The “chaos” of the Syrian revolution marks a shift in the balance of power in the Middle East. It is not certain which competing imperial and regional powers will win.But it is clear that the Syrian revolution could end up being the loser.
The Arab revolutions exposed the deep crisis of Western and Russian imperialism in the region. The West lost its “strongmen” allies Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. This came on top of the “Iraqi-Afghan syndrome” and its legacy of defeat and failed occupations.
At stake for Russia is the potential loss of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Syria is Russia’s last ally in the Arab world and home to its only Mediterranean naval base.
The top priority for the US remains what is now termed the “permanent war on terror”. The killing of a US ambassador last September by an Islamist brigade in Benghazi, Libya, was a reminder that the US has many enemies in the Arab world.
As one of Barack Obama’s senior officials told the US Senate recently, this war on terror is “going to go on quite a while, at least ten to 20 years.”
The West wants to tame the Syrian revolution, or at least make it serve Western interests. These interests include extending the war on terror to northern Syria and securing the Golan frontier with Israel.
The US military is keeping a close eye on the Syrian opposition, and wants to entice the rebels to attack their Islamist allies. For this to succeed it needs to manoeuvre the opposition and the regime into a peace deal, the so-called “Geneva Process”.
US secretary of state John Kerry reassured Russia that the Geneva Process will guarantee Russia’s interests in Syria. For his part, Russian foreign minister Sergey V Lavrov announced his country’s willingness to drop Assad.
He told a joint news conference, “I would like to emphasise we do not, we are not interested in the fate of certain persons.”
But Assad’s recent military success, and rebels’ refusal to attack the Islamists, leaves the Geneva Process dead in the water.
Events in Syria are running out of control. In a hard hitting editorial, the Financial Times warned that, “Western policy [in Syria] looks stranded between understandable caution and wilful fecklessness that risks turning it into a failed state overrun by jihadis.”
Turkey, which is fast becoming an economic and political powerhouse in the Middle East, is poised to gain most from this paralysis.
It has reached a peace deal with the Kurdish PKK guerrilla movement in the south east of the country. This removes the last major obstacle to deepening economic ties with the oil-rich Kurdish regions of northern Iraq.
The deal makes safe the Kurdish areas of northern Syria, which are dependent on their brethren across the Turkish and Iraqi borders. Turkey’s support for the uprising, even if limited, leaves it in a strong position.
In contrast, Iran is set to be the biggest loser. It has sacrificed its cherished “crescent of resistance”—that stretched from Tehran to south Lebanon—by defending Assad.
And it has lost the opportunity to break international isolation by fostering closer ties with post-Mubarak Egypt.
Iran itself is entering fractious presidential elections at a time of deepening economic crisis brought on by international sanctions and its own neoliberal policies.
Meanwhile its greatest moral and political asset, the Lebanese resistance party Hizbollah, is in the process of destroying itself. Hizbollah has decided to spearhead the Syrian regime offensive on Qusair, the rebel city near the northern border with Lebanon. It is transforming itself from a resistance organisation into an army of occupation.
The Syrian revolution has few friends. Western powers want to tame it, Russia wants it crushed, and none of them want it to succeed.
But despite recent defeats, it remains resilient. There are few illusions left in Syria. The revolution is learning the bitter lesson that it can only rely on itself.