By Brig Simon S Sharaf
In sequel to my article, Arab Springs of the Southern Front, two events are significant. In both President Morsi of Egypt, an emerging Afro-Arab democracy takes centre stage; someone who seems willing through a calibrated and cautious manner, to take the high moral and democratic pedestal; rather than adopt the vicious realism being propagated by US led allies in the region. In this posturing, he may well have created a hole in the wall that Kofi Annan ran into head on. Will his policy of cautious persuasion deliver remains to be seen.
Earlier, Morsi had showed no haste in the Arab Summit to join the pro US Arab States in condemnation of Syria. But in Tehran, he used a different perspective at the NAM forum to reiterate his commitment to democracy and condemnation of the oppressive Syrian Regime. The intense criticism sparked a Syrian walkout. He was explicit in spelling out that Egypt is more willing to work with functional and representative Muslim democracies rather than states that are autocratic and vassal. He was quick to reassert that the Arab Springs belonged to the people, a veiled declaimer to interference by other states in Syria and West Asia.
A step further, he was the first Egyptian head of State to visit Iran since 1979. He used the occasion to meet the supreme spiritual leader and even visit an Iranian nuclear facility at Bushehr where the wreckage of vehicles in which Iranian scientists were killed lay in state. Despite the warmth and Iranian overtures on nuclear cooperation, resumption of diplomatic ties remains subject to how Iran shows flexibility on issues including Syria.
T apparently independent stance of Egypt seems to create a new template in the region, these events have ensured a respite for Syria in the short term. It has also left USA and its allies in the region guessing what would be Morsi’s next move. For a man who keeps his cards very close to his chest, perhaps the most obvious intent is to create needed space for political settlement of the Syrian Issue. Morsi has kept his options open which means enhancing his diplomatic bargaining position with USA, Arab States, Iran and Israel. Bhadrakumar amply summed up when he wrote that the Arab Spring has borne a strange fruit in Egypt – a pure breed, unlike the hybrids in Tunisia, Libya or Yemen.
Syria is a powder keg that may or may not explode. With a surge of externally supported armed groups, the entire region is restive and the lawlessness could spill and spread. Yet, within the Middle East, its support to Lebanon’s Hezbullah is crucial to checking Israeli influence in the region. When and how the crisis will end is a question that sends shivers in the countries surrounding Syria; mostly US compliant autocracies and Turkey. According to James Traub of Foreign Policy, “The Obama administration has backed itself into a corner in Syria, a crisis with few good options”. The most obvious is a US compliant Syria through an insurrection.
Chinese Foreign Minister Hong Lei has also showed concern on the rising intensity of the conflict in destruction and humanitarian exodus. He has urged all parties to find a common ground through the UN envoy in which violence can be avoided. Within the folds of the UN Resolution on the issue, Kofi Annan’s six point agenda and Action Groups Communiqué on Syria, the new envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has a tight rope to walk. Already, he has declared that he faces the same brick wall that Kofi Annan could not surmount. To him, there is no negotiated settlement in sight.
Tentatively, Turkey floated a proposal for a "safe zone" for refugees. The United Nations Security Council desisted for its potential to become a rebel sanctuary and lack of support from Russia and China. US officials opined that such a zone would warrant neutralising the Syrian Air Defences. Under the prevailing compulsions (Election Year and withdrawal from Afghanistan), USA would rather prefer a slow attrition than be dragged into a full blown conflict. According to Foreign Policy, many in the White House who supported the intervention in Libya oppose a similar action in Syria. They are apprehensive that the escalation may lead to a full-blown civil war and unmanageable spill over. With the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan and containment of Iran in sight, USA may opt to wait out the situation till reaching a fire break point where armed intervention becomes the only instrument to resort. Many detractors of President Obama feel that this laid back approach after igniting a conflict gives initiative to President Bashar al Assad of Syria to raise the ante of a sectarian conflict in the region and therefore suggest a quick rebel victory with US overt backing. Till then it will be the responsibility of Syria’s neighbours to keep the conflict alive and yet manage the effects of spill over while the USA will continue to provide arms, equipment and manpower for the conflict. Either way, the inevitability of a conflagration is as obvious as daylight.
By becoming the host of the NAM Summit, Iran in the short term has succeeded in warding off its diplomatic isolation. At the same time it continues to bolster its weapon delivery systems likely to target areas as far away as Israel. Iran has also cautioned against US Joint Naval and Military exercises in the region scheduled for mid September, by declaring that such aggressive manoeuvres impinge on the security of Iran and political stability in the region; an obvious reference to US military presence in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Simultaneously, Iran does not rule out direct Israeli strikes against its installations, the cost of which will be the use of Iranian force against all US interests in the region.
The stalemate thus created in this jigsaw is going to test many. Arab countries supporting the rebellion will soon be weary of the aftershocks in their own soil. Lebanon where the proxy of the Alawite-Sunni hostilities may intensify will have to pay a price. Turkey with its NATO linkages will have to finally decide which way it would ultimately go. Internally, it will also have to renegotiate with its estranged army to impose a militarily solution to its border with Syria while retaining a friendly balancer with Iran. The whole region will boil.