Syrian revolt faces secular opposition

Armed Islamist insurgents 'hijacking' uprising

By John R Bradley, December 1, 2011
A pro-regime protester flashes a victory sign during a rally against Arab League sanctions in Damascus this week

A pro-regime protester flashes a victory sign during a rally against Arab League sanctions in Damascus this week

The over-excited response by world leaders to last week's decision by the Arab League to impose economic sanctions on Syria was as predictable as Syria's swift dismissal of what it claimed was an act of misguided and unwarranted interference in its internal affairs by regional powers merely furthering their own geopolitical interests.

French foreign minister Alain Juppé and Israeli vice-prime minister Moshe Yaalon simultaneously issued identical statements saying that President Bashar Al-Assad's days were now numbered. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who on Wednesday announced unilateral sanctions against Syria, said precisely the same thing, with the explanation that no regime can stay in power "indefinitely" through military force.

On sober reflection, Erdogan's elaboration was, perhaps unwittingly, the most relevant. However it perpetuates its rule, no regime or, for that matter, democratically elected political party, can stay in power "indefinitely."

But when it comes to the Assad regime, greatly exaggerated reports of its imminent demise have been a steady staple of the Western media for nine months and counting.

The truth is that, in and of themselves, economic sanctions by the Arab League will make no difference to Assad's chances of survival in the medium term, which are far higher than most Western commentators believe. Such sanctions tend to hurt most, slowly and cruelly, a country's middle class, as the examples of Iraq and Iran clearly illustrate.

If a popular uprising against Assad had ever been on the cards, it would have already happened. In fact, all the evidence suggests that he still enjoys massive support among the mostly secular Syrian population, who rightly fear that the only alternative to their long-faced president is an extraordinarily vicious and prolonged civil war.

The more important question, then, is whether the Arab League's move represents the opening salvo in a planned further escalation by Syria's enemies, seemingly more hell-bent on regime change than are the majority of the Syrian people.

The Arab League, we should remember, is little more than a tool of the Saudi royal family, Persian Gulf allies and, by extension, of Saudi-aligned Washington.

Credible reports suggest that armed Islamist insurgents in Syria, who have all but hijacked the uprising, are being funded and armed by Persian Gulf states via Turkey and Lebanon, as their arch-rival Iran continues to do its best to prop up its only remaining Arab ally.

With Russia and China blocking attempts by the UN and Nato to further isolate Syria, the West and its regional allies Saudi Arabia and Turkey appear determined to orchestrate an armed revolutionary uprising, with the Arab League sanctions aimed at deepening the divide between Assad and his people.

If that comes to pass, Assad and his military backers will fight to the death, and the resulting civil war in religiously and ethnically complex Syria would make the Libyan revolution look like a high-school prom.

But with the same eventual outcome: the triumph of Wahhabi-funded and controlled Islamist militias. Israel's vice prime minister should be careful what he wishes for.

John R Bradley is the author of 'After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts' (Palgrave Macmillan)

Last updated: 12:10pm, December 1 2011