Are some revolutions more important than others? Obviously not for the inhabitants of the country involved, but in strategic terms it is true that some political overhauls have wider consequences than others. The events in the Middle East — this Arab spring’s contagious conflagaration of conflict — is a defining moment for our generation, and given the region’s strategic importance in hydrocarbon provision and Islamism its effects will be felt globally for far longer than any of the revolutions themselves.
This doesn’t necessarily explain why NATO is militarily involved in Libya and not other countries where the Arab spring is having an effect. Conspiracy theorists point to Libya’s oil as a reason for the operations, but this seems slightly disingenuous. Egypt and Bahrain are no less important than Libya given the Suez canal and proximity to eastern Saudi oil, and there wasn’t even a sniff of a NATO land-attack cruise missile around Tahrir Square or Pearl roundabout. Besides, Libya was already supplying Europe with oil, so it doesn’t make sense to remove a regime willing to supply this oil for an unknown quantity.
For the Libyan operations, it does seem that humanitarian concerns about a massacre in Benghazi were powerful motivators, combined with a desire to rid North Africa of one of the most unusual dictators in the world, encourage democracy on Europe’s perimeter and expunge memories of French unwillingness to aid in Tunisia to bolster Sarko’s domestic political credentials.
Why, then, is NATO not involved in Syria? The same principles are at play there (although it seems to be too late to prevent a massacre in Jisr al-Shughour). But the simple answer is that NATO doesn’t have the capabilities to launch another operation. With the US tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan, European states uncomfortable with intervention and Anglo-French forces already strained by the Libya commitment, another large operation is unthinkable.
This isn’t to say that Syria is less important than other events in the Middle East. Quite the contrary: beyond Egypt, Syria is perhaps the most strategic state to be threatened by revolution thus far.
Its relevance lies in its location. Lying between to the east of Lebanon and Israel, Syria has been involved in both the Palestinian and Lebanese conflicts for years. It backed the foundation of the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (which reminds us of this) and hosts more than 100,000 Palestinian refugees in UNRWA camps (with some of these refugees recently causing a bit of a ruckus on the Israeli border, allegedly with Syrian support). Damascus also acts as a conduit for Iranian arms and supplies to Hizbullah and has done so for years. Given its tetchy relationship with Israel, there is a clear benefit to Damascus in continuing to keep Israeli forces and intelligence assets focused on southern Lebanon and Palestinian territories rather than Syria.
Damascus is also closely tied to Iran. Indeed, it is Iran’s only significant Arab ally. If the US, EU Three and Israel are eager to isolate Tehran entirely in the Arab world, levering Syria away would be a key aspect of that policy. This might help explain the (failed) attempt to resolve the Golan Heights issue through clandestine peace talks in the mid-2000s.
It is also crucial to the non-proliferation regime. Not only does Syria retain a chemical weapons stockpile and manufacturing base, but in September 2007 Israel claimed to have destroyed a plutonium production reactor, a fact the International Atomic Energy Agency recently endorsed. Likely built with North Korean assistance, given similarities to the Yongbyon reactor, Syria’s Al Kibar facility was only really useful for nuclear weapons development rather than for power generation.
Finally, Syria is critical to the Kurdish question. Perhaps up to 10 per cent of the country’s population is Kurdish, and although there have been governmental overtures to the Kurdish opposition during this crisis, they still face exclusion, discrimination and a lack of political representation. If Syria were to attempt co-option of the Kurds by granting them more rights and freedom, it could impact upon the Kurdish political ambitions in Turkey and Iran, particularly given the relative autonomy for the Kurds in Iraq.
Thus were revolution to succeed here, it would impact upon the Israel-Palestine question, Hizbullah, Iran’s diplomatic position, nuclear non-proliferation and Kurdish political self-determination. George W Bush knew this and expressed it in his own way. If we were sitting in a Western government, we would be doing all we could to encourage a transition to a more amenable government in Syria.
It does feel like the Assad regime now faces building momentum and, if military defections continue, perhaps an unstoppable revolution. It is ironic that Syria’s Baathist party, which has made much of its Arab nationalist policies to justify its shaky legitimacy (the Assad family are Alawites ruling a majority Sunni state), only to suppress Arab opinion so heavily in the current unrest. Unfortunately, given a history of successful suppressions of armed uprisings, it’s not yet certain that the current unrest will translate into anything more than mass graves.