The Syrian crisis is no longer a purely Syrian affair. Its wider dimension was highlighted on February 4, when Russia and China cast their veto at the U.N. Security Council, thereby aborting a Western-backed Arab resolution that had called on President Bashar al-Assad to step down. At a stroke, the debate was no longer simply about Syria’s internal power struggle. Instead, with their vetoes, Moscow and Beijing were saying that they too had interests in the Middle East that they were determined to protect. The region was no longer an exclusive Western preserve under the hegemony of the United States and its allies.
Russia has decades-old interests in the Middle East, and in Syria in particular. As a major customer of Iranian oil, China doesn’t approve of Western sanctions against Tehran. Nor does it take kindly to U.S. attempts to contain its influence in the Asia-Pacific region. There’s a hint in the air of a revived Cold War.
The Syrian crisis has, in fact, been a two-stage affair from the very beginning – internal as well as international. On the internal level, the uprising has aimed to topple the regime based on the model of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. In this increasingly ugly struggle, both sides – government and opposition – have made serious mistakes. The government’s mistake was to use live rounds against street protesters who were – at first at least – demonstrating peacefully. The crisis could perhaps have been defused with the implementation of immediate reforms. Instead, mounting casualties have created enormous bitterness among the population, reducing the chance of a negotiated settlement.
The opposition’s mistake has been to resort to arms – to become militarised – largely in the form of the Free Syrian Army, a motley force of defectors from the armed services, as well as freelance fighters and hard-line Islamists. It has been conducting hit-and-run attacks on regime targets and regime loyalists. The exiled opposition leadership is composed of a number of disparate, often squabbling, groupings, of which the best known is the Syrian National Council. Inside the SNC, the Muslim Brotherhood is the best organised and funded element of the opposition. Outlawed since its terrorist campaign from 1977 to1982 to overthrow the regime of Hafez al-Assad – an attempt crushed in blood at Hama – it is driven by a thirst for revenge.
No regime, whatever its political colouring, can tolerate an armed uprising without responding with full force. Indeed, the rise of an armed opposition has provided the Syrian regime with the justification it needed to seek to crush it with ever bloodier repression.
Casualties over the last eleven months have been heavy – estimated at some 5,000 to 6,000 members of the opposition, both armed and unarmed, and perhaps 1,500 members of the army and security forces. There’s necessarily an element of guesswork in these figures – as in all wars the manipulation of information has been much in evidence.
As a result of all this, inside Syria, the situation is today one of increased violence by both sides, of sectarian polarisation, and of a dangerous stalemate, slipping each day closer to a full-blown sectarian civil war.
The second level of the contest is being played out in the international arena, where Russia and China, with some support from other emerging powers such as India and Brazil, are challenging America’s supremacy in the Middle East. Washington’s outrage at the challenge was evident when U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton angrily dismissed the Russian and Chinese veto as a “travesty.” Escalating the crisis, she called for an international coalition to support the Syrian opposition against what she described as the “brutal regime” in Damascus. She has encouraged the creation of a “Friends of Syria” group, with the apparent aim of channelling funds and weapons to Assad’s enemies.
At the heart of the international struggle is a concerted attempt by the United States and its allies to bring down the ruling regimes in both Iran and Syria. Iran’s “crime” has been to refuse to submit to U.S. hegemony in the oil-rich Gulf region and to appear to pose a challenge, with its nuclear program, to Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly. At the same time, Iran, Syria and Hizbollah – partners for the past three decades – have managed to make a dent in Israel’s military supremacy. They have in recent years been the main obstacle to U.S-Israeli regional dominance.
Israel has for years demonised Iran’s nuclear program as an “existential” threat to itself and a danger to the entire world, and has repeatedly threatened to attack it. Its fevered gesticulations have pressured – some might say blackmailed – the United States and the European Union into imposing crippling sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and its central bank.
The real issue, however, is one of regional dominance. Iran’s nuclear program poses no particular danger to Israel. With its large nuclear arsenal, Israel has ample means to deter any would be aggressor. Nor would Iran willingly risk annihilation in a nuclear exchange. However, a nuclear-capable Iran – even if it never actually built a bomb – would limit Israel’s freedom of action, notably its freedom to strike its neighbours at will.
Israel is therefore at pains to restore its regional dominance, which has recently been somewhat curtailed. Its invasion of Lebanon in 2006 failed to destroy Hizbollah, while its 2008 to 2009 assault on Gaza failed to destroy Hamas. Worse still from Israel’s point of view, the war attracted international opprobrium and damaged Israel’s relations with Turkey. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has put at risk the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty which, by removing the strongest country from the Arab line-up, guaranteed Israeli dominance for 30 years.
Israel’s current strategy has been to get the United States to cripple Iran on its behalf. But the U.S. has also suffered grave setbacks in the region: its catastrophic war in Iraq; its unfinished conflict in Afghanistan; the violent hostility it has aroused in the Muslim world, particularly in Pakistan, Yemen and the Horn of Africa. It, too, is striving to retain its pre-eminence over the oil-rich Gulf States.
Because of their own apprehensions over Iran, the Arab states of the Gulf have allowed themselves to be drawn into the conflict. They seem to fear that Iran may endanger the existing political order by stirring up local Shia communities. With Qatar in the lead, they joined the United States and Israel in their assault against Damascus and Tehran. However, perhaps belatedly aware that a regional war could be catastrophic for them, there are signs that they are having second thoughts.
At last weekend’s Munich Security Conference, Qatar’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Khalid al-Attiyah, declared that an attack on Iran “is not a solution, and tightening the embargo will make the scenario worse. I believe we should have dialogue.” That is the voice of reason in an increasingly fraught regional situation.
Patrick Seale is a British writer on the Middle East and author of 'The Struggle for Syria' and 'Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East'. He has reported for Reuters and The Observer among other publications.