to head to China for four days on Sunday night, in what was partly a demonstrative desire to play down the likelihood of escalation.
On a day of turmoil in which a high-ranking regime spokesman defected and the United Nations began withdrawing all non-essential personnel, Mr Obama vowed the world would not stand by if chemical weapons were used as part of Syria’s 21-month-old civil war.
“Today, I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command, the world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable,” Mr Obama said during a speech on nuclear proliferation in Washington.
“If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons there will be consequences and you will be held accountable. We simply cannot allow the 21st century to be darkened by the worst weapons of the 20th century.”