Monday, May 9, 2011

Meanwhile, in Syria ...

While we have been watching the death of Usama bin Laden, the civil war in Libya, the royal wedding and the NFL Draft, a significant popular revolt in Syria has flown largely under the radar.

This is unfortunate.  In many respects, Syria is a linchpin of the trouble in the Middle East.  Syria has involved itself in a complicated relationship with Iran that has troubled the US and Israel for decades.  Under Hafez al-Asad, Syria became the major conduit for Iranian support of the Islamist group Hezbo'allah, a policy that has continued under Asad's son and successor Bashar.  Syria has never accepted the French carving out Lebanon, then a Christian enclave, from Sunni Muslim Syria proper, or "Greater Syria," as it is known, which encompasses Lebanon, parts of Israel, Jordan and, not generally publicized, Turkey, including such Turkish cities as Antioch (Antakya in Turkish) and Alexandretta (Iskenderun).

But the major Syrian designs have centered on Lebanon and Israel.  Hezbo'allah and its Syrian patron are believed to have conspired in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese President Rafek Hariri.  While a subsequent revolt known as the Cedar Revolution drove Syrian troops from the country, Hezbo'allah has now taken effective control of Lebanon to use as a base of operations against Israel. 

So if Asad goes, a lot of badness goes with him.

And a lot of people within Syria want Asad to go.  In the wake of successful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, the Sunni majority in Syria began its own revolt in January.  So far it has been almost entirely peaceful, at least on the part of the protesters.  Bashar's giovernment has been another matter.

Given that his father Hafez killed 20,000-40,000 people in the 1982 Hama Massacre -- ironically aimed at destroying the Muslim Brotherhood and ending its insurrection -- you'd think that Bashar would be able to handle this on his own.

You'd be wrong:
An official source within the Sadr movement, the Iraqi Islamist national movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr, is insisting that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran has declared the protesters in Syria to be “God’s enemies,” ordering the Revolutionary Guards and Lebanese Hezbollah to fiercely combat the protesters in Syria and enter into an armed battle with them.
In an interview with Al Arabiya, the source, who wished to remain anonymous, revealed that Ayatollah Khamenei held a covert meeting in Tehran with commanders of the Revolutionary Guards, representatives of the Syrian embassy, members of Hezbollah, and leaders of the Sadr movement. There, he demanded that all operational and logistic forces be applied in order to stamp out the blaze of sedition in Syria and to destroy those who are enemies of God in that country.
Experts have construed Ayatollah Khamenei’s comments regarding Syria as a form of religious fatwa, which has a direct effect in spreading terror and insecurity in Syria, increasing Iran’s role in destabilizing Arab countries.
Ever since the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Syria has proven a staunch ally to the radicals ruling Iran. It has also provided a passageway for the Revolutionary Guards into Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, arming Hezbollah and Hamas.
The Revolutionary Guards also have several bases in Syria, where they train and arm militias in the expansion of their terrorist activities in the region and beyond.
The Obama administration has substantiated charges of Iranian complicity in Syrian repression. On April 26, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice announced that the United States had evidence of active Iranian support for the Syrian government’s suppression of the peaceful demonstrators.
For its part, the Syrian opposition has also claimed that members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have participated in the shooting and killing of the Syrian protesters.
The dynamic here will be interesting to observe.  Most in the West think of the Middle East as a monolithic region -- and, where Islamism has support, an increasingly neolithic one as well.  But it is neither.  The Syrians are generally Arabs.  Iranian Revolutionary Guards are Persians.  The Iranian people have come to resent the increasing Arab presence among the security troops used to keep the hated mullahs in power; the mullahs have turned to Arabs as their own Persian troops become less reliable and more supportive of overthrowing the mullahs.

So, will the Syrian Arabs be just as resentful of Persians keeping the hated Asad and his Alawite clan in power? We will see.

For his part, Bashar has accused the protesters of Islamism and has defended his repressive measures as a necessary defense against Islamism -- as, he would argue, Hama was -- but it is a double game:
The Syrian government has long used Islamists to justify its rule by making the Assad regime look acceptable while doing its best to hide the existence of its secular opponents from the world. The Syrian government has sponsored Islamic extremists to the hilt (including al-Qaeda), while casting itself as the barrier to stop their ascent. Now, the regime is employing the same trick to frighten its citizens and deter the West from challenging it.
Riad al-Turk, a secular democratic opposition leader, says Assad’s political strategy includes “using the threat of the Islamists taking over and arguing that our people are not yet qualified to practice democracy.”
As soon as the uprising began gathering steam, one of Assad’s advisors immediately blamed it on Muslim Brotherhood theologian Yousef al-Qaradawi. The first casino was closed and the ban on teachers wearing niqabs and burqa was rescinded, helping Assad to frame the struggle as one between Islamism and secularism. When it released 270 political prisoners, all but 14 were Islamists. The regime also agreed to allow for the forming of a “moderate Islamist party loyal to the regime” under the leadership of Ayman Abdel Nour, a close personal friend of Assad. He was also told to create an Islamist satellite station. The regime wants to co-opt its Islamist opponents while undermining the secularists.
This is simply the continuation of a shrewd strategy. The regime has permitted Islamic extremists to hold anti-American rallies in the open while fighting to make sure the secular opposition is not seen or heard. The late Abu Qaqa is an excellent example of this. He preached jihad and called for Sharia-based governance, yet was not put behind bars. Qaqa was involved in the flow of foreign extremists to Iraq and his former second-in-command, Abu Ibrahim, suspects he was an agent of the regime. Government personnel attended his rallies and Baath Party officials were present at his funeral.
The stakes here are high, for Iran:
[T]he leaders of Iran know full well that they have the power to prevent the opposition from succeeding. The fall of Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria could be a devastating blow to the policies of the radicals in Iran and its proxies in the region, and the mullahs are determined not to let that happen.
And for the US:
The West must not fall [for] Assad’s trickery. The uprising is driven by secularism, and liberal activists are being imprisoned. The Muslim Brotherhood, which ceased opposition activities in 2009, did not endorse the revolution until last week. Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah are on the side of Assad, not the protesters.
Assad is not Mubarak. He is a promoter of the radical Islamic ideology and terrorism that some fear will replace him. He is not an ally in any sense and is an enemy in every sense. The U.S. should not hesitate any longer to help the people of Syria who are aspiring to rid themselves of a dictatorship that threatens both them and us.

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