Allan Massie: Syria remains mired in conflict as Egypt evolves

IT IS no surprise Arab uprisings have resulted in disappointment, and now the outcomes of two power struggles could prove very different, writes Allan Massie

The optimism generated by the enthusiastic and idealistic young people who thronged Tahrir Square almost a year and a half ago has dimmed. Admittedly Mubarak has gone, and been sentenced to life imprisonment, but the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) in Egypt has not relaxed its grip. It has announced its intention of shaping the new constitution, supervising the elected president and controlling legislation.

The Supreme Constitutional Court, obedient to Scaf, has dissolved the parliament, and declared the elections to it flawed. The Presidential election itself resulted in a run-off between Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister. Final results will not be known until later this week, probably on Thursday; meanwhile both sides are claiming victory, the Brotherhood perhaps more convincingly. Either way this is not what the students and their supporters hoped for. Liberal democracy is a long way off; you might say it has taken a beating.

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How did it come to this? Both candidates promised “stability and security”. So does the Army Council. A majority of Egyptians doubtless want this too. So does the USA, still the army’s supplier and ally. But the Brotherhood and the army fear one another. The young people who made the revolution are not, for the most part, Islamists. So they distrust the Brotherhood and detest the generals. The Christian Coptic minority, about ten per cent of the population, also fears the Brotherhood and doesn’t trust its promise to recognise their rights.

At this stage few in Egypt can confidently predict the course events will take in the next few months. It would be foolish for an outsider to attempt to do so. Yet the present situation should not surprise us. It fits a pattern. The hopes expressed at the beginning of a revolutionary movement are more often than not disappointed. The Muslim Brotherhood came late to the demonstrations against Mubarak, but then saw the opportunity the protesters had given it. The generals ditched Mubarak to protect their own position. They accepted change, so that everything could remain the same, with them in control. They are not going to cede power willingly. The people who kick off a revolution are rarely those who profit most from it, and this looks likely to be the case in Egypt.

So far, at least, Egypt has avoided a descent into civil war. This is partly because it has not been in the interest of any other state to provoke it. Things are very different in Syria. There the government has been sufficiently strong and united to attempt to crush what started as demonstrations and has now become a rebellion. The President Bashar al-Assad, retains the support of his armed forces because the officer class, and many of the troops, belong to his own Alawite sect. The Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam, are a minority in Syria, but they have governed the country for almost half a century. Despite the brutality of Assad’s government it is still supported by other minorities – the Christians among them – and probably by most of the middle class.

Without foreign intervention on the side of the rebels, it is likely that Assad would have crushed the revolt by now, doubtless brutally. But the Syrian civil war has been fomented by outside interests. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states have been backing the rebels, supplying them with money and arms. So has Turkey and so, crucially, has the USA. Assad, however, is backed by Russia, the long time ally of the regime which provides Russia with a Mediterranean port. Iran also supports Assad and it is the link between Iran and Syria, rather than humanitarian impulses, which accounts for American support of the rebellion.

Israel and Syria have existed in a state of uneasy equilibrium for a long time, but the overthrow of Assad and the consequent weakening of Iranian influence would be bad news for Hezbollah, Israel’s enemy which controls the south of Lebanon and threatens Israel’s northern frontier. Even though a victory for the rebels might result in the establishment of an Islamist regime in Syria (which is what the pro-Assad Syrian middle-class fears), Israel might find this a price worth paying if it resulted in the crippling of Hezbollah and the weakening of Iran. And this seems to be the American calculation too.

So, while Egypt may at least be granted the freedom to work out its problems on its own - always allowing for the probability that the USA will continue to back the army - Syria is now caught in a web of conflicting international interests.

Meanwhile the UN Peace plan is dead in the water – because neither side is interested in peace. Nor will they be as long as they are supplied with money and weapons and believe they can win.

The only two states which may be able to end the war are Russia and the USA. For them to do so would require the Americans to accept that Russia has a legitimate interest in Syria, and that Russia alone may be able to force a compromise peace on Assad. Yet recent assertions by Secretary of State Clinton, accusing Russia of arming the regime, suggest that this is not how the USA sees things.

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It may be that events have gone too far for any compromise peace to be possible. Even an announcement that Assad would stand down at the end of his presidential term in 2014, and that free elections would then be held, might not now appease the rebels. They – and their foreign backers – might even take encouragement from such an offer. Saudi Arabia may see the Syrian civil war as the best means of checking Iran’s ambitions. Israel may take the same view.

The position is desperate and so the two sides in Syria will fight either to the point of exhaustion or until either the rebellion is brutally crushed or the Assad government is overthrown. In either case, bloody retribution will follow. However disappointing the development of the Arab Spring seems in Egypt, that country’s state is happy in comparison with Syria’s.

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