Turmoil in Syria – March 1, 2012

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What the commentators refer to as the Arab Spring is in the process of transforming the political and economic landscape of the Middle East which in our era of globalization and its concomitant- interdependence- is of global importance particularly to energy deficient regions. A wave of popular revolts has deposed the pro-western autocracies in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Thus the United States, the European Union, China, India, and Japan among others, have a substantial stake in what happens next in the Middle East.With the island sheikdom of Bahrain also subject to sectarian rioting, will the contagion spread to Saudi Arabia is the unspoken thought coursing through many chancelleries.

While the year long struggle to oust the Syrian autocrat Bashar Al Asad continues with a heavy loss of life-mostly civilians-estimated at 7,500, it is difficult to prognosticate the end date of the minority Asad regime. It is hard to envisage how Asad can regain a modicum of legitimacy which he has squandered, perhaps irretrievably, through unleashing brutality on his opponents.   The Alawites, a heterodox Shia sect to which he belongs, are only 11% of the Syrian population, while the Sunnis constitute the majority at 70%. What has become fairly clear however isthat the Asad regime is becoming increasingly isolated internationally. The United States, the European Union and the Arab League have all called for Asad to stop killing his fellow Syrians and to step down.   A recentArab League resolution submitted to the United Nations Security Council calling for the intensification of international pressure on Asad, including further sanctions and possibly even military intervention, was vetoed by Russia and China.  This was a classic example of realpolitikwhere principles of international law took second place to Russo-Chinese fears that after NATO’s intervention in Libya, a similar precedent in Syria would make them even more vulnerable to similar UN intervention. Russia has its irredentist problems in Chechnya and other regions of the Caucasus while China has been confronting for a decade or so, a low grade insurgency from the ethnic Uighurs in the strategic area of Sinkiang.  These two countries therefore stopped the UN from an activist role.

Today the only friends that Asad can count upon for the time being are Russia and Iran.  As a state heavily indebted to Russia for armaments and other aid, Syria in turn provides Russia with a strategic outlet in the eastern Mediterranean including a naval base at Tartus.  Syria and Iran have mutually reinforcing ties with Syria whose statist economy under Baath rule has always struggled, availing itself of much needed Iranian economic assistance in return for Syria agreeing to be a conduit for Iranian contacts with its powerful ally in Lebanon-Hizbullahwhich is influential in Lebanese politics.  Russia has been criticized internationally for allowing the Asad forces to perpetrate the civilian carnage against its opponents.  It is clear that Russia has been embarrassed at the loss of global political capital for its minority position.  Iran is already at the receiving end for continuing with its alleged nuclear weapons program; so it is doubtful if the Ayatollahs in Tehran are overly worried about the additional brickbats the international community is hurling at them.

The way the United Nations Security Council has been designed to function with military action not possible absent unanimity among the P5, means that for the time being the best the UN can do is to request Damascus to allow humanitarian aid to reach thousands of suffering civilians.  Damascus seems to be dragging its heels even on outside humanitarian aid coming in.  Anne Marie Slaughter the influential academic at Princeton has advocated the establishment of humanitarian zones on Syria’s borders with Turkey and Jordan which would be protected by UN aircraft.  She has also advocated the arming of the opposition with heavy weapons.  If the abominable status quo continues with the Asad regime continuing to kill civilians in large numbers, the international community may swing around to intervening along the lines of the Slaughter proposal. The opposite point of view has been espoused by another influential analyst Gideon Rachman who said that intervention by the international community would be counterproductive, because it could open a sectarianPandora’s Box in multi- religious and multi- ethnic Syria.  There is a need for some caution as the Syrian situation does mirror that of Saddam- ruled Iraq where a Sunni minority had ruled over the majority Shias. Once Saddam wasforciblydeposed through preemptive American military action, Iraq witnessed a sectarian blood bath in which thousands of Iraqis lost their lives and millions had to flee to neighboring countries as refugees. Asad frequently invokes this nightmarish scenario to keep his international detractors at bay.

In the Balkan Wars of the 1990, the international community dithered while the Serbs took the lead in committing atrocities against the Bosnians Muslims, Croats and Kosovars.  After an estimated two hundred thousand people had lost their lives did the United States get behind a NATO resolution authorizing the aerial bombardment of Belgrade.The tyrant Milosevic was ousted and the bloodletting came to a stop.  The number of casualties in Syria has not yet reached the critical mass which would energize either the UN or NATO to destroy Syria’s army through aerial action.  This would almost certainly lead to the ousting of the much hated Asad regime.  This may happen in the future but the timeline cannot be predicted with any degree of certainty.

The upheavals in the Middle East cannot but turn away nervous investors. It is therefore not surprising that foreign investment is fleeing Egypt, Yemen, Syria and other countries in the region. Revolutions by their very nature are messy.  Law and order and economic stability take many years to develop.  What is clear is that the Arab peoples have demonstrated that they will no longer stomach the likes of Ben Ali, Mubarak, Ali Saleh and Asad, plutocratic dictators who emulated the Shah of Iran in enriching themselves and their coterie at the expense of impoverishing their peoples.  Once democratic dispensations are established in these countries, there would be tremendous scope for the Western countries to collaborate with the new governments in developing economic and financial ties.  The Middle East is not a marginal region.  It is at the center of world politics and economics and has been so since the treaty of Versailles was inked in 1919.

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