North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Iranian-Syrian-Lebanon arc

As Syrian violence enters its third month and headlines repeatedly track the government assault on its citizens, it is worthwhile to step back and see the larger connections in the region. Originally one of just many Arab governments confronted with protests for political reform in January this year, a more somber outcome for Syria than simple reform is starting to emerge.

Syrian refugee camps hastily erected in Turkey, now holding 9,000 people who have fled their own nation

The Tunisian and Egyptian protests followed by the toppling of its leaders were quickly dubbed "the Arab spring" by many in the West, hoping for similar democratic revolutions that swept across Eastern Europe in 1989-1990 and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union. (The term may actually refer to the “Prague Spring” of 1968 when Czechoslovakia enjoyed an 8-month liberalization of government during the Cold War..).

While laudable for a new vision, and reforms are certainly needed in the autocratic regimes throughout the Arab world, let's remember that the Czech leader Alexander Dubcek's thaw in governance was crushed by Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks in '68.

The original 1968 Prague Spring comes to a sudden end

And now in Syria, its own tanks are sweeping through northern villages with special vengeance. New unrest is reported in towns to the east, and observers believe this is the most serious threat to the Assad family's power in 40 years. Even today, Friday the day of prayer, reports are coming in that once again, protesters are in the streets...

But the resources Syria (ie. Assad and his family) has at its disposal are far from merely its own. Reports are surfacing that the Hezbollah forces in Lebanon are assisting Assad's own minority Alewite tribe, and in turn both are being bolstered by Iranian resources. It is this "arc" of power that is emerging - taking advantage of protests meant for reform - to ferret out nests of resistance and building a stronger alliance than ever before.

At the two ends, Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah and Iran's Shiite regime have long had as one unifying goal, to cleanse the region of the "occupying force" Israel. Bashir Assad, nominally a Sunni, has come under such pressure that he has taken hold of allies wherever they could be found, and of course Syria too has long been a bitter enemy of Israel.

Note in this arc of Iran-Syria-Lebanon, that Iraq is a missing piece of the puzzle. The US and many elements in Iraq are well aware of the Iranian threat to the nation's new democracy

Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq, and his Mehdi army openly advocates for an anti-western Iranian-led alliance

Standing uneasily against this arc?

Turkey has done an abrupt about face regarding Syria. Eight months ago, its Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was calling Bashir Assad "a good friend of mine," and Turkey was building closer ties with its neighbor. However, in a recent statement regarding Syria and refugees fleeing to Turkey, Erdoğan called Syria's actions inhumane, saying the “savagery cannot be digested." He personally attacked Assad's younger brother, Maher Assad, who is leading a crack Syrian division in the brutal clampdown on the northwest town of Jisr al-Shughour.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan denouncing Syria's "savagery."

Turkey has long had a goal of membership in the European Union and is already a NATO member. Rebuffed for decades by a few EU members, it was casting for a more independent role, including distancing itself from Israel, and looking more to a position as a leading Middle East power. Now it is confronted with a tougher set of decisions. The first of these may be soon. Based on Turkey's previous support for a "freedom flotilla" attempting to deliver supplies to Gaza while confronting Israel, another such flotilla of ships to bring supplies to Gaza planned for this summer may be fraught with larger implications. In light of the trouble on Syria's border, Turkey may now have second thoughts, and just today, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), the Turkish Islamic charity organization which had provided a ship during the last attempt, pulled out of the planned event. Was there "a word" quietly given by the Turkish government?

Another complication in the area is the longstanding Kurdish ethnic population, with sizable numbers in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. In Turkey's recent elections, soundly won by Erdoğan's party, the second largest winner was the strong showing by Kurdish delegates. A total of 36 candidates backed by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party won seats, a gain of 16 from the previous election. Among them was Leyla Zana, a former lawmaker who spent 10 years in prison on charges of links to Kurdish rebels that she always denied. In 1991, Zana also caused an uproar for speaking Kurdish while taking the oath of office, in defiance of rules against use of the language in official settings.

Leyla Zana was once jailed by Turkey's government, and is treated as a legend in the Southeast of the country. She will now be back in Turkey's parliament, pushing for further moderate and secular positions, as well as acceptance of her ethnic Kurds

Click on image for larger picture
Kurds make up 20% of Turkey's population, 15-23% of Iraq, and 6-9% of both Iran and Syria

Lebanon's ominous turn

Lebanon's part in this emerging alliance was exposed when Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced a new cabinet after a five-month delay from the date of the country's most recent elections. This week he inflamed passions by announcing a new government heavily dominated by the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah and its allies. One newspaper account had analysts describing the new Cabinet as a relic from the past, when Syria thoroughly dominated politics in Lebanon, and said it bode ill for Lebanese democracy at a time of uprisings across the Arab world.

U.S. officials quickly warned Mr. Mikati that Lebanon may lose $100 million a year in military aid if its new government moves too far into the orbit of Syria and its primary strategic partner, Iran. Hezbollah's Al Manar television quoted Syrian President Bashar Assad as congratulating Lebanese President Michel Suleiman (whose post is largely ceremonial under Lebanon's political system). Opposition lawmaker Nadim Gemayel dismissed the government as "Hezbollah's and Syria's Cabinet," according to Lebanon's official National News Agency.

So, a stage is being set. Where "Arab Spring" toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt, the new governments are yet to frame themselves. Libya is in a civil war with NATO having joined against Gadaffi; Yemen faces a power vacuum with its President Saleh in Saudi Arabia for treatment. His absence leaves government forces, tribal groups and Al-Qaeda all jostling for advantage. In Syria, a new alliance is being forged that distinctly does not look like a step forward.


Sarah said...

Did not know that about the Prague spring and subsequent crush...

I keep wondering about the lack of response to Syria vs. Lybia... Does it really all come down to oil?? Surely not!

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