With the latest massacre in Syria, in the battle for Aleppo, there was evidence that the Arab Spring was by no means over, that the forces unleashed upon its President, Bashar Al-Assad, were so strong that they would probably sweep him away, even though he seemed willing to kill enough of those opposed to him so that he would survive, just as the so-called spring was succeeded by a summer, an autumn and a winter, another spring, an another summer.
Is Bashar to join the four Arab strongmen who lost office, or is he to survive? His father, long time strongman Hafez Al-Assad, died and left him in place, but Bashar cannot carry out the delicate balance needed. One of the means of interpreting the Syrian situation has been sectarian. It is noted often enough that Bashar is an Alawite, which makes him part of a minority in a Sunni-majority country, which is 12 percent Alwaite, but 74 percent Sunni. However, what has been instructive has been the use his father put this to.
Internally, he created a loyal following. Externally, he won the support of Iran as also being Shia. Though Alawites are heterodox even by Shia standards, and are non-Muslim as Qadianis among the Sunnis, Iran was desperate for allies during the Iran-Iraq war, Syria never actually attacked Iraq, which was a fellow Arab country, but also Baathist. However, the sectarian card has allowed the European powers to interfere in Ottoman times, and when Syria was merely a wilayat of the Ottoman Empire, England and France declared that the minorities were protected.
Originally, the minorities were Christian, but by extension the Shia were involved as in need of protection. Because of this, when France took the area over after World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman state, two units were broken off Syria, Palestine and Lebanon. Palestine was ultimately converted into Israel and Lebanon made independent with a Shia majority. Lebanon thus always looked to Syria for a lead, and the relationship between the two was in some respects as if Lebanon was still a province.
Syria has been of interest to Europe from time immemorial, and its history has been much more than in Ottoman times. It was an integral part of the preceding Abbasid Caliphate, and actually the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate before that. It had been conquered from the Byzantines in the time of the Khilafat Rashida, and had been mainly under them and the Romans, but had been contested with the Persians for a long time. Licinius Crassus, one of the Triumvirs with Julius Caesar, was killed fighting the Persians, as was the Emperor Julian three centuries later.
The sectarian divide in Islam also mirrored the way Christianity survived in Syria, where a number of sects existed before Islam arrived. The Caliphate had kept the peace between the religions and also between the sects, and its removal did not solve this problem. The patchy record of the colonial powers after showed that the sectarian or communal issue had been raised by the European powers so that they could interfere in it, rather than anything else.
One of the signs that a sectarian future is intended for the Middle East, comes in the infamous map of the Greater Middle East, where Shia areas are demarcated. Though the USA is presently bent upon regime change in Iran, it sees Syria as a kind of catalyst for the Shia. Israel, which dictates US policy, would like to see the Syrian regime gone, but not replaced by an even more hostile regime. Syria is associated with the Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia which Israel has tried to subdue militarily. Israel looms even larger for American politicians in a presidential election year like the present, and thus there is even more reason for it to manage Syria properly.
However, it is almost as if there is no script. While in Egypt there was the Ikhwan and in Tunisia the Nahda party, in Yemen there was the Vice President; and Libya, where the US intervention was most overt, there was the Libyan National Council.
The Assad regime, however, seems more brutal than Gaddafi’s for more people have already been killed. One result is seemingly that Saudi Arabia has summoned an ‘extraordinary’ OIC Summit, presumably to shape a response to the Arab Spring, though along with Qatar it is accused to backing the Syrian National Army, a body which is said to be overwhelmingly Sunni. It is worthy of note that Syria is supposed to have Iraqi Sunnis crossing over to help in the task of fighting against the Assad regime. It should be noted that these crossovers have allowed the raising of the Al-Qaeda bogey, with its fighters supposedly among those Sunnis.
But if one examines the situation closely, it is interesting to see the role of Russia, which is not likely to give up its naval base in Syria. The Russian role is interesting because it is not just a holdover from Soviet expansionism, but harks back to the Ottoman Empire, when it interfered as much in its internal affairs as England and France did. Russia and China have taken positions supporting the Assad regime.
As Saudi Arabia and Qatar are not just Sunni, but Wahhabi, their support for the Syrian National Army, to the extent that they are supposed to be funding it, it has been assumed that they are against the Assad regime. If so, they would in this matter be acting in the USA’s interest, and this would be consistent with their position as monarchs in the post-Ottoman Islamic world.
Assad thus represented a later reality, just as did the other Arab regimes overthrown in the Arab Spring. Of the four, two had come to power by overthrowing monarchs (Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak had not overthrown King Farooq, but had been part of the movement to do so, while Libya’s Gaddafi had overthrown King Idris. Though the Arab monarchs faced a challenge without exception, they all survived. Apart from the Idrisid King of Morocco, placed on his throne as a result of French decolonisation, the Middle Eastern monarchs come from dynasties that sprang up after the Ottoman Caliphate was ended, and thus their survival means that the Middle Eastern order established after the Ottomans remains in place.
The Arab Spring had been compared with 1848, which had meant the fall of dispensations all over Europe, where dynasties only survived (if they did) by a change of face. Except in England, where Queen Victoria not only continued to reign, but also proved essential to providing refuge to the numerous crowned heads deposed. However, there have been fewer casualties among the Arab rulers. Perhaps, because they are more useful in place, rather than providing an uncertain future because it is not known who will succeed them. But who will they provide this uncertainty to? Certainly not their peoples, of whom the Egyptians, Libyans, Yemenis and Tunisians have already seen off their rulers.
Is the Arab Spring over? If the Assad regime succeeds against the odds and manages to survive, it will be over. Even if the regime falls, it will also mark the end of the Arab Spring, because Syria seems to mark the last battle of the people against the government, which has been imposed on them.
n The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as Executive Editor of TheNation.