Wednesday, April 13, 2011
The Real Battle In The Middle East: Syria
The major game changer in the Middle East isn't in Egypt, or Libya or Bahrain, or Yemen...it's in Syria, where major protests against the Assad regime continue to explode.
In spite of heavy crackdowns by the regime's security forces, there are violent protests currently going on in Homs (Hama), in Damascus, in Baniyas, in Aleppo, even in the regime stronghold of Latakia. So far, at least 170 protesters ( and that's a conservative estimate) have died in clashes with police and the Syrian military.
This is even more significant when you realize that Basher Assad's facist police state makes Moammar Khaddaffi's look like Disneyland. And remember, while Khaddaffi's current body count is higher, his is happening in the context of a civil war.
There's a long history of brutality here. Assad's father Hafez al-Assad murdered an estimated 20,000 people the last time something like this broke out back in 1982 , sending his army and heavy weapons into Homs against his own people to sack and devastate the city.
Basher Assad is reportedly even using Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon to murder and terrorize his own people.
Last Sunday, four protesters were killed by Assad's goons during demonstrations in Baniyas. According to Al-Arabiya, an eyewitness said that gunshots could still be heard in Baniya’s Ras Al-Naba’a quarter, the site of the largest demonstrations.
In the village of Bayda, security forces together with Assad's Shabbiha militia decided to make an example of the inhabitants for offering refuge to people fleeing Baniyas after the military attacked. Wissam Tarif, a Syrian human rights advocate said Assad's forces raided houses and pulled men and women into the town square, where they were “collectively beaten’’ byAssad’s thugs.
“They formed circles around them in the square, and they beat them,’’ Tarif said.
What's causing the Syrian uprising? There are a number of causes. The first one, as with many of the other Arab 'uprisings' has to do with food prices.
The rise of the Asian economies, particularly in China and India means that the newly prosperous consumers of Asia are able to pay prices for food grains far beyond the reach of the destitute Arab poor. World food prices have doubled over the past year, someone is going to eat less, and in this case, it's the decrepit Arab command economies in places like Syria where the current economic situation has overwhelmed many Arab despots' ability to manage through the usual mechanism of government subsidies.
Assad did an incredibly stupid thing when the unrest started when he tried to prevent a rise in prices by lowering taxes on oil and sugar, and cutting import tariffs on basic foodstuffs. Perishables, like vegetables and fruit stayed low in price, but what happened to items with a longer shelf life was a wave of hoarding that has pushed the staples like oil and rice sky high. Accordingly, the price of basic foodstuffs in Syria have risen by 25 to 30%.
This intensified as prices went up, because importers and bazaar retailers reacted to the higher prices by bribing customs officials to control the flow of goods and then simply hoarding their stocks to sell at the higher prices.
Another significant factor is the tribal one, as in Libya. The al-Assads belong to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam. During their reign, they have made sure to stock the military and the government with their fellow Alawites. Most Syrians, on the other hand, are Sunnis. And there are significant minorities of Druse (Arabs but not Muslims) and Kurds (Sunni Muslims, but not Arabs) who have long suffered second class status in Syria. In short, there are lots of people whom bear a grudge against the Assad regime.
Assad has managed to survive because many of his troops ( if not all) are still willing to shoot down their own people, but there's a practical limit to how far that can go before it becomes unsustainable. And however violent the crackdown, it isn't going to affect Syria's economic problems in the least.
If the Assad regime falls, it will have repercussions throughout the entire Middle East and beyond. Iran would lose an important ally, as well as a badly needed terminus for arms shipments to its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, which is exactly why Iran is helping Assad with the crackdown on his own people. Hezbollah would have difficulty maintaining its hold on Lebanon, and would have to face any conflict with Israel on its own, while Hamas would lose a haven for its high command in Damascus, making it a lot more isolated and likewise facing a lot more difficulty obtaining arms.
Oddly enough, one of the best things Basher Assad has going for him is the Obama Administration. While there have been a few perfunctory statements about the regimes brutality towards the protesters, we're not hearing anything like we heard about Egypt's Mubarak, or Libya's Khaddaffi.
Instead, we're hearing the likes of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton describe this brutal dictator as 'a reformer', the UN tribunal that linked the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri to key members of the Assad regime has effectively been sidelined and Assad's good friend Senator John Kerry continues to shill for him in Washington. The UN's 'Responsibility To Protect' doctrine? Never heard of it when it comes to Syria.
Assad, you see, has used friends like Kerry to run the narrative that if the Assad regime falls, in the words of Kerry, "Wahhabism, or Muslim Brotherhood, or whatever it is" will triumph. Just as though the Assad regime wasn't a major facilitator of Islamist terrorism itself.
The Obama Administration, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, still views Assad and Syria as a key partner in the Middle East peace process even though any semblance of it died a long time ago. We still have an ambassador there and maintain relatively normal relations.
Perhaps Obama has fond memories of his old partner in crime, Syrian Tony Rezco. Perhaps it's because maintaining the 'Syrian track' is another convenient stick to beat Israel with. Maybe it's just that Assad at this point is a known quantity, or maybe it's a combination of all three.
Whatever the reason, it's a good indication of how amateur and clueless the current team in Washington actually is that the one Arab revolt that would actually promote peace in the region and advance US interests is the one the Obama Administration shying away from helping.