Friday, March 23, 2012

The Syrian uprising's interested onlookers: Iran, Israel, Russia, and Saudi Arabia

By Ali Ezzatyar

The Arab Awakening has a common denominator: the people want the downfall of the regime. It is a pretty good one, too. While it ensures nothing, it is the first, and perhaps the most difficult, of many steps before democracy.

Bashar al-Assad, Tyrant of Syria
It goes without saying that each Arab country, with all of its distinctions, will see its individual route meet special hurdles and circumstances. An unfortunate reality is that many of these obstacles have nothing to do with domestic considerations at all, but rather international ones. We knew this. It's the story of the modern Middle East. But what has become increasingly clear over the last 14 months is just how important one of these countries actually is to everyone else. We get some color on the American perspective by reading the paper. But this is how the other important players are looking at the biggest prize of the Arab dictatorship club, Syria:

Iran: The world's initial fears that the Arab Spring would play into the hands of the champion of anti-Americanism, Iran, seem unfounded at this juncture. Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, for all of their imperfections, have not turned into hotbeds of terror ripe for Iranian influence. Syria is the one country in the Arab dictator family that was traditionally pro-Iranian all along. It was the only Arab country that provided material assistance to Iran during its war with Iraq, and it is an important buffer and ally in Iran's support of anti-Israeli groups. Syria and Iran share a disdain for the Saudi royal family; they also have had poor, often adversarial relations, with the Arab world's West-friendly dictators past and present. So while Iran touts itself as the champion of populist and Muslim revolution, lauding Egyptian and Bahraini revolutionaries as the continuation of the struggle for justice, it has kept its hands muddy and bloody in assisting Syria's crackdown against its own people. For Iran, the survival of the Ba'ath regime is imperative; it is its only genuine ally in the region, and it will stop at nothing, including assisting in the crackdown against innocent civilians, to ensure that Syria does not become the Arab Awakening's next casualty.

Israel: Israel often distinguishes itself as a democracy in a sea of dictatorships, but it was horrified by the Arab Spring when it began. The reality was, most of the Arab dictatorships had cooperative relationships with Israel, and their powerful armies had a leash on the anti-Israeli sentiment that is rampant among their respective populations. There are even reports that Israel explored the idea of sabotaging the revolution in Egypt in its early days in Tahrir square. But for the same reason that Egypt was a potential nightmare, the Syrian revolution is viewed more positively in Israel. Syria is, by any account, Israel's real arch-nemesis. The two countries have been to war multiple times, and Israel occupies Syrian land in the Golan Heights. A more democratic regime, in Israel's view, is less likely to support terrorism, and is less likely to align itself with Iran. There does remain the danger, however, of a more legitimate Syrian regime being more successful in convincing the world that Golan should be returned. That is bad for Israel. On account of this uncertainly, Israel is watching developments very closely in Syria, with a preference for the ouster of the Assad regime, replaced by a weak, fragmented Syrian government incapable of challenging Israel or harnessing support for anti-Israel groups in Lebanon.

Russia: We can always count on Russia to pull no punches with respect to disregarding human rights in the interest of geopolitics. And they are putting on a master-class display in Syria. Since the days of Hafez al-Assad, Syria has been Russia's most important ally in the Middle East; it houses an important army base there and has billions of dollars worth of commerce with the Assad regime. In addition, Bashar is a key element of the Moscow-Tehran-Damascus triangle, helping Russia compete with American dominance in regional affairs. For the same reason that Russia refuses to come down hard on Iran vis-à-vis its nuclear activity, it has singlehandedly (making use of its sizeable influence on China) paralyzed the international community's ability to institute a legal reprimand of the Assad regime. With Russia on the Security Council, thousands more can die in Syria without the United Nations getting involved in a meaningful way.

Saudi Arabia: The primary outside supporter of the Syrian uprising, Saudi Arabia is pouring cash and arms into the hands of anyone who will help hasten Bashar al-Assad's demise. It is the most worthy of missions, in the Saudi mindset, to eliminate Saudi Arabia's traditional Arab foe. Among the many proxy wars these two countries have fought against each other, including in Lebanon, the downfall of Syria helps further weaken Iran, the country that Saudi Arabia views as most dangerous to its survival. Iran has called the Saudi dictatorship the least legitimate of regimes, and dreams of the day Saudi Arabia's substantial Shi'ite population, which happens to be in one of the most oil-rich provinces of the country, will rise up against the Saudi regime. This is Saudi Arabia's doomsday scenario.

And the Arab world's longest-lasting uprising continues.

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