Syria: Why It Really Matters
Since the early months of 2011 we have seen waves of protest sweep through the Middle East. From Tunisia to Libya to Egypt we have witnessed common people rise up, riding the waves of discontentment and outrage caused by high unemployment, inflationary pressures, and government corruption. As these waves have crested and peaked ostensibly immutable dictatorships have fallen beneath their weight. In a spumous wake they have created vacuums that will inevitably be filled. These vacuums are often filled by the very entities and ethos strongman and dictators fought to purge and suppress from their populations often with good reason.
In Egypt we have seen the bubbling enthusiasm which took the country by storm, inspired by the youths who took to the streets, empowered by the tools of social media usurped by the Islamist elements in the country such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafist party. Heroes to the movement such as Wael Ghonim, have found themselves squeezed out by Islamic parties. Other symbolic and moderate leaders such as Mohamed Elbaradei have also found themselves alienated from the political process.
During subsequent elections the better organized Islamist parties won large majorities in the parliament as well as the presidency with a candidate from the Muslim brotherhood assuming the mantle. Fifty percent were won by the Muslim Brotherhood and twenty five percent by the Salafist party (Sherif). Soon after, the parliament unanimously voted to name Israel Egypt’s number one enemy, to halt gas exports to Israel, and to expel Israel’s ambassador (Jspace). The votes are largely symbolic as the military holds true power while the transfer is made to democracy. Nevertheless, it seems only a matter of time before an agreement is brokered between the Islamists and the governing military authority at which time the symbolic votes may evolve into boots on the ground policy.
After Hosni Mubarak’s departure the world bore witness to the ousting of another intractable dictator in Libya. There, Islamists have a bit more ground to make up in the effort to influence the political process in their interests. However, those whom Qaddafi fought to keep underground or under padlocks are emerging as designers of the Post Qaddafi Libya. It is yet too early to assume that the emerging Libya will be ruled by Islamist parties. However, since those who decided the fate of the revolution such as Hakim Al-Hassadi, leader of the Abu Slim Martyrs Brigade and a former compatriot of the Taliban are now in positions of great influence it seems unlikely Libya will ever return to the secularization enforced upon it by the previous regime (Perrin).
This wave that has engulfed Egypt and Libya has now crashed upon the shores of Syria. While government security forces have killed close to 20,000 people the battle in the street rages on. Although the script for this fight may sound similar to Egypt and Libya the consequences of this outcome may be even more far-reaching. Like Egypt and Libya those intent on toppling the dictator are Sunni Muslims which hold a 90% majority in the Muslim world compared to a Shiite 10%. In Syria they hold a 74% majority compared to a Shiite 12% (pewforum).This numerical advantage has long existed in the Islamic world but with the recent rise of Iran as a regional power it bears special significance.
Besides Syria, Iran is the only other country in the Middle East with a totalitarian Shiite government. For years it has seemingly been on a path that unless stopped will ultimately lead to mechanized nuclear weapons. As the massacre in Syria has escalated Iran has begun shipping weapons into Syria in an effort to prop up the existing government. Over the years the world has watched as it spread its tentacles into Gaza and the West Bank and into Lebanon. As the result Iran has been able to incite skirmishes with Israel in the West Bank and Gaza through Hamas and open war through Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. It is Iran’s alliance with Syria that has allowed it to funnel weapons into Lebanon, the West Bank and extend its influence. It is in Syria that the Iranian tide may be buffered.
Should the government of Syria fall the effect will be twofold. Firstly, groups such as Hamas and especially Hezbollah will find themselves without major sponsors in their efforts against Israel. Currently, estimates are that Hezbollah has within Lebanon 40 to 50,000 rockets ready to be volleyed at Israel in a conflict that would dwarf the previous Iran-Hezbollah warm (upi). This means that although Hezbollah finds itself well-equipped for another war with Israel, without the backing of the current Syrian regime it would be emasculated over the long-term. It would lose a vital pipeline through which weapons and finances flow and may also find itself challenged by a revitalized Sunni population that has grown weary of Shiite domination. Meanwhile, Iran would find itself without a long-standing launch pad to strike or counterstrike shall Israel find itself forced to take action against Iran and its nuclear facilities.
The debilitation of Iranian influence seems on the surface a good thing and indeed it may be. On the other hand it may help to give rise to a Sunni Islamist hegemony that stretches from North Africa to Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Turkey which is becoming less and less secular. Turkey seems most likely to take advantage as rebel forces in Syria are using Turkey as a base of operations. Tensions between Israel and Turkey have also been on the rise since the flotilla incident in which soldiers were attacked and civilians from Turkey died. In this scenario there are implicit dangers including the ability for these nations to form a coalition against Israel (a dangerous prospect considering Egypt’s strong military capacity) or perhaps their old rival Iran. In this case Iran may double down on its commitment to influence policy in Iraq with which it shares a majority Shia population. We have seen this movie before, and especially now without US troops on the ground it could lead to sectarian violence at best and a proxy war at worst. Perhaps most dangerous for Israel and for the US, Israel’s primary ally is a scenario in which Sunni and Shiite agreed to temporarily put aside their differences in an effort to destroy Israel once and for all. Should Israel feel forced to act in the region for reasons of its own national security the chances of this outcome increase dramatically. The US would inevitably be sucked in along with possibly other nations.
One other plausible scenario if the Syrian regime were to fall would be the continuation of the domino effect that has toppled even the most stalwart of dictators. The next place to feel the dominoes begin to wobble could be Jordan or Saudi Arabia causing a wave of instability and skyrocketing oil prices that could bring world industrial production to a standstill. Of course most of the scenarios are not likely to occur but in all probability at least one will. It will likely be through the lens of Syria that we may glimpse which way the cookie is crumbling. Of course nothing is written in stone but as Bob Dylan said “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
Nehal El Sherif “Egypt’s Post-Mubarak parliament convenes” The Sydney Morning Herald 24 Jan 2012 accessed 10 July 2012
“Egypt Votes to Expel Israeli Ambassador” Jspace 13 Mar 2012 accessed 10 July 2012
Perrin, Jean Pierre “Top Libyan capital Leader Has Deep Al Qaeda Ties” Worldcrunch 29 Aug 2011 accessed 10 July 2012
“Mapping the Global Muslim Population” Pewforum 7 Oct 2009 accessed 10 July 2012
“Israel fears Hezbollah has killer SAMs” UPI 19 Jan 2012 accessed 10 July 2012