The way things look now, Lebanon may be at the start of a long trek towards where it has always wanted to be: a median position from which it can maintain its Arab personality but also forge strong ties with the West. That, in turn, means that all eyes will now be on Syria as the next nation in the region to have reached a crossroad.
At first glance, Syria has already decided which direction to take. President Bashar al-Assad’s address to the Syrian journalists last month sounded like a strategic agenda designed to crate a new “Rejection Front”, this time called “The Front of Defiance”, under Iranian leadership.
After the withdrawal of his army from Lebanon last year, Syria’s President Bashar al- Assad had an opportunity to switch sides, that is to say distance himself from Iran, join the emerging Arab mainstream, and use the United Nations investigation into Rafiq Hariri’s murder as an opportunity for purging his regime of hard-liners.
Assad did not take that opportunity, but moved in the opposite direction. Last June, he dispatched his Defence Minister to Tehran to sign a military agreement with the Islamic Republic. We now know that the timing was not accidental. The war triggered by Hezballah started almost exactly a month later. President Assad also stalled the UN investigation, thus encouraging his regime’s radical elements.
As things stand there is little likelihood that Syria will alter course to help the US impose its vision on the Middle East.
Syrian leaders speak with bitterness about the Bush administrations’ alleged failure to offer them inducements to change course. They had hoped for a role in reshaping Iraq, but received none. They also wished to retain a major presence in Lebanon but found out that Washington sought their total exclusion. Worse still, Washington appeared tilting towards a policy of “regime change” vis-à-vis Damascus, as signalled by the passage of the Syria Accountability Act by the US Congress.
There were other signs that Washington wanted regime change in Damascus. Last June, State Department officials attended a series of meetings held in Brussels and London by Syrian opposition leaders in exile, ostensibly as observers but, as it turned out, as active participants.
The emerging coalition of Syrian opposition groups has already agreed on a six-month transition during which the constitution, imposed in 1973, would be replaced by the one in force in 1950. A caretaker government would prepare for elections. It would also free political prisoners, dissolve special tribunals, and lift the State of Emergency imposed in 1970.
The growing perception that Syria may be targeted for regime change has encouraged opposition groups inside the country as well. Ethnic Kurds have already flexed their muscles in a number of demonstrations while secular intellectuals have published petitions criticising the regime. Last month a hunger strike by 14 prominent political prisoners in Damascus received much publicity thanks to samizdat distributed throughout Syria.
As more and more people find the courage to hold anti-regime meetings in their homes, mosques, and the “zawiyah”, places where Sufi fraternities meet, more of the darkness created since the mid-1960s begins to dissipate. Since 1960, successive military-dominated regimes have built a system modelled on the traditional Damascus houses. These are structures with high walls that isolate the inhabitants from the surrounding neighbourhood. In these houses, all windows open on an inner courtyard allowing the inmates no view of the outside. No wonder, the rising level of dissident activity both fascinates and frightens the Syrians.
Like neighbouring Iraq, Syria is a mosaic of ethnic and religious communities. The current regime is controlled by Alawites, a quasi-Shiite sect that accounts for some 11 per cent of the population but has dominated the army and the security forces since the 1950s. Arab Sunnis, accounting for 60 per cent of the population believe they can form an alliance with Christians, Kurds, Turcomans and other minorities to challenge the Alawite hold on power.
For years, Assad vacillated between endorsing reform and leading a new crackdown. Initially, he had convinced some that he might opt for reform- among them British Prime Minister Tony Blair who invited Assad and his British-born wife to a red carpet reception in London and a banquet with the queen.
Now, however, Blair is convinced that Assad is no longer a partner for the West in reshaping the Middle East. That view is shared by France’s President Jacques Chirac who has campaigned to bring Hariri’s assassins to justice. In July, Chirac broke diplomatic habits by publicly branding Assad as “an obstacle to peace and stability” in the region.
Why is President Assad taking such a gamble?
He appears to have bought into Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s strategy of “waiting Bush out” as discussed when the two met in Damascus last January. The current Iranian policy is based on the assumption that once Bush is out of office, the US will revert to its traditional policy of accommodating the status quo rather than seeking to change it.
Iran has thrown its support behind Assad by supplying him with cut-price oil, cash gifts worth $400 million, a range of weapons including missiles, and a contingent of Islamic Revolutionary Guards that could, if needed, act as a Praetorian Guard.
The Assad strategy is also backed by Russia, which is seeking special mooring rights for its navy in the Syrian port of Tartus to replace the base leased from the Ukraine in Sebastopol on the Black Sea. That lease will end in 2017 after which Sebastopol may become a NATO base. Incidentally, Tartus is the stronghold of the Alawites and the “capital” of the Alawite statelet that was briefly envisaged after the First World War.
“Israel’s aggression against Hezballah is part of a broader strategy,” President Ahmadinejad said last month. “Those who launched the aggression think that if Hezballah falls, other dominos will fall, including Syria.”
The Syrian leaders share that analysis. This is why they will do nothing to “restrain” the Hezballah, as the UN’s Secretary General Kofi Annan has demanded. They know that by helping disarm the Hezballah they would only encourage “regime change” against themselves. A new version of the Cold War is taking place in the Middle East. The question is: how long will it last and how much damage it could do all those involved?