Syria to Become Iranian Vassal or Saudi Ally

The Arab popular movements clamoring for reform in the Middle East have not only reached the shore of Syria, but have also spread throughout the country.  The initial attitude of the regime, as expressed by Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, that Damascus is immune to Arab protests sweeping the region, has been turned on its head.  The Syrian regime is deeply concerned about the growing protests in the country, which have been gradually but steadily breaking new taboos.  The unheard of call for the removal of the regime has become a rallying cry for protesters, who have been smashing statues of the Asad family.

The gravity of the unfolding situation is symbolized by the reach of the protests to the heart of Damascus, the Maydan, despite attempts by the Syrian security forces to check the expansion of the protests to urban areas, especially Damascus.  The Maydan in Damascus symbolizes the pillar upon which the power of the regime rests.  It is where the Alawi military-Sunni merchant complex thrives as a ballast for the Asad regime.  After all, it was the Damascene merchant class in the early 1980s that saved the regime of late Syrian president Hafez al-Asad from the rebellious Muslim Brotherhood.  Since then, this alliance between Sunnis and Alawis has grown in intermarriages, wealth, but also in corruption.  It is this hybrid class that supported the regime's erratic, and in most cases, insignificant reforms, for the sake of stability.

But this time around, the protest movement has grown beyond the grasp of the Syrian bureaucracy and the country's fearsome security services.  It has taken a multi-dimensional  character hardly possible for the regime to subdue, but also difficult for the opposition to mold into a singular leadership.  No longer can the regime successfully single out, clamp down on, or divide the leadership of the opposition, as it had done since President Asad assumed power in 2000.

Thanks to social media, the leadership of the opposition has become a collective one.  Opposition members, such as Ammar abd al-Hammid, have interfaced and mobilized Syrian youth from the diaspora through Facebook.  They have also helped create in Syria a multitude of leadership groups guided by seasoned activists from diverse backgrounds.  Conversely, as a consequence of both the regime's superficial policies and harsh actions the opposition has become linked to a broad societal group that cuts across sects, gender, and class.  

By firing at protesters, even as they mourn the loss of their loved ones, the regime has not only created a cycle of revanchism, but also a crucible of common grievances shared by inter- and intra-communal groups and sects.  The expansion of the protests throughout Syria, in spite of the regime's concessions of repealing emergency rule and abolishing security courts, is undoubtedly both a product and a growth of common grievances and the collectiveness of the opposition's leadership.  Simply put, the regime has de-legitimized itself by its brutal actions.     

But this does not mean that the Syrian regime will not fight for its survival or the opposition will not create the critical mass needed to overpower the regime.  Arguably, inasmuch as the protest movement grows bolder, the regime may use indiscriminate and brutal power to fight for its survival.  True, the regime may have prevailed over the Alawi community by convincing it that its survival is linked to that of its own; yet it has not irreversibly secured the critical allegiance of the merchant class, especially in Damascus and Aleppo.  Reportedly, this merchant class has become nervous about the regime's growing recourse to violence and de-legitimization on the domestic and international levels.  As one pre-eminent Damascene reformer told me: Syrian authorities are acting as outlaws and are being perceived as outlaws.

But, most ominously for the protest movement in the time being is the emergence of Damascus as the battle grounds for Iran to re-assert its regional authority and policy.  Tehran can ill afford the loss of the Syrian regime as a regional ally and a nodal point for its projection of power and deterrence strategy against Israel.  Hezb'allah, Iran's proxy militia, can also ill afford a regime change that may put the Islamist party far out on a limb by severing the overland weapons supply from Tehran and denying the party Syria's strategic depth.  In his recent speech, Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hezb'allah, asserted that "the downfall of the Asad regime is an American and Israeli interest," and added that "we should all be protective of the security and stability of Syria."  Consequently, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezb'allah's militants have systematically expanded their operations in Syria in order to protect the regime.  

No less significant, Iranian involvement in Syria has been counteracted by Saudi support of Syrian opposition groups.  In fact, the Saudis, and by extension the Hariri's Mustaqbal party,  had politically supported opposition groups following the murder of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 up until the beginning of the rapprochement between King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Asad in 2009.  True, the monarchy does not like to see radical changes in Syria; yet its concern about Iran's regional projection of power partly through mobilizing Arab Shi'a has emboldened some Saudi leaders, including Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who practically runs the daily affairs of the kingdom, to try to frustrate Iranian regional policies and activities.  Consequently, certain Saudi leaders associated with the conservative Saudi religious establishment, in conjunction with Islamists and activists from Tripoli in northern Lebanon, have supported religious scholars as a conduit for channeling domestic opposition to the Syrian regime.  It is no coincidence that some mosques have emerged as a rallying place for protesters.  The Saudis and their allies are apparently trying to shake the merchant-military alliance by putting communal pressure on the Sunni merchant class.

The protest movement in Syria has become inadvertently associated with a grim battle of wills between Iran and its allies on one side, and Saudi Arabia and its allies on the other.  This battle may not only decide the future of Syria, but also the future of the region.  The international community's approach towards Syria has been thus far cautious and reserved, despite targeting the senior figures of the regime with sanctions.  Barring a concerted international effort to support the Syrian opposition and to pressure the Syrian merchant class, there is little chance the regime may change its horrific policies.  In fact, the current international policy is only deepening Iranian influence in Syria and turning Damascus into an Iranian vassal state paying tribute to Tehran.

Professors Robert G. Rabil and Walid Phares are authors of the forthcoming Religion, National Identity and Confessional Politics in Lebanon: The Challenge of Islamism (2011), and  The Coming Revolution: The Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East (2010), respectively.
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