The Syrian whirlpool

UN human rights investigators confirm outsiders, including jihadis, are present in Syria

On Monday 17 September the United Nations chief investigator for Syria, Paulo Pinheiro, said that “foreign elements”, including fundamentalist fighters, are operating inside the war-torn country. He also accused both sides of carrying out war crimes, although the list of atrocities alleged against the government was longer. Activists estimate that up to 27,000 people have lost their lives in the conflict so far. But what Mr Pinheiro was outlining was official confirmation of what many people have known and even admitted before: that overseas influences are being deployed inside Syria for outside political and religious objectives.

On Sunday 16 September General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, confirmed that members of its special forces are in Lebanon and Syria providing “counsel and advice”. However, the commander denied that the existence of the commandoes meant that Tehran had a ‘military presence’ in either country. On Tuesday 18 September Egypt hosted Iran as part of a get-together of the ‘Islamic Quartet’, which also includes Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Cairo warned Tehran that the two countries’ relations are going to continue to stumble along unless the latter changes its stance on the situation in Syria.

It has long been understood that Iran has been worried that the Syrian civil war is having a negative effect on its alliances in the area. The government of Bashar al-Assad, which has been responsible for the worst bloody episodes of the conflict so far, has been one of Iran’s friends for a long time. The admission that the elite Iranian Quds Forces are also out and about in Lebanon is not a great surprise either, seeing as Hezbollah are based in that country.

All three parties – the Iranian state, the Hezbollah movement and the Syrian leadership – are linked by the Shia branch of Islam. They all have a mutual aim and a clear desire (as any political entity anywhere in the world would have) to continue to exist and to exert power where they can. At the moment, the civil war in Syria is stirring up all sorts of regional power and influence struggles and the Islamic religious dividing lines are one of the most obvious battle areas.

Saudi Arabia, the massive Sunni Muslim strongman, is none too happy about Iran getting involved and Riyadh is licking its lips at the prospect of kicking out the Assad Alawites (an offshoot is Shia Islam) and installing a new Sunni government in Damascus. Saudi Arabia has been flexing its muscles by arming the rebel fighters in Syria and while it is undeniable that the regime has acted in an unjustifiable manner in suppressing opposition to its rule in such a brutal way, you cannot simply characterise the rowdy rebels as ‘the good guys’ and thus, by default, laud Saudi Arabia for its actions. Paulo Pinheiro’s words on Monday condemning the violence from either side prove this.

The sheer abundance and complexities of the ethnic links, political unions, religious divides and linguistic differences in the Middle East illustrate how the situation in Syria is much more of a dizzying whirlpool than the less intricate conflict in Libya last year.

Here is a basic outline of which country thinks what and why they have made made the Syrian civil war so regionally significant:

Syria: 74% Sunni Muslim; 16% Shia, Alawite, Druze Islam; 10% Christianity (via CIA World Factbook – as are all religious percentages below). Kurdish community in north-east. Friends with Iran and Hezbollah. Loosely tied to Russia.

Turkey: 99% Muslim (mostly Sunni). Western-allied. Member of NATO. Wants Assad regime out. Has taken in up to 60,00 Syrian refugees, according to the UN. Large Kurdish community in north with which it is conducting an internecine war.

Iran: The major Shia powerhouse. 89% Shia Muslim; 9% Sunni Muslim. Friends with Syrian government and Hezbollah. Distrusts Saudi Arabia. Detests Israel and the West. Large Kurdish community in north. Quds special forces active in Syria and Lebanon.

Iraq: 60-65% Shia Muslim; 32-37% Sunni Muslim. Large Kurdish community in north. Fighting ongoing insurgency since end of war in 2009.

Qatar: Majority Sunni Muslim. Active in both Syria and Libya in arming the rebel fighters.

Saudi Arabia: The major Sunni powerhouse. Active in Syria in arming the rebel fighters.

Jordan: 92% Sunni Muslim. Expanding Zaatari refugee camp in north of country to allow it handle up to 80,000 refugees from Syria. Has welcomed Syrian fighter pilots and politicians defecting from regime.

Egypt: 90% mostly Sunni Muslim; 10% mostly Coptic Christians. Supports uprising against regime.

Israel: 76% Jewish; 17% Muslim. Friends with the West. Detests Iran and is highly suspicious of its nuclear programme.

Palestinian Territories: Mostly Muslim and at centre of Middle East peace process over territorial disputes with Israel.

Lebanon: 60% Muslim; 40% Christian. Hezbollah group is Shia Muslim and supports Assad regime and Iran. More than 60,000 Syrian refugees are in the country. Nation not wholly in favour of one particular side or grouping in the conflict. Risk of sectarian strife spilling over from Syria.

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Shifting sands

On May 23 and 24 Egyptians will vote in the first round of the first presidential election since the fall of Hosni Mubarak

After growing unrest and anxiety over the military generals that have been governing the country since the overthrow of Mubarak’s regime last February, the public are finally getting their say. The parliamentary elections were welcomed and did not throw up many surprises, with the Islamists landing the most seats through the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. But it is the chance to elect the figurehead to lead the country away from dictatorship and military governance which has created the most excitement.

The first ever televised presidential debate took place last night, on 10 May, between the two front-runners of the 13-strong field of candidates. Neither ex-Foreign Minister Amr Moussa nor former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Abul-Futoh have clean copybooks and their battle once more draws a long, deep line in the sand in between the two men over the issue of religion: the open liberalism of Moussa against the moderate Islam of Abdul-Futoh. With parties of all colours represented in parliament, from hardline Salafis to hardline secularists to the young revolutionaries who powered the upheavals last year, it is unsurprising that there is such a long list of possible presidents to lead a free nation for the first time. However, in any race for the hot-seat in any country there is always a short-list and a couple of favourites, it is just a further source of division that the top two for the new Egypt have plenty of baggage between them.

The country that one of them will be heading is an important place. As the most populous member of the Arab world and one of the largest in Africa, with more than 81m citizens, by size alone Egypt is a key state. But economically it is significant as well. It has been categorised as one of the crucial emerging economies on the CIVETS list, alongside Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Turkey and South Africa. This move has also been criticised, particularly seeing as economic growth has stalled in recent years. In 2009, GDP output was 4.6% but by last year, the revolutionary turmoil had taken its toll and the figures plummeted to 1%. Saudi Arabia has just approved a $2bn loan to help Cairo through this tricky period. Estimates for future Egyptian GDP growth are looking a bit brighter but do vary wildly:  forecasts for the 2012-13 financial period range from 1.6% to 3.5%. It is clear that the huge national changes that have taken place have wounded the country’s economy, mainly through scaring investors and foreign tourists. But they have been national changes which will hopefully free the nation.

The main geopolitical aspect to Egypt used to be its relations with Israel. Cairo not just recognised the Jewish nation but maintained a long-standing peace accord with its neighbour. However, in the debate last night, both candidates supported revision of the international deal, and Abdul-Futoh went as far as calling Israel an “enemy”. Egypt has an important trans-continental and regional role to uphold, being a bridge state between Africa-Asia, the Maghreb-Mediterranean, Arab-Israeli relations and Northern Africa-Central Africa. Egypt is also somewhere with major internal religious differences, as more than half of the world’s 18 million Coptic Christians live in the country. And Cairo’s Tahrir Square has become an unofficial focus point for the Arab unrest. It is a country on the move, but with an uncertain destination and with many uncertainties within. The next two weeks of campaigning to elect a fair driver to carry on the revolution are going to be as heated as the upheaval itself.

Bittersweet Turkish foreign delight

Turkey is pursuing a wide-ranging and refreshed foreign policy

Turkey has slow-burning plans to join the EU at some point but there is one major bump on that road. Last week Cyprus began offshore drilling for possible oil and natural gas resources. Turkey immediately warned it had warships at the ready to protect its own deep-sea claims. It maintains a military presence in the mini-state of Northern Cyprus, the Turkish Cypriot north-eastern end of the island, a territory that is only recognised by Turkey. The Cyprus issue of greatest concern to the EU. The union has recognised and admitted the island nation on the basis that the only legitimate governing authority on in Nicosia is the Greek Cypriot one.

The Mediterranean is choppy in other areas as well at the moment for Ankara. Diplomatic relations with once-friend Israel have dropped to new lows. The Turkish public is still fuming over the deaths of nine activists killed on 31 May after Israeli commandos intercepted an aid convoy heading towards Gaza. The massive ruptures in relations since over Turkish demands and Israeli refusals to apologise for the incident have done serious damage.

Despite a slow start, Turkey has been an intelligent local voice on the Arab Spring. Ankara hosted meetings of the Libya Contact Group to facilitate international financial and diplomatic support for the National Transitional Council. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been calmly but incessantly turning up the temperature on the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Last weekend Mr Erdogan said a Syrian-flagged ship had been seized by his forces and he said Turkey will intercept any arms shipments headed to his violent neighbour.

Last month, Ahmet Davutoglu, the busy Turkish Foreign Minister, travelled to the former ally and let Damascus know that Turkey had “run out of patience” with the regime over its the brutal crackdowns on protesters. Syria is out in the cold and so is Israel. Into their place has stepped the new Egypt, another previously staunch Semite.

The hugely successful administration of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has prided itself on moderation and mediation but also, critically, playing a strong hand when faced with a challenge. Mr Erdogan’s response to Kurdish uprisings is one example. However, relations with the Arab world have never been better. The EU issue has been a path to tread carefully but for now Turkey certainly views the tumultuous Middle East as a renovated region of which it can become political master, using its democratic model, bubbling economy and geographic and cultural Europe-Asia bridge history as a springboard for greater standing in the world.

Waiting game

On the regional diplomatic front-line against the Syrian violence, more might be expected from Lebanon

It is a fractious neighbourhood. The repressive Assad regime in Syria is surrounded by Iraq (still rocking with violence of its own), Iran (currently quietly watching events from the corner), Israel (dealing with its own Spanish indignado-style protests at the moment), Jordan (where King Abdullah has spoken recently to reassure the people of reforms), Turkey (starting to get restless with Syria and now using its megaphone to condemn Bashar al Assad) and Lebanon (a successful democracy, sitting between West and the Middle East).

However, Beirut is failing to use its geopolitical location and the fact that it has a seat on the UN Security Council at the moment to be able to lead the pack on Syrian policy. When the condemnatory statement was on the table in New York, Lebanon lifted its pen and passed it on. Discussing his country’s refusal to sign, Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour was quoted as saying that:

“The decision reflected Lebanon’s clear convictions. This position sought the higher interests of Lebanon and the entire region, including Syria.”

It is true that a resolution would have been a more defiant outcome and the European-led statement was weak. But that is not a reason not to express support for a small step on the road to reform, sanctions or intervention. This last option is the most worrying and the one that scares Russia and China the most at the moment. But Lebanon does not have to call for a Libyan-style military move.

The violence has escalated in recent days to the shelling of the port of Latakia from the sea by the Syrian navy. A simple denunciation would carry weight, as Lebanon is the only Middle Eastern and major Muslim nation on the present Council (although Gabon and Nigeria have sizeable Islamic populations as well).

But Lebanon has some tricky politics. Hezbollah, the militant Shia Muslim group, supports the Assad regime. Saad Hariri, the former prime minister, looks more to the West. With politics opening up across the region, Hezbollah ought to pause and consider the fallout if it were to continue to support a regime that was to be thrown out and whose members, like Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president, ended up in caged docks in front of a condemnatory public. Hezbollah has links to Iran and it is hard for them to think purely within national borders, such are the complexities of the regional patronages and ties.

If it were to do so, it may see the reformist agenda led by Hariri and also the tide of condemnation growing in regional big beasts like Turkey. Lebanon is swimming against the flow at the moment and it would be better at least to turn to face the shore, rather than the swelling, international, condemnatory white rollers brewing out at sea.