One size does not fit every Arab Spring
- by: Rodger Shanahan
- From: The Australian
- February 08, 2012
THE seeds of the failed UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria were laid last August when Tripoli fell to Libya's rebels.
While this outcome may have convinced some in the West that it was possible for a united international political front combined with the limited use of military support to overthrow hitherto insurmountable autocratic regimes, in Moscow and Beijing the opposite lesson was learnt -- multilateralism in the Middle East advances only Western interests.
Now, as opposition grows against another formerly implacable autocratic regime in the shape of the Syrian government, UN resolutions get vetoed, Arab League observers deploy and redeploy, and regional sanctions are imposed, lifted or ignored. The inability of the international community to give the Assad regime the final push many are convinced is needed remains frustrating.
The reality is that Syria is vastly different to Libya or Tunisia. With the exception of Yemen, it is more complex socially and geographically than the other countries affected by the Arab Spring, and the regional implications of regime change in the Levant are more consequential than elsewhere in the Arab world. As a result, the stakes being played for and the risks to regional stability of an intervention are much higher than for the Libyan experiment.
The inability of a united international (or even regional) response to Syria should come as little surprise. There are four key reasons why the Syrian case is so difficult to solve multilaterally.
First, Russia and China feel used by the West in the UN. They feel that what they signed up for (or abstained from) and what they got regarding the Libyan intervention were two vastly different things. Rather than a defensive no-fly zone to protect civilians, they got a NATO air campaign that took the fight to the Libyan military and provided close air support to the Libyan rebels, thereby ensuring the fall of the Gaddafi regime. Russia and China will not let that happen again.
Second, Syria still has friends in the Arab world. While the unusually forward-leaning position taken by the usually intervention-shy Arab League has surprised many, not all its members agree on what to do about Syria. Neither Lebanon nor Iraq voted in favour of punitive action against Syria. In Lebanon, the Hezbollah allied government has stood fast in supporting the Assad regime politically. Economically, the country relies on Damascus for the security of its regional exports.
Iraq has also decided to support the Assad regime; because Saudi Arabia doesn't and because Baghdad is fearful that any rise in Sunni power in its western neighbour could provide succour to Sunni insurgents in Iraq and further destabilise the Shia majority government in Baghdad.
Third, Russia likes the Assads. Like his father, Bashar al-Assad enjoys good relations with the Russians. Syria has provided the Russian navy with a logistics support base on its coast as Moscow's Mediterranean bridgehead and, as the traditional arms supplier to the Syrians, Moscow has sold $4 billion of arms to Damascus this financial year, with nearly $2bn of additional purchases under discussion. With the fall of Gaddafi, a $4bn export market dried up overnight, which leaves Syria as the only Arab ally in town for Moscow. The fact that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and intelligence chief Mikhail Fradkov will visit Damascus this week is indicative of the closeness of the relationship and a further indication that Russia is keen to see the crisis solved on its, rather than the West's terms.
Finally, doubts remain about the Syrian opposition. Unlike the successful overthrow of regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, sectarianism is a major issue in Syria. The main opposition movement, the Syrian National Council, has been heavily criticised for being unrepresentative because its members have been outside the country while lives have been sacrificed inside and, more importantly, because it is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sunni Islamist dominance in a country where 25 per cent of the population are from religious minorities is not something that many middle-class supporters of the regime are too happy about. It is also something that Lebanon, Iraq and even Jordan, with its enmity towards the brotherhood, do not feel comfortable about.
The Free Syrian Army, if it is not destroyed by the regime, may also be wary of ceding authority to the council when it feels that it has shed all the blood for the cause.
The regime faced an internal challenge from the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s that it brutally defeated. The challenge this time is more widespread.
More importantly, though, this time Syria is isolated regionally and internationally. But unlike Libya it is not entirely friendless and, while it appears inconceivable that Assad can survive, he has been able to divide, if not conquer, his opposition inside and outside the country till now.
Time will tell if he can continue to wait out his opponents or whether Assad will be the last of the lions of Damascus.
Rodger Shanahan is a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy