Almost a year ago pundits noted how the Arab Spring of democratic uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East was fast turning into an Arab Winter... a winter of discontent and dashed hopes. Yet, soon ahead, we have an Arab Fall, that of the Assad regime in Syria. Not "a fall" in the sense of a season, of course, but rather a tripping up and an ending.
Syria has at times presented itself as all things to all people: a police state that has for the last five years marketed itself with astonishing success as a tourist destination for bien pensant westerners; a seemingly cohesive, multi-faith society that "held together" (or so Anna Wintour's Vogue told us) but did so via unimaginably brutal repression; Iran's closest ally and yet (some have suggested) a one-time covert ally of the US; a sponsor of terror and yet also at times a supposed ally in the War on Terror.
Soon it may all be different. Whereas thirty years ago Hafez al Assad put down an uprising in Hama, slaughtering more than 20,000 of its citizens, including women and children, his son Bashar, whose forces have already killed that number, will not be able to contain or defeat the current uprising led by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). A coalition of the West (including France, Britain and the US), along with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are now considering the imposition of a no-fly zone, which will protect the beleaguered population of Syria and also offer cover for FSA fighters. In the meantime, there has been considerable equivocation about proceeding with such a motion without the moral authority of China and Russia, such as it is, in the form of UN Security Council backing. Even without such a no-fly zone, the FSA will in time prevail, but at a cost: when guerrilla wars or civil wars are drawn out the most brutal elements within respective factions tend to rise to the top, with an attendant marginalization, or elimination, of those whose aims and skills are directed toward the creation of civil societies. If the result of a drawn out civil war and long-delayed regime change is simply the replacement of one degraded, brutal society for another, no one will have won.
Yet another factor in international involvement in events in Syria will be the reaction of its neighbor and ally Iran, who themselves are already deeply involved in the country. Iranian military advisers, and snipers from its Lebanese proxy militia Hezbollah, have been active for the past year in Syria. (An aside: I continue to hope for a western peace movement to emerge exclaiming: "Stop the War! Iran and Russia out of Syria now!" but so far no luck. Similarly, in European and American cities, many of the same who decades ago marched demanding nuclear disarmament of the US and the UK, in order presumably to induce the Soviet Union to disarm, now counter: "Well, why shouldn't Iran have nuclear arms?").
There has, of course, been wrenching debate about how best to handle Iran's ambition for nuclear weapons. However, in the short term, of much greater strategic importance for Iran is their maintenance of a reliable ally in Syria via the Assad regime, as well as (jointly with the Assads) with Hezbollah, who in their role as political actors are a prime mover, via the March 8 coalition, in the current government of Lebanon.
Keep all this in mind when reading Con Coughlin's scoop this week in the Telegraph:
According to Western intelligence officials, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave the order [to explore terror attacks] to the elite Quds Force unit following a recent emergency meeting of Iran's National Security Council in Tehran held to discuss a specially-commissioned report into the implications for Iran of the Assad regime's overthrow.
Damascus is Iran's most important regional ally, and the survival of the Assad regime is regarded as vital to sustaining the Iranian-backed Hizbollah militia which controls southern Lebanon.
The report, which was personally commissioned by Mr Khamenei, concluded that Iran's national interests were being threatened by a combination of the U.N. sanctions imposed over Iran's nuclear programme and the West's continuing support for Syrian opposition groups attempting to overthrow the Syrian government.
Intelligence officials say the report concludes that Iran "cannot be passive" to the new threats posed to its national security, and warns that Western support for Syrian opposition groups was placing Iran's "resistance alliance" in jeopardy, and could seriously disrupt Iran's access to Hizbollah in Lebanon.
It advised that the Iranian regime should demonstrate to the West that there were "red lines" over what it would accept in Syria, and that a warning should be sent to "America, the Zionists, Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others that they cannot act with impunity in Syria and elsewhere in the region."
Mr Khamenei responded by issuing a directive to Qassem Suleimani, the Quds Force commander, to intensify attacks against the West and its allies around the world.
Coughlin is a reliable journalist on these matters. Khamenei, as best one can tell, and it's not entirely clear, is in fact the highest power in that country. Does Iran have the capability to strike outside its region? Unfortunately, yes, given that in the 1990s it carried out an assassination program in the heart of Europe against Iranian dissidents, as well as terror attacks against Jewish social organizations in Argentina and elsewhere. What's more, and more to the point, last year the Iranian government was implicated in an assassination plot against the Saudi Ambassador to the US to be carried out in Washington, DC.
Will Iran strike against Western targets? For a country that has generally operated in a careful and strategic way that would seem unlikely, unless circumstances were to change drastically. As it happens, circumstances in the Middle East are in fact changing drastically right now and we have little idea precisely how matters will play out. This is certain: that sooner or later, gradually or faster, the Assad regime, which has been Iran's sole reliable ally for the last few decades, will end.
What will Iran do?
In the meantime, we should ponder, when the Assad regime goes in Syria, what will take its place?
One would like to be hopeful and see a democratic country with structured power-sharing and rights secured for all minorities, including the Christian and Alawite communities likely be threatened by the fall of this regime. (A model for this sort of structured power-sharing could be the Taif agreement of 1989 that ended the Lebanese Civil War.) So far, the Syrian civil war has not been primarily a sectarian affair. The FSA, though comprised of many fighters drawn from the disenfranchised Sunni communities, does encompass members from a variety of outlooks and backgrounds. Many of the FSA leaders have a strikingly modern, technocratic, and secular outlook. Late last week, however, the Syrian Army made a drive through Daraya, a predominantly Sunni suburb, reportedly slaughtering hundreds, including women and children. Reports recount the army searching house to house and killing men of fighting age unable to produce papers.
The longer the conflict in Syria grinds on the more likely it becomes that the government will be a Sunni majority dominated affair, with close ties to Saudi Arabia and the gulf states, as well as to the Sunni community in Lebanon, a country to which Syria has long been intimately, sometimes smotheringly, connected. (It is, of course, here worth noting that, in fact, Saudi Arabia played a relatively positive role in the supporting the pluralistic March 14th coalition that led Lebanon following the Cedar Revolution.)
A third possibility would be an extended civil war, extreme chaos, population movements and refugee crises, with a rump Alawite state forming in the northwest of the country... essentially a re-drawing the national boundaries delineated, for better or worse, in the Sykes-Picot agreement drawn up by Britain and France during WWI and refined in the 1920s. (For a primer on those agreements and what preceded them... events "long ago, in distant lands" that are somehow much alive and with us... I recommend watching David Lean's magnificent film Lawrence of Arabia, and reading in conjunction with that David Fromkin's classic book of history A Peace to End All Peace.) There are signs already of just such a rending of boundaries. Syria's Kurdish community (2.5 million, or 10% of the country's population, and concentrated in the north) have played a canny waiting game, delaying their participation in the uprising against the Assad regime. In the meantime, the Syrian army has withdrawn from that region, giving the Kurdish north of the country a de facto autonomy akin to that achieved by the Iraqi Kurds in 1991. In doing so, the Assad regime has put pressure on neighboring Turkey, the leader of the coalition backing the FSA and who have their own restive independence-minded Kurdish population, as well as on neighboring Iraq, who have been struggling to keep their own oil-rich Kurdish region within a tight federal framework. In essence, the Assad regime is holding out the threat of shattering the region and its long-delineated national boundaries. It also may be suggesting what is its fall-back plan, of a "lesser Syria," with micro nation-states drawn along ethnic and confessional lines, including an Alawite redoubt in the northwest of the country to which the upper levels of the government and the army would retreat.
When History is moving forward, and people are dying, it is unwise to stand still at the cross-roads. It is unconscionable as well.
Read Con Coughlin on Khamenei's statement HERE.
Study David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace, available HERE.
Watch David Lean's brilliant Lawrence of Arabia, available HERE, or via Apple itunes.
Hat tips to Now Lebanon, Lee Smith, and others, whose columns have been educational.
Remember that in a sense the Arab Spring began in Lebanon, with the Cedar revolution, in response to the 2005 murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. I was in Lebanon for the fourth anniversary of his death, and my interviews with Christopher Hitchens and others, conducted at a rally in Martyrs' Square, can be seen HERE.
The Vogue profile of Asma al Assad is no longer available via the Vogue or Conde Nast websites, but may be found at Bashar al Assad's official website. (Link not provided, and if you think about visiting it be very careful about those cookies.)