Sunday, September 11, 2011
Strangers In The Same Bed
By Gabriel G. Tabarani
Since last March, when the Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and the Baath Party began, the reaction from other regional players has been characterized by a strange sense of irony. It seemed clear that for various reasons, Israel, Iran, Gulf Arab states (GCC), and Turkey all aligned in support the Assad regime’s survival – as opposed to regime change or any other alternative. The United States can be added to this motley coalition of states thus allowing for appropriate use of the well-known American political expression: “strangers in the same bed".
These countries have persuaded themselves, either by illusion or fear, that the claim that the alternative might be chaos, civil war, or a new Islamic fundamentalist state.
On the security front, Israel wants to maintain calm on the Syrian front. Despite the fact that Bashar al-Assad remains a constant irritation to Tel Aviv, mainly through his support and armament of "Hezbollah" and "Hamas", the Syrian army is no longer considered a strategic threat to Israel. This is evidenced by Syrian forces failing to defending the country or attacking when Israeli planes penetrate Syrian airspace or bombed its nascent nuclear reactor.
The Israel-Syria border has been quiet since the 1973 war. While it is a member of the "resistance axis," Syria under Assad has not itself challenged Israel in any military way. It is also a regime with very few soft-power assets with which to challenge Israel in the regional or international diplomatic arena. Syria under the Assads engaged in frequent peace-partner flirtations with Israel and could be considered the most domesticated of the members of that resistance alliance.
Israel's initial response to the wave of regional anti-regime protests reaching Syria was, according to reliable reports, to privately root for the "devil we know" approach -- encouraging allies, including the U.S., to go easy on the Assad regime. That may sound counterintuitive -- Israel is not at peace with Syria, the Assad regime is close to Iran, hosts the Hamas leadership, and is considered to actively assist in the arming of Hezbollah. Yet an explanation for this Israeli disposition is also not too hard to fathom.
Politically, Israel prefers authoritarian Arab regimes (in the mould of Mubarak or Assad), founded on the illusionary basis that they impose "stability". This stability is much preferred given that Israel suspects the likely alternative to be the rule of "Muslim Brotherhood" –a body politic that will show even greater hostility towards Israel. This view was confirmed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and several Israeli experts on Syrian affairs.
Of course, Iran's position is easier to understand. The Tehran-Damascus alliance stretches back to 1979 and has political, strategic and economic, if not doctrinal, dimensions and benefits. Damascus is Tehran’s portal to the Arab world allowing it to play a role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Furthermore the special relationship between Syria and Iran has facilitated Iranian sponsorship of "Hezbollah" and its support of "Hamas". This, interestingly, makes Iran a true player in Mediterranean politics for the first time since the Persian Empire's wars against the Greeks.
Despite their disapproval of the Alawite regime, further compounded by President Assad’s insults towards leaders of the Arab Gulf countries (criticising their leaders for not being true men) the GCC states maintain their support for the status quo. They are not comfortable with change that calls for empowerment of peoples to self-determination. These countries also fear the Islamic bogeyman, the chaos of civil war and the possibility of transmission or contagion to countries where the GCC requires stability, such as Lebanon and Jordan.
Over the past decade Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has invested substantial time and efforts to transform Syria into a Turkish diplomatic gateway into the Arab Mashreq (the economic agreement between Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon signed in 2010).He has developed strong personal ties with President Bashar al-Assad and has tried to "sell" to the West and Israel not only Assad as a potential architect for peace, but also as "reformer." However, Erdogan is under pressure now to persuade Assad to accelerate reforms in order to stay in power.
If all the other positions are clear and understandable, then Washington's Middle East position is a paradoxical embarrassment waiting to happen. President Barack Obama called his "ally" Hosni Mubarak publicly to launch “Now” the process of transition to representative government in February following the start of pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt. However, after more than two months following the start of the Syrian uprising President Obama called upon Bashar al-Assad to begin a similar process of transition or "to come out of the way."
This commentary was published on thesop.org in USA, in Arabs Today in UK and on Middle East Spectator blog www.mespectator.blogspot.com on 08/06/2011