Beyond Bashar, Syria’s rebels are facing far more significant resistance

Nothing is more naive than the use of the term “Arab Spring” to describe the insurrections that successively toppled regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen last year. That’s because revolutions are judged by their outcome. Although the toppled regimes were dictatorships, not one of them was replaced by a democracy.

An entirely separate status, however, must be reserved for the insurrection in Syria. Not only has it become the longest and bloodiest of the uprisings, no one has displayed the courage and determination of the Syrians. The homage owed to them is even greater given that the insurrection is spontaneous and largely leaderless.

Although this insurrection has already cost the lives of 10,000 people, the regime is still in place. There are reasons for this: It is not only the regime of President Bashar Assad that the rebels are facing, but a much more significant force. Assad is just one part of a geostrategic ensemble that extends beyond Syria to the Middle East, and further.

Soon after the Iranian revolution, Syria and Iran became allies. Structurally, the Syrian regime had been linked to Iran through a common sectarian affiliation – specifically between the majority Shiite community in Iran and the ruling Alawite minority in Syria, the latter an offshoot of Shiite Islam. This link between the two countries supersedes all other considerations, in particular Syria’s traditional allegiance to Arab nationalism. In 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat turned his back on Syria, a former ally. He visited Israel and signed the separate Camp David peace treaty under American auspices. In doing so, he isolated Hafez Assad, rendering him vulnerable to his hostile Iraqi Baathist “brother” Saddam Hussein, who would soon initiate a war against Syria’s Iranian partner.

The alliance with Iran gave Assad a way out of his isolation. It also facilitated his ambition to bring Lebanon under his control, by strengthening the power of the Lebanese Shiite community, which was also bound to Iran by confessional ties. Aside from Amal, established by the Shiite religious leader Musa Sadr in the 1970s, a new pro-Iranian party, Hezbollah, saw the light and advocated for resistance against Israel’s occupation of Lebanon. The coordination between Damascus and Tehran created a formidable war machine in Hezbollah, which has held Lebanon tightly in its grip.

As of 2003, after the demise of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis became even stronger. The most tangible result of Iraq’s invasion was to advance the fortunes of the Shiite community, long subjugated by the Sunni minority of which Saddam was the most bloodthirsty example. Without officially being of the Syrian-Iranian alliance, Iraq (where the prime minister is now constitutionally a Shiite) remains yet a valuable asset.

For all these reasons, the Iranian leadership still unreservedly supports its Syrian counterparts again the domestic uprising. On July 15, 2011, Iran and Syria signed a $10 billion gas agreement. And soon thereafter, in August, Tehran allocated $23 million for the development of the Syrian base in Latakia. Fighters from the Iranian Al-Quds militia have also taken part in the repression, alongside a Syrian force generously supplied with Iranian weapons.

Today, it is this powerful Iranian-Syrian bloc, with its Iraqi extension, that is covering Bashar Assad’s back and confronting the Syrian rebels. That explains the regime’s capacity for endurance and its indifference to international pressure. This indifference is all the more pronounced in that it is sustained by the backing of Russia, which has been able to reconstitute itself and stage a strong comeback in the Middle East by taking advantage of events in Syria.

If, at the end of 1991, Russia had lost a quarter of what was the Soviet Union’s territory and half of its population, today, with its 17 million square kilometers stretching over nine time zones, it is still the largest country in the world. The arrival of Vladimir Putin put an end to the disarray after the departure of Boris Yeltsin, bolstering the state and the economy. Putin began with the most urgent task of curbing the power of the so-called oligarchs. Thanks to privatization and the use of methods more often associated with gangsterism, they had succeeded in taking control of major state-owned enterprises.

Amid the ensuing chaos, and given the considerable means at the disposal of those who had pillaged the economy, Putin came to rely on the people he knew best: his former colleagues at the KGB who formed a new caste in, and the backbone of, the ruling regime. Putin set up a system halfway between a liberal and a command economy. His declared objective today is to make the Russian economy one of the five strongest in the world, with an average per capita GDP of $35,000 by 2020, compared to $10,400 in 2010. In February 2012, he announced a rearmament program worth $780 billion.

For Russia, the restoration of the state and the domestic economy is a precursor to restoring its influence worldwide. This determination, coinciding with the revolt in Syria, gave Putin the opportunity to display his country’s new diplomatic assertiveness. Russian intransigence over Syria could be explained by the fact that the relationship with Damascus is all that remains from the Soviet era, which were built on three pillars: Egypt, Iraq and Syria.

In 1956, Damascus and Moscow signed their first arms agreement. That was during the era of so-called positive neutrality and the post-Stalin overture of the Soviet Union to the Third World. Besides supplying weapons, Moscow was behind a number of railroad and hydraulic projects in Syria. The highlight of this rapprochement coincided with the Salah Jadid-Hafez Assad coup. Both men further increased their leftist and socialist policy orientation in 1966.

It is at this point that the Soviet Union gave the Syrian leadership a loan of $450 million, repayable over 12 years, to develop the Tartous port and build the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River. The 1979 Camp David accord between Egypt and Israel further reinforced the relationship between Moscow and Damascus, who signed a 20-year friendship and cooperation treaty in 1980. Syria also hosted 6,000 Soviet advisors, manning bases for Sam-5 missiles.

The ensuing collapse of the Soviet Union ended the diplomatic phase launched during the 1950s. The distance between the two countries grew when Moscow allowed thousands of Russian Jews to emigrate to Israel, further strengthening the power of the Jewish state.

Vladimir Putin’s determination to end Russia’s diplomatic eclipse in the Middle East reversed this. In 2010, Moscow signed an arms contract with Damascus worth $700 million. This was followed by the delivery of Yak-130 aircraft worth $550 million.

The inflexible Russian position on Syria in recent months has also reflected a general sense of unease towards the United States, notably since NATO began installing an anti-missile shield stretching from Poland to Romania, at Russia’s doorstep. While NATO has portrayed its shield as a defensive move in the face of an eventual threat from Iran, Russia sees the project as a wall designed to keep it hemmed in.

Seen from this perspective, the successive Russian vetoes on Syria resolutions at the United Nations Security Council take on particular significance. If Western objections to the indefensible character of the Assad regime carry little weight in Moscow, it is because they are taken out of context. Russia is not worried about Assad; it is largely indifferent to his personal fate and to the nature of his regime. What counts most for Moscow is to impose a multilateralism that turns to its advantage, on the ruins of America’s global hegemony.

The main factor driving the convergence of views on Syria between Russia and China at the Security Council is China’s mainly economic interest in Iran, the third main source of oil for China. This situation assumes even greater importance in that international sanctions on the export of Iranian oil have made the Chinese market indispensable for the Iranians. If China decides not to go along with these sanctions, its share of Iranian trade will grow and Beijing will benefit from highly advantageous prices. Iran’s objective, as announced by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in September 2010, is to raise the level of this trade to $100 billion by 2015.

China, Russia and Iran support for Bashar Assad makes a Western military intervention in Syria impossible, given the likely catastrophic repercussions for all concerned. In the eyes of this coalition, Assad is a tool and pretext. He is the façade against which the courage of the insurgents will continue to collide as long as Russia and its allies on the one side, and the United States and its allies on the other, fail to dispassionately settle their differences, therefore reach agreement over their contending interests, through negotiations.

Charles Rizk is a former justice minister of Lebanon. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 25, 2012, on page 7.




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