Zvi Bar'el / Syria uprising may lead to regional war
The brutal crackdown in Syria continues unabated, and is likely to become the stage for a regional conflict involving Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the Gulf.
Thousands of Egyptians have already signed a petition circulating on Facebook that calls for the expulsion of the Syrian ambassador from their country. For once, it is not an Israeli ambassador who receives such attention. The initiators of the petition hope to have over one million Egyptians sign the appeal, which may push the current Egyptian military government to publicly condemn Syrian President Bashar Assad.
New Syrian Facebook pages have decided to use humor to recruit people to the opposition, ironically describing the recent events in Syria as if they happened in Britain. Turkey, however, does not find the situation in Syria so funny.
In recent days, the Turkish army summoned hundreds of officers for reserve duty, placing them in bases near the border with Syria. Turkish sources report that the military has been on high alert along the border to prepare for a massive flight of Syrian refugees into the country, as well as for the possibility of NATO strikes in Syria. Only hours after Turkey's foreign minister visited Damascus did the government understand that Prime Minister Erdrogan's ultimatum to Assad fell on deaf ears, after news broke that the city of Homs was being battered by Syrian security forces.
The protests and the bloodshed continued on Friday, when human rights organizers claim 13 protesters were shot to death by Syrian security forces. According to reports, live fire was shot at thousands of worshippers on their way home from Friday prayers in the town of Dir al-Zur. Crowds went out into the streets across the country calling for Assad to step down.
While Turkey prepares for the worst, Iran refuses to print any news on the uprising in its state-run newspapers, while the government has warned that Syria may become the center of an international war. Iran has also transferred approximately five billion dollars to Syria in recent weeks, and according to Iraqi sources, Iran has demanded that Iraq transfer ten billion dollars to the Syrian government.
The involvement of Iran, Turkey, Saudia Arabia, and other gulf states has turned the Syrian uprising from an internal event - resulting from mass poverty, oppression, and a lack of economic and political future - into a potential regional war. Syria, whose regional strategic importance is based less on oil and natural resources, and more on its strong relationship with Iran and ability to intervene in Iraqi affairs, has been able to prevent the establishment of a military front against it. As opposed to the immediate international consensus that allowed for a military offensive in Libya, there has been no initiative to promote a similar UN Security Council in regards to Syria.
In contrast with Libya, where armed resistance could potentially serve as an alternative political power, there is no telling where Syria is headed. Will it end up as chaotic as Iraq, which suffered a difficult period of civil strife after the fall of Saddam? Will a new Syrian regime look toward Iran or the West for support? Will Turkey be able to rely on a new regime with an unchanged military to block the Kurdish PKK party from gaining power? Does the Saudi monarchy prefer a despised, yet well-known leader with whom it could negotiate for hefty sums of money? Such questions also preoccupy the West, which has not yet called for Assad to leave his castle.
In the absence of any outside military pressure, and while Syria can lean on Iran's power of deterrence, it is difficult to determine whether Assad's days are numbered. The military has implemented a strategy of separating the country into isolated cities, giving each one its own special "treatment" that the government hopes will serve as a lesson for others. This is the tale of cities such as Dara, Dir al-Zur, Idlib, Hama, and others that have essentially turned into ghost cities, or areas that where leading a normal life has become quite difficult.
This strategy, which presumes that the uprising could last for quite some time, has developed steadily over the last five months. Assad himself has even said that the rebellion may last up to two years. And despite the number of defectors (approximately 2,000), the president is able to preserve unity within his military's ranks. For now, at least, it seems as though Assad is here to stay.