What’s at stake in Syria goes well beyond the mere fate of a local dictatorship – however deadly it may be. What is at stake, and is on the brink of collapse, is a major strategic alliance in the Middle East.
The Syrians who have been challenging Bashar al-Assad’s regime since March – many paying with their lives – are shaking the axis formed by Damascus and Tehran, along with their Lebanese ally, Hezbollah.
This alliance is at the core of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s plan to ensure its supremacy over the region. If this strategy collapses with the fall of the Assad family, it will mean a reshuffling of cards for the entire Middle East, and rather for the better, as the three partners constitute a kind of unified “front of rejection.” They are particularly opposed to any changes in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, though they cannot be blamed for the stalled negociations between the two parties.
The Arab League, after suspending Syria, is now considering economic sanctions. The League acts out of weariness: it has repeatedly urged Damascus to withdraw tanks from the streets and open a dialogue with the opposition. To no avail. President Assad has remained deaf to the call, thus explaining his growing isolation.
But the League also acts in a broader context, that of a regional battle, a kind of cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia — the latter operating as leader of the Arab countries. Among them, the Persian Gulf countries especially fear the Islamic Republic’s desires of supremacy. They see the strategic alliance established in the early 1980s between Iran and Syria as a move by Tehran to assert its influence over the region.
Some will say that there is a religious logic to it. Financially supported by Tehran, the Assad family relies on its clan, the Alawis, a branch of Shia Islam that is predominant in Iran, just as it is within the ranks of the Lebanese Hezbollah.
Lebanon and Iraq – where a Shiite majority is in power – are two of the few countries of the Arab League that have voted against Syria’s suspension. So if the Syrian regime were to collapse, it would shake the grounds of a “Shiite ark” in a predominantly Sunni Arab world that has also received Turkey’s decisive support in this battle.
Ankara acts less out of religious solidarity than because of its desire to assert its regional influence. The conservative Islamic party JDP (Justice and Development Party) that has been in power for 10 years in Ankara, continues to carry out its aggressive diplomacy.
Along with Iran, two superpowers are still supporting the Syrian regime: Russia and China. But both countries cannot indefinitely afford being the crutches of a bloody dictatorship that is day after day becoming more and more isolated in the Arab world.