As we are closing in on 60 days of the protests in Syria it is now abundantly clear that this will be something different to the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, the drawn out fall of Saleh in Yemen and the civil war in Libya.
Are we looking at an Iran-scenario? If we are to judge from rumours, that is the case. Already days into the protests and crackdown in Dar’a rumours of Iranian involvement appeared on facebook and twitter. The claims as they were presented was that Iranian troops assisted Syrian security forces in Dar’a in the killing of demonstrators. It is highly likely that this was just a rumour, fueled by dissidents abroad. But certain elements of the government crackdown in Iran seems to have been transferred to Syria. But as Syria’s past, specifically the conflict between the Ba’ath party, Hafez al-Assad and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the religious and ethnic structure differ sharply from the experience of Iran we cannot easily draw such parallels.
We must assume given the co-operation with Iran that the Syrian regime and the strategic importance that Syria holds for Iran as the ‘al Bab al Arabiya’ – the door to the Arab world that Iran has lend Syria expertise, equipment and its experience in crushing dissent. We can see this in the change in approach. In the early stages of the protests Syrian forces response seemed to be uncoordinated in its shooting and killing of protesters in Dar’a and Latakia. As the protests wore on the response from the regime has changed to less killings (as far as have been reported) to mass arrests. The number of people detained has been reported to some 7000 – 10 000.
The strategic importance of Syria and Iran’s support of a brutal crackdown in Syria and at their critic Bahrain and Saudi Arabia has put in a bind, painted them into a corner. Iran’s support the Syria regime risk putting them in the wrong side of the Arab public opinon where the call for democracy is sweeping the region. But on the other hand Iran doesn’t have a choice – it has to support the Assad regime. So the Iranian regime will do what it can to avoid the fall of Bashar al-Assad.
As for the other two regional allies of Syria, their reactions have been most telling.
Hamas has signalled its dislike of repression by refusing support the Syrian regime. In an interviewed with France 24 conducted in Cairo Hamas leader Khaled Meshal did in no way endorse the actions of the Syrian regime, but saying instead “for Syria we want stability and prosperity, we want a government that responds to peoples aspirations. More freedom, more democracy in order to serve the interest and reach an model between the regime and the people. An example – to help strengthen the country against external aggression.”
Hezbollah’s reaction has been muted, which is reasonable given the situation in Lebanon. They have tried to frame the narrative echoing the Syrian regime, saying that it is a choice between stability and chaos. Hezbollah spokespersons have also stated that Alawis, Druze and Christians in Syria will never abandon their support in the Assad-regime. By this they have (unintentionally – I do not…) framed the protests in Syria as a mirror of the sectarian tensions that permeates Lebanese politics.