Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Death of Syria, Death of Pan-Arabism?

With last week's bombing at the National Security Headquarters in Damascus that killed four leading figures in the Ba'athist regime, many commentators and other observers are now writing the obituary for the House of Assad that began 42 years ago this November. While I would be very worried if I were sitting in the presidential palace in Damascus, the regime is not necessarily over yet. The Islamic Republic of Iran, Syria's patron, suffered various grievous attacks from the Mujahideen al-Khalk (People's Holy Warriors and the Fedayeen al-Khalk (People's Sacrificers) during its first two years in power before it turned the corner.

When I first heard and read these predictions I thought back to the fall of the Somoza regime in July 1979 in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas had carried out a low-level guerrilla campaign against the regime in the mountains and jungle since 1975. But in April 1979 the faction led by the Ortega brothers led a mass insurrection that toppled the government in a number of provincial towns. It then took them another three months to drive on the capital and for the ruling regime to collapse. And the Sandinistas lacked an ethnoreligious community like the Alawites and the other minority religious communities in Syria such as the Christians, the Kurds, etc. that were loyal to the regime out of a sense of self-preservation. Sure the Sunni opportunists are now leaving, but their since of self-preservation was expressed in that very defection. But the fact that Basher al-Assad's British-born wife is no longer making periodic shopping trips to Europe and may be in exile in Russia is a sign that the situation is very serious. Here is an article by veteran British Middle East reporter Robert Fisk indicating how serious the situation may be in Syria.

In the next few weeks Assad and his key supporters at the pinnacle of the regime will have to decide if they want to fight for total control of the country or pursue an ethnic enclave strategy along the northwestern coast of Syria. If they opt for the enclave strategy the units loyal to them will begin implementing an ethnic cleansing policy in the non-minority villages surrounding Latakia. They will want to make this an area inhabited only by communities that were supportive of the Ba'athist regime in the past and will be again in the future. Once this has been accomplished the regime would then plan for a breakout of the security forces in a series of well-protected convoys from Damascus to Latakia, protected by overhead air cover and led by armored elements. Here is an article by Lee Smith that indicates that Assad may have already opted for the enclave strategy. Here is another article by Faisal al-Yafai in the UAE's The National that argues that such a strategy is already underway but will fail because of lack of Alawite support for the regime.

The third option is for Assad to bargain for an exile in either Russia or Iran. These are probably the only two regimes that he would trust not to turn him over to the West for trial for war crimes and who would have an interest in taking him in. Syria has been a client state of both these countries. Syria was already a client of the Soviet Union before the Ba'ath took power in 1970. Under the Ba'ath that relationship strengthened. Syria has been more of an ally than a client for Tehran with both regimes supporting a number of terrorist organizations in the region such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. By controlling the transit of weapons from Tehran to both the Hezbollah and Hamas, Damascus gained leverage over both of them. 

Russia would more likely be Assad's final retirement home if he were to take an early retirement and gracefully left power in a negotiated deal. This would benefit Moscow, which could demonstrate that it is still a superpower with influence beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. Prestige has always been important for the ruling regime in Moscow since the Revolution. If Assad decides to take a late retirement and continue oppressing the Syrian population, he would then most likely end up in Tehran if he makes it out alive. He would probably be more comfortable in Iran, a Muslim Middle Eastern country than in the cold frozen north of Russia with its strange customs. 

Look to see in the coming weeks and months if Russia is busy negotiating with envoys from Washington and the UN Headquarters in New York to offer Assad a deal. If reports of trips by Kofi Annan to Moscow or meetings at the UN with the Russian ambassador to the UN surface, then a deal could be in the works. Even if they don't, one could be as well.

Whichever path he takes out of power, this will be the death of pan-Arabism as an influential ideology in the Middle East. The ideology first arose in the cafes of Damascus in the 1940s where the two Syrian co-founders of the Ba'ath party, Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar, cooked up the ideology under the influence of European fascism. It then came to power in Cairo in 1952-54 with the Free Officers Revolution. Cairo became the center of pan-Arabism in the Middle East until Gamel Abdul Nasser's death in September 1970. From 1958 to 1970 there were many proposed or declared but never executed unions among Arab states and a single failed union between Egypt and Syria that created the so-called United Arab Republic from 1958 to 1963. But a Ba'athist coup in Damascus ended the union--how ironic! Then Nasser's ideological heirs in Tripoli, Damascus, and Baghdad all fought to inherit his mantle.

But with the coming to power of the Iranian Islamic Revolution in Tehran in January 1979, pan-Arabism began to lose its appeal. It was still competitive with Islamism for another decade, but the failure of Saddam Hussein to decisively defeat the ragtag Iranian army and the Pasdaran along the Iran-Iraq border in eight years of fighting tarnished the ideology as much as Nasser's defeats at the hands of Israel did in 1956 and 1967. By the 1990s pan-Arabism was no longer an ideology for export but only a justification for clinging to power of a few isolated dictators in the Arab Middle East. The Arab Spring is slowly sweeping those dictators away.

About a week after I originally wrote this post, Foreign Policy's website ran an article by Tony Badran arguing that Assad was going for the Alawite enclave strategy and had already started to ethnically cleanse a clear route of access from Damascus to Latakia.

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