Pepe Escobar: The Syrian Chessboard

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Niccolo and Donkey
The Syrian Chessboard

Asia Times Online

April 27, 2011

Ironies in the Middle East come bathed in arsenic; the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria lifts a state of emergency in effect for 48 years just when Syria is in a real state of emergency. And then a regime newspaper, Tishrin, states "the most sublime form of freedom is the security of the homeland".

To "secure the homeland" of Assad's regime - a family-business-military oligarchy - de facto invaded the city of Daraa with columns of tanks. Assad had made a few concessions to calm the Syrian protests. It didn't work. Thus the regime decided to try to emulate the success of the House of Saud in establishing "democracy" in Bahrain.

When in doubt, clone the Pentagon; the assault on Dara is Syria's version of shock and awe. The problem is the regime may have created the conditions for a long, bloody Iraq-style civil war. And that's why all major players - regional and across the West - are running for cover.

What you see is not what you get
The crucial question in Syria - and not even the venerable stones of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus can provide a definite answer - is what's really in the hearts and minds of most Syrians.

The Syrian opposition is not cohesive or organized. In many aspects - as in Egypt - this may be a revolution of the poor. The Assad regime abolished fuel subsidies and let prices follow the free market; the price of diesel fuel tripled; the price of basic foodstuffs also went up; there was a drought; and the explosion in global food prices compounded popular misery.

The legitimate grievances of Syrians include a lot of rage directed towards an intolerably harsh police state; the decades-long Ba'ath party dictatorship; the excesses of a very small business elite contrasted with very high unemployment among the youth - all that with the middle classes and the poor fighting to survive low wages and high inflation.

If there's a popular revolution in Syria, the new political power players would be the rural poor - in contrast with the small Sunni business elite and the Alawite-controlled police state.

This means that the opposition's number one task for now is to seduce the middle and the upper middle classes in major cities, especially Damascus and Aleppo. But even if the protests in Syria do not reach Egypt's Tahrir Square proportions, they could slowly bleed the regime to death by paralyzing the economy.

The revolutionary drive in Syria seems to be much more hardcore than among the "Green" movement in Iran. Syrian protesters don't want a Ba'ath regime reform - which they consider out of the question anyway; they want regime change, the only way to bring down the Alawite-controlled security state and its key insider trading/corruption component.

Some protesters are pacifists. Some are already resorting to improvised light weapons. Confronted with ruthless, armed state repression, there seems to be only one way out: armed struggle.

Truckloads of weapons smuggled from Iraq have already been intercepted by the regime. Wealthy Sunni donors in the Gulf are bound to come up with financial support. And, crucially, the weaponizing necessarily will be Muslim Brotherhood-related - because regional governments such as Turkey and Lebanon don't want to see the fall of the regime. They see the ensuing chaos privileging only the Muslim Brotherhood and even more jihadi sects.

And forget about R2P ("responsibility to protect") leading to a United Nations resolution and a no-fly zone over Syria. Besides, unlike Libya, Syria has no oil and no lavishly endowed sovereign fund.

Enter the Saudis
The al-Khalifa Sunni dynasty in majority-Shi'ite Bahrain has blamed the pro-democracy protests in the Gulf island as an Iranian conspiracy. The Assad regime also blamed an external (and "known") conspiracy - but refused to name names. As much as Bashar al-Assad does not want to antagonize Saudi Arabia, the fact is the House of Saud is deeply involved in the destabilization of Syria, supporting Salafi networks.

Daraa is 120 kilometers south of Damascus, near the Jordanian border, in a sensitive security zone. It's a dreary, impoverished backwater. Not by accident Daraa is the birthplace of the Jordan chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Saudi Wahhabis, very influential over Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, have been instrumental in inciting the people of Daraa as well as Homs. Their grievances - the long drought, total neglect from Damascus - may be justified. But most of all they have been seriously instrumentalized.

Years ago, the House of Saud paid US$30 million to "get" former Syrian vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam. It helped that Khaddam is a relative of Saudi King Abdullah and former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri. He went into exile in France in 2005. Saudi Arabia has been using him and exiled leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood against the Assad regime for quite a while. Khaddam carries a Saudi passport. His sons, Jamal and Jihad, have invested over $3 billion in Saudi Arabia.

The House of Saud agenda is essentially to split the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah alliance - and thus progressively debilitate Hezbollah's resistance to US/Israel. Thus, in Syria, we find the US, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia once again sharing the same agenda. The stakes are extremely high. What you see is not necessarily what you get.

There is, apart from all these foreign interests, a legitimate, popular protest movement in Syria. The Communist Action Party, for instance - which opposed the regime for decades - has been very forceful among the opposition. The leftist component of the opposition, in fact, is wondering whether the Salafis are a minority or a majority. The ultra- sectarian agenda of many protesters is not an encouraging sign.

And the road ahead may be very bumpy; the progressive, secular current in the opposition - let's say, for the moment, a minority - may even be trapped in an Iran 1979-1981 scenario, as they may end up being crushed by the fundamentalists if the regime falls.

It's easy to understand how progressives squirm when they see themselves aligned with the Medieval House of Saud - which unleashed the counter-revolution against the great 2011 Arab revolt - in a drive to bring down the Assad regime. Progressives also have reasons to squirm when they see themselves aligned with Israel - who gives the impression of wanting Assad to remain in power because the alternative is the Muslim Brotherhood.

In this aspect, the Saudi-Israeli alliance may agree on the counter-revolution as applied to Bahrain and Libya, but not when it comes to Syria.

Hezbollah TV in Lebanon is spinning that the Syrian protests are part of an "American revolution". That may be so in part - as Washington has been investing in counter-regime types for decades. But as it stands, this is more like a House of Saud operation mixed with genuine rage against decades of Ba'athist police state.

For his part, King Abdullah of Jordan, in trying to debunk the Assad line, quoting Assad's "it's either me or the Muslim Brotherhood", he is predictably spinning this is all about containing Iran. Abdullah is inviting Arabs and Westerners to place their bets on a coalition of Kurds, Druze, Sunni tribes and the Sunni urban middle class (which is allied to the Saudis) as the post-Assad regime in Syria.

An Egyptian loss is a Syrian gain
A Syrian paper offers a very interesting take (see here ). What the regime defines as a "conspiracy" against Syria would be a US plan to compensate for the "loss" of Egypt - and this while in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain "appeals to reform are ignored" and the repression is carried on "under silence".

The objectives would be to plunge Syria into chaos; slide it towards Saudi influence; reduce Iran's influence in the overall Arab-Israeli conflict; and torpedo the Turkey-Syria entente.

This makes perfect sense. The Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis is the only counterpunch in the Middle East against US/Israeli hegemony. A fragile Damascus weakens both Tehran and Hezbollah. It's not an accident that in Lebanon, former prime minister Saad Hariri - a Sunni, and basically a House of Saud lackey - has been amplifying his sectarian rhetoric.

Syrian Sunnis, as much as Saudi Wahhabis, deeply resent the Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shi'ism - controlling a great deal of the wealth of the country while representing only 12% of the population. It's no wonder the House of Saud and the Muslim Brotherhood - rabidly anti-Shi'ite - have been trying for decades to get rid of the Alawite-controlled Syrian regime.

The Ankara-Damascus alliance - which progressed as much as the Turkey-Israel entente regressed - is also in danger. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have been very busy building up Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan as an economic bloc, fueled by a lot of Turkish investment and high-tech. No one knows what could happen with regime change in Damascus.

Syria matters on all fronts - from Iran to Iraq, from Turkey to Lebanon, from Palestine to Israel. But what the House of Saud intervention in Syria is inciting, above all, is tremendously destructive; a bloodthirsty sectarian epidemic spreading all across the Middle East (it started in Bahrain).

Washington would love a Syrian destabilization if it led to US/Israel restoring their regional hegemony, seriously threatened by the emergence of a new Egypt. But forget about the West dreaming of "democracy" in Syria. If history would pull a magic trick - like in Bashar al-Assad offering to sign a peace treaty with Israel next week - the US, the French and the British would not care if the regime shocked and awed whole Syrian towns and cities to the ground.

So it's up to Syrian progressives now to get their act together and prove Bashar al-Assad wrong. Because if it's not him, it will indeed be a horrendously regressive, House of Saud-supported Salafi new master.
Niccolo and Donkey

Very, very insightful piece. The only drawback is Escobar championing "progressives", but that's what he always does.

Team Zissou

"Syrian progressive" means you're a Maronite who listens to world beat music.


There are far, far too many factions with contradicting chains of alliance.

The players must look on the street chimpers and rebels in all of these countries as shares. How many shares do you have in the Libyan Chimpin. How many in the Bahraini Chimpin vs how many does your enemy have. Governments and political organizations need to buy and claim as many rebels and hippies as they can. If you're Clinton and you see Syrian rebels releasing statements against Israel, take that as a demand for American help against Assad.