Middle East

Syria crisis could change face of the Middle East

Protest in Syrian port city of Banias . 17 April 2011
Image caption Protests against President Assad's rule began in March and have spread to many towns and cities

For decades Syria has been among the most stable countries in the Middle East.

Back in February 1982, a rising of Sunni Muslims in the town of Hama was savagely repressed by the current president's father, Hafez al-Assad. Estimates vary but thousands were killed.

The death toll today after upheavals in a number of Syrian towns and cities is possibly in the low hundreds with many more injured - exact figures are hard to come by - but the regime still shows every bit as much tenacity in facing down its opponents.

Syria is a complex mosaic of communities and President Bashar al-Assad may believe he can use these divisions to maintain his grip on power.

His family and associates have a strong hold over the security forces and the army, so the Egyptian example, where the military turned on the regime, seems unlikely to be repeated in Syria.

Events there are being watched with equal measures of caution and unease both in the Middle East and beyond.

Syria matters in ways that make Libya appear a largely peripheral country. Syria is a key element in an alliance that brings together Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and other more radical Palestinian groups opposed to peace with Israel.

If Syria descends into chaos, this alliance could also be weakened. But the most serious impact might be felt in next-door Lebanon - another country made up of a patchwork of communities which has not enjoyed Syria's long-term stability.

Israeli watching

One way or another, a strong Syria represents a stabilising element in Lebanon. Chaos in one could lead to chaos in the other.

Israel, too, is watching events in its northern neighbour with concern. Syria has long been a predictable enemy. Even a shaken Syrian regime could pose a different kind of problem.

There has long been a military and diplomatic constituency in Israel arguing for a peace deal with Syria ahead of any agreement with the Palestinians.

The stability of the regime in Damascus was always one of the strong cards of this group, the argument being that Syria's rulers were people you could deal with and there would be some certainty that they would be around to honour any agreements.

But now the "Syria first" lobby in Israel may have been dealt a serious blow, as uncertainty surrounds so many of the country's Arab neighbours.

There is a growing sense that the political geography of the region is changing in the wake of the impact of the "Arab spring".

It is early days yet, but divisions in the region which once played to Israel's advantage - like those between Shia Iran and the major pro-Western Sunni states like Egypt - may be becoming less pronounced.

US concern

These changes are being followed closely in Washington as well.

Image caption President Assad has pledged reforms but protesters say they are not enough

The Obama administration has long toyed with the idea of trying to draw Syria's leader "in from the cold". The aim has always been to draw him into the Western camp and encourage him to take his distance from Tehran.

While European countries have made the diplomatic running, with France very much in the lead, a new US ambassador arrived in Damascus in January, the first to be posted there since 2005.

His predecessor was withdrawn after the murder of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Washington suspected a Syrian hand in the assassination.

The Obama administration has strongly condemned the Syrian government's violence against its own citizens but it seems to have sought in vain for any real levers with which to influence the Assad regime.

The Middle East's political map is changing. New forces have been unleashed. But there are also countervailing pressures as well, not least from Saudi Arabia which seems intent on mounting a counter-attack against any shoots of the Arab spring erupting in its neighbourhood.

Where the Middle East is heading is uncertain. Much of the optimism in the wake of the events in Tunisia and Egypt is dissipating. New kinds of authoritarianism may be just as likely as the flowering of democracy. Libya is one test case. But Syria may be much more important as an example for the region as a whole.

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