Mishaal Al Gergawi

Syria’s Fork of a Future, Where it Could Take Us

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Image Credit: Steve Greenberg, The Ventura County Star, http://blogs.venturacountystar.com/greenberg/

If there’s one country whose fall could reshape the Middle East’s balance of power it’s Syria. Many would argue that country is Saudi Arabia, but barring its recent involvement — via the GCC Peninsula Shield — in Bahrain, when was the last time one felt the kingdom’s regional power at play? It has failed to quell the Houthis’ power in Yemen and its backing of — the politically drained — Sa’ad Hariri in Lebanon has been symbolic.

The reality is that Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the Gulf states, are quite weak at effecting regional policy, let alone building dynamic regional alliances. A regime change in Iran on the other hand, would affect to a certain extent the regional power balance though many note that Iran’s resurgence as a regional power is Persian first and Shiite second. In other words, an ethnic, nationalist, nostalgically driven re-conquest of olden glory days would still stand. This leaves Syria, Iran’s staunchest ally. Should a new (non-Baathist) Syrian government take office, one that would host a more hedged policy of relationships with Iran, Turkey, GCC, US and Europe, Iran’s regional power would be dealt a serious blow.

Defying a ban, protests began on March 16. Two days later, a day of rage took place in at least four cities — Damascus, Homs, Banyas and Daraa where four people were killed. By March 23, 10 people had been killed in Daraa
though some estimate that number as high as 100. The next day, the president’s political and media adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban announced a set of reforms which many considered unthinkable a few weeks ago:

Wage increase of public sector employees, Corruption laws; Discussion of an end to Syria’s emergency law; Discussion to allow multi-political parties; Ending arbitrary arrests and strengthening personal freedoms.

To say Bouthaina was nervous during the press conference is an understatement, more accurately she was shaken, almost offended that she had to sell Syrian legitimacy to public opinion. Most striking was her referring
to Syria on several occasions as ‘we are a state’.

Tal’s imprisonment

Syria is the kind of place that makes Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt look like a benevolent dictatorship. Nothing speaks of this as much as the story of Tal Al Malouhi, then a 17-year-old girl arrested in December 2009 in relation to
prose and poetry about local affairs. After 14 months (during which she wasn’t allowed to take her high school graduation tests) of persistent demands from family and human rights groups for her release, Tal was put on private trial in the Higher State Security Court where she was convicted of espionage and leaking state sensitive information and sentenced to five years. Such is the ruthlessness and paranoia of the Syrian system. Many
believe that in addition to the regional unrest and Syria’s deteriorating economic conditions, it was Tal’s sentencing, which took place in mid- February that ignited protest there.

To understand Syria one must understand the Baath party. Founded by Michelle Aflaq and Salah Al Bitar in 1947, the Baath (meaning resurrection and renaissance) party is like a secular party that combined Arab nationalism
and Arab socialism that would combat western imperialism and unite Arab states into one. And so, effectively, the Baath is the seed of the pan-Arab nationalist movement that would sweep the Arab world. However, the Baath
party would only rule in Syria and Iraq; other countries would develop their own movements that would be inspired but not fall under Aflaq and Al Bitar’s party. A military coup in Syria in 1966 would depose of the intellectual duo – fathers of the party – and would lead to an irreversible schism between the Syrian and Iraqi branches. Each party would refer to itself differently; the Qotri (or regionalist) Syria-based party and the Qawmi (or nationalist) Iraq-based party.

Following the fall of the shortlived union in the fifties, relations with Egypt had already been cautious. And as Iraq would find itself at odds with Iran following its revolution, then Syrian president, Hafez Al Assad, an Alawite, would find a natural ally in Iran. Syria was virtually the only Arab state to support Iran in the war. With GCC states providing financial support to Iraq, Syria’s limited means meant that Iran’s financial and fossil fuel support would be existentially crucial. The rest is history.

It is worth lamenting that, following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the GCC states failed to seize the opportunity to approach a post-Hafez Syria and launch a coordinated investment plan in return for a rehabilitated alliance or a more stabilising regional policy. Armed with an ex-investment banker wife, Bashar Al Assad had announced in 2007 that Syria would need to attract $15 billion (Dh55 billion) over three years to sustain its growth rates.
Missing that opportunity helped increase the Middle East’s geo-political risks at play today.

The level of legitimacy with which the Syrian government views itself, comparable only to that of monarchs, doesn’t bode very well for its capacity to reform. The crackdown will be ruthless, references to foreign, radical
and opposition groups have already been made. Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas will not want Syria to fall; the latter two will have a hard time functioning as effectively as they do. Finally, regardless of the success of Libya’s no-fly
zone, with Israel — and Iraq — next door, no one is going to propose one in Syria. The question still stands, will Al Assad follow Mubarak’s ‘too little too late’ reforms or will he gravitate towards Morocco-Omani reforms?

Mishaal Al Gergawi is an Emirati current affairs commentator. This article was first published in Gulf News.

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