Cambridge, United Kingdom – As Israel is threatening to attack Iran to halt its alleged pursuit of the bomb, the beating of the war-drums has become so loud that, to avoid hearing them, you would need to hide inside a cave in Africa. And then put in earplugs. The noise is so loud that it threatens to overshadow more pressing events in Syria. Yet it is these events that will be decisive for the future of the Arab Spring, and for Iran’s role in the Middle East.
Throughout 2011, the Arab uprisings were driven by the internal dynamics of each country. At the same time they were united by a shared optimistic narrative that believed the revolutions would restore freedom, dignity, and economic opportunity.
In 2012, this liberal narrative is abruptly breaking down; chaos reigns in Egypt and Libya. For different reasons in each country, the post-revolutionary authorities are proving too brittle to either consolidate their authority or incorporate more popular forces.
In Syria, the situation is far worse, as a civilian uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad that began a year ago, is now producing mass killing on a grand scale.
A regional war?
Contrary to what the Western media says, Syria is experiencing more than a struggle between liberalism and tyranny. It is an asymmetric conflict in which each of the adversaries commits atrocities and has strident regional backers. The opposition is highly fragmented and includes groups allegedly close to al-Qaeda.
The Syrian government’s assaults are led by pro-regime shabiha [“ghost”] militias which indiscriminately terrorise Sunni neighbourhoods. Car bombings causing massive civilian casualties have become a regular occurrence in Damascus and Aleppo. In all these respects, the events in Syria appear increasingly similar to the sectarian civil war in Lebanon in the 1980s. If left unchecked, a Syrian civil war could spill over into Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, increasing the risk of a regional conflagration.
As Russian and Chinese obstruction of meaningful UN action grants Assad carte blanche to repress his opponents as he sees fit, the well-intentioned Syrian opposition is descending into leaderless disarray. Unfortunately, the “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunisia this February has progressively revealed itself as an inappropriate vehicle to tackle the problem. By tasking Kofi Annan with seeking “an inclusive political solution” it has allowed Assad, Putin, and Iran veto power over its actions.
Last week, Assad promised Annan that he too wished for a mediated ceasefire – but only on the condition that “the armed terrorist gangs give up their weapons”. If regional powers do not take coherent action, the Syrian crisis is likely to have a contagious effect, as refugees, arms, and religiously inspired fighters cross Middle Eastern borders in greater numbers than they have since the start of the Iraq war in 2003.
For years, Iran has believed that Syria – and its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon – could form its strong right arm, reaching all the way to the Mediterranean, and allowing it to pressure Israel and the Gulf States. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are now trying to amputate that Iranian arm, in order to establish themselves as the top regional power.
As Turkey goes up, Iran goes down. Iran’s recent election results demonstrate the vast fissures among the Ayatollahs, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the populace. The Iranian economy is sclerotic and will be crippled by the latest wave of sanctions.
Meanwhile, Israeli intelligence seems to be operating with impunity inside Iran, assassinating scientists and attempting to delay nuclear progress. With its Syrian clients weakened and Iran regionally isolated, the danger exists that the Iranians will lash out like cornered beasts, possibly with additional attempts to kill Israelis abroad.
Rational Iran over paranoid Israel
The Israeli government has vastly exaggerated the threat that a nuclear Iran poses to its security, as well as its own capacity to halt it. Disabling the Iranian nuclear program by aerial bombardment is probably impossible due to its size, dispersion, lack of actionable intelligence, and, above all, the fact that the element of surprise has long since been lost. Iran’s potential acquisition of the bomb, on the other hand, could bring increased stability to the region, as the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction demonstrated in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Understood in this light, the real threat is not Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, but Israel’s attempts to halt it, which would surely incur Iranian retaliation via the Strait of Hormuz. This would cause the price of oil to skyrocket to more than $200 a barrel and send the world’s major economies into sustained free fall. In fact, despite the faux solidarity that US President Barack Obama expressed at the conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in early March, Israel’s sabre-rattling appears to be galvanising a US modus vivendi with Iran in order to avert an Israeli attack.
This reading of events is amplified by recent statements made by British Prime Minister David Cameron during his recent visit to the US. The subtext is that while jetting in Air Force One and watching college basketball, Cameron and Obama have agreed in identifying Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and not the Ayatollahs, as the primary wildcard. Netanyahu threatens to upend Obama’s carefully constructed international consensus concerning sanctions and containment of Iran. This consensus averts regional mayhem.
Most sane people – even inside Israel itself – grasp that an unprovoked Israeli attack on Iran could have catastrophic consequences. It would push the Arab Spring movements in a decidedly anti-Western direction, unifying Islamists and secularists in a renewed hatred for Israel and provoking a spate of terror attacks both inside Israel and on Western interests in Arab countries with Shia populations.
Avoiding cataclysm and depression
Acknowledging the virtual armageddon that could flow from an ill-conceived attack on Iran is not appeasement. It is simply recognition of the reality that Israel and the West have little to fear from Iran – even an Iran with limited nuclear capacity.
The ascending powers in the Middle East are Turkey and Qatar. These Sunni powers, along with Saudi Arabia, should join with their international allies and initiate a regional solution to Syria’s crisis.
Admittedly, international intervention in Libya was a striking success and the overwhelming majority of the Libyan people are grateful to be without Gaddafi. Even so, the Libyan rebels have been unable to effectively congeal into a united movement. Hindsight teaches us that the longer such a civil war-style conflict continues, the more fractured the opposition inevitably becomes, and thus the greater the likelihood of an internecine struggle after the dictator is removed. In Libya, such inter-militia violence makes a democratic transition and jump-starting the Libyan economy challenging. In Syria, it could ignite a regional war of all against all.
Now is not the time to provoke Iran, but rather to tend to Syria’s troubles before it is too late – for example, by publicly offering Assad a way out of the country that would safeguard the minority Alawite community if he were toppled or forced to flee. If the Syrian situation is ignored, its spill-over may inadvertently provoke Israeli or Iranian action, inciting a regional war and a global depression.
Jason Pack researches Middle Eastern History at Cambridge University. He runs Libya-Analysis.com and is the author of In War’s Wake: The Struggle for Post-Qadhafi Libya.
Martin van Creveld is a military historian of Israel. He is the author of more than twenty books including, most recently, The Age of Airpower.