HistoricalMullet: Now you Syria me, now you don’t!

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Buried under the lead of the budget battles Friday night and over the weekend is a serious escalation of violence in Syria.

I’m not quite ready to call Assad “gone”, in the standpoint of inevitable, irreversible change (hell Gaddahfi’s still hanging in there but I stand by my earlier call it’s just a matter of when, no longer if, he’ll go). But Assad is certainly on the brink. Baathist party buildings not only set on fire, but burnt to the ground (implies insufficient police control and or fire-department support to put the fires out, and also a potential source of weaponary), many protesters killed in shootings, massive protests spreading from the southern city of Deera to multiple cities at all points in the country.  All that’s missing (if you’re watching at home) is the kind of violent return confrontation where protesters charge/attack police. Currently all the videos I’ve seen (and I’ve seen several dozens) show the police advancing and the protesters either holding, or retreating. The tipping point will come if the protesters charge back repeatedly, and/or the police retreat.  But that’s it. Everything else – widespread demographic mix in the protesters, different classes represented, it’s all there otherwise.Syria is far more complex than anything that has come before. If Egypt was a proxy for East Germany going under in 1989 (the one no one believed would crumble after which everything was possible), and Saud is the USSR (the one everyone thought was too strong to crumble), then Syria falls into the Yugoslavia mold. No one would truly be surprised if it collapsed, but it would get messy fast.In a reversal Syria is a Suuni majority country ruled by a small Alawaite-tribal Shia minority (only about 6%) from which Assad and his father both called from. But tribes are far less influential in Syria than say Iraq or Libya, they’re more like…well…like Kiwanis or Rotary clubs. It’s where the old fogeys hang out in Syria, there isn’t a lot of tribal allegience amongst the youth. What there IS in the Syrian neighborhood is a lot of intersecting and conflicting influences that go from Syria-outside to it’s neighbors, and from outside-IN to Syria.  These linkages allow for an interesting dynamic

Syria funds Hezbollah and through it exerts a strategic influence over Lebanon. This influence is not set, it comes and goes – going with the Apricot  Cedar Revolution and coming back recently (really when did Revolutions start getting named after adjectives and nouns instead of pronouns, it’s so confusing!) Currently Lebanon has no government because a UN finding was about to implicate Hezbollah and the assassination of Lebanon’s former PM that sparked the Cedar revolution, on Syria’s bidding. AWKWARD!  As Syria faces internal, that may encourage the Cedarites (Christians, Suuni and um…some other faction I can’t recall off the top of my head) to go after Hezbollah (Shia) and get some get some.  However, the Cedarites are the “old” kind of protests. The peaceful non-violent kumbayah protests as opposed to the ass-kicking Egyptian “bring a knife to a camel-fight” protesters or even Libyans pickup-brigades. (Which have been about as effective as those camel-charges).  Still, Hezbollah has relied on Syrian influence for so long – that they may be in a vulnerable spot (see Israeli below)…or worse, they may get frisky all on their own to “start something”.  There’s been enough rockets going off lately in and around Israeli borders to write a national anthem against the red glare.

Syria is Iran’s big ally in the neighborhood. Iranian rockets for Hezbollah flow through Syria. People may wonder at why the connection (I did for awhile), but remember, Syrian elites are Shia, and thus has more connection with the Shia in Iraq and Iran than the Suuni’s around them.  A loss of Syria in any of it’s current forms would be a major blow to Iran. A Suuni uprising and overthrow of Syrian’s current dynasty would almost cement a “dividing line” of Shia v. Suuni confrontation from Iran into Iraq (Shia), with countries surrounding Iraq (Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudia Arabia) and the country bordering Iran (Afghanistan) firmly Suuni. An interesting bit of chess play there by the Saud’s through their Whabbiest funding but that’s for another day. Another interesting angle are the so-called WMD’s of Saddam. In one (largely fictional) theory, Saddam sent all his chemical WMD’s where they sit, to this day. If that is true, and that’s a giant if, then the US has a compelling national security interest to get involved – either covertly or overtly, to locate, secure and either remove/destroy those WMD’s if the Syrian state goes under. My guess though is that the Syrian-WMD angle is just a fantasy of those looking for an explanation, any explanation of why what they expected to find wasn’t there in Iraq. The logistical coordination of a WMD extraction to Syria is mind-boggling, and implies a level of competence, coordination and loyalty which (frankly) Saddam’s troops showed in no other field.

And then there’s the Kurds. The Kurdish ethnicity is neatly split between three countries: southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq and eastern Syria. Draw a line around all three of those population centers and you get Kurdistan, with a nasty bit of mountains in the middle that the Kurds are well equipped to move in between for secure transport of supplies.  In Iraq the Kurds have regional autonomy, a functioning state-aparatus, and cash coming out of their Kurd-pants. Traditional spring military action is heating up in southeastern Turkey as the PKK goes to war with the Turkish military (an annual rite).  But in Syria – right now – the Kurds are beginning an uprising that at least has the indications of Syrian nationalism/democracy-rebellion rather than an ethnic homeland.  The Kurd youth are rejecting the somewhat totalitarian old-guard Kurdish parties (PKK and KPP or something silly like that.) They want change, and they want it now. That could change. Also the Kurdish minority in Iraq’s parliament could exert pressure on Iraq to take a dim view of any Syrian backlash against native Kurds in the east of Syria.  Assad knows this. Although the most violent clashes are in the Suuni south – he’s bending over for the Kurds in the east to keep them happy. So far his tokenism (restoring citizenship right to 300,000 Kurds who lost it decades ago) isn’t winning anyone over. However, that pathway through the mountains work both ways. The Kurdish youth IN Iraq have begun protesting as well, wanting more change from their autocratic leaders – two prominent clerics have been arrested and imprisoned in Mosul Iraq.

Syria and Israeli have long had a mutual hatred based on past wars and the continued Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights. The Golan Heights kind of serve as a Minas Tirith of Israeli, the place where they can post and watch out over Syria and stop early attacks; otherwise they’d have virtually no warning. Netyanhu has recently stated that to give up the Golan Heights would be to see it become the front-line of Iran. There have been some back channel overtures to return the Golan Heights to the control of Syria, in return for a comprehensive peace plan and dismembering of Hezbollah. But if Syria falls  – Israeli may be able to get that end by other means.  Syria supports Hezbollah which has provoked Israeli into recent wars, and is Iran’s main proxy in the region. Israeli recently wiped out a Syrian nuclear power plant.  They’ve been to war many times before and any instability that appears that it might threaten Israeli security, or present a strategic opportunity, could provoke a   quick military response, that may only serve to exacerbate other things.  I’m not sure what the right “play” is for Israeli in this – probably standing by as fragementation and partition of Syria into smaller states because it would weaken their primary localized enemy to the north, leaving only a resurgent (perhaps) Egypt to the west as a local threat. However, and I do worry about this. If Syria “goes under”, that leaves a strategic gap in the balance of power between Israeli, Gaza and Lebanon – and I would not be surprised if Israeli decides to move into Lebanon and neuter Hezbollah once and for all. This would probably be a bad move. It would be difficult going unless they allied with the Cedarites,  and without valid pretext it would be condemmned world wide. An Egypt willing to let Iranian ships pass through the Suez to resupply Hezbollah (if Syria was no longer secure) would create the possibility of Israeli v. Iranian naval confrontations in the Mediterranean, or even Israeli v. Egyptian confrontation to keep resupply. (Total aside: I recall there was a spider somewhere involved in David’s escape from Saul, but I can’t find the story, if anyone knows the reference please pass it along.) If it’s true, maybe it wouldn’t be the first time a spider helped out Israel!

So there it is in a nutshell. Syria isn’t tipping over yet, but it’s damn close. And when it does, it will probably not be contained within the borders of Syria (as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have so far).

Tim C.

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