NEW YORK – The widely held view in the West that the Arab Spring marks a clear step toward freedom and democracy in the Middle East now looks premature. The idea was probably based partly on wishful thinking, which overlooked the power realities actually shaping events. Even a year on, it is impossible to reach a definite conclusion – the situation is still too confusing, and the new leaders too unknown.
Indeed, where new leaders have taken over, they have been unable to deliver what people were hoping for when they went to the barricades. So, while a true “Arab Summer” has yet to materialize (on the contrary, a few of the region’s autocratic rulers appear to be enjoying an Indian summer), there is a growing risk, at least in some countries, of a “Winter of Chaos.”
This is particularly true in Syria, where a criminal regime is clinging to power by any means. Internally, President Bashar al-Assad’s government tries to placate its people by feigning reform and portraying protesters as foreign-controlled terrorists. Internationally, Syria’s main weapons-supplier, Russia, is defending the regime. Assad’s red herring, a belated and sham referendum on constitutional reform, has not ended the indiscriminate killing of thousands of protesters and innocent civilians.
To the international community, Assad has lost whatever legitimacy he had left. Even the Arab League has condemned his actions, suspending Syria’s membership last November. Meanwhile, the West is increasing sanctions, and many inside and outside of Syria are calling for a Libya-style military intervention. Ultimately, unless Russia and China end their support for Assad’s regime, they will suffer a massive loss of standing in the Arab world.
Despite his aggressive efforts to remain in control, Assad’s days in power are numbered. The real question is not whether the regime will collapse, but when.
That is good news for the world, but there is no assurance that regime change will ultimately resolve Syria’s problems. On the contrary, some problems may worsen.
The most critical issue is how to maintain political stability in the region. Syria has been a serious risk factor for years. It has the tenth-largest army in the world and a chemical-weapons arsenal. Despite official denials, it has also tried to develop a covert nuclear program, with the help of North Korea. Under the Assad clan’s leadership, the country has become one of Iran’s main allies and a hub for international terrorism.
The relationship between Syria and Iran has already had a destructive influence on the region. With his Revolutionary Guard, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who ruled Iran throughout the 1980’s, established the Shia Hezbollah along the Syrian-Lebanese border as a vehicle to spread his Islamist ideology throughout the entire region.
Through their alliance with Hezbollah, Syria and Iran kept Lebanon in a political stranglehold for nearly two decades. In 2005, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri was murdered when his motorcade was blown up in Beirut. The subsequent United Nations investigation indicated that there was strong evidence that the explosion was caused by Hezbollah operatives, with probable support from the Syrian secret service. Meanwhile, Hezbollah, whose 1985 manifesto declares its aim to be the “final obliteration” of Israel, has now become a state within a state, and is able to determine Lebanese government policy and choose the prime minister.
Moreover, in Syria, the terrorist group has found a safe haven. From its new home, Hezbollah has been able to prepare assaults on Israel and the West, including the war against Israel in 2006, the recent car bombs directed at Israeli diplomats in India and Georgia, and attacks against Western and Jewish institutions in distant countries such as Argentina.
A “Syrian Spring” will be dangerous if it results in a failed state. Given the already growing tensions between the Sunni majority and Assad’s ruling Alawite-Shia minority, the risk is considerable. Those demanding change will have huge and unrealistic expectations of a new government, which, in turn, will be limited by the conflicting interests of the main players.
With a failed state, the foes of liberty will have little interest in creating a new order that safeguards people’s freedom, safety, and well-being. In fact, disorder and civil strife will allow Syria’s corrupt elements to maintain and expand activities such as extortion and trafficking of illegal drugs and weapons. And, as in Iraq, the Iranian regime will try to seize any chance to undermine democratic change in Syria, whose ancien régime – in particular in the military – will not vanish overnight.
To avoid the political chaos and regional escalation witnessed in other Arab countries recently, it is critical that any new Syrian government ends the country’s role as a gateway for Iranian incursion into the Near East.
Clearly, Israel would simply not be able to remain on the fence if chaos in a neighboring country threatened to become a permanent menace to its security. Syria’s most important neighbor, Turkey, will have to make a choice: either it continues to mollify Iran (its close trading partner), or it acts in favor of peace and stability, both in Syria and throughout the region.
Assad’s reign of terror must end, but the aftermath must be handled carefully. The future stability of the entire region depends on it.