February 22, 2020
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A Puzzling Syrian Spring

Making sense of the W. Asian fragment in the light of offshore oil

A Puzzling Syrian Spring
Illustration by Sorit
A Puzzling Syrian Spring

It wasn’t easy to fit Syria into a pattern since the time Mohammed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, ignited Arab change by setting himself afire on December 17, 2010. Since then, the Arab world divided itself into three distinct theatres of change. First were the North African states, stretching from Morocco to Egypt, having a Mediterranean face but an African depth too. The turn of events in Egypt was tectonic. The second theatre was Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi walked through minefields laid by the Anglo-French combine. This has now turned into a fox hunt. The most violent theatre was a Shia arc around the Saudi realm—Yemen, with its Zaidis and Huthis (Al Qaeda, too), Bahrain (80 per cent Shia), Kuwait (30 per cent) and Iraq (65 per cent), the last three converging on the Saudi oil fields in Dahran, Dammam and Qatif, all Shia-dominated.

In this scenario, Damascus was more like pre-occupation Baghdad, with the army and the Ba’ath socialist party cadres maintaining order. In Iraq, though, the US occupation, focused overwhelmingly on oil, smashed Saddam Hussein, the army and the party; to insulate Israel’s east from an oil-rich, efficient dictatorship was only a subsidiary interest. An unintended consequence of this was the emergence of Shia power, around which the Saudis are now doing a vigorous war dance.

Syria was spared the American wrath because it had no oil and its border with Israel had been the most peaceful in the region. War drums against Damascus are a surprise because another Iraq is not possible—that would entail American invasion, not on the cards now. So Damascus, therefore, has to be destabilised in other ways—by encouraging the Sunni majority against the Alawite-dominated regime, for instance.

So why the focus on Damascus now? It takes time to digest startling reality. But yes, oil and gas are in the bargain now, offshore, within the territorial waters of Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus, as much oil as there is in Saudi Arabia. Do a Google search and find “Israel Energy Initiative”. Familiar names like Dick Cheney swim into focus. (New Delhi clearly has a bustling embassy in Damascus. Seated in President Bashar Assad’s palace, I find officials quickly processing documents submitted by ONGC Videsh Ltd to prospect in blocks claimed by Syria.)

Some political facts complete the picture. A Shia ring around Saudi Arabia gives Riyadh nightmares. A larger, strategic Shia arc (plus Hamas) is also Israel’s nightmare. It is in this latter category that Syria fits in, because Assad, his clan, the army are all Alawites, a secular variant of Shias. The majority is overwhelmingly Sunni. These sectarian divisions in the Syrian context are slightly misleading: Ba’ath socialism nurtured a deeply secular society.

Babrak Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey and Ba’athist Syria had a durable, secular bond. But now, a more Islamic Turkey has been pressing Assad to give political space to the Muslim Brotherhood while introducing reforms in Syria. For Assad, this would be the thin end of the wedge. A more “Sunni” Syria would remove the country from the Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas nexus and enhance Turkey’s influence over Iran’s in the region. Also, Turkey is strategically placed to ensure the smooth flow of offshore oil to Europe.

In this scenario, the role of Robert Stephen Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, is vital. John Negroponte, as ambassador to Iraq, said of Ford, his deputy then: “He is one of those very tireless people...who did not mind putting on his flak jacket and helmet and going out of the Green Zone to meet contacts.” Well, his risk-taking spirit is now driving him to such trouble spots as Hama’a and Darr’a for patting the rebels. Why Assad hasn’t shown him the door probably reflects on the besieged president’s weakness and possible divisions in the highest leadership.

Into this destabilisation process the Iraqi insurgency also finds an outlet, relieving pressure on US troops planning a departure from Baghdad. The media—Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, BBC and CNN in that order—are putting out stories which neither non-Arab ambassadors nor this journalist have found to be true. In a drive to Homs, even Hama’a, the real trouble spot, I saw fewer pickets than on Indian roads. In the end, the media’s reputation will be quite as battered as the region’s. How are these bogus stories being flashed despite the stringent censorship? The New York Times says that “the Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy ‘shadow’ internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks”. All for the love of freedom?

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