February 24, 2012

Syria explained: a losing battle


21 CommentsBOB BOWKER

There will be no winners emerging from the mess unfolding in Syria, only losers. But my best guess is that the Assad regime will survive for an extended period, albeit in a weakened state.

The insurgency has the capacity to continue, but not at a level of intensity or capability that would cause the regime to disintegrate. The militarisation of the revolt also works to the regime's advantage: it rallies the doubters, and leaves the Alawites no prospect of avoiding a sectarian bloodbath if the regime were to collapse.

The sceptic in me also feels that the revolt is going to be the victim of the US news cycle before long. There is a limit to the newsworthiness of continuing carnage (now mostly limited to Homs, it seems). If the regime can bring the level of violence down to some extent after crushing resistance in Homs I suspect the media focus will move elsewhere.

I also suspect Iran will lose less than most.

First, as the process continues, the Assad regime is being driven ever closer to Iran, economically and financially, and in terms of assistance in meeting its security needs. If the regime endures the Iranians will consolidate those gains. They were already building extensive links to the Alawite elite before 2011.
Second, if the regime falls, in the chaos that would follow Iran would have at least as many assets on the ground as any other external player. Any suggestion that a successor Sunni regime in Damascus would have the capacity simultaneously to impose order and to control Syria's borders is fanciful. Iran has the advantage of readily deployable operatives from Hezbollah and can use its own assets through Iraq. Those assets are experienced, capable and committed to a higher degree than any Arab counterpart apart from the jihadists, who for their part represent a tiger few sensible Arab governments would wish to ride. No-one can predict how the cards would eventually fall, but I would expect the Iranians to be more than capable of protecting their interests to a large extent under those circumstances.

I would regard the consolidation of Iranian influence in the Levant as a tragedy for the Arab world, which needs the widening of creative space and political freedoms. But however distasteful the Assad regime is, I am not convinced that its departure would serve that end.

The Saudis are no more popular, or respected, in Syria than the Iranians. Syrians are more secular than most Arabs in their social traditions and image of themselves as both Arab and modern. They fear the home-grown salafists and their Gulf backers, and for good reason.

Although they are rivals, the risk-averse Saudis have accommodated the Iranians before. The Saudi-sponsored Taif Agreement, followed by Saudi pressure for the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon after the Hariri assassination paved the way for Hezbollah's pre-eminence in Lebanon. As the chaos unfolds in Syria the Saudis may yet take a deep breath, and come to prefer a weakened, but basically intact Alawite regime that promised to distance itself from Tehran, as the price of keeping the Iranians from securing an even stronger position from Iraq to the Levant.
But any chance of maintaining Syria within the Arab fold comes back to a fundamental question. The issue is whether the Saudis (and other Gulf Arab rulers) can bring themselves to accept a Shia-dominated Iraq, or an Alawite-dominated Syria and a Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon, all with close ties to Iran, as legitimate members of the Arab club which the Saudis and Egypt expect to dominate.

I am concerned that western countries may be indulging a Saudi and Qatari sense of self-importance under the guise of meeting an Iranian challenge. That rivalry might be better managed, at least in the Syrian context, by building greater dialogue between the Saudis and Iranians.

A sustainable regional security framework will have to be based on recognition by the Saudis that ties with Iran, natural for a host of social, geographic, economic and other reasons, are not necessarily prejudicial to the Arab identity of the region and Saudi Arabia's place in it.

The most important factor determining the outlook for security in the Gulf is not whether Iran is nuclear-capable, or militarily threatening to the Arab states and Israel. It is whether the Arab states, be their leaders Sunni or Shia, are politically strong, economically successful and militarily secure under US protection. The measures being taken and promoted by Qatar and the Saudis in regard to Syria, including the calls for arming the rebels, are not conducive to providing security for the region. Indeed, if anything, they are more likely to be counter-productive.

Bob Bowker was Australia's ambassador to Syria, accredited from Cairo, from 2005 to2008. He also served in Damascus from 1979 to 1981. View his full profile here.

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