Emerging from the widely hailed Arab Spring revolutions is a new threat to world stability and security. The very breadth of the scale of the uprising, stretching across the whole of North Africa and into the Middle East, has ramifications well beyond the region. Traditional world powers like Russia and the US have suffered a diminution of power and influence in the formative new polities.
The alliances these superpowers formed with the ousted dictators, questionable as they were, at least provided stability and predictability across this vast region. Into this arena now enters a new generation of ambitious up and coming middle-range powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. Each have their own agendas, some founded on solid realpolitik but the truly explosive element each injects into this area is their fundamentally different views of Islam and their visions of the types of society that will culminate from the disorder.
Iran, possibly, presents the world with the most challenges. Firstly, like Turkey, it is not Arab, which directly challenges not only the hegemony of Saudi Arabia, but its “desert Arab” version of Islam. Internally, Iran is a deeply divided society. Its great oil wealth has been squandered on bolstering its aggressive foreign policies — major arms supplier to various terrorist groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the disgraced Assad regime in Syria.
It has invested heavily in building its military into a powerful army that trains and equips various radical Islamist groups around the world. It has established military links with dictators as far afield as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. It has acquired sophisticated anti-aircraft rocket systems from Russia, and with the help of North Korea has developed intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching any part of Europe. It is committed to an ambitious and incredibly expensive nuclear programme that has raised the ire of the world. Syria presents several major challenges to Iran. Firstly, President Bashar al-Assad and his military leadership hail from a minority group, (12% out of 22 million) the Alawites, which is resented by the majority of the Syrians, who consider them to be a heretic cult and this threatens to transform into a religious war.
Iran needs Syria as a proxy through which to exercise power in Lebanon, where it controls Hezbollah, which is the largest party in the government and so it continues to prop up Assad in Syria. Toppling Assad, which is increasingly likely, will therefore open up a Pandora’s box of issues: Iran will try to step into the void and possibly vie with Russia which also has good financial reasons for shoring up Assad. So will Turkey, which has worked assiduously at cultivating its ties with Assad. A religious conflict between Sunni, possibly supported by Saudi Arabia against the Shia, supported by Iran, could have unintended consequences for other minority groups like the Kurds, which comprise 10% of the Syrian population. The Kurds may identify with their ethnic counterparts in neighbouring Iraq and Turkey, which could radically destabilise all these countries. Turkey is already engaged in a decades-long war against the Kurdish PKK in Iraq — in which 40 000 thousand have died — and fears nothing more than a resurgence of Kurdish nationalism.
Over the past decade Turkey succeeded in forging alliances with the leaders of neighbouring Syria, Iran, and Iraq to target Kurdish rebels operating in their respective territories. But with all political changes sweeping through the region, Turkey’s relations with all three governments have deteriorated sharply and the conflict is spilling over the borders. With all the problems facing Assad, he has lost control of Syrian Kurdistan and allowed a de facto self-governing region to take hold, with the Syrian branch of the PKK raising the guerrilla movement’s flag over several predominantly Kurdish towns along Syria’s border with Turkey. Turkey is suspicious that Syria and its ally Iran are providing support to the PKK, although these charges are denied by both Damascus and Tehran. Turkey’s south-eastern region, around Bingol, has experienced almost daily terrorist attacks and Ankara has responded ferociously with warplanes and ground troops targeting PKK camps. This volatile situation may require Turkey to examine ways to resolve its domestic Kurdish problem which could entail the constitution to be rewritten.
In Syria meanwhile civilian deaths continue unabated and the death toll in the 18-month conflict is likely to exceed 30 000 people.
After his first meeting with President Assad in Damascus, Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, who replaced Kofi Annan as the peace envoy three weeks ago, described his task as “nearly impossible”. He told reporters after the meeting that “the crisis is very dangerous” and that it “is deteriorating and represents a danger to the Syrian people, to the region, and to the whole world”.
“They did discuss the fact that there would have to be movement on two tracks: the ending of the violence and the beginning of a political process.”
Assad’s forces and the opposition rebels have ignored appeals to end the fighting, which has continued in many of the country’s main cities, including Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Deir al-Zor.
Hassan Abdul-Azeem the leader of the opposition in Syria — the National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change — which includes Arab nationalists, Kurds and socialists, also met Brahimi. He said: “We support Mr Brahimi … and we will co-operate with him because the violence has reached [unprecedented] levels and the Syrian people are suffering from the killings, destruction and displacement.”
The on-going conflict is hindering the control of borders in the region, with refugees and weapons seeping through. In neighbouring Lebanon, its army seized a lorry loaded with weapons, hand grenades, rockets, and communication devices believed to be heading to Syria. The Pope on his recent visit to Lebanon said “arms imports must stop once and for all, because without arms imports, war cannot continue”.
The presence of substantial stocks of chemical weapons at about 20 sites in Syria, is a further cause for tremendous concern as the security situation continues to deteriorate. According to Adnan Sillu, a former Syrian general turned defector, Assad’s government had plans in place to transfer chemical weapons to Hezbollah. In an interview with The Times of London, Sillu said Syria also planned to use chemical weapons on the Syrian people “as a last resort.”
With the US and some European countries threatening direct military intervention should the chemical weapons be used and the possible chance of them being transferred to Hezbollah raises the possibility of Israeli intervention.
With the largest ever western military exercises taking place in the Straits of Hormuz and with Iran threatening to mine the straits if provoked, the region is a tinderbox. We need cool-headed, sanguine leadership on all sides to navigate a way through to a peaceful outcome!