WJC ANALYSIS - Syria: Behind the headlines

07 July 2011

Behind the Syrian headlines

By Pinhas Inbari

Every day the newspaper headlines cry out about the growing unrest in Syria, the rising number of Syrian citizens killed, the demonstrations, which are now an everyday phenomenon and are encroaching on the Syrian capital, Damascus. But what is happening behind the headlines is much more serious - the hidden growing conflict between the two Muslim powers: Sunni Turkey and Shiite Iran. At the moment, this friction is hidden away from the eyes of the media, but it can erupt in the flash of a second.

The center of gravity for regional unrest has now turned northward to the Lebanese-Syrian-Turkish triangle. It is impossible to understand the situation in that region unless we approach the three countries as one unity sharing the same context that is turning Syria into the front of the hidden battlefield between Sunna and Shia on several strata: Sunni neo-Ottoman Turkey versus Shiite Iran; the Sunni Moslem Brotherhood versus Shiite Hezbollah and close to Shia Alawite sect in Syria and in Turkey.

What makes the situation more dangerous and gives it the sense of a global emergency is the fact that the United States supports the Sunna and Turkey, while Russia stands behind Syria and Iran. The situation is aggravated by the fact that major problems for Russian home security emanate from the Sunni Salafist jihadist subversion that Russia is fighting with the help of Iran.

This is an explosive situation that resembles an old Balkan gunpowder barrel that had previously ignited World War I. Accordingly, we can understand the extreme sensitivity with which both global powers, the USA and Russia, are treating the Syrian situation. And when the current regime falls, Iran will lose its most important territory, which serves as an anchor for the Shiite plans for regional domination. Worse, in the eyes of Iran, Syria might fall into the hands of Persia's old historical enemy – neo-Ottoman Turkey.

The situation, however, is even more complex. Turkey's policy has shifted rapidly from igniting anti-Israel sentiments through flotillas to Gaza to hosting Syrian refugees in Hatay-Iskanderun – an area which has gained it support and popularity among the Sunnis in Syria.

Turkey, backed by the United States, appears to be on the offensive and close to becoming the power that will have the upper hand in Syria, akin to the role Syria played for many years in Lebanese politics. To complicate matters further, Turkey has its own internal problems that can contain its rush towards Syria. Its Syrian policy has created opposition among local Turkish citizens in the Hatay province, who are mostly Alawite and populate a large swath of southern Anatolia. So, as the fate of the Alawite regime in Syria is coming closer to its breaking point, unrest among the large Alawite minority in Turkey may emerge.

Yet, the more dangerous problem in Turkey is the situation of the Kurd community that occupies hefty territories across both sides of the border, presenting real danger to the coherence of Turkish territorial integrity.

Until now, the concern over the emergence of a dynamic Kurdish drive for independence united Iran, Turkey and Syria. Iraq has already been forced to grant its Kurds a large degree of autonomy bordering on statehood, but the other three powers are far from granting the same rights to their minority Kurd populations. Now, as Iran confronts Turkey in the Syrian theatre, the Kurdish common denominator is no longer a unifying factor in their relationship.

Although Syria remains the main battlefield that may tilt the balance between Shia and Sunna, Lebanon is emerging as an additional arena that can provide the edge that will end the battle one way or another. The timing of presenting the indictments for the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri to the four senior Hezbollah terrorists is no coincident. Hezbollah is now helping the Assad regime in its battle for survival, which is forced to allocate much of its energies to keep its power in Lebanon intact.  

Is all this good or bad for Israel? No doubt, the collapse of an Iranian powerbase in Syria would be welcome news. But is the advent of a Muslim Brotherhood regime helped by a neo-Ottoman Turkey a better alternative? Not necessarily. Still, the story of Syria is far from over. More than any other place in turmoil, Syria will determine the fate of the Middle East. 

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