During his triumphant visit to Tehran in 2010, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with his every step being televised, was Iranian national television's main attraction. Fast-forward to today and the Iranian authorities have banned any broadcasting of the upheavels facing Iran's ally. Should you glance over at al-Assad's friends in Moscow, they are just as worried, if not more.
It looks as though events in Syria could soon end in bloodshed: powerful military equipment has been brought into Daraa to subdue demonstrations; the number of people killed during mass protests has increased; several Syrian parliamentarians have resigned in protest against violence unleashed by the authorities on its own people.
Should things keep developing as they are, Syria is most likely going to go the way of Libya (military conflict), rather than Egypt and Tunisia, all the while we must keep in mind that everyone – in Syria and internationally – would prefer to avert military conflict if possible. Even Israel is greatly alarmed over al-Assad, if not its die-hard enemy then its adversary, likely being overthrown: no one has a clue who will take power in the aftermath. Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs is also almost about to push the panic button: in a statement it condemned the bloodbath in Syria, but did not indicate those responsible. The United States and Europe, however, are clearly pointing the finger at the al-Assad regime and are sorting through options for toughening sanctions against it.
Meanwhile, judging by what's taking place in Syria, bloodshed, as opposed to in Tunisia and Egypt, is inevitable. Why? Syria's political structure is shaped by a distinct religious make-up, where the minority (Alawi-Shi'ites representing six to ten per cent of the population) have de-facto control over the Sunni majority (75% of the population). This type of system is bound to see the minority defend itself against the majority, using measures that seem extremely repressive even after Hosni Mubarak's Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's Tunisia. This is where the religious factor comes into play at protests against the regime: the country's religious majority should be represented in power to restore a fair playing feel.
The people's religious and ethnic unity is greatly felt in Egypt and Tunisia (the religious majority – Sunnis – are dominant in all spheres of life while keeping the minority Shi'ites subordinate to them. The schism that took shape in both countries was a consummation of ramped clan corruption epitomised by the “eternal presidents” (Ben Ali and Mubarak). This explains why Tunisian and Egyptian demonstrators were able to be assuaged by each respective president fleeing his post and promises of democratic reforms from the trusted military government.
Syria is a different story, as the protest movement for democratic rights is closely linked to demands that the Alawi-Shi'ites step down from power, not just al-Assad and his family. This goes for all those at the top, whether political, business or military. Will the Alawi-Shi'ite elite go for this? Don't bet on it. They will likely give the nod to unleashing a bloodbath in the country, especially since Iran is prodding its allies in Damascus to do exactly that by encouraging the Syrians to follow Iran's example of snuffing out the opposition with force.
Ignoring the obvious pattern that of repressive, anti-Western regime's fall in the Arabic world or of attempts to hold on to power being accompanied by increased bloodshed is impossible to do. Libya's civil war is dragging on, while one in Syria is on the horizon. Should Iran see massive unrest make a comeback, its turning into a bloody conflict is very likely. The regimes of all three of these countries are united by their repressive nature, anti-Western sentiment and their being traditional allies of the Soviet Union/Russia. Thus, should a radical shift in power take place (anything other kind is impossible), the new authorities in these countries may throw Russia's political and commercial interests to the wayside, which, incidentally, is exactly what happened in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was overthrown and the new government came to power.
As goes for what's taking place in Syria now, Russia, it seems, is basing its position on the simple logic that should it support al-Assad, it will be penalised by the potential new opposition government. Whereas if Russia voices support for the opposition, then it could lose out on future interests should al-Assad and the Alawi-Shi'ites successfully cling to power. This is an entirely pragmatic approach that has nothing to do with any guiding values. Our “patriotic security officials” are not letting up in reminding Russian President Dmitry Medvedev of his “expeditious solidarity” with the West against Muammar al-Gaddafi: by all accounts, Colonel Gaddafi is still in power and no one knows how things will pan out in Libya in the end. Medvedev, in turn, has obviously begun to retreat in his tangle with the security officials.
The West, unlike Russia, is combining its values approach with a pragmatic one. Publically, western leaders are on the insurgents’ side against the entrenched Libyan rulers. Incidentally, the United States (just recall George W. Bush) isn't the only one to call on the “eternal rulers” of friendly countries to make timely political reforms: European countries also had a hand in making the same appeal. The United States and the Arabic oil monarchies are closely involved in the situation in Yemen and are both calling President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down as part of a political deal with the opposition. And that is exactly happening: Saleh will most likely leave power by the end of May. As for Syria, the same straight-forward signals to stop the bloodshed are being made to al-Assad as they have been to Gaddafi. Having said that, the West is adverse to the idea of interfering in the Syrian conflict.
Russia's heavy political and commercial dependence on the al-Assad clan and top generals promises to end in serious losses for it should the Syrian regime be toppled. Any other scenario for al-Assad, however, is out of the question, for even if he and his generals unleash a bloodblath, the regime's stability will be in doubt in the long run and having auspicious relations with it will be made extremely difficult. International sanctions will undoubtedly impact Russian companies, not to mention give Russian the image of “the bloody regime's partner”.
As is evident, the radical “friends of the USSR” in the Arab world are putting Moscow in a very vulnerable position. In addition, take note that these “friends” don't show any penchant to listen to any advice Moscow has to give, as opposed to the pro-Western regimes whose leaders heeded the United States and Europe's call and abandoned their “eternal presidential thrones”. The al-Assad regime's fall will mean that Russia will no longer have any partners left for conducting its Middle Eastern policy Soviet style, which in many ways boiled down to opposing the United States.