Not a week goes by without new names being added to the regimes already long list of victims. In Syria, each additional death is like a somber litany of the events of the past three months. Bashar Al-Assads regime is surviving through terror and destruction. The president is waging war against his own people. Nearly 1,500 were killed and thousands more injured.
Weve never seen such horror, Human Rights Watch recently wrote. But Syrians keep taking to the streets. They want a change of regime. Repression doesnt stop them, it only fuels their rebellion. Of all the Arab uprisings, this one has been the most ferociously repressed. Nevertheless, international reactions are nowhere near what weve seen with Tunisia, Egypt or even Libya.
The United States and the European Union (EU) imposed sanctions, but in the United Nations, China and Russia are blocking any real pressure. The reason for the international communitys cold feet is that theres so much at stake in Syria. For complex reasons as diverse as the mix of Syrian communities and the regional alliances, whats being played out there affects the future of the entire region.
First theres a 30-year-old strategic pact between Damascus and Tehran. A type of insurance policy for a Syrian regime led by the minority Alawis. These dissident Shia make up about 12% of the countrys 22 million people. Fat outnumbered by the Sunni, Islams majority branch, the Alawis rely on the countrys other minorities especially Christians and Druze.
Syria is the only Arab country to have allied with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a Shia country. Iran, with its strange mix of Persian nationalism and revolutionary proselytism, is feared in the mostly Shia Arab world. Other Shia countries feel threatened by the old Persian enemy and its imperialist tendencies.
Iranian influence in the Arab world goes through Damascus. Without its alliance with Syria, Irans goals in the region are untenable. Its through the Syrian regime that Tehran funds and gives missiles to its other Arab allies in the region: the Libanese Shia Hezbollah. And its through Hezbollah that Syria consolidates its grip on Lebanon.
Damascus and Tehran have long cultivated another Arab protégé, the Palestinian Hamas. As a Sunni group, Hamas is now running away from the instability of the Syrian regime and is looking toward the Gulf and Egypt.
Syria and Iran are tied together in a marriage of convenience, a bond between dictatorships. On one side, the Syrian Bath party, the quintessence of secular Arab nationalism. Its partner is a Shia theocracy with totalitarian tendencies.
Recently, the United States and the EU have tried to lure Bashar Al-Assad away from Iran in the hope of changing the face of the Middle East. In Lebanon, for example, democracy might just have a chance if Hezbollah were to lose the support it receives via Syria from Iran. Without Iranian backing, it would not be the intimidating army it is now in Beirut.
Without Iran, the Syrian regime will return to its traditional Arab sphere, meaning it could start negotiating with Israel. In return, without Syria, Iran loses its door to the Arab world and with it its ability to be a regional nuissance.
The fall of the Syrian Bath party would also put the Sunni majority in power. The Sunni-Shia conflict is such that one of the first decisions the new leadership would have to make is to distance itself, if not break its ties with Shia Iran. The Middle East would change for the better.
So why isnt there more support for Bashar Al-Assads possible demise? In Europe, in the United States, in Israel and even in the Arab world, the reaction is the same: they wait, worried that the only organized underground force, the Muslim Brotherhood, will seize power in Damascus. Post-Assad Syria, they fear, will mean chaos or Sunni Islamists or both!
Iraq is still on everyones mind. The fall of Saddam Husseins minority Sunni regime in 2003 triggered a horrible seven-year civil war in a country that is as ethnically and religiously diverse and as divided as Syria. Recent events in Syria have raised the specter of just such a civil war. The regime is exploiting that fear.
The United States is worried that the Syrian troubles will have negative consequences on Iraq and further complicate the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Israel got used to the stability of the Alawi regime and found a modus vivendi with the Assad family which it definitely prefers to the Muslim Brothers.
In May, the Washington Post revealed that Mohsen Chirazi, an Iranian, was on the list of those falling under the U.S. sanctions against Syria. Chirazi is one of the leaders of a special force team known as the Quds Force, created by the Revolutionary Guards, the military arm of the Islamic Republic, to protect Irans interests abroad. The Quds Force trains Hezbollah and sent dozens of advisors in Damascus to help the regime crack down on the Syrian spring.
The fall of the Assad clan would be a strategic disaster for Iran and a severe blow to its regional ambitions. It is a scenario, therefore, that Tehran wants to avoid at all costs. Willing to pull out all the stops, Iran could end up ordering Hezbollah to provoke Israel, triggering a new Israel-Lebanon war and thus diverting the attention of the West. The final card in Bashar Al-Assads hand, in other words, is himself. Its either me, he warns, or regional chaos.