Bashar al Assad’s scrofulous regime plumbed new depths yesterday as threats were made to employ chemical and biological weapons. With fighting in Damascus and Aleppo reaching new heights, there seems little hope of defusing an increasingly sectarian conflict.
Al-Assad has succeeded where other despots failed. Gadhafi’s predilection for creating enemies was such that even Russia and China voted in favour of UN intervention. The resulting ‘scope-creep’ from western forces has no doubt hardened opinion in Moscow and Beijing that any regime change policy must be resisted in Syria. The timing works in Al-Assad’s favour.
Al-Assad’s regime, being drawn from the Alawite minority has been adept at fashioning its image as a protector of minorities. Syrian Christians principally Antiochian Orthodox, Greek Catholic and Assyrian and Armenian Orthodox view with trepidation a future under Sunni rule and therefore remain (even if reluctantly) supportive. Should the regime fall, Sunni revenge could result in incalculable catastrophe.
Syria is a national stage for ‘global’ conflict. The combatants are Iran, the West, Russia, China and regional powers such as Saudi Arabia. The genesis of the Arab Spring is in the ‘stolen’ Iranian presidential election of 2009. Iran fears revolution. Revolution has swept away regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The Arab Spring began in Tehran, it is likely to return (if not end) in Tehran.
Iranian, Chinese and Russian support for Al-Assad has little to do personal loyalty. Russia and China are resisting the precedent of regime change. National paranoia and self-interest are the motivation. Iran views Syria’s strategic importance in terms of defensive depth. Syria also provides an important access route to Lebanon and the supply of weapons to Hezbollah.
The leaders of Islamic Jihad left Syria earlier this week, establishing their headquarters in Tehran. What does this say about their assessment of the security situation in Syria and the likely outcome of the current fighting?
Curtailing Hezbollah and isolating Iran could be beneficial outcomes of the fall of Al-Assad. The degree of al-Qaeda’s influence in the rebellion is unclear. Protecting stocks of chemical and biological weapons is an increasing concern. Rogue elements from across the region will seek to exploit the chaos for their own gain.
Today Al-Assad holds on. Defections from the Syrian army seem to be largely on sectarian lines. The ‘protector of minorities’ is being ‘protected by minorities’ fearing persecution (and worse) if the regime falls. The West may view Syria as Iran’s ‘soft under-belly’, ultimately the Arab Spring and the stolen election of 2009 will have greater significance.
Al-Assad must stand aside, and quickly. Transitioning to more open, democratic and inclusive government and re-building civil society will be problematic.
The proxy war in Syria is however a touring stage. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Libya have played host. The last acts of the Arab Spring will unfold in Iran, the crucible of the revolution.