A Daily Analysis
By Marc Schulman
February 5, 2012- Syria, What it Means and Why it is Important
Events in Syria reached new heights over the past two days, both on the ground, and in the world of diplomacy. On the ground, the numbers killed reached a new high. The opposition has reported that 300-400 were killed by the Syrian Army, in an attack on the city of Homs. Its not clear whether or not the number of reported fatalities has been exaggerated. However, it is known that 5,000 people had been killed through December. In the past month the number of Syrians killed has increased by an additional 2,000. As a result, It is now clear to all observors that while the Assad Regime may not collapse in the coming days, (though it might), it is now only a matter of time before the regime falls apart. The killings that have gone on now for a year, have eliminated any legitimacy that the Assad regime had to rule.
More significantly a movement that had begun demanding greater democracy in Syria is being transformed into a Sunni vs. Alawite Civil War. The calls for the first time have gone out for a Jihad against the Assad regime. Furthermore, the conflict has now become part of the larger Shiite (Iran) vs. Sunni (rest of the Arab world) conflict. While the Alawites are not strictly Shiites, they are considered by most Sunni as a type of Shiite. That view is only strengthened by the fact that Assad’s only regional ally is Iran. Today Iran's Foreign Minister clearly warned that if anyone tries to intervene to oust Assad, Iran will intervene and bring about a regional war.
All of this brings us to the UN, where the West and the Arab World were stopped from passing a resolution condemning the violence of the Assad regime and demanding Assad's resignation by a joint Chinese-Russian veto. Much of the world seems shocked by the Russian-Chinese action. As the Turkish Foreign Minister stated: "the veto shows that Russia and China cannot shake their cold war mentality." To some exent he is correct. Certainly Russia under Putin often acts in ways that are an echo of the old Soviet Union. However, I think this is much to simplistic even if it is one factor in the mix. Some claim that the Russians are afraid of losing their naval base in Syria. Though it is unclear why the Russian navy that can barely put 10 aging ships to sea at a time should care about preserving a naval base in Syria. This is beyond me. I think there are two other factors at work here. First, there is a fear that the demonstrations we have seen in the Arab world will spread to either Russia or China. In these past weeks we have already seen large and growing demonstrations against the rule of Putin in Russia. To the Russian mind, if the world can intervene in Syria they can intervene in Russia as well. The second reason is that we should all really care what happens in Syria, beyond the human cost, that should be simply unacceptable to all.
What happens in Syria could hold the key to what happens in the rest of the Middle East. For it has been Syria that has been the main funnel between Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and to lesser extent to Hamas. Its not clear who will be in charge of the next government in Syria. Very little is known about who is in control of the opposition. Two things are clear however. Whoever comes to power in Syria is not about to make peace with Israel the day after they take office. On the other hand, a new Syrian regime is also not likely to continue to support the Hezbollah in Lebanon, nor are they likely to remain a supporter of the increasingly isolated regime in Teheran. Just the opposite. By supporting Assad to the end, the Iranian regime is likely to be considered an enemy of the Syrian people. The other new enemies are likely to be Russia, and, to a lesser extent, China. It is not pictures of Obama who are being burned in Syria, nor American flags, rather it is pictures of Putin and Russian flags that are being vandalized. Might the same thing happen in a year or two in Iran?
The Israeli cabinet gave final approval today to build a railway between Tel Aviv and Eilat. An experienced transportation planner who I met over the weekend, thinks its folly and that there are better places to put Israel's limited resources. I am not sure I agree. Sometimes you need transformational projects; not just a slight improvement to urban transit system (something Israel clearly needs). Also there are potential strategic implications of a land bridge that will provide and alternative to the ever growing demurrage charges for using the Suez Canal. The Chinese seem particularly interested in investing in the project, and its not because they are disciples of Ben Gurion and wish to settle the Negev. Tomorrow I will discuss the possibilities of an accidental war starting with Iran, and not one that starts because Israel attacks Iranian nuclear facilities. In the meantime read Jeffrey Goldbergs list of the ways Iran Hates Israel