By Shahab Jafry
Syria is not blessed, or rather cursed, with the black gold endowment that is irresistible for imperial interests, yet the late Hafez al Assad raised it to such prominence in the Middle East political calculus that every American president from Nixon to Clinton was forced to indulge in diplomatic business with it. George Bush turned the trend on his son and unlikely successor Bashar by openly trumpeting the neocon call for regime change in Syria, but the latter survived to welcome a call for engagement from Obama. Indeed, survival itself is the biggest feat for whoever holds the seat of power in the politics of Baathist Damascus, and Bashar al Assad has played his cards well since the bloodless succession of 2000.
With the wave of popular protests now trending its way into Syria, though, Dr Assad faces the toughest test of his presidency, one that has already weathered internal and external intrigues including abortive palace coups, Israeli maneuvering and pressure from Washington’s wahabi petro-allies in the Gulf. And as the western media’s savage posturing condemns the Assad regime to international isolation, it is important to note elements of truth in Assad’s warning of “conspiracies”, that nothing is ever entirely black or white in the zero-sum, pitiless game of Middle East politics.
True, high youth unemployment and food inflation have joined to jolt power structures ruthlessly running countries like personal companies across the Arab world. But as the uprising has spread and assumed an outlook seemingly more relevant to political ideology and sectarian representation, eager youths are also increasingly exploited by more sinister elements pulling at strings from afar. In such cases, as is already clear in Egypt, simply regime change and rubbishing the old system achieve precious little for those that forced the spring.
For Bashar Assad, the tens of thousands rioting across Damascus, Banyas, Daraa and Homs are like piece-movements on a high-stake geopolitical chessboard. Just as much, if not more than economics, food prices and statistics is the hand of ghosts from the past that is stoking the Syrian powder keg. Bashar’s rise was controversial from the start, the first wave of opposition coming from one of his father’s most trusted aides for three decades, the vice president Abdel Halim Khaddam. Long the number three in the Assad setup, he could not come to terms with the succession arrangement as Bashar was installed aged only 34.
Khaddam sought exile in France in ’05 after Bashar’s pullout from Lebanon and began lobbying for collapse of a regime he had served loyally for more than three decades. He made damaging claims regarding Syrian involvement in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. He even held Damascus responsible for the shock ’08 take-out of Hezbollah strongman Immad Mughnieh, attempting to drive a wedge in the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah nexus even as the murder clearly bore Mossad’s fingerprints.
Claims that he has put his weight behind the unrest unravelling in Syria cannot be completely ignored. Perhaps former Lebanese PM Saad Hariri’s wikileaked advice that Assad be replaced by a Khaddam-Muslim Brotherhood alliance has not fallen on deaf ears, even if the two would make very uncomfortable bedfellows despite finding commong ground since Khaddam split with his masters. That this apparently conspired just as Hariri was visiting Damascus to reconcile with the regime he once blamed for his father’s murder only betrays the hypocritical nature of Lebanese-Syrian politics. The Brotherhood, for its part, has clearly not forgotten the thrashing at the hands of Hafez in the early ’80s, when they took to the streets to uproot the regime.
Then there is always Saudi pressure, now more than ever to counter Iranian backing for Bahrain’s shia. The Syrians hold the Saudis “instrumental” in arranging Khaddam’s defection as well as his marriage of convenience with the Brotherhood. With the ground suddenly very fertile for discontent, the Syrians would not exactly border on paranoia if they suspected Saudi petrodollars of helping sow seeds of discord. There is traditionally little love loss between Syria’s Alawite regime, an offshoot of the shia sect that holds power in Iran, and the wahabis swelling the ranks of the Brotherhood and Saudi monarchy. It is also no coincidence that wives of Hariri, Khaddam and Saudi King Abdullah are sisters.
And of course, never to miss any move of the House of Assad is the arch enemy in Israel, waiting to pounce on the slightest show of weakness. This have been rather silent since Damascus handled the aftermath of Tel Aviv’s ’07 arrogant show of aerial superiority well enough to force it to seek secret Turkish mediation in the matter of the Golan Heights. Yet the Israelis remain wary of Syria’s backing of its nemesis Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, as well as Hamas in Gaza.
Considering political intricacies, it is becoming clear that the mobilisation of the Arab street is turning one country after another into a proxy battlefield for regional as well as alien powers. Increasingly, legitimate demands of angry and unemployed Syrian youths have mutated into a farcical tug of war between regional camps.
For their own good, the Syrians need to learn the right lessons from Tahrir Square. They have been right in imitating the show of defiance and sending a clear signal to the leadership. They should stop short of toppling a structure with no promise of a replacement even remotely more sympathetic to their cause. The people need to pressure Assad on genuine grievances he has accepted — unemployment, inflation, political repression, lack of democracy — and ensure steady pressure to advance on these demands. Undue persistence, especially if it collapses the government, will not benefit the people, only outside forces bent upon personal and political gain.
Damascus has played a pivotal role in maintaining (and shifting) regional equilibrium. Once again it stands at the centre of a regional paradigm shift where waves of anger may well overcome voice of reason advocating steady nerves and plunge the wider region into chaos. More than the petro sheikhdoms, guerilla-cum-political movements and superpower financed buffer states, heavy lies the head that wears the crown in Damascus.
– Jafry Shahab is a freelance journalist based in Dubai. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: [email protected]