The mass protests in Syria started in the southern city of Daraa on March 18th, where the army violently suppressed thousands of people who took to the streets protesting. Around a hundred people were killed by security forces. The death toll continues to rise[i]. The arrest of several teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall in Daraa served as the spark for dissent. Calls for the students’ release were succeeded by calls for political freedoms[ii], as demonstrators chanted that “we want dignity and freedom” and said “no to the emergency laws”. The country is under emergency law, a legacy inherited from the 1963 coup that brought the Baath party to power. The Syrian authorities utilise it to ban protests, justify arbitrary arrests, close courts and give reign to the secret police forces[iii].
But the causes of this uprising are deeper. Daraa suffered hard from the drought that also hit all of eastern Syria. Moreover, according to a Jerusalem Post report, “the city is home to thousands of displaced people from eastern Syria, where up to a million people have left their home because of a water crisis in the past six years”[iv]. This unprecedented water crisis, along with the poor Syrian agricultural infrastructure and management, has led to deterioration in living standards in Daraa and Syria in general. What is more, Daraa is a majority Sunni Muslim population, neglected by the Alawite Assad regime. It is also a tribal region that has traditionally resisted central authority, and some attribute the severity of the demonstrations to the significance of tribal identities[v].
After Daraa, demonstrations followed in Damascus, Latakia, Homs, Hama and Kamishly. Although there are some early indications of the Muslim Brotherhood’s involvement in the demonstrations, the main opposition group in the country has not put its full weight behind it[vi]. The Brotherhood remembers vividly the massacre at Hama in 1982, where the Syrian army violently crushed its attempts at dissent. The MB now looks to the West for assurances of support, though prospects for such support appear slim. After weeks of violent protests, Syria’s cabinet resigned on March 29th 2011[vii]. However, this move has not satisfied protesters’ demands, as the changes have done little to alter the balance of power in Syria’s government, where authority lies disproportionately in the hands of Bashar Al- Assad, his family and the security apparatus[viii].
Nevertheless, while addressing the Syrian Parliament on March 30th, Bashar Al-Assad was expected to introduce reforms, including the lifting of the state of emergency[ix]. Instead, the President simply stressed that security and stability need to come first. He also accused foreign powers of trying to stir sectarian strife in Syria. However, though Bashar claims to promote reforms from 2005, some say that he is incapable of implementing true reforms[x]. In fact, Assad’s regime is not willing to offer concessions to the opposition, unless it is forced to.
However, apart from domestic issues of regime survival and the role of Islamists in politics, the unrest in Syria creates regional and international puzzles. What is at stake in Syria is not just an internal matter; rather, the stakes are above all geopolitical on a regional scale[xi]. Syria is the linchpin of the Tehran – Damascus – Hezbollah axis, which has been seen by many leaders in the region as the hallmark of resistance to Israeli and American hegemony. This makes the country important both at the regional and international level.
The Iran – Syria – Hezbollah axis
While Syria’s relations with Iran have grown stronger, some policy makers have called on the US administration to flip Syria and distance it from Iran. The Obama administration has tried to reach out to the country diplomatically to encourage the latter to reconsider its “rejectionist” behaviour. The United States has long been critical of Syria’s support of anti-Israeli militant groups and its involvement in Lebanon, and restored full diplomatic relations with Syria only recently by sending an ambassador to Damascus in January after nearly six years of diplomatic isolation[xii]. Nevertheless, some claim that the foundation of the Syrian-Iranian relationship, which includes the support of Hizballah in Lebanon and countering Israel, is based on geopolitical criteria which render it difficult to disentangle one from the other.
Until its expulsion in 2005, Syria has acted as a de facto power broker in Lebanon and effectively enabled Hizballah to rise and became the transit point for Iranian supplies to the Lebanese organisation. The country also acted as safe haven for offices, personnel and organisation for both Hizballah and Palestinian militant groups, such as Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC)[xiii].
Furthermore, the Islamic Republic and Syria share the same interest for involvement in Iraq. Since 2003 and the Iraqi war, Iran’s role in Iraq, like Syria’s, is the subject of hundreds of reports, many of which suggest that Tehran was heavily involved in equipping and aiding Shia groups. The reports allege excessive links between Iran and the militant groups, particularly Mahdi militia and Badr Corps, with the allegation that they were receiving arms from Iranian agents[xiv]. In addition, there were reports that in the run up to the Iraqi war, many top officials of Saddam’s regime were offered shelter in Syria.
Syria lies in the centre of a dense network of Middle East relationships, and the crisis there could have a major impact on the regional balance of power. Now that Syria faces internal problems, the Tehran – Damascus – Hizballah axis can not stay unaffected. If the Syrian regime were to be weakened by popular dissent, Iran’s influence in Arab affairs would probably be reduced – both in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories[xv]. As Antoine Basbous, the head of the Paris-based Observatory of Arab Countries, claims, “Iran is very involved with this regime and would defend it with all means possible”[xvi].
Dangers and opportunities
Lebanon can not stay unaffected by the Syrian uprisings, which may have contributed to greater sectarian divisions within Lebanese society. At this time, the spectre of civil war is rising again in Lebanon and Hizballah’s local enemies aspire to reap the benefits of sectarian strife for themselves. This might explain the sharp speech of the former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who asserted that Hizballah’s weapons were not so much a threat to Israel as to Lebanon’s own freedom and sovereignty- at Iran’s hand. In fact, the Sunni Muslim leader tried to rally supporters against the new Lebanese government[xvii]. The formation of the latter has been entrusted to Saad’s successor and Hizballah-backed Najib Mikati[xviii]. Analysts claim a solution to the current political vacuum depends to some extend on Syria’s subsequent actions, though the regime may be too preoccupied by its internal troubles to focus on its neighbour[xix].
The danger of a destabilised Lebanon could serve as a unifying factor for a diverse group of countries. Syria has reined in Hizballah on several occasions. “Washington, Israel, Turkey and Iran all have great reasons to want Assad to remain at the helm”, Israeli analyst Zvi Bar’el supports in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. “He’s seen as a safety valve against an attack on Israel by Hizballah or against its physical takeover of Lebanon”.[xx]
Moreover, Syria could become a key player on another neighbouring check board; the Gulf. The reasons behind the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states of the Gulf and Iran are old but they have been accentuated because of the former’s recent intervention in Bahrain[xxi]. Despite the official stance that the Saudis and United Arab Emirates (UAE) troops had arrived in Bahrain – under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council – to restore order in the streets, there is little doubt as to the real purpose; to help crush majority Shiite demonstrations meant to challenge a Sunni king. Gulf Arabs believe that Shia uprisings are being organised by Tehran and they fear that the unrest could spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Here is where Syria enters the picture; Damascus could become the bridge between Iran and the GCC countries over the current standoff in the Persian Gulf region. In exchange for the cessation of Iranian intervention in the internal affairs of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia would stop promoting acts of rebellion against the Syrian government[xxii]. So far, this scenario seems far-fetched[xxiii]; nonetheless, it demonstrates Syria’s prominent role in the Middle East.
Another interesting position is that unrest in Syria could turn Assad closer to the West. The truth is that, unlike Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi, the United States have not exerted any pressure on Assad to leave. In fact, Hillary Clinton called him a reformist in an interview with CBS[xxiv]. That makes the difference in Syria’s unrest. If Assad survives, which is the most probable scenario, he might feel beholden to the West and perceive a closer relationship as the answer to his domestic problems. He might even seek out Western economic aid, asserts Syrian expert Moshe Maoz[xxv].
Meanwhile, Turkey anxiously watches the Syrian protests on the sidelines. In recent years, Ankara and Damascus have made significant steps to improve their relationship. If a wave of unrest hits Syria, it will be a loss for Turkey’s economy and stability. The two countries are moving towards economic integration. One of their projects is the creation of an economic bloc with Lebanon and Jordan, which is already a reality through the removal of visa requirements. A power struggle in Syria could set back this project[xxvi]. However, for Ankara, such initiatives have a broader meaning in the context of regional security, including Turkey’s fight against the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Aware of the cross-border dimension of the Kurdish problem, Ankara wants to engage its Middle Eastern neighbours through various cooperation platforms in order to thwart any support the PKK might receive from the region. In this line, Syria has been the most cooperative neighbour, expressing its support for Ankara’s right to fight against terrorism[xxvii]. At this time, Ankara is anxious about the possibility of the protests turning into a sectarian clash, which will give rise to Syria’s Kurdish population as well.
Syria could change the map in the Middle East if its unrest were to lead to the overthrow of the Assad regime. However, the international and regional “understanding” of the importance of regional stability makes Damascus hold the fort against its opponents. However, the regime must not underestimate the force of the angry Arabs in the streets, mobilised by the need to protect their interests, positions and principles. Therefore, Assad can not feel relief from the “understandings”[xxviii], for much remains up in the air concerning the Arab revolutions and the fate of the Middle East.
[i] Amnesty International has also referred to the arrest of 93 people between March 8th and March 23rd in Damascus, Aleppo, Daraa, Homs, Latakia and the detention of approximately 300 people who are believed to have been subjected to torture and ill-treatment.
[ii] CBC news, “Syrian troops launch deadly assault on mosque”, 23/03/2011 (Accessed on April 5, 2011), http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2011/03/23/syria-violence-dead.html
[iii] Al Jazeera, “Syrian protesters dispersed after clashes”, 29/03/2011 (Accessed on April 1, 2011), http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2011/03/201132818173548579.html
[iv] Kessler, Oren & Reuters, “Syria: thousands call for revolt at funeral of protester”, 19/03/2011, The Jerusalem Post (Accessed on April 4. 2011), http://www.jpost.com/MiddleEast/Article.aspx?ID=212892&R=R1
[vi] STRATFOR, “Dispatch: Uprisings in Syria”, 30/03/2011 (Accessed on April 2, 2011), http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20110330-dispatch-uprisings-syria
[vii] Within a week, Assad appointed a new Prime Minister, the former agriculture Minister Adel Safar.
[viii] REUTERS, “Cabinet resigns after weeks of violent protests”, 30/03/2011 (Accessed on April 3, 2011), http://www.france24.com/en/20110329-syrian-cabinet-resigns-wake-ongoing-violent-protests-bashar-al-assad?ns_mchannel=SEM&ns_source=Google&ns_campaign=France%2024%20US_Middle%20East&ns_linkname=Syria%20-%20Demonstrations_protests%20Syria&ns_fee=0&gclid=COCliYPw9acCFQMjfAodak75bg
[ix] The latest news on Syria reports the set up of a committee to study the abolition of its emergency law, said the state news agency a day after the President’s speech. The committee should finish its work by April 25th.
[x] Al Jazeera, “Assad announced himself a dictator”, 31/03/2011 (Accessed on April 6. 2011), http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2011/03/2011331134947323374.html
[xi] REUTERS, “Cabinet resigns after weeks of violent protests”, op.cit.
[xii] Sharp, Jeremy, “Syria: Issues for the 112th Congress and background of US sanctions”, 21/12/2010, Congressional Research Service (Accessed on 1/4/2011), p. 13, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33487.pdf
[xiii] In the mid-2000’s, Iranian assistance to Hizballah rose up to $200,000,000 annually, according to American sources. Rubin, Michael, ‘The enduring Iran- Syria- Hezbollah Axis’, Middle East Forum, December 2009, (Accessed on March 29, 2011), http://www.meforum.org/2531/iran-syria-hezbollah-axis
[xiv] Calstrom, Gregg , “The Secret Iraq files: The Politics”, 25/10/2010, Al Jazeera (Accessed on 6/4/2011), http://english.aljazeera.net/secretiraqfiles/2010/10/20101022163128812181.html
[xv] Seale, Patrick, “The Syrian time bomb”, 28/03/2011, Foreign Policy (Accessed on 30/3/2011), http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/03/28/the_syrian_timebomb?page=0,0
[xvi] REUTERS, “Cabinet resigns after weeks of violent protests”, op.cit.
[xvii] Lebanon has been without a government since January 2011, when Hizballah and its allies pulled out of the government, causing it to collapse.
[xviii] Seale, Patrick, “The Syrian time bomb”, op.cit.
[xix] Al Arabiya, “Syria unrest has wide Lebanon ramifications: analysts”, 25/03/2011 (Accessed on 12/4/2011), http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/03/25/142976.html
[xx] Kotsev, Victor, “Water crisis floats Syria unrest”, 30/03/2011, Thai-ASEAN News Network (Accessed on March 31, 2011), http://www.thailandoutlook.tv/tan/viewData.aspx?DataID=1042284
[xxi] Slackman, Michael, “The proxy battle in Bahrain”, 19/03/2011, The New York Times (Accessed on April 15, 2011), http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/20/weekinreview/20proxy.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1
[xxii] Syria is aware of its Sunni Muslim neighbours’ role in encouraging unrest in the country as a tool to pressure Damascus to distance itself from Tehran in exchange for domestic stabilisation. In fact, Saudi Arabia is using northern and central Lebanon (areas where Sunni Muslims are concentrated) as a base for destabilising acts against the Syrian regime.
[xxiii] On April 13, 2011, STRATFOR reported that Bashar Al- Assad would travel to Riyadh that same day to meet with Saudi King Abdullah and convey a peace offer from Iran and demand for the end of Saudi support for political unrest in Syria. But, so far, there is no evidence that Bashar Al- Assad has travelled yet to Riyadh.
[xxiv] Gregoire, Antonin, “On President Bashar al Assad’s speech: first analysis”, 30/03/2011 (Accessed on April 2, 2011), http://www.iloubnan.info/politics/actualite/id/58977/lebanon/On-President-Bashar-al-Assad's-speech:-First-Analysis
[xxv] Susser, Leslie, “Unrest in Syria presents Israel with potential dangers and opportunities”, 31/03/2011, JTA (Accessed on April 1, 2011), http://jta.org/news/article/2011/03/29/3086621/unrest-in-syria-presents-israel-with-potential-dangers-and-opportunities
[xxvi] Seale, Patrick, “The Syrian time bomb”, op.cit.
[xxvii] JamesTown Foundation, ‘Syria’s repeat calls for Turkish involvement in talks with Israel”, 6/10/2010, Eurasia Daily Monitor, (Accessed on 6/4/2011), http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/country,,THE_JF,,TUR,,4cad65d82,0.html
[xxviii] Semaan, George, “How are Libya, the Gulf and Syria drawing up the map of history ?”, 4/4/2011, Dar Al Hayat (Accessed on 5/4/2011), http://www.daralhayat.com/portalarticlendah/251962