The major Middle Eastern news this week has clearly been the Arab League’s almost-suspension of Syria for the crackdown on protestors, along with every Western media outlet in the land trumpeting that Jordan’s monarch (one of the earlier targets of the Arab Spring and still on my personal list of tyrants) had called for Bashar to step down. This, so we are told, was the final international humiliation for a regime now isolated by so many former friends.
In reality, this is nearly all bollocks. King Abdullah did not quite call for Bashar to step down: he said that if he were in his place, he would leave, which is not the same thing. What I found far more interesting about that interview with the BBC was his open acknowledgement of the degree to which a ‘system’ can resist change, despite shuffling around the people at the top. Deceiving a population by replacing the president with, say, his son or one of his closest allies – and then claiming that a massive shift has taken place – is one of the fundamental principles of dictatorship: just look at Turkmenistan (Niyazov/Berdimuhamedov), or Tunisia (Bourguiba/Ben Ali), or the Congo (Mobutu/Kabila/Kabila) – or of course Syria. Jordan, His Majesty’s own turf, or indeed any of the Gulf State monarchies, are completely exempt from this because they do not even see the need to deceive their own people, and because of the bizarre Western inclination to characterise monarchy as dictatorship’s adorable younger cousin (cf. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, the old Nepalese government, Malaysia, Brunei, Bhutan, Lesotho, and Swaziland). Despite this, it is an astonishing statement – although I doubt it will get much exposure in the Jordanian press – and indicates just how ropey Syria’s situation has become.
I do not find the fact of Syria being deserted particularly surprising, nor am I shocked by the speed and scale of the desertions. All the Arab nations now clamoring for Assad’s blood are precisely the ones who have always despised him for two things. Firstly, Assad and the Syrian Ba’th Party have become the only extant fragments of the pan-Arabist craze which swept the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s. Gaddafi is dead; Nasser, Sadat and Bourguiba’s legacies have long since been smoothed over by the technocratic imbeciles who followed them; the Iraqi Ba’th Party was destroyed, along with Saddam. Even Assad is only the son of the man who overthrew the initial Ba’thist regime, and the current Ba’th Party is pan-Arabist only in name (its irredentist aspirations in Lebanon notwithstanding). Despite this, it is what the Syrian government claims to represent and believe which has made all the Gulf State monarchies so hostile to it.
More important than political grudges from the 1960s, however, are religious grudges from the 1st millennium. The regional Sunni-Shia divide has reached worrying proportions, with Saudi paranoia about Iranian interference in Bahrain (imagined) and Iraq (probably true) soaring ever closer to the danger zone. Ignorance of this fact has led to some pretty stupid conclusions in the press recently. The most insidious is the lie that Syria has now lost virtually all international support, with the exception of Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and Hezbollah. This claim completely glosses over the fact that those four entities have always been Syria’s strongest and fiercest allies, and not until some of them start to break away can the government truly be said to be losing support. (The gently critical comments from the Prime Minister of Lebanon were, in fact, a far bigger story than any of this Jordanian nonsense.) The current reaction of the Arab League, welcome though it is, does not represent a newly-revolutionised understanding of the role of that organisation, merely the development of a decade-long campaign against the Syrian government. Hence the fact that the League ignored Saddam Hussein’s violence against the Kurds in Halabja but are willing to expedite matters against Assad does not mean that their sudden willingness to intervene is based on the principles of liberal democracy.
Now, despite all of this cynicism, I’m not arguing that this is unimportant – it is an urgent development for the revolt in Syria, which was evidently waiting only for a hint of outside support before launching attacks on Assad’s security apparatus. Whether such a campaign is a good idea is questionable, but Ba’thist or Russian warnings of civil conflict should not be discounted merely because their origins are biased. But Syria’s suspension means next to nothing for the Arab League.
In the end you could argue that it’s all largely immaterial. Whether other countries get involved militarily or not, life is going to be hell for the majority of Syrians for quite some time to come.