Gwynne Dyer

Gwynne Dyer is a commentator on international affairs based in London

Gwynne Dyer: Syria key in Arab alliances

It's safe to say we will never see an alliance between Israel and al-Qaeda. Yet Syria's Government-controlled media hint that this evil alliance exists as they grasp at any explanation that might discredit the protests that have shaken the Baath Party's half-century grip on power.

The regime's security forces have killed more than 200 Syrians since protests began in mid-March, but Government spokesmen insist they were shot down by "armed elements" who also attacked the police and the army. The armed elements are allegedly in the pay of the Israelis or al-Qaeda.

It's ridiculous, but what else are official media going to say? That Syrian people, without distinction of ethnicity or creed, are moving towards a non-violent revolution to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad and the Baathist apparatus of power? They can't admit that, so tell preposterous lies instead.

Assad's response to the threat has followed the pattern of other Arab dictators who have already lost power: he makes concessions, but always too little and too late. Last week, he finally declared that the 48-year-old "state of emergency" has been lifted.

It wasn't much of a concession, since the security forces still have immunity and the courts are under the regime's thumb. If Assad had announced it two weeks ago, it might have taken some of the steam out of the protest movement.

Now it's too late: over the weekend protesters came out of the mosques after prayers as usual, and the regime's troops killed some of them as usual.

The Syrian regime seems even more unimaginative and inflexible than regimes that have already gone under in Tunisia and Egypt, so it really could go down. And that could change everything.

Syria is the lynch-pin of the alliance system that has defined the region's politics since the late 1970s. That was when Egypt made peace with Israel, and the "Islamic" revolution overthrew the Shah in Iran.

It was a complete reversal, for Egypt had previously led the Arab resistance to Israel's conquest of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, while Iran had been the United States' closest ally in the Middle East.

Egypt, in order to regain Israeli-occupied territory, effectively abandoned Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and became a tacit ally of Israel.

Jordan also made peace with Israel, and after Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the south of that country remained under Israeli occupation for twenty years.

Of all Israel's Arab neighbours, only Syria remained a serious military opponent. Maybe the Baathist regime there would also have made peace with Israel if it could have got its own occupied territory back, but Israel was never willing to make that concession. So Syria was alone and desperately needed allies - and the only potential ally in sight was the new Islamic regime in Iran.

It was unusual for any Arab country to make an alliance with Iran. It was doubly strange for Syria to do so, because the Baathist regime there has always been militantly secular. But international politics makes for strange bed-fellows, so Syria got into bed with Iran.

When the Hizbollah guerrilla resistance to Israeli occupation emerged in southern Lebanon, it too became a member of this peculiar alliance. When the Hamas movement arose in the Gaza Strip, it joined the club too.

This ill-assorted group of countries and movements - Iran and Hizbollah run by Shia extremists, Hamas dominated by Sunni fanatics, and Syria a totally secular state - has provided the only real opposition to Israeli policy in the region for the past 30 years. Without Syria, it would fall apart, and both Hizbollah and Hamas would be gravely weakened.

That could easily happen if the Baathists lose control in Syria - and almost every other government in the region is deeply worried by the prospect of a democratic Syria.

Iran fears the loss of its main Arab ally and condemns Syrian protesters even as it praises revolutionaries in other Arab countries. The remaining Arab dictatorships are appalled: if this bastion of tyranny can go down, what hope is there for the rest of them?

Israel doesn't even know what to hope for. It loathes the Baathist regime in Syria and would love to see Hamas and Hizbollah weakened, but it fears a democratic government in Syria would be an even more implacable enemy of Israel.

The same goes for the United States, so the Syrian protesters are entirely on their own. If the Baathists try to solve their problem by massacre, as they have done before, nobody will raise a finger to stop them. But the protesters could still win.

Massacres don't always have the desired effect.

The expanded and updated 2nd edition of Gwynne Dyer's latest book, Climate Wars, was published in New Zealand by Scribe.

- NZ Herald

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