The luckiest dictator in the Middle East
The human cost of the uprisings in Syria in their first year was high. The Ba’athist ruling regime, with its learned ignorance, responded to demands for change by holding onto the one instrument it knew best: bloodshed. We do not even know the number of people killed by the regime during this year. A glance at the hundreds of thousands of people displaced domestically, and the tens of thousands of people in exile, is enough to see the extent of the tragedy. For decades now, the al-Assad family, which has been ruling the country through the skills of its police and intelligence forces, lived in a comfort provided by external balances.
The first leg supporting this geopolitical comfort zone for thirty years was the Camp David Accords. Syria, which has been the most convenient enemy of Israel, built and maintained its involvement in Lebanon. When the international system and the United States pushed a little further, Syria backed away quickly from its position of insisting on intervening in Lebanon -- a position to which Syria had attached undue importance for years. The pressure Syria faces today to stop the ongoing massacres it is voraciously carrying on against its own people is nowhere near the level of the international pressure it faced to back down from its stance on Lebanon.
The second leg of the geopolitical comfort zone is the relationship Syria has been building with Iran for the last 30 years. This relationship is also granted undue importance in the Syrian analysis. First of all, Syria and Iran do not share a geographical bond. The theo-political and geopolitical partnership with Iran constructed by the Syrian elite for strategic purposes is reminiscent of the relationship between Turkey and Israel fashioned in the 1990s. Turkey had constructed “strategic relations” with Israel, with which it does not share a geographical border, during the coup years of 1996 and1997 at the hands of its West-supporting elite. This artificial relationship, imposed from the top without any regard for social and political trends in the country, was rendered meaningless with the strengthening of democratization in Turkey and was eventually severed.
Similarly the Syria-Iran relationship is also one that could only exist under special circumstances. Syrian-Iranian relations, which would have not been forged to begin with, had the West not tried to draw out the Islamic Revolution in Iran, would have been rendered just as meaningless as Turkey-Israel relations in a scenario where Iran was more democratic.
The final leg of support for the Syrian Ba’ath regime’s geopolitical comfort zone was the political climate generated by the other dictatorships in the area. Mubarak in Egypt, Saddam in Iraq, the Saudi administration in Saudi Arabia, the West-friendly monarchy in Jordan, the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the situation in the Gulf countries served to keep the ongoing massacres and dictatorship of the Ba’ath regime from being in the limelight.
Today we are faced with a different Middle East. The continued existence of the above-mentioned administrations and problems does not take away from the fact that we have entered into a new political climate. Conditions that would suport the continued existence of the Syrian Ba’ath regime no longer exist. That the Ba’ath regime and its supporters, collectively suffering from historical jetlag, do not grasp this truth does not change its consequences.