14 June 2011

Syria's Unfolding

The next few months will be critically important about the future of the Middle East in general and of Syria in particular.

Last week, the Syrian regime claimed that the protesters killed some 120 security personnel. The protesters made the counter claim that these people were killed by their senior officers as they refused to fire upon the protesters. I heard from some people in the region that some shadowy Salafist group was responsible for the murders. They argued that the discovery of a mass grave with ten bodies, four of which beheaded, support this claim. But I find that claim to be highly improbable and considering that similar claims about the insurgents were made by official sources and the Baath Party leadership, I think the rumors are likely to be an attempt to render the situation even murkier.

As for the protesters being responsible for the killings, I seriously doubt that they have the arms and the training to be able to ambush a large contingent of security forces and kill 120 of them. Even if they were able to do so, it would not have been possible without severe casualties on their side and there were no such reports.

Which leaves the highly likely option of the Syrian state being responsible of these killings. Maybe it was the punishment for mutiny as the insurgents claimed or it was caused by some other event. Either way, the way it was presented to the world did sound like a highly publicized effort to justify the eventual shelling and ruthless destruction of Jisr al-Sughour.

Ba'ath Party crushed uprisings before and killed thousands of people with impunity. They did it in 1980 in Aleppo, or in 1982 in Hama, killing tens of thousands and declaring their willingness to kill up to a million people if needed. They are now getting ready to do it again.

Except this time around, Turkey opened its borders and suddenly shifted its rhetoric against the Ba'ath leadership. The muted commentary of up until two weeks ago gave way to terms like unacceptable savagery and atrocities.
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose warm relations with Assad prompt both men call each other "brother," said late Thursday that Syria's actions were "savage" and could not be defended at the United Nations.
"Unfortunately they are acting in an inhumane way," said Mr. Erdogan. "The savagery right now ... these images are hard to eat, hard to swallow."
This is a very significant turning point and I somehow doubt that the Syrian leadership will have a clear understanding of it. Previously, shelling civilians who had nowhere to go was relatively easy and successful. But now that Turkey has opened its borders and thousands are fleeing, suppressing the uprising completely will become very difficult. In fact, if the Syrian regime insists on following the lead of the President's brother Maher, at some point, the situation could get bad enough that the Libyan case could become a blueprint.

The same players that made a lot of noise to intervene in Libya are also itching to get involved in this conflict. For instance, France and the UK are trying to get a UN resolution passed. Their role will remain limited as they have no access to the region and no power base. But their clamor could be influential in the decision making process of the key players, which are the US, Turkey and Israel.

And of course the Kurds.

If my starting hypothesis is correct and the US is supporting the Arab Spring to implement a number of regime changes in the region with the ultimate goal of stabilizing and controlling the distribution of oil and gas, then Syria is likely to pay a heavy price for its past policies. It has played a central role in Gaza through Hamas and and also in Lebanon through Hezbollah. Historically, it pursued a policy of the enemies of my enemies are my friend, first by supporting ASALA against Turkey and then the PKK. With Hamas and Hezbollah it moved beyond that indirect support approach to shape and control these organizations.

Given my premise, from the beginning of the Arab Spring, I was convinced that sooner or later Syria would be engulfed in a very serious situation. I believe we are witnessing the unfolding of that scenario.

A regime change in Syria would help solve two of the thorniest problems in the region: it would enable Israel to negotiate a comprehensive peace settlements which would include the Golan Heights and it would also provide the starting point of the Kurdish solution. I read pundits claiming that an unstable Syria would be a problem for both Turkey and Israel but I have a hard time understanding that logic. A weaker Syria would mean more than just the Golan Heights: it would also have significant implications in Lebanon, as currently Syria has enormous influence there (the current Mikati government is mainly pro-Syrian). Without Syria in play, Israel could sign peace agreements with all its neighbors.

For Turkey, the claim is that the likely formation of a semi-independent Kurdish region in Syria, not unlike the Northern Iraqi arrangement, might give the Turkish Kurds a similar idea. The implicit support for this line of argumentation is that historically Syrian Kurds mostly originated from Turkey and they were so excluded by the Syrian regime that, until a month ago, a substantial portion did not even have Syrian citizenship. However, they have stood at the sidelines so far and did not get involved in the uprising. But I think this will change soon, as the Syrian regime will probably be compelled to draw them into the conflict.

I find the notion that Turkey is afraid that its Kurdish population might get ideas about an independent homeland laughable. We are way past that point. And while the official rhetoric may not always reflect that, I doubt that many people in Turkey genuinely believe that the Kurdish problem will go away by itself. There are, of course, hard core nationalists who maintain that idea (they are not unlike the Israeli right who assume the Palestinians will just go away). But, as years go by, more and more people realize that, sooner or later, drastic steps will have to be taken.

But unlike the Turkish nationalists who fret that a major chunk of the country will be taken away and given to Kurds to create an independent Kurdistan, I believe the solution will be more gradual and will not involve such a drastic separation. I don't think that the US will support the creation of a large new country in the middle of its pipelines, especially if that country is likely to necessitate a serious nation building effort and a lengthy process to develop a stable economy. This is especially true as Kurds in the region do not form a neatly defined category: they have a vast array of regional, national, religious and tribal allegiances and identities and delineating a map that encloses them is not going to be sufficient to bring them together. Such a neo-colonial project will not be more successful than the historic examples like Iraq or Lebanon. A more likely scenario is the gradual creation of semi-autonomous regions that could eventually become both independent and integrated to a larger regional union.

This may sound too far-fetched in the current political climate. But, after all, this was the behind the first European Community, the ECSC, which led to the EEC and which, eventually became the EU. Instead of periodically fighting to re-conquer a number of regions (like Alsace Lorraine) they placed all regions and countries under a regional integration process. While many EU institutions may be outdated, its logic is not: After the Bosnian civil war, former Yugoslavia would have remained divided left to its own devices. When they all become members of EU, their division will have been superseded by a larger union.

This is the reason why Turkey's 2007 foreign policy shift that enabled it to become quickly a regional superpower capable of brokering deals and settlements is noteworthy. In that process, Erdogan removed visa requirements for almost all its neighbors (minus Armenia), announced a Free Trade Zone with the Arab world (and especially its neighbors), multiplied the volume of trade with each one and through all that emphasized Turkey's "no trouble with its neighbors" policy.

The aspiration (or maybe the mission) to play that regional role was clear in Erdogan's victory speech after last Sunday's elections:
"Believe me, Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul, Beirut won as much as Izmir, Damascus won as much as Ankara, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, the West Bank, Jerusalem won as much as Diyarbakir."
To my knowledge, no Turkish politician ever hailed their national electoral victory as something very significant for the entire region. The references are also very telling. He specifically mentioned Bosnia, Palestine and Kurdistan (Diyarbakir is widely believed to become either the capital or the most important center of a future Kurdistan and a 2007 speech by him stating that Diyarbakir will be such a center in a rearranged Middle East is usually branded by Turkish nationalists as proof of his desire to divide the country).

Ever since the first Gulf War, people like to talk about the Greater Middle East Project and they assume that the US as the last imperial power can re-draw the regional map and change things the way they benefit its goals. Variants of this so-called project were used in the region to explain away a number of odd or contradictory stances or actions. Typically, in these variants, Israel would be given somewhat sinister objectives, like wanting to destroy this or that country and as part of the same antisemitic continuum, the US would be given the role of obeying these moves. I always found these conspiracy theories too mechanical and simplistic, not to mention antisemitic.

My hypothesis is a lot more rational: Economically, militarily and geo-strategically, the US needs to control the supply of oil and gas in the next few decades (until replacement sources of energies are found) and it has shown that it would go to great lengths to achieve this goal (like fighting several ways at a huge cost).

The only way to do that is to create a stable Middle East by finding long term and stable solutions to two of its most intractable problems. When I look at the events like the Arab Spring or Mavi Marmara or Mubarak's demise, I do not see anthropomorphic states doing illogical things or expressing human feelings like hatred or fear or anxiety. I see a large chess board with a rational game plan to gently coax various players towards a final arrangement.

We'll see if I am wrong.

No comments:

Post a Comment