Syria crisis causes Iran-led ´axis of resistance´ to fray (CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR) By Scott Peterson ISTANBUL, TURKEY 03/16/12)
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The Syria crisis is complicated by the regional cold war that has
simmered for years between resistance powers like Iran, Syria, and
Hezbollah, and Western allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia.
On the ground, Syria¶s day-to-day revolt may look like any other Arab
Spring revolution, with widespread protests against the
dictatorialrule of President Bashar al-Assad, and powerful military
and security forces trying to crush them.
But analysts say the Syrian crisis is already having a global
strategic impact beyond that of the Arab world´s other people-power
uprisings, which brought down authoritarian rulers in Tunisia, Egypt,
Libya, and Yemen.
Quiz: How well do you know Middle East geography?
As revolutionary turmoil in Syria enters its second year today – with
more than 8,000 killed already – the crisis is rekindling US-Russia
rivalry in the Middle East. It is also jeopardizing the Iran-
led “axis of resistance" to Western interests in the region.
In keeping with the regional cold war that has been simmering here
for years, Iran and the Shiite Hezbollah militia in Lebanon have
fully supported their Syrian ally, while Sunni states friendly to the
US, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have called for arming anti-Assad
But last month, a central member of the resistance axis – the
Palestinian militant group Hamas – abruptly abandoned its longtime
patron Syria and its leaders decamped to Egypt and Qatar.
Moreover, Syria´s role in the resistance alliance is only as strong
as Assad´s rule. If he were forced out, Hezbollah´s ready access to
Iranian-supplied weapons could be severely reduced and therefore
Iran´s ability to maintain Hezbollah´s potency as a proxy against
Israel could diminish.
“This Syria-Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas ‘axis of resistance’ has started to
fray, with Hamas essentially pulling out, and the Syrians being
challenged at home, so this whole equation has to be reconsidered,”
says Rami Khouri, a Mideast analyst at the American University of
Beirut. “If the Syrian regime were to be changed, both Hezbollah and
Iran would be dealt a blow.”
More broadly, the Syria crisis has engendered “a return of a global
competition," says Mr. Khouri. Indeed, Russia and China – feeling
burned by voting for a Libya resolution last year that turned into de
facto regime change – have vetoed two United Nations Security Council
resolutions on Syria, thwarting American and European attempts to
take action against the Assad regime. Since then, Syrian forces have
launched brutal assaults on key rebel strongholds, including Homs,
Idlib, and Deraa.
"It was the Russian and Chinese veto that really gave the Syrians a
special boost,” says Khouri. “The Russians are clearly pushing back
against what they see as an American-dominated drive in the region,
and Russians don’t want the Americans to go around changing regimes
Kofi Annan, envoy for the United Nations and Arab League, is due to
brief the UN Security Council today about his fruitless efforts so
far to bring a cease-fire. His efforts have been vastly complicated
by the regional gamesmanship.
“What has happened in the big picture is that the Syrian crisis has
been caught in a regional cold war,” says Fawaz Gerges, head of the
Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.
The regional battle lines were clearly drawn in the aftermath of the
2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, when the Shiite Hezbollah militia leader
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah declared a “divine victory” after a 33-day
fight. Iran helped Hezbollah in that battle, channeling thousands of
rockets and cash, in a war that both Tehran and Washington portrayed
as a regional face-off.
“This whole resistance axis, it’s like a virtual front,” says
Khouri. “It always had a certain shelf life; each party drew from it
certain things that they benefited from.”
The stakes now for regional players like Iran are high. Gen. James
Mattis, head of US Central Command, testified to Congress earlier
this month that Iran was flying weapons and experts into Syria in "a
full-throated effort ... to keep Assad there and oppressing his own
people." When Assad falls, he said, "it´ll be the biggest strategic
setback for Iran in 20 years."
“For sure the Iranians will help the Syrian regime stay in power,
because the Syrian connection is one of their few foreign policy
successes in the Arab world; the other is Hezbollah,” says Khouri.
The stakes are also high for Russia, which has $5 billion in weapons
contracts with the Syrian regime and has taken an international stand
against intervention – a stance informed in part with its own
turbulent history of revolutions.
At an Arab League meeting in Cairo last week, Russian Foreign
Minister Sergei Lavrov defended the Syrian regime, and cast Russia’s
support as protecting “international law.”
But Arab foreign ministers, especially from Saudi Arabia and Qatar,
were withering in their response, with Saud al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia
rejecting “hollow resolutions and … spineless positions.”
Such a lack of international consensus, together with divisions among
the various Syrian opposition groups and the rebels´ inability to
secure adequate weapons for the Free Syrian Army, helps explains why
Syria has so far proven to be the longest and most deadly Arab
Those regional and international variables complicate the Syrian
crisis, in contrast to Libya last spring, where there was consensus
on a decision against Muammar Qaddafi on the Security Council.
“In the case of Assad, what is really surprising are the two double
vetoes, by two of the greatest powers in the international system.
This is big news,” says Gerges. “Even Russia said, ‘Any cease-fire
must be mutual [between the regime and the rebels].´ "
While most analysts predict Assad’s eventual downfall – noting that
Syrians have not been deterred from taking to the streets after a
year of brutal violence against them, in their bid to end 40 years of
Assad-family rule – few are willing to hazard a guess about when that
Iran, which remembers that the Syrian president’s father, Hafez al-
Assad, was the one Arab leader who stood alongside it during the Iran-
Iraq war of the 1980s, has thrown its full support behind Syria – not
least of all because this Syrian regime plays a key role in its
The prospect of an eventual regime collapse in Syria is already
resonating in Tehran.
Iranian leaders have proclaimed their support of Arab uprisings
against pro-Western “tyranny” as part of a broader “Islamic
awakening” that they claim is a natural extension of Iran’s own 1979
Islamic revolution. But pointedly not among the list of those Iran-
recognized “awakenings” is Syria, which Iran claims is different, and
the subject of manipulation and “sedition” by Western and
Today, the Syrian revolution is redefining longstanding power
balances, and injecting yet more uncertainty into the Middle
East. “Transitions” are under way in Russia and Iran, says Khouri,
that make outcomes even more unpredictable.
“Everybody’s in flux, all the players in the region and international
ones, the US itself it getting out of the region slowly and losing
impact,” notes Khouri. “It’s like musical chairs: Everybody’s on the
move, and it´s going to take some years for everything to settle
down.” (© The Christian Science Monitor. 03/16/12)
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