Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Is Syria Immune from the Arab Upheavals?

Jonathan Spyer is in Australia. The following is from my notes of his various speaking engagements in Perth:

On Middle-East geopolitics in general:
  • the expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in the early 1990s heralded a period of undisputed US dominance of the region (the Oslo "peace process" with Israel was a consequence)
  • within the Iranian regime, "radical conservatives" rose to the fore. Their "ticket": to act as a counterforce to US hegemony AND to destroy Israel.
  • the antisemitism of the Iranian radical conservatives is a banner. With it they hope to "trump" a key impediment to being respected in the Arab world: being both non-Arab and Shia
  • however the primary objective is control of the Gulf, with its global energy supplies
  • thus since the 1990s there has been a regional "cold war" between the Iranian bloc (Iran, Syria, Hizbollah, Hamas) and the US bloc (Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan etc etc etc)
  • the Arab Upheavals commencing 2011 has damaged BOTH blocs
  • in fact the Arab Upheavals has been a regional "referendum" expressing final exasperation with the failed military dictatorships that have held the nations and the peoples in the region in the grip of brutal repression and economic and civil disfunction for decades
  • Syria is virtually the last such dictatorship left standing - the US-allied dictaorships have been allowed to fall, but the the Iranian-allied dictator (backed by Russia and China) has received iron-clad support from its patron
  • the USA could be seen to be an unreliable patron (by aspiring dictators)
  • thus, for example, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies had to mobilise to protect the regime in Bahrain from instability.
  • USA didn't criticise this regime-led repression of street revolt. in Bahrain...the "democratic Arab spring" is for dictators that don't have oil....
  • the ONLY winner in the recent Arab Upheavals is Sunni Islamism (referring to the political ideology, not the religion)
  • Spyer suggests that the region will see sectarian conflict for many years
  • Spyer suggests that a Sunni-Islamist bloc, analogous to the Iranian Shi'ite-Islamist bloc is NOT likely to arise. Egypt is impoverished and reliant on the West and the IMF to feed its population; the Saudi and Gulf kingdoms are too fragile and incompetent to lead such a geopolitical movement; and Turkey is also non-Arab and unlikely to be acceptable as a leading nation of Arab states.
On Syria:
  • Assad had declared himself "immune" from the so-called "Arab Spring", but in March 2011 there was an uprising in the south and despite some cosmetic reforms, outright confrontation continues and intensifies.
  • About 14,000 Syrians have been killed in the regime's attempts to quell the uprisings, including 2,400 since the commencement of the ceasefire declared by the UN-brokered and Arab-League-brokered "peace plan" was introduced by Kofi Annan.
  • the regime's modus operandi is to seal off areas in uprisings occur - rebel armed forces withdraw - the regime brutally massacres the civilians in the area, then withdraws to attend to other uprisings - the rebel forces return to the destroyed area, and the cycle repeats itself
  • Syria is in a state of civil war, with neither side able to muster sufficiant force to deal a fatal blow to the other
  • Syrian Arab Army (SAA): 220,000 regulars and 280,000 reserves
  • Syria has a Sunni Arab majority, from which regime opposition is drawn, and 12% Alawis (ruling Assad family and their elites)
  • opposition is splintered and disorganised along provincial/tribal lines: the Syrian National Council (SNC), led from Turkey is the Muslim Brotherhood leadership; the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was formed in August 2011, and uses guerilla tactics of independent small bands of fighters, usually directed by a local sheik or Imam
  • Syria also has  ~10% Christian, ~10% Druze, ~10% Kurds - all spectators in the civil war - apprehensive that the stability of the status quo is disturbed and unsure what the "winner" will do with them... those who figure it out are emigrating or fortifying into sectarian enclaves
  • external support for the Alawi regime comes from Iran and Russia
  • the so-called "peace plan" jointly brokered by the UN and the Arab League, with joint envoy Kofi Annan, is a complete failure. 2,400 people have been killed since its "ceasefire" was declared, including the recent massacre of mainly civilians in Houla
  • there has been some suggestions that the rebel forces are now also receiving external military support, possibly from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood or Western forces
  • however Syria's alliance with Iran is its trump card, as long as Western allies stand  idly by
  • a failure to depose the Assad regime would be a major strategic blow to the US-led West, having proven it to be an unreliable ally compared to Iran.
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