Saturday 16 March 2013

Regional turbulence ahead, fasten your seatbelts

Waddah Khanfar
Waddah Khanfar, 45, is the president of Al Sharq Forum, an independent network dedicated to developing long-term strategies for political development, social justice and economic prosperity of the people of the Middle East. He previously served as the Director General of the Aljazeera Network. In 2011, Foreign Policy Magazine ranked Khanfar first in “The FP Top 100 Global Thinkers.” In 2009, Forbes Magazine named him one of the most “Powerful People in the World.” He penned this think piece in Arabic for

The Syrian regime having turned to Scud missiles, and with Russia and Iran keeping up their arms supplies to the Damascus government, the British and French assume that providing some weapons to the rebels would somewhat level the sides’ firepower and prod the regime to negotiate with the opposition.
The idea by some in the West of working for a peace settlement by redressing the military balance won’t work. It won’t help stop the violence.
It would simply gain the regime more time and lay the first stone for greater and more vengeful violence. The move would inflame the situation and broaden the field of conflict to engulf the whole region.
Many reasons are at work to expand the Syria crisis and give it a regional dimension.
The Arab Mashreq is one of the world’s most diverse regions in terms of sects, ethnicities and religions.
The Syria crisis is getting deeper and thornier because of gory terrorism by Syria’s sectarian regime, Russia’s accolades and Iran’s giveaways to Assad, America and Europe’s hesitation and the Arab states’ muddled disposition towards the multiple Syrian revolution sides.
Regional amplification of the crisis has thus become a matter of time. This is to say the Syria crisis will become, in the course of its third year, an open-ended trans-boundary conflict posing the biggest challenge yet to the stability of the region since its current borders were mapped out a century ago in the aftermath of the First World War.
Mushrooming of the Syria crisis will first envelop Lebanon, which is closest to Syria.
The strategic axis extending from Tehran to Baghdad, to Damascus, and on to Hezbollah in Lebanon believes the Assad regime’s fall will reconfigure the region’s strategic balances.
That’s what drove Hezbollah to be the first Lebanese side to stick its nose in Syria and give political and logistical support to Assad’s regime. That’s what prompted other Lebanese sides to back the Syrian revolution.
Tension and polarization peaked in Lebanon after its internal two-year rope war. The country is now exposed to the fire and brimstone of the Syria crisis with all its bloody violence and sectarian overtones.
Despite the seriousness of an eruption of violence in Lebanon, a spread of hostilities in the direction of Iraq is the more ominous development in the making.
The preliminary signs are evident in the mounting political strains between the Maliki government, which is prone to sectarianism and backs Bashar al-Assad, and all the predominantly Sunni provinces on the one hand, and between Maliki and Iraq’s Kurdistan Region on the other.
It seems the three months of ceaseless protests in the Sunni areas have reached a dead-end.
The Maliki government did not meet the demonstrators’ demands for greater sectarian evenhandedness in Baghdad. Instead, the government escalated its repression of protesters and embraced violence.
This risks opening the Iraqi arena to a new cycle of grisly violence that will find its natural extension in the inflamed Syrian mainland.
Iraq, which is yet to recover from a civil war that tore to pieces its national unity between 2007 and 2009, is expected to take sectarian strife in the region to unparalleled levels.
Iraq’s neighbors – Iran, Turkey and the Arab Gulf countries – will find themselves drawn into the inferno.
The struggle over Iraq will not only be over its huge oil resources, but also over the heart and soul of the upcoming Middle East. The latter will determine the weights of the regional powers and chart the region’s new political map.
Is such a bleak scenario preventable?
The answer lies in what regional and international players do in the few months ahead, starting with the United States precluding its past mistakes and making removal of the Syrian regime its top priority.
Although direct military intervention is not welcome, the prerequisite is to provide the Syrian revolution with the necessary qualitative weapons without engaging prematurely in side issues over the local balance of power post-Assad Syria.
The U.S. administration was nonplussed and undecided on Syria in the past two years. It blocked the flow of qualitative weapons to the rebels in Syria under different pretexts. These included Washington’s apprehension of post-Assad scenarios and of Islamists ruling in Damascus at Israel’s doorstep.
America also did not want to see such weapons “fall into the wrong hands,” meaning Jihadists and groups close to al-Qaeda.
Such American hesitance proved disastrous. It failed to prioritize the removal of a terrorist regime bent on killing, destroying and raping for fear of a potential terrorism threat.
The U.S. made the mistake when the Syrian revolution was miles away from the influence of al-Qaeda and its offshoots.
This emboldened the regime, allowing it to raise the level of its violence against civilians to unprecedented heights.
Likewise, the international community’s dawdling and indecision on supporting the Free Syrian Army and the moderate rebel brigades allowed Jihadist groups to join the fray.
It is atypical not to see oppression victims turn to whoever can defend them. It took Jihadist groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, which the U.S. designated as terrorist, more than a year to make their entry into the Syria scene.
The U.S. decision was also misguided in that it shifted the international community and regional forces’ priority from bringing down the regime to fighting Jihadists.
Moreover, U.S. blacklisting of al-Nusra empowered the group further after it proved to be more disciplined than the other armed groups and refrained from antagonizing Christian, Druze and Alawite minorities.
The lack of a clear strategy vis-à-vis the Syrian revolution sent conflicting signals to regional countries. Those fearful of the “Islamist threat” chose to arm groups of no consequence in Syria, which served the regime well and embittered the revolution’s mainstream.
The most important thing the countries of the region need to do is formulate a common position on the Syria priorities.
Downing the regime posthaste is the imperative step liable to stop the slide towards unbridled violence.
Focusing on the attendant post-Assad fears and trying to meddle in the rebel groups’ political and military balance of power will work for the regime and for the scenario of full-blown chaos and sectarian strife.