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Syria: a Question of Regional Authority

Laurelle Atkinson, December 1, 2011

"Syria is a dear country to all of us, so it pains us to take this decision," Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, the current Arab League chairman and prime minister of Qatar, said on the suspension of Syria from the Arab League. He added, "We want to find a solution to the problem within an Arab framework." Without complete regional authority, however, the Arab League may not have the geopolitical strength to deal with the Assad regime. This regional body doesn't include Syria's closest ally and neighbor and major regional power, Iran, or the region's other key member, Israel. Whilst the Arab League may well be a political framework for the Arabian race, the conflict it is addressing embodies imperatives transcending race and state.

In the 21st century, realizing representative governance and upholding human rights concerns regional frameworks of state authority. Neither unilateral nor bilateral state power has assured governance that's accountable in the Middle East. Nor has the United Nations. "This draft resolution has no relevance to human rights, other than it is part of an adversarial American policy against my country," Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Jaafari said on the latest U.N. resolution condemning Syrian violence.

Indeed the political void between the state and the United Nations, especially in the Middle East, has given rise to the military dictatorships underpinning so many human rights issues. Along with the Egyptian, Libyan and Tunisian uprisings, the Syrian crisis highlights consequences of this regulative void that's empowering dictatorships. The Assad regime's ability to amass defense systems, after all, comes down to military industries beyond Syria. And reining them in is proving impossible via U.N. resolutions. At the same time, no amount of NATO firepower has prevented the trade of defense materiel between states. Local and international force may well overcome the direct consequences and topple the Assad regime eventually, as happened with the Gaddafi regime, but how can force prevent military dictatorships from reoccurring?

Likewise, force has never diffused another core issue underpinning dictatorships in the Middle East: sectarianism. All roads point to the primary regional body of the Arab League to handle these issues, but, given its current composition, is the Arab League in any position to deal with sectarianism and regulate on regional security? Both politically and militarily, Iran for one is a key stakeholder in Syrian power. And again there is the other major power sidelined by the Arab League, Israel.

"It's going to take unbelievable political and social efforts to restore normalcy again to the city after what it has gone through," said Fayez Sara, an opposition figure in Damascus. "It's going to be very hard for us to reach a political solution after this." Syrians are not alone. Defense and sectarianism are core issues underlying the irresolute nature of too many Middle Eastern conflicts. Preventing defensive build-ups by non-accountable governments and overcoming sectarianism are longstanding problems in the Middle East that have never been addressed via a framework of all-inclusive regional authority, authority that is based on the common geopolitical realities of the region rather than race and creed.

Defense

Take defense regulation. The ability of dictatorships as well as non-state actors to amass defense systems in the Middle East is a dynamic driving the region's many conflicts. From the slaughter of Syrian citizens by the Assad regime to the Lebanese quagmire of a well-armed Hezbollah, and from Israel's burgeoning defense industry to the question of future Palestinian security, access to defense systems by all and sundry keeps sidestepping international nuclear watchdogs, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency. Down through the decades, disempowering dictatorships, from Iraq to Afghanistan, has concerned dealing with the consequences of international defense industries of U.N. Security members, and the lack of this industry's regulation via any geopolitical arrangement.

Ostracizing Iran, for example, for its nuclear status by the international community is taking the spotlight off the general trade in missiles, fighter jets, guns, etc., in the region. Economic sanctions are doing nothing to defuse Iran's defensive posture, military build-up and strategic relations with dictatorships such as the Syrian regime. Indeed these measures seem to be keeping the Syrian dictatorship on a military footing by strategic extension with Iran, and inflaming tensions between Israel and Iran. Resolving Syria could well amount to dealing with the saturation of defense systems in the region, especially by oil rich states, along with the question of nuclear power and resource management. All of which again points to geopolitical frameworks of systemic authority.

A new Arab-Israeli accord

Political analysts are pointing to a new frame of reference via an Arab-Israeli accord to overcome the problem of Syria. Jubin Goodarzi, professor of international relations in Geneva, Switzerland, says the region is overdue for one. There hasn't been a major pact between states of the Middle East since the 90s. And with the strength of Iranian and Syrian political influence in Lebanon as well as with the Palestinian Authority, it is surely unrealistic to exclude either of these states from a new accord. On the contrary, I would suggest that Iran, Syria and Israel are critical components if a political framework is to stand on a geopolitical basis of authority transcending theological divisions. Geopolitical imperatives are already well recognized in the region. As Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan noted, "While a nation—especially one that is our kin and relative—is being tormented, we have absolutely no intention to turn a blind eye, to turn our backs against Syria with a 910 kilometer-long borderline."

In many respects, Iran seems axiomatic for future regional stability. The crisis in Syria is amounting to a turning point for the standing regional bodies of the Gulf Co-operation Council and Arab League. This is the first time the Arab League has taken such a unified stance against a member state. The move shows that state stability also concerns regional authority. Can the Arab League move forward into a progressive geopolitical framework comprising all states of the Middle East? Would the United States abide by it? Would the United States allow Israel the independence and regional acceptance Israel wants? And would Iran act systemically within a regional body comprising Israel? Professor Nader Habibi of Brandeis University notes that if Iran keeps arming Hezbollah or Hamas after the fall of Assad regime, it will inflame tensions with the Sunni Arab countries, Saudi Arabia in particular, making matters worse for all.

On the other hand, if the Arab League and the Gulf Co-operation Council progress into an all-inclusive geopolitical body, they would be providing a framework of collective security geared to the regional realities of resources, the environment and general sustainability instead of old alliances based on ancient sectarian rivalries and strategies of uniting via common animus. Such a move is probably the most powerful reflection of the massive demand for democratic change in the Middle East. It would also present a bulwark against a violent downfall of the Syrian government via international military action. 

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