New game on West Asian chessboard

New game on West Asian chessboard

CHINMAYA R. GHAREKHAN

For India, whose stakes are high not just in Syria but the entire region, the time has come to demonstrate a new form of non-alignment, between Saudi Arabia and Iran

In an article published in The Hindu titled “Syria, slow descent into chaos,” (November 19, 2011), I wrote about the danger of Syria being slowly engulfed in a civil war. By now, the civil war is well set.

Two facts are evident in the situation in Syria. The “international community” is determined to topple Bashar Al Assad’s regime, and there is heavy and undisguised involvement of external forces, with active encouragement and assistance including financing and arming of anti-regime elements. There are reports of Libyan fighters having been brought to join the dissidents in Syria. The Al Assad regime — the father and the son — has been a thorn in the side of some countries, especially Israel — and hence America — because of its alliance with Iran and resultant backing of the Hezbollah, its alleged role in the assassination of pro-West Prime Minister of Lebanon Rafiq Hariri in 2005, its initial alleged support of the Baathists in Iraq, as well as its continuing alliance with Russia. (Did the Cold War never really end or has it revived?) Saudi Arabia, which has never been comfortable with Syria because of its tendency to follow an “independent” line, was particularly upset with Bashar following the murder of Hariri, who was a protégé of the Saudi ruling family. Given Saudi domination in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), it is logical for this group also to be opposed to Syria.

The Turkey factor

When the United States, major European countries and nearly all Arab states, the largest repositories of crude oil, combine against him, what chance does Bashar have? How long can he hold out? The Russians and Chinese can perhaps help in preventing sanctions being imposed on Syria in the Security Council, and Russia can give Assad more weapons because they have their own interests in the Middle East, not least being the Syrian port of Tartous on the Mediterranean. But once the dissidents in Syria manage to seize control over some territory anywhere in the country, the external involvement will become decisive in tilting the scales against Bashar, as happened in Libya. In addition to acquiring a foothold in some parts of Syria, the opposition would also need to put together a coalition of their own so that foreign aid can be channelled to them — again on the lines of what happened in Libya. Once the objective of getting rid of the regime is achieved, the opposition can go back to squabbling among themselves, once again like in Libya.

What we are witnessing in relation to Syria is a manifestation of the great game in the Middle East, namely the Shia-Sunni hostility which translates largely into Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry, but in some respects it transcends that. Turkey, for example, cannot be on the side of Saudi Arabia in so far as the competition for dominance in the region is concerned because Turkey has its own ambitions in this regard. Turkey has joined — in fact it is the major regional power in the anti-Assad coalition — because of several reasons, the anti-Shia campaign, the Syrian support for PKK, the banned Kurdish party in Turkey and Syria’s lack of gratitude for Turkey’s good offices for hosting the negotiations with Israel.

It may be recalled that a few years ago, the U.S. had encouraged the formation of a coalition of moderate Sunni states in confrontation with Iran. There are reports of the Sunnis in Iraq readying themselves to go to the aid of their fellow Sunnis in Syria. Al-Qaeda is waiting in the wings to acquire one more base in the region which ought to give considerable discomfort to the monarchy in Jordan.

Support for Assad

There are a few factors working for Bashar Al Assad also. He continues to enjoy popular support in the country. Forty per cent of Syria’s population consists of minorities of different kinds, all of whom are united in not wanting a hard-line Sunni establishment taking over power in the country. The army, which is largely Sunni though the officer corps consists mainly of Alawites, is by and large, still loyal to the regime. The number of defectors is most likely exaggerated in the western media. And then there is diplomatic and limited military support from Russia. He can also count on the strong support of Iran which itself has a huge stake in Bashar’s survival, but it is not clear how helpful Iran’s support means in practical terms. He can also perhaps enlist the Hezbollah on his side to make life a bit difficult for Israel, but the same may not be true of Hamas whose leadership is making its own calculations on the advisability of continuing to put all its eggs in the Assad basket. Bashar also presumably continues to have enough leverage to destabilise Lebanon, and not only through the Hezbollah. On the whole, however, the odds are stacked against Bashar. His capacity to fight the combined onslaught is not unlimited; his finances are dwindling just as those of his opponents are increasing and will increase even more, and his diplomatic supporters might not stand by his side for too long depending on what other pieces come into play on the international chess board,

One more fact is certain. Bashar Al Assad is not going to give up, because the stake for him is nothing short of his life. Bashar could hold out for much longer than expected. Once again the analogy of Libya comes to mind. This means prolonged civil conflict which will take the lives of thousands. That region is not unfamiliar to civil war, Lebanon having endured 14 years of a bloodbath among its various confessions. If he concludes that the army will always remain with him, he will decide to fight it out, but that cannot last too long because of diminishing coffers, etc. Will he then seek refuge abroad?

Russia’s last ditch effort to bring all Syrians parties together around a negotiating table reminds one of the desperate attempt to stall the first Gulf War in 1991 when Primakov, a former Prime Minister and the best Soviet expert on Arab affairs and a friend of Saddam, tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Saddam Hussein to make some compromise gesture. The present effort also is not likely to succeed, first because the opposition is divided and second because the opposition has much more to gain by not cooperating with Russia and remaining on the side of the U.S. and the rich Gulf states. What can Russia offer to the dissidents? The other side can offer a great deal. Further, Bashar has made it difficult for those who might wish to help him for their own reasons by failing to carry out reforms which he has had ample time to implement since succeeding his father a decade ago. Since the principal though indirect target of the anti-Assad movement is Iran, there is almost no chance of the Russian effort succeeding. Similarly, the difficulty with the Arab League idea of a U.N. peacekeeping operation is that it presupposes existence of peace or ceasefire which peacekeepers can keep or maintain. However unpalatable and deplorable, there may be no alternative to the civil conflict playing itself out until the bitter end.

The Arab Spring

The brief history of the phenomenon which goes by the dubious name of “Arab Spring” has established a clear trend. Every successive country involved in this development has witnessed increasing levels of violence. Tunisia’s was the least violent revolution. Egypt has suffered many more casualties than Tunisia. In Libya, hundreds and possibly thousands have died, in Yemen even more. The Syrian revolution, if it can be called that, has cost thousands of lives on both sides — it is essential to emphasise this point, the number of dead on the government side is not much smaller than on the opposition side — and will surely claim thousands more.

Muslim Brotherhood is the only party, besides the official Ba’ath party, with a reasonable base in Syria and will almost certainly be the largest beneficiary should the Assad government fall at some time. It is reported to be receiving large-scale help from some affluent Sunni governments. This ought to be a cause for concern for Israel, Jordan, Iraq and the West in general. However, for Israel, the highest priority is to isolate and weaken Iran; Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists can be dealt with later. It should be stated that Israel has every justification for its total hostility towards Iran, given some of the anti-Israeli statements of its leadership.

For India, the stakes are high, not so much in Syria by itself but in the whole region, especially the sub-region of the Gulf. As was mentioned by this writer in an article entitled: “The new great game” (The Hindu, April 28, 2011), India might have to practise a new form of non-alignment or dual alignment between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The time for this has come. Continued instability in Syria might make the region unstable, affecting the production and export of oil, and, most importantly, the situation of the six-million Indian diaspora working in the region. India’s vote in favour of the resolution which was vetoed by Russia and China on February 4 should not be seen as “no longer sitting on the fence”; rather, it was, one likes to think, a demonstration of our readiness to adapt our positions to changed circumstances. Consistency is not a virtue in international relations. It is quite possible that future challenges might produce yet different responses.

(The writer served as India’s special envoy for the Middle East and is a former U.N. Under Secretary General.)

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