About three weeks ago I asked a friend in Damascus whether anything serious was beginning in Syria. Only minor demonstrations in the south were then taking place, but given the upheavals elsewhere, I thought it would be interesting to get a local perspective. The answer was short – and I expect deliberately so – “not much happening…all is quiet, really”. No longer and he is heading to Canada on other business hoping that everything will settle down when he returns in a month. The problem is that Syrian demonstrations are likely to get worse this weekend and particularly on May 1st and May 6th, both of which are national holidays, with the latter being the “day of martyrs”.
From what I can gather, this did not start as a political movement aimed at removing Bashar al-Asad. Rather, it was almost purely the result of economic issues and calls for lifting the emergency laws in force for about 40 years. Now, however, so many people have been killed by the regime that every relative of every person killed is out for blood. Tribal traditions are rising to the top and although Asad himself was never the original target, that is rapidly changing. People are angry.
Given the severity of the crackdown by the government it is unlikely, but not impossible, for the government to fall. Should that happen, the politics of the region would be shaken, not stirred. Syria is an important player whose instability or change in government would have a profound affect. Syria is a key transit point for Iranian support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Loss of the transit would seriously and adversely impact Iranian plans for the Levant. Israel also needs to be concerned since, although a front-line state and hardly in a talking mood with Israel, it was at least stable. The Turkish policy of a peaceful neighborhood, not to mention an vibrant economic zone with Turkey reestablishing its presence in the Levant at the expense of Iran would rapidly disintegrate. Iran may feel it necessary to become more overt in its take-over of Iraq, leading to trouble in the Kurdish north. In other words, an unstable Syria would create a mess.
Syria has also pushed Bahrain to below-the-fold status as the GCC continues to crush the rebellion there. Many have characterized this as a sectarian revolt of Shiite against Sunni. That’s convenient, but not entirely accurate, until now. It may have morphed into sectarianism, but the Shiite majority suffers from severe economic and political discrimination. A less discriminatory environment and more economic opportunities for Shiites might have avoided the entire revolt. However, the loud sectarian voices emanating from Iran have solidified the Shiite-Sunni divide. Active interference – hinted at the other day by the commander of the Revolutionary Guard in Iran – would result in a war with Saudi Arabia and, since the US 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain, with US forces taking part. It is no secret that Iran really, really wants the US Fleet out of the Arabian Gulf. One can only hope that the civilian government in Tehran can keep the Republican Guard on a short leash because the consequences of an Iranian attack in Bahrain would have huge economic, political and military repercussions. It would also be a gift to the neo-cons and Netanyahu as the US would be forced into action against Iran’s formidable conventional army.
Syria is important to watch as the government moves in with tanks to snuff out the revolt. But political change is coming in Damascus whether Asad prevails or not and the Iranians are understandably concerned that their policies in the region could rapidly unravel – and not to their benefit.