When the “Arab Spring” uprising of 2011 was interpreted by European intellectuals as kick-starting European style democratization across the Arab world, the post-communist era, supremacy of the Western perspective and “universal” European values still dominated the general mindset. Six years on, if you re-read reports by Western journalists on Cairo’s Tahrir square, they seem like naive fairy tales from a distant land. Their fundamental oversight was probably that even in 2011 it was not any “European ideas” but rather the desire for their own, Islamic, identity that drove a significant proportion of those crowds out onto the streets – in protest against largely-secular elites.
Although the “Arab Spring” toppled government after government, from Tunisia to Yemen, pundits were skeptical when it came to the prospects of a successful uprising in Syria. Bashar al-Assad, president since 2000, commands the best equipped and most disciplined army in the region, and its loyalty to the president is enhanced by the fact that the officers’ corps is dominated by the Alawites. That goes some way to explain the army’s successes during six years of civil war. Equipped with modern Russian arms, including numerous T-90 battle tanks, and heavily supported by the Russians since autumn 2015, the troops remain a force to be reckoned with, despite incurring 60,000 fatalities since the start of the war. In addition, Syrian officers are well known for leading from the front, which is guaranteed to boost morale in any army anywhere in the world. Thus, at least six generals have already lost their lives, among them the heads of special forces and military intelligence.
As the civil war enters its seventh year, three well-founded conclusions can be drawn – they were confirmed at the “Foreign Actors in the Syrian Conflict 2017” conference, organized by the Berlin-based Research Institute “Dialogue of Civilizations” (DOC) in late February 2017. It brought together participants from all countries involved in the conflict apart from Iran, whose representative, a former ambassador to Damascus, was denied an entry visa by the German Embassy.
The conclusions are these: first, the “Arab Spring’s” initial pro-Western stand was but a thin veneer, largely limited to urban middle class youths. It did not take long for a clearly Islamic identity to come to the fore in efforts to confront these secular regimes, and it was this that went on to fuel the uprising. Second, developments in the Syrian theatre coincided with both the US retreat from the region under Barack Obama and Russia’s return to the region. Almost needless to say, the conflict confirmed the complete political impotence of the European, former colonial powers, Great Britain and France. Third, the Syrian civil war triggered the return of Turkey, initially hesitant about taking on this new role, as a regional player, re-igniting the age-old rivalry between Turkey and Iran. The Turkish political elite have realized in the past couple of years, much like their Russian counterparts, that their country’s destiny is only partially bound to that of Europe. Historically and geographically belonging neither fully to the East nor to the West, both countries started to emphasize their Eurasian heritage.
While Iran continues its expansion policies with respect to the Shiite sphere of influence, Turkey faces a more complex challenge. From Ankara’s point of view, the most disturbing factors are the Kurdish political organizations. Regardless of temporary thaws in the past, the PKK in Turkey, the YPG in the north of Syria, and the Peshmerga in Iraqi Kurdistan, are viewed by Turkey as terror threats. The fact that Barack Obama relied heavily on the Kurds in Iraq and Syria to fight “Islamic state” (IS) deeply troubled Turkey.
Unlike during the Cold War, today, regional actors enjoy much greater room for maneuver. That is not only true for Iran, where the Teheran hostage crisis in 1979/80 confronted the US head-on. Turkey is also now able to determine whom to partner with: its NATO ally the US, or Russia where the Arab region and its mental and historical intricacies are much better understood than in North America.
It is still open whether the regional powers can, without foreign involvement, bring about peace. It is more likely that the Russians, at least, will have a seat at the table. That would be a partial victory for opponents of US engagement in the region. At least, the Eurasian powers would show that they can resolve conflicts in the region without external support. As for Europe, there was scant mention of the continent at this Berlin DOC conference. And those few times it was mentioned, it was almost exclusively regarding the refugee problem. When it comes to political power, neither the EU nor the former colonial powers have much clout on the ground these days.