SEOUL, September 21, 2011 — The day that Mubarak fell I was in Paris, and I will never forget how my colleagues ran down the stairs and into the streets chanting slogans and dancing around in an outburst of joy so spontaneous you might have thought they were all Egyptians. Then the months passed by, and the euphoria subsided. Increasingly, the news from Egypt took on a somber tone: endless riots, crumbling economy, revenge trial for Mubarak, gunfight with Israel, and, most recently, the attempted storming of the Israeli embassy.
But at least in Egypt there is one bright spot: the military is still in power. In Libya there is nothing comparable – no parliament, no monarchy, no established church – nothing which, like the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, can command the allegiance of a broad majority.
In Libya, we took sides in a civil war, and the good news is that our side has, after a long stalemate, won. But the question remains to be answered: what is to become of this massive piece of desert land and the riches beneath its sand? No one knows for sure but I would hazard a guess that a long period of chaos will follow the passing of Gadhafi.
But let us turn our attention away from Egypt and Libya toward the Middle East proper. There the real game of power is being played by three countries, two of whom do not even figure among the Arab States. These are Turkey, Iran, and Syria.
Syria has been struck hard by the storm that is the Arab Spring, and many observers hope that the regime would just keel over and hopefully take Iran down with it. But regime change in Syria has very different implications from regime change in Iran.
There is nothing in Iran’s geopolitical makeup that dooms it to be an enemy of the United States; until 1979, Teheran was one of America’s strongest allies. It was a succession of freak events and inexcusable mistakes that conspired to bring an exile in Paris (Khomeini) to power in Teheran. There was nothing written about that, unless you believe that the Iranians are somehow destined to live under the rule of mullahs.
This means that a change of regime in Iran is something we should not only welcome but support. The current regime being a one-off mutant, a new regime will be a return to the mean; it may not be a democracy but it can hardly be a theocracy. Since we are already scraping the bottom of the barrel with a nuclear-bomb-seeking theocracy, a change of regime can only bring improvement.
But with Syria, it is a different matter. The Assad regime may be grotesque, genocidal even – but it is no worse and no better than the twenty-odd governments which came before it. There is nothing un-Syrian about the Assad regime except for its longevity. It is a natural outgrowth of Syria’s history, geography, and circumstance, and I fail to see how a new regime can behave itself any better than the old one. Regime change will change the regime but not old Syria itself.
The more I read about Syria and its history, the more I find it to be the very embodiment of the Arab peoples and their grisly, twisted fate. Its ethnic makeup is a microcosm of the Middle East, a jumble of ethnicities and religions. It is ruled, like so many of its neighbors, by a ruthless minority and along tribal lines. But above all, Syria exemplifies the historic dispossession of the Arab peoples. The French carved the body of ancient Syria as they saw fit, slicing a piece off to Turkey and cutting off a big chunk to form Lebanon, an illegitimate entity in Syrian eyes. Few nations harbor so many irredentist claims. In one way or another, Syria has fought all of its neighbors –Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, even the Palestinians whom they profess to love. Is it the height of irony then or is it perfectly natural that no nation in the Middle East has believed more fervently in the dream of pan-Arab nationalism? There lies the paradox of Syria, and of the Arab peoples, caught between the conflicting pulls of sentiment and survival; between unity and petty strife; and now, between faith in nation and faith in God.
Bashar al-Assad has tried as best he could to navigate these waters. Today many see this man as a bloody murderer, the son of his father, the tyrannical Hafez. I see him as a former ophthalmologist, rushed to Damascus after the death of his brother (the heir apparent), and with little preparation, pushed into the seat of power. By all accounts he lacks the ruthlessness, the cunning, and the strong nerves with which his father was so richly endowed. His policy has been a mixture of improvisation and blunder. In 2005, he clumsily implicated himself in the assassination of the Prime Minister of Lebanon – a crime, to be sure, but, more importantly, a blunder. Massive protests then followed, and when the US pressured him to withdraw from Lebanon, he complied – another blunder. Over the years, he has emitted feelers to the United States and to the outside world; a rapport with Saudi Arabia seemed promising at one time; but like so many flirtations, nothing happened, and now he must face the Arab Spring alone.
The demise of the Assad regime will shake the region; it will affect the neighboring states. Throughout the Middle East, every restless mob, every rebel cell will agitate with renewed force, and all of the besieged states that we support will weaken collectively from the impact. For the sake of stability, it is better if the Assad regime dies a slow death; a quick death will strike the region unprepared. A long, drawn-out demise, however, will allow some breathing space for the various parties, both inside and outside Syria, to prepare a smoother transition.
The one country that may be impervious to the fall of Assad, impervious to the Arab Spring itself, is Turkey. There was a time when the Middle East could be discussed without a mention of Turkey, but those days are now past. For Turkey is not only strong and important, it is one of the two countries in the region, along with Iran, which vies for hegemonic leadership.
From the American perspective, a powerful Turkey is not a bad thing. It is true that Turkey is now picking on Israel, as the shortest route to the hearts and minds of the Arab street. But this can be overcome, and we can maintain a good relationship with both countries without prejudicing one against the other.
It is also true that Turkey is refusing to oppose Iran as fervently as we would have wished, and this attitude has vexed Washington greatly. But we can take comfort in the fact that, at the end of the day, Turkey has much more to lose from a nuclear Iran than the United States. Its passivity toward Iran is due, not to anti-Americanism, but rather to fear. It is unwise for a country in Turkey’s position to sign on to sanctions against a powerful neighbor like Iran without a guarantee of success, and surely we are fooling ourselves if we think that sanctions are guaranteed to succeed. Turkey fears that by signing on to sanctions, it will turn Iran into an enemy without stopping its nuclear program. A country like America, happily situated thousands of miles away, can live with such a terrible result; but Turkey is in the region to stay, and what we sow, Turkey will reap.
The Erdogan government, wisely from the Turkish standpoint, has refused to join Iran’s enemy list. But they realize better than anyone the threat that Iran poses, and they have been quick to balance it. In this spirit, they recently welcomed NATO’s missile defense system inside their borders; and about 700 kilometers from the Iranian border, a radar installation will soon be raised.
This decision bears looking at. It was pieced together last year after long negotiations in Lisbon at the NATO summit. At the time, Turkey made two demands which I found very revealing. On the one hand, it demanded that the system not be targeted against a single country – everyone took this country to be Iran. On the other hand, it demanded that the system cover all of Turkish territory, that it be more not less effective.
The first demand was a pacifying sop, lined with a trace of menace. If Iran will not be targeted, by definition, Iran can be targeted. And in any case, it hardly matters whether Iran will be “targeted” or not; all that matters is whether or not Turkey will possess the machine that will do the targeting.
The second demand is in the spirit of what I mentioned earlier. Turkey prefers to cut off the snake’s head rather than prick its body. Turkey and Iran, friends on the surface, are in reality jealous rivals. Both have ambitions grand enough to encompass the region and glorious histories to inspire them along. I would watch this relationship closely as it evolves to see if the region ever gets too small for the two of them.
Let me conclude this general overview of the Arab Spring with a few remarks.
From the very beginning, when Ben Ali fell and Mubarak fell, I believed that we were only in the beginning stage of what would be a long historical process. The Middle East as it stands today is changing day by day, and where it will be next month or next year no one knows. What is clear is that America’s ability to shape its contours has been diminished; and that is not entirely a bad thing – above all, for America – as long as American policymakers can resist the temptation to play to the mob in a bid to renew our influence. That is a dangerous course, full of hubris and potential heartbreak. Our best bet is to concentrate on what we do best: maintaining the balance of power in the region by identifying the threats and containing them.
Since Iran poses the biggest threat to that balance of power, it is on Iran that we must focus. Diminished though our power may be, we have enough ammunition still to put a dent in Iran’s armor. Much more can be done to contain Iran, but that is another essay altogether which you can find here if you are interested.
Benjamin Ra is a recent graduate Sciences Po Paris. American foreign policy is his main interest. Read more of Benjamin’s writing in A Word on the National Interest in the Communities at the Washington Times.