Friday, October 21, 2005

Syria

The investigation led by Detlev Mehlis of the United Nations linked senior Syrian officials to the February 14 assassination of Rafik Hariri, former Prime Minister of Lebanon. The UN Security Council might consider international sanctions on the Ba'ath regime in Damascus. Long term American goals are intended to facilitate an "Arab glasnost", and greater levels of pluralism, democracy and receptivity to western geo-strategic interests. This said, a veto on UN sanctions by Russia or China can not be ruled out.

The United States had often condemned Syria for its support of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine, and the insurgents in Iraq. Iran and Syria have had close ties. The 30 year Syrian military presence in Lebanon united the Americans and French in a rare moment of solidarity to press for a Syrian disengagement. 14,000 Syrian troops were forced to withdraw from Lebanon in the aftermath of the Hariri assassination. Syria is no longer central to the decisions that affect the Middle East. It is surrounded by pro-western states i.e. Turkey to its north, Iraq to its east, Jordan and Israel to its south, and Lebanon to its west.

However, an increasingly isolated Syria might not be good. Economic stagnation, the return of 250,000 Syrian workers deported from Lebanon and increased unemployment can destabilize the country. The ruling Ba'ath party elite and much of the military top command belong to the Alawite minority, a "heretic" offshoot of the Shi'ite sect, that constitute 15% of the Syrian population. The Alawites dominate one province i.e. Latakia. Sections of the 70% Sunni Arab majority are attracted to the Islamic fundamentalism represented by the Muslim Brotherhood. The latter attempted to assassinate Hafez al-Assad in 1980 and then rose in revolt in 1982. The Ba'ath administration crushed the insurrection with unsurpassed brutality in Hamah leading to the death of 10,000 persons. Large parts of the city were bull dozed to terrify future opponents. But, the Muslim Brotherhood remains influential and demanded free elections in April, 2005. The 5% Kurd minority could press for increased autonomy in the region they dominate. A senior Kurdish leader was killed in May, 2005 after calling for "regime change".

The increasing isolation of the Ba'ath regime in Damascus could lead to one of two scenarios. The Alawite establishment in the military and the Ba'ath party could jettison the leadership of Bashar al-Assad to regain control. The other prospect would be one of a resurgent Muslim Brotherhood which would destabilize Syria. A stalemate in Syria would not be in the international community's interest. Syria, with a land area of 71,500 square miles and a population of 18 million, should not be allowed to implode.

3 comments:

doubtinggaurav said...

Jaffna,

Syria presents the typical conundrum wrt. bringing democracy in middle east. Even if dictators are deposed, we will be left with a mass of higly indoctrinated and radical people, in which case , threat of terrorism will remain.

I think dismantling of fundamentalists, which indulge in disseminating such extremist views is as important as bringing democracy.

Regards

libertarian said...

dg, I disagree that the majority of people in any country are foaming-at-the-mouth radicals. Indocrinated they may be, but you can still have a workable strategy with such people. Of course some countries are worse than others - I have the dimmest view of the Saudis - mass mental atrophy from not having to work for their money.

I think we need to work on our expectations. If we expect Syria and Iraq to suddenly become western-style republics, we're going to be disappointed. Further, if we expect them to separate mosque and state, I think we'll be wrong again. India, which is far down the path, is still wrestling with a Uniform Civil Code. The US State Dept. will point to Iran as an example of how bad a theocracy gets. I'm not sure we have options though - we have to learn how to work with the clerics and through them, if necessary, to get a stable system in place. I'm not sure if secularism will win out in the end, but we have to start somewhere. Long term, the local population has to send the clerics back to the mosques.

Jaffna said...

Libertarian,

Many countries in the Middle East did have a relative separation of state and religion of sorts until recently. Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq and pre-revolutionary Iran, not to mention Turkey were examples. Fundamentalism resurfaced in the late 1970s. This might have been linked to Sa'udi oil and sponsorship, it might have had something to do with Iran. The issue is complex. But I do not think that it is necessarily the region's destiny. It too might implode like Marxism. I can't see it delivering the economic goods. Witness the Taleban.

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