On one side were reactionary forces like Saudi Arabia, slavishly pro-Western regimes like those of Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan, in addition to secondary players like the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon’s March 14 coalition. Crucially, these so-called moderate Arabs (a term most likely concocted by the State Department) were backed and supported by the US and Europe and tended to dominate most of the Arab League member-states.
The other side – for a lack of a better term called the resistance axis – was lead by Iran and its various allies in the region such as Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Until recently, this camp did not enjoy any backing from major international powers like Russia and China, who tended to support sanctions against Iran at the UN Security Council.
Key emerging players in the region like Turkey and Qatar (particularly through the latter’s powerful media giant al-Jazeera and seemingly infinite wealth) remained relatively neutral and at times seemed to move in the direction of the resistance axis. This is despite the fact that both countries were an integral part of the US order in the region. Turkey is a member of NATO and Qatar hosts the largest US military base in the Gulf and maintains close ties to Israel.
At the heart of the dispute between the two camps was the extent of US domination in the region, of which Israel was but the highest expression. The moderates served as virtual outposts – politically, militarily, and economically – of Washington in the region. In many cases the very survival of these regimes depended on US consent and support. The long-term stability of this strategic alliance, however, was constantly haunted by the Palestinian struggle and Israel’s unwillingness to concede even a sliver of land in return for a full surrender offered by the moderate Arabs.
Unfortunately for the resistance forces, the two camps took on sectarian (Shia-Sunni) identities that largely benefited the moderates, who would from time to time whip up fears of Shia conversion campaigns being coordinated by Tehran in places as far flung as Morocco. This helped to divert the Sunni public’s attention away from the central issue of Palestine and the struggle with the West and focus it on a narrow sectarian conspiracy, intent on dominating the Arab world. Many Sunnis – who constitute the vast majority of Arabs – were vulnerable to such propaganda particularly as sectarian tensions intensified and spread throughout the region after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
But despite their vast resources and a favorable environment created by George W Bush’s Middle East crusade following the September 11 attacks, the moderate Arabs did not fare so well in their confrontation with the resistance camp.
The failed US occupation of Iraq, which was to usher in a new regional order fully subordinate to US and Israeli interests, was the first of a series of bitter setbacks for the moderates. Getting rid of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein removed two of Iran’s major foes in the region, giving the besieged country room to breathe and extend its influence east and west.
One track was to create a ring of fire, particularly along the Arab side of the Persian Gulf, by arming the petro-kingdoms to the teeth and increasing direct Western military presence in the immediate area. A French naval base was established in the United Arab Emirates (the US already possessed half a dozen military bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar), Saudi Arabia struck a record arms deal (worth $60 billion) with Washington, while hopes of building US bases and establishing a long-term military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan were dashed.
The other approach, in which Paris in particular led the way, was to lure Syria out of its alliance with Iran into the Western camp, using various diplomatic and economic incentives. Removing Syria from the equation, they calculated, would represent a devastating blow to the resistance axis by depriving Iran of its key Arab ally.
And as has been revealed recently by Hezbollah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah, Syria played a critical role in supplying both the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance groups with the kind of weapons (medium-range missiles and armor-piercing rockets) that made all the difference, particularly in the July War. To much of the public’s surprise, these weapons were made or modified in Syria, and Damascus was not merely a transit point as many had thought.
So when the Syrian uprising was in full swing by the spring of 2011, the moderate camp had already crowned itself as the gatekeeper of the Arab revolts. It was up to the likes of Qatar, through al-Jazeera, to decide which were genuine uprisings (Libya, Syria, but not Jordan or Morocco), which were Iranian-hatched sectarian plots (Bahrain), as well as determining solutions to those that needed to be extinguished (Yemen).
Qatar had only recently made amends with Riyadh and settled their long-simmering feud, and the consequent outbreak of mass protests in Bahrain only bound them closer to one another. They were determined to snuff out any sign of rebellion in their immediate neighborhood, while fanning the flames of revolution against their most formidable foe (after Iran, of course) – the Bashar al-Assad regime.
To say that the moderates struck gold with the outbreak of the Syrian uprising would be an understatement – it appears they may have hit the mother lode itself. Virtually every aspect of the Syrian struggle – with the exception of the surprising resilience of the regime – favors their side. The trajectory of events so far has stripped the resistance camp of much of its support and put it on the defensive, having to explain the heavy-handed actions of an unquestionably dictatorial regime.
With or without toppling Assad, the Syrian events have already reconfigured the balance of power between the two sides. It is beyond dispute today, for example, that the resistance axis lost one of its key players in the Palestinian resistance when Hamas’ position switched, while the other side has grown into a far broader, more formidable constellation of forces.
Thanks to the Syrian cataclysm, the moderates have more than compensated for previous setbacks, gaining a mass following and geographic spread from the ranks of the various versions of the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power across the region. Turkey and Qatar have long abandoned any semblance of neutrality in the regional struggle, with both countries today playing a leading role on the front-lines of the Syrian uprising.
The emerging coalition of the “eager-and-willing” is so sweeping that it has reconciled the bitterest of enemies. Hard-line Salafi militants (most notably al-Qaeda) rub shoulders with the likes of the CIA and MI6 in Turkish rebel camps and along the border with Syria. The moderates have even been joined by long-term leftists and anti-imperialists who say they “understand” why the Syrian opposition is calling for foreign military intervention or is willing to accept help from even Israel, given the sheer brutality of the regime.
Most importantly, what has tipped the scales decisively in favor of the moderates is the sectarian turn that the uprising took from its early stages. The Sunni-Shia character of the confrontation in the pre-“Arab Spring” period was magnified a hundred-fold after the Syrian revolt. Partly due to the dominance of the Alawis – a Shia offshoot group – in Syria, the uprising could easily be cast into a struggle by a marginalized and oppressed Sunni majority against a Shia ruling minority.
This fault line at the heart of the Syrian crisis has only deepened and widened as the uprising progressed. Righteous Sunnis across the region were called upon to rally to their Syrian brothers’ cause, lending whatever assistance they can. Sunni solidarity in the face of unjust Alawi rule increasingly became an effective rallying cry to mobilize support for the revolution. It is the ideological glue that today holds such contradictory and disparate forces in the opposition together and the key galvanizing element in the current stage of the Syrian uprising.
This is precisely where the greatest danger lies. Put aside the fact that most of the moderate forces – and even Bashar himself – played with jihadi fire before only to have it blow up in their faces. The problem today is that what was essentially a legitimate struggle over real injustices has been completely derailed and placed on a fratricidal sectarian track. And, as we have seen in Lebanon and then Iraq, once you let the sectarian genie out of the bag, how many years or, better yet, how many generations will it take to put it back again?
Bilal El-Amine is an editor at Al-Akhbar English.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.
The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of this Blog!