ROVING EYE The Syrian
chessboard By Pepe Escobar
To follow Pepe's articles on the Great
Arab Revolt, please click here.
Ironies in the Middle East come bathed in
arsenic; the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria lifts
a state of emergency in effect for 48 years just
when Syria is in a real state of emergency. And
then a regime newspaper, Tishrin, states "the most
sublime form of freedom is the security of the
To "secure the homeland" of
Assad's regime - a family-business-military
oligarchy - de facto invaded the city of Daraa
with columns of tanks. Assad had made a few
concessions to calm the Syrian protests. It didn't
work. Thus the regime decided to try
to emulate the success of the
House of Saud in establishing "democracy" in
When in doubt, clone the
Pentagon; the assault on Dara is Syria's version
of shock and awe. The problem is the regime may
have created the conditions for a long, bloody
Iraq-style civil war. And that's why all major
players - regional and across the West - are
running for cover.
What you see is not
what you get The crucial question in Syria
- and not even the venerable stones of the Umayyad
mosque in Damascus can provide a definite answer -
is what's really in the hearts and minds of most
The Syrian opposition is not
cohesive or organized. In many aspects - as in
Egypt - this may be a revolution of the poor. The
Assad regime abolished fuel subsidies and let
prices follow the free market; the price of diesel
fuel tripled; the price of basic foodstuffs also
went up; there was a drought; and the explosion in
global food prices compounded popular misery.
The legitimate grievances of Syrians
include a lot of rage directed towards an
intolerably harsh police state; the decades-long
Ba'ath party dictatorship; the excesses of a very
small business elite contrasted with very high
unemployment among the youth - all that with the
middle classes and the poor fighting to survive
low wages and high inflation.
If there's a
popular revolution in Syria, the new political
power players would be the rural poor - in
contrast with the small Sunni business elite and
the Alawite-controlled police state.
means that the opposition's number one task for
now is to seduce the middle and the upper middle
classes in major cities, especially Damascus and
Aleppo. But even if the protests in Syria do not
reach Egypt's Tahrir Square proportions, they
could slowly bleed the regime to death by
paralyzing the economy.
drive in Syria seems to be much more hardcore than
among the "Green" movement in Iran. Syrian
protesters don't want a Ba'ath regime reform -
which they consider out of the question anyway;
they want regime change, the only way to bring
down the Alawite-controlled security state and its
key insider trading/corruption component.
Some protesters are pacifists. Some are
already resorting to improvised light weapons.
Confronted with ruthless, armed state repression,
there seems to be only one way out: armed
Truckloads of weapons smuggled
from Iraq have already been intercepted by the
regime. Wealthy Sunni donors in the Gulf are bound
to come up with financial support. And, crucially,
the weaponizing necessarily will be Muslim
Brotherhood-related - because regional governments
such as Turkey and Lebanon don't want to see the
fall of the regime. They see the ensuing chaos
privileging only the Muslim Brotherhood and even
more jihadi sects.
And forget about R2P
("responsibility to protect") leading to a United
Nations resolution and a no-fly zone over Syria.
Besides, unlike Libya, Syria has no oil and no
lavishly endowed sovereign fund.
the Saudis The al-Khalifa Sunni dynasty in
majority-Shi'ite Bahrain has blamed the
pro-democracy protests in the Gulf island as an
Iranian conspiracy. The Assad regime also blamed
an external (and "known") conspiracy - but refused
to name names. As much as Bashar al-Assad does not
want to antagonize Saudi Arabia, the fact is the
House of Saud is deeply involved in the
destabilization of Syria, supporting Salafi
Daraa is 120 kilometers south of
Damascus, near the Jordanian border, in a
sensitive security zone. It's a dreary,
impoverished backwater. Not by accident Daraa is
the birthplace of the Jordan chapter of the Muslim
Saudi Wahhabis, very
influential over Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, have
been instrumental in inciting the people of Daraa
as well as Homs. Their grievances - the long
drought, total neglect from Damascus - may be
justified. But most of all they have been
Years ago, the
House of Saud paid US$30 million to "get" former
Syrian vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam. It
helped that Khaddam is a relative of Saudi King
Abdullah and former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri.
He went into exile in France in 2005. Saudi Arabia
has been using him and exiled leaders of the
Muslim Brotherhood against the Assad regime for
quite a while. Khaddam carries a Saudi passport.
His sons, Jamal and Jihad, have invested over $3
billion in Saudi Arabia.
The House of Saud
agenda is essentially to split the
Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah alliance - and thus
progressively debilitate Hezbollah's resistance to
US/Israel. Thus, in Syria, we find the US, Israel,
Jordan and Saudi Arabia once again sharing the
same agenda. The stakes are extremely high. What
you see is not necessarily what you get.
There is, apart from all these foreign
interests, a legitimate, popular protest movement
in Syria. The Communist Action Party, for instance
- which opposed the regime for decades - has been
very forceful among the opposition. The leftist
component of the opposition, in fact, is wondering
whether the Salafis are a minority or a majority.
The ultra- sectarian agenda of many protesters is
not an encouraging sign.
And the road
ahead may be very bumpy; the progressive, secular
current in the opposition - let's say, for the
moment, a minority - may even be trapped in an
Iran 1979-1981 scenario, as they may end up being
crushed by the fundamentalists if the regime
It's easy to understand how
progressives squirm when they see themselves
aligned with the Medieval House of Saud - which
unleashed the counter-revolution against the great
2011 Arab revolt - in a drive to bring down the
Assad regime. Progressives also have reasons to
squirm when they see themselves aligned with
Israel - who gives the impression of wanting Assad
to remain in power because the alternative is the
In this aspect, the
Saudi-Israeli alliance may agree on the
counter-revolution as applied to Bahrain and
Libya, but not when it comes to Syria.
Hezbollah TV in Lebanon is spinning that
the Syrian protests are part of an "American
revolution". That may be so in part - as
Washington has been investing in counter-regime
types for decades. But as it stands, this is more
like a House of Saud operation mixed with genuine
rage against decades of Ba'athist police state.
For his part, King Abdullah of Jordan, in
trying to debunk the Assad line, quoting Assad's
"it's either me or the Muslim Brotherhood", he is
predictably spinning this is all about containing
Iran. Abdullah is inviting Arabs and Westerners to
place their bets on a coalition of Kurds, Druze,
Sunni tribes and the Sunni urban middle class
(which is allied to the Saudis) as the post-Assad
regime in Syria.
An Egyptian loss is a
Syrian gain A Syrian paper offers a very
interesting take (see here).
What the regime defines as a "conspiracy" against
Syria would be a US plan to compensate for the
"loss" of Egypt - and this while in Saudi Arabia
and Bahrain "appeals to reform are ignored" and
the repression is carried on "under silence".
The objectives would be to plunge Syria
into chaos; slide it towards Saudi influence;
reduce Iran's influence in the overall
Arab-Israeli conflict; and torpedo the
This makes perfect
sense. The Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis is the
only counterpunch in the Middle East against
US/Israeli hegemony. A fragile Damascus weakens
both Tehran and Hezbollah. It's not an accident
that in Lebanon, former prime minister Saad Hariri
- a Sunni, and basically a House of Saud lackey -
has been amplifying his sectarian rhetoric.
Syrian Sunnis, as much as Saudi Wahhabis,
deeply resent the Alawite sect - an offshoot of
Shi'ism - controlling a great deal of the wealth
of the country while representing only 12% of the
population. It's no wonder the House of Saud and
the Muslim Brotherhood - rabidly anti-Shi'ite -
have been trying for decades to get rid of the
Alawite-controlled Syrian regime.
Ankara-Damascus alliance - which progressed as
much as the Turkey-Israel entente regressed - is
also in danger. Turkish Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet
Davutoglu have been very busy building up Turkey,
Syria, Lebanon and Jordan as an economic bloc,
fueled by a lot of Turkish investment and
high-tech. No one knows what could happen with
regime change in Damascus.
on all fronts - from Iran to Iraq, from Turkey to
Lebanon, from Palestine to Israel. But what the
House of Saud intervention in Syria is inciting,
above all, is tremendously destructive; a
bloodthirsty sectarian epidemic spreading all
across the Middle East (it started in Bahrain).
Washington would love a Syrian
destabilization if it led to US/Israel restoring
their regional hegemony, seriously threatened by
the emergence of a new Egypt. But forget about the
West dreaming of "democracy" in Syria. If history
would pull a magic trick - like in Bashar al-Assad
offering to sign a peace treaty with Israel next
week - the US, the French and the British would
not care if the regime shocked and awed whole
Syrian towns and cities to the ground.
it's up to Syrian progressives now to get their
act together and prove Bashar al-Assad wrong.
Because if it's not him, it will indeed be a
horrendously regressive, House of Saud-supported
Salafi new master.