The removal of Zain al-Abidin bin Ali as the president of Tunisia, the resignation of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the killing of Mu’ammar Ghaddafi in Libya opened a new chapter in the history of the Middle East and North Africa, and to a larger extent the entire Muslim World. The rest of the Arab World, especially those living under oppressive regimes, felt that the time had come for people to change their situation and follow the footsteps of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.
While Egypt is seen as the heart of the Arab world, and the fall of Mubarak as the signal that other regimes could fall as well, the reality is the success or otherwise of the Arab awakening will depend on Syria, a historical city that is part and parcel of Islamic civilisation and an epitome of scientific advancement, learning and research. As Marwan Bushara, the eloquent analyst on Arab issues, stated, the future of the Arab awakening will potentially be decided by the outcome of what is happening in Syria. So why is Syria that important?
Well, Syria is important because it has become the political labyrinth in the complicated terrain of the Middle East. First of all, it is a Sunni majority country being ruled by a minority Allawi Shi’ite family. Although there is a religious element to the ruling family, the underlying philosophy of the family is more on Arab nationalism than a complete commitment to religious adherence. This nature of the family, therefore, created a strong link between the Assad ruling dynasty and other nationalist regimes in the Arab World such as the late Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Gamal Abde Nasser of Egypt and Muammar Ghaddafi of Libya.
Beyond that, the Ba’athist ideology of the ruling family made Syria a strong ally of China and Russia. The Sunni majority population in the country identify with the Sunni majority population in Egypt, as well as the Sunnis in Iraq. On the other hand, the religious dimension of the Assad family made them close allies of Iran and the Shia population of Lebanon, and historically there has been a cat and mouse relationship between Syria and Lebanon. Above all, its proximity to Israel is a serious factor in trying to understand what is happening today in the country. While Syria is friendly to Iran due to the religious dimension of the ruling family, it is also a host to the leadership of Hamas, a Sunni group that champions the right of the Palestinian people.
So when the Arab awakening started, all these forces came to play an important role in whether the quest for change by the Syrian people succeeds or fails. The Iranian regime supports the Assad regime because it provides the connection between Iran and Hezbollah, a group that has strong ties to Iran. Israel and other Western powers, although sceptical of the Assad regime, are not sure of the forces that will take over if the Assad regime falls, which perhaps explains why there is no military intervention yet in Syria.
Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies like Qatar would like to see the fall of the regime because the failure of the regime will weaken the Syria-Iran connection, which could also help in weakening the uprising in Bahrain. The neighbouring Iraq, which has not yet recovered from the US invasion, would like to see Bashar Al Asad remain in power, because the failure of the regime would mean the arrival of a Sunni government which will potentially strengthen the Sunnis in Iraq, who have now been marginalised in the Nur al Maliki government. Russia and China could not afford losing a strong ally in a region that is rich in resources, because the absence of an ally will hurt their political and economic interest to the advantage of the United States and its supporters.
So, the Syrian people are engaged in the most difficult struggle of their lives. Their search for freedom will interfere with the political and economic interest of other nations surrounding them. Unfortunately in this struggle, it is the average person, seeking for a better life, that suffers daily. As Dr Azzam Tamimi stated, at the beginning the sectarian dimension of the uprising was not the main factor in the conflict. It was simply an uprising between the Syrian people and their leadership.
So what you see daily is a blame game between the Assad regime, the opposition, the United Nations, Russia and China. Perhaps the Kofi Annan peace mediation effort may achieve little. If there is one umbrella organisation that should take up this issue and try and resolve the conflict, it should be the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Whether it has the political capital to do so remains to be seen.