Ky. Voices: What happens in Syria could shape region, U.S. alliances

Robert Olson of Lexington is a Middle East analyst who has written several books about the region.
Robert Olson of Lexington is a Middle East analyst who has written several books about the region.

The next several months will determine whether the authoritarian Bashar al-Asad regime in Syria will be able to withstand the growing number of countries arrayed against it.

On Feb. 24, some 50 countries, notably minus Russia and China, calling themselves the "Friends of Syria," gathered in Tunis calling for more forceful intervention in response to the bloodshed occurring.

Saudi Arabia Foreign Minister Saud al-Feisal, the main advocate of Asad's overthrow and the main United States ally in the Middle East, along with Israel and Turkey, called for armed intervention. Qatar Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani lobbied for an Arab force to be created to impose peace and open humanitarian corridors to the resisting forces and population.

But two days later, in a rebuff to the "Friends," the Asad government went ahead with an election for a new constitution; one supposed to redress many of the grievances of the regime's opponents and other Syrians as well.

Indeed, the election for a new constitution was passed with a favorable vote, whether rigged or not, of 89.4 percent and new parliamentary elections are to be held within 90 days.

The Asad regime's electoral maneuvers mean that if the "Friends of Syria," armed principally by the U.S., the European Union, Gulf Arabs and Turkey, decide to strike before parliamentary elections, the invasion will take on a preemptive character.

If this were to occur, certainly, Russia and China, two of most powerful countries with stakes in the Middle East, will be unhappy and may well make other challenges to the U.S. and Europe in other places in the Middle East and elsewhere, i.e. Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There is no question that the momentum for stronger intervention in Syria occurred at the same time as the unfolding of the Arab revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen.

The main reason for this is that if the U.S., Israel, EU and Gulf Arab states, mainly Saudi Arabia, determined that if military action against Iran were to be necessary, either before or after the U.S. presidential election, it would be desirable if the Asad regime were no longer in power replaced by a Sunni-led government.

This scenario could take place whether or not Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency came to an agreement regarding the status of Iran's nuclear programs.

The escalation of activities, both overt and covert, against Syria became more forceful after March, 2011 along with the unfolding of other Arab revolutions and resistance. But, unlike the other Arab revolutions, the actions, especially those by the U.S., EU and Turkey after June 2011, were meant to facilitate regime change in Iran. For one thing, all of the Republican presidential candidates, with the exception of Ron Paul, repeatedly call for the overthrow of the Iran regime and even the destruction of much of Iran's infrastructure. The Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are also eager to get rid of the Asad regime before any Israel/U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear sites and infrastructure.

There are several reasons for this: The Shi'a, Alawite Asad regime in Syria is a strong ally of Iran's and has been since 1975, and by getting rid of the Asad regime and bringing a predominately Sunni (70 to 75 percent of the population in Syria is Sunni) regime to power in Syria, the Gulf Arabs and Turkey, also a predominately Sunni country (80 percent), would be able to better manage any political challenges from the Shi'a populations in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis and Gulf Arabs hope that by toppling the Asad regime they will be better able to overthrow the Shi'a-dominated government of Lebanon, whose current prime minister, Najib Mikati, although a Sunni, is tolerant toward Hezbollah and Shi'a parliamentarians.

The Saudis favor his Sunni opposition. Mikati is disliked by Israel, the U.S. and Gulf Arabs for this reason; but must take into consideration that 38-40 percent of Lebanon's population is Shi'a.

In mid-February, Khaled Meshal, the longtime leader of Hamas in exile in Damascus, announced that the headquarters of Hamas in Damascus would be closed and moved to Qatar.

This was yet another indication that Palestinian leaders in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Gazza, are also concerned that the "Friends of Syria" would be staging expanding attacks in Syria. The Palestinians already were aware that the Friends of Syria were the enemies of Iran.