Syria: too little, too late

April 25, 2011


IT'S safe to say that we will never see an alliance between Israel and Al Qaeda. Yet, Syria's government-controlled media hint that this evil alliance exists only to discredit the anti-government protests that have shaken the Baath Party's half-century grip on power.

The regime's security forces have killed more than 200 Syrians since the protests began in mid-March, but government spokesmen insist that they were shot down by “armed elements” who also attacked the police and the army. These armed elements are allegedly in the pay of the Israelis or of Al Qaeda.

It's ridiculous, and nobody believes it, but what else are the official media going to say? That the Syrian people, without distinction of ethnicity or creed, are moving towards a non-violent revolution aimed at overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad and the whole Baathist apparatus of power? They can't admit that, so they tell preposterous lies instead.

Assad's response to the threat has followed the pattern of other Arab dictators who have already lost power: he makes concessions, but always too little and too late. Recently, for example, he finally declared that the 48-year-old “state of emergency”, which allowed the regime to arrest anybody and hold them without charge, has been lifted.

It wasn't much of a concession, really, since the security forces still have immunity no matter what they do and the courts are under the regime's thumb. But if Assad had announced it a little while back, it might have taken some of the steam out of the protest movement. Now it's too late: on Friday the protesters came out of the mosques after prayers as usual, and the regime's troops killed some of them as usual.

The Syrian regime seems even more unimaginative and inflexible than the regimes that have already gone under in Tunisia and Egypt, so it really could go down. It's time to ask what the fall of Assad and the Syrian Baathists would mean for the whole region. The answer is: it could change everything.

Syria is the linchpin of the alliance system that has defined the region's politics since the late 1970s. That was when Egypt made peace with Israel, and the 'Islamic' revolution overthrew the Shah in Iran. It was a complete reversal of the old order, for Egypt had previously led the Arab resistance to Israel's conquest of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, while Iran under the Shah had been America's closest ally in the Middle East.

Egypt, in order to regain its own Israeli-occupied territory, effectively abandoned the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and became a tacit ally of Israel. Jordan also made peace with Israel, and after Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 the south of that country remained under Israeli occupation for 20 years.

Of all Israel's Arab neighbours, only Syria remained a serious military opponent. Maybe the Baathist regime there would also have made peace with Israel if it could have got its own occupied territory back in the Golan Heights, but Israel was never willing to make that concession. So Syria was alone and desperately needed allies — and the only potential ally in sight was the new Islamic regime in Iran.

It was unusual for any Arab country to make an alliance with Iran. It was doubly strange for Syria to do so, because the Baathist regime there has always been militantly secular. But this is how international politics makes strange bed fellows, so Syria got into bed with Iran.

When the Hezbollah guerila resistance to Israeli occupation emerged in southern Lebanon, it also became a member of this peculiar Syria-Iran alliance. And when the Hamas movement emerged in the Gaza Strip, it also joined the club.

This ill-assorted group of countries and movements — Iran and Hezbollah run by Shia extremists, Hamas dominated by Sunni fanatics, and Syria a totally secular state — has provided the only real opposition to Israeli policy in the region for the past thirty years. Without Syria, it would fall apart, and both Hezbollah and Hamas would be gravely weakened.