Syria's instability is its best defence against interference
Anyone who pretends to some knowledge of Middle East politics is bombarded these days with questions about what guides western policy during this year of revolutions. Why, people ask, has the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, been given the choice of exile or death, while President Bashar al Assad of Syria, who has sent his tanks to besiege the city of Deraa, is merely scolded with empty words?
Even more puzzling is the West's treatment of its allies. Former presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak, loyal friends of America for decades, were toppled with Washington's consent, yet Mr al Assad is treated with indulgence despite decades of accusations that his regime has supported terrorism.
The cynical answer to these questions is that the game of nations is not football, played according to clear rules and usually reaching a result in a fixed timetable. The establishment of an International Criminal Court may give the appearance that diplomacy is a rules-based activity now, but ultimately the rules are set by the powerful according to their interests.
Libya and Syria have one thing in common. They are dictatorships dating from 1969-70 where the ruler's families and the commanders of the security services overlap, which is an excellent recipe for holding on to power. Beyond that there are few similarities.
Libya has always been marginal to the Arab world, and it lost all influence as a result of being used as a test bed for Col Qaddafi's infantile political theories. The colonel has no friends among the Arab leadership.
Syria, by contrast, enjoys a pivotal position in the Middle East. This is not because it is a powerful country, like Egypt. It is an unstable patchwork of different sectarian and ethnic identities which, if it fell into civil war, would destabilise the region from Beirut to Baghdad. In the 1980s, Syria went against the Arab consensus and allied itself with Iran, an act of brinkmanship by Mr al Assad's father which ensured that Damascus would be at the heart of every Arab political calculation.
Until now, an extraordinary consensus has taken hold that the preservation of the current regime is preferable to the possibility of civil war. This view has been held by the United States, by the European nations, by Saudi Arabia and even, it appears, by Israel.
This is hardly surprising: for all its support of Hamas and Hizbollah, Syria has been meticulous in keeping the peace on its border with Israel since 1973. Among the Israeli security establishment there is a faction which yearns for a peace treaty with Syria, arguing that the return of the Golan Heights would be a price worth paying for the terrible blow that a peace with Damascus would deal to Palestinian aspirations.
The West has thus been struggling for a response, for several reasons. The dominant view has been that the Assad family would not lightly give up power, as shown by its ruthless crushing of the 1982 Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama, at a cost of tens of thousands of dead. The US has in any case few levers of influence with Damascus. The Gulf countries have made clear they prefer stability to revolution.
The fear of civil war looms large. The influential American commentator Thomas Friedman has concluded that revolution was acceptable in stable countries such as Tunisia and Egypt. But beyond these countries - implicitly Syria - revolution would lead to Yugoslavia-style bloodshed.
Western policy has now reached a turning point. Any idea that the young president could carry his people with him and emerge as a hero has not survived the use of tanks in Deraa and the outskirts of Damascus. Mr al Assad's performance before his parliament a month ago could have been a chance to defuse the crisis and present himself as a real moderniser. Instead Mr al Assad struck the old note that Syria was the victim of foreign conspiracy, as if the calendar was stuck in 1982.
It is clear that there will be no western-led military response in Syria. Russia's rejection of "outside interference" at the meeting of the UN Security Council on Wednesday has ensured that. Some targeted sanctions will be imposed on the top people of the regime. But these are flea bites.
The status quo cannot, however, remain. It is reported that 200 members of the Baath party have resigned. The surprise announcement that the rival Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, have agreed on a reconciliation is a pointer that the alliances of the past three decades are unlikely to survive the turbulence. Whether this agreement achieves its goals is far from certain, but it shows that nothing is off limits.
Among western diplomats, there is no desire for revolution in Syria, least of all one inspired by the West. The example of Iraq - where western intervention, in addition to causing hundreds of thousands of casualties, has led to a process of Christianity being wiped out in the country - is too painful.
The task before the Americans and their allies is how to mould an inevitable evolution in Syria in ways that suit their interests. The regime is seen as enfeebled enough to be amenable to outside pressure, but not ripe for overthrow. This process, if it is to succeed, will require a concerted effort by regional states. The most attractive deal for America is for Mr al Assad to receive a guarantee of staying in power, and financial support, if he breaks away from his alliance with Iran.
This would be a big step for Mr al Assad. The link with Tehran has, paradoxically, allowed Damascus to claim its place as "the beating heart of Arabism" and bolstered support for the regime. But with Egypt moving closer to the mainstream, there is a possibility that the Cairo-Damascus rift dating from Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel can be healed. In that case, Syria would not need Iran's support to stand alone.
Predictions are not worth the paper they are written on, but it is clear there are bigger issues at play in Syria than what sort of government it has. The people of Deraa, encircled by tanks, are struggling for freedom and accountability. But beyond the confines of Syria, a power game involving Iran is being played out.
Updated: April 29, 2011 04:00 AM