Conflicts Forum Weekly Comment
31 May – 7 June 2013
- The fall of Qusayr marks a strategic point both for Syria – and for the geo-strategic make-up of this region. In the wake of this town’s fall, it throws into sharp focus what was happening earlier when – after the Western-GCC block had ‘upped the ante’ on Russia, in advance of any prospective Geneva II negotiations – Russia and its allies then simply ‘doubled up’ on the western ‘chips’ by a concerted ‘mass’ of ‘push-back’ (see our last weekly comment). What is now even more evident with hindsight is that – in the expectation of their success in Qusayr – and sensing the importance of this strategic shift in both its narrow and wider senses, the Russian/Syrian/ Hizbullah/Iran coalition was sending an unmistakable message of deterrence to the West – and to Israel in particular – that any attempt directly to intervene, in order to put new facts on the ground in Syria, would meet concerted and effective retaliation and wider escalation.
Qusayr’s military significance is now very plain (see here). At one level, it severs the Lebanon supply corridor (excepting the Arsal crossing) disgorging into that ancient and profound Sunni vein that organically connects Tripoli in northern Lebanon to Homs, Hama and their satellite towns and villages. This in turn, secures for Syria the coastal region around Tartus and Latakia, which are principal transit corridors for military matériel, fuel, and basic goods being shipped by sea into Damascus. But at another level, following the army’s successes in the south and east, the stage is set (with Damascus now well secured) for a quick and major deployment up the new roads, which the Syrian government has been constructing, up to Aleppo and the north of Syria. These ‘safe’ arteries, by-passing towns and villages, offer the Syrian army the possibility of a quick and major deployment right up to the northern frontier with Syria (perhaps recalling that of Hizbullah’s lightening sweep in 2000, to the edge of Israel’s borders. It was a surprise deployment, which simply ignored and by-passed several substantial pools of Israeli troops, which simply were left marooned and surrounded. These latter were not attacked; but were eventually facilitated into safe corridors through which they quietly exited south Lebanon.
- Israel certainly has been quicker to grasp the significance of Qusayr - than some European leaders. Hizbullah’s success (using young troops who have been participating in regular training sessions, commencing every moth for more than a year) has proved its capability to conduct offensive operations in a difficult urban environment. Israel is aware too that new operational tactics for urban warfare were used in Qusayr. The prospect is causing Israel deep anxiety – not just on account of the close proximity of Israel’s urban areas to the border with Lebanon: Alex Fishman, doyen of Israeli military correspondents noted ruefully in connection to the larger picture that, “If al-Qusayr becomes the first domino in the collapse of the rebellion against Bashar Assad, this will spell a strategic catastrophe for the entire region, courtesy of the defender of the free world, the United States of America”. Fishman here plainly is referring to the wider consequences for the balance of strategic advantage between certain Sunni states which the US is trying to ally with Israel and the US (which is termed (in Israel) the ‘4 plus 1’ (the one referring to non-Arab Turkey)) – and pitted against the ‘resistance’ coalition of Syria, Iran, Iraq and Hizbullah.
This failure by certain European leaders to catch-on to ‘events on the ground’ shaping the Syrian equation to a greater extent than the diplomatic pirouettes being conducted by the ‘Friends of Syria’, was noted by Claire Spencer of Chatham House in London: “The mystery is why it has taken so long for the alliance of western powers … to wake up to just how far their own diplomatic game has strayed from the realities they are seeking to influence”. Similarly Peter Oborne in The Telegraph has noted how “Britain has wholeheartedly backed the Sunni camp – Saudi, the Gulf States, and al-Qaeda – in its increasingly bloodthirsty and horrifying conflict against Shia Islam. There may be some very good reasons for this, but I do wish that the Prime Minister would re-engage with the real world, come out publicly, and explain what they are”. Mark Leonard writing for Reuters echoed these same sentiments by suggesting that western leaders seemed more comfortable talking about limited intervention than embracing the morally awkward choices they would need to make to achieve a political settlement.
Of course, any provoking of strategic shift in the Middle East, invites dangers. At one level, as noted in CF’s earlier weekly commentaries, it will ignite, in some parts of the Sunni world, resentment and a heightened sense of grievance (but in conflict, sometimes the only viable alternative to arousing hostility may be worse – that of accepting strategic defeat). At another level, voices are already being raised in Washington arguing that the western interest now simply will be to keep the conflict burning: the alternative of walking back President Obama’s initial explicit call for President Assad must go, and of accepting a further setback in the Middle East – being seen as simply too big a loss of face for the West to contemplate. There seems little evidence that Moscow will assist Europe and America to climb down from their branch – not least because their ‘political solution’ effectively self-combusted in Istanbul.
- Turkey: The recent popular unrest in Turkey seems unlikely depose the PM. He is a fighter, and still commands substantial, though now diminished support. As the Israeli journalist, Ben Caspit writes, until now Erdogan was convinced that he was an omnipotent ruler, who, if he so desires, could anoint himself executive President, or declare that the sun rises in the south – and expect it to fall into line with his wishes; but from this moment onward, for Erdogan nothing can be taken again for granted. What is very clear is that before his next caprice, Erdogan will have to think at least twice. Everything that has been easy until now, will become difficult, including the up-coming elections.
But the protests in Turkey, whatever their subsequent course, will have ramifications throughout the Muslim world: Running through the Turkish commentaries which CF has posted this week has been the noticeable theme of Erdogan’s hubris and temper; but so also, from all shades of opinion has come the complaint that commercial, market objectives have become an overbearing aspect of this hegemony. In short, liberals and the élites have protested the disappearance of their cultural spaces to ‘market’ requirements, whilst poorer people have bemoaned the loss of their open geographic spaces and trees to shopping malls. The police repression coupled with Erdogan’s haughty and Marie-Antoinette-like response towards the protests, simply coalesced these separate pools of dissatisfaction into a general popular reaction. Held in common, was a feeling of being deliberately marginalized and disempowered by a distinctly neo-liberal and hubristic leadership.
What is interesting is how this popular reaction will affect the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and En-Nahda – all of whom have tied their political and economic visions so closely to that of Erdogan – and in a very personal fashion. The protests have brought into international view the AKP’s authoritarian and anti-pluralist instincts (see, for example this striking piece from a former very senior AKP parliamentarian). It has also brought into the forefront of international perception the AKP’s blatantly neo-liberal economic vision. Is this the flag – authoritarianism and neo-liberalism – to which Sunni Islamists effectively give their allegiance today? Is this the ‘model’ of society for which they advocate? The events in Turkey – even should they quickly subside – will leave these movements facing awkward questions about their advocacy of a ‘Turkish model’ for the future of this region – creating more ambiguity over for what exactly, these movements now do stand.
- Iran Presidential Polls: Polls just conducted within Iran suggest the following percentage support for the leading eight Presidential candidates (amongst a wide field) for the first round of voting commencing 14 June:
Prediction of voter turnout: 71%.
Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf 23%
Hassan Rowhani 13%
Saeed Jalili 10%
Ali Akbar Velayati 8%
Mohammad Reza Aref 6%
Mohammad Gharazi 2%
Gholam Ali Haddad Adel 2%
Ghalibaf is the Mayor of Tehran, and is expected to reach the second round; Rowhani and Aref stand for the Reformists; Velayati’s relatively poor showing is attributed to his weak performance during the televised debates and his weak PR. Hadded Adel, a former Speaker of Parliament, showed badly because he has made it clear from the outset that he expected to withdraw from race (something he has now done) and because his candidacy was therefore not taken to be substantive. Gharazi stands as an independent.
It is not thought likely that Iranian foreign policy will change substantially whichever candidate finally reaches the Presidency; but a change in style, and the taking of this election opportunity to craft a greater openness to contacts with the outside world are thought likely to characterise the forthcoming Presidency – whomsoever is elected.