THE STALEMATE in the power struggle in Syria has pushed the government to escalate its crackdown on rebel-held areas while making the rebels ever more determined to hold on. And it has prompted the Arab League and its western backers to announce financial and material assistance for insurgents.
Their announcement, however, was misleading. For several months now money and arms have been flowing semi-clandestinely to local militias and the “Free Syrian Army”, composed of army deserters.
Insurgents are, reportedly, being provided with modern weapons and night-vision and communications equipment, and are being reinforced by veteran fighters from Iraq and Libya, some with al-Qaeda connections.
Arming insurgents is certain to prolong the conflict in Syria and is already transforming what had been campaigning to topple the regime by means of mass protest into a full-scale civil war that could engulf neighbouring Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, and destablise Turkey.
Government supporters argue the rebellion will be defeated, but not until a great deal of blood is shed and the economy destroyed.
One veteran commentator said, “The last time we fought the Muslim Brotherhood [1978-82], it took four years to end the rebellion. This time, the situation is much worse. It could take longer.” Another analyst said the damage to the economy will be great, but “the damage to relations between communities may never be repaired”.
Secular, Christian and heterodox Shia Alawite Syrians fear their country will become a wasteland like Iraq, ruled by a sectarian Sunni regime rather than a a sectarian Shia one, as in Iraq. They argue Arab Spring uprisings have been hijacked by the well-organised Muslim Brotherhood and ultraorthodox Salafis. The latter adhere to the puritanical Wahhabism practised in Saudi Arabia, the font and financier of militant Sunni fundamentalism.
The struggle in Syria is a struggle for the heartland of the “Mashriq”, the eastern Arab world, seriously weakened by the absence of Iraq since the 2003 US invasion and occupation. In spite of Syria’s authoritarianism, brutality and corruption, secular liberal Arab observers insist the regime must be permitted to facilitate the transition to multiparty rule. They argue that since there is no obvious successor to the regime, current structures must remain in place if Syria is to avoid the anarchy and chaos, murder and mayhem that still afflict Iraq.
The struggle for Syria is becoming increasingly polarised between East and West, with Russia and China supporting the regime and the US and Europe the opposition.
Russia is defending its long-term interests; China seeks to preserve the principle of nonintervention by outsiders in the internal affairs of countries plagued with unrest. Both Russia and China face dissident minorities and subject peoples within their vast territories.
Russia’s regional influence began to diminish in the 1970s after the leading Arab power, Egypt, under president Anwar Sadat, turned towards the West and broke with Arab ranks by making peace with Israel.
Syria, a contender for Arab leadership, became Russia’s sole regional ally, bought Russian arms and granted it a port to service its Mediterranean fleet. Since the US occupation of Iraq, both Russia and China have lost potentially lucrative oil- exploration contracts in Iraq and have had only marginal regional roles. Arab analysts believe the primary target of the US, the main mover of the western campaign to oust Syria’s rulers, is Syria’s ally, Tehran. Washington is currently stepping up economic sanctions and threatening military action if Iran does not abandon its nuclear programme. US and Arab regional experts argue ousting the Syrian regime would diminish Tehran’s regional clout and, perhaps, make it more susceptible to pressure to halt its nuclear programme. The US and its allies say Tehran’s objective is to make weapons, although Iran denies this accusation, saying it has not yet shifted from enriching uranium for nuclear power generation to building bombs.